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In Search of Tara: A Journey Through Sikkimese Mysticism – Part 1

In Search of Tara: A Journey Through Sikkimese Mysticism – Part 1

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Discover the fascinating journey of Sikkim’s cultural and historical heritage through the eyes of a web portal creator and his photographer friend. From the ancient origins of the Chogyal dynasty to the intriguing integration of Hindu and Buddhist deities like Kali and Tara, explore how these elements shape the spiritual landscape of Sikkim.

It was the June of 2000. I was on a tour of Sikkim to create the web portal for the Sikkim Tourism Department, and with me was my dear friend and photographer Rishi Barua. That meant visiting all possible places that had cultural and historical value, and not just pretty sight-seeing destinations like rhododendron sanctuaries, high altitude valleys, or a scared lake at 18,000 feet. 

Yuksom, West Sikkim, is where it all started: in 1642, three highly ordained lamas from Tibet arrived, and following an ancient prophecy, founded the Chogyal, or Dharma Raja system of the Namgyal dynasty.

All three were Nyingmapa monks, of the oldest school of Tantrayana or Vajrayaan Buddhism founded by the Indian Tantric Buddhist Padmasambhava in the 8th century. These three lamas were headed by Gyalwa Lhatsun Chenpo, aka Lhatsun Namkha Jigme, orOne who fears not the sky”.

Lhatsun Chempo’s Kali Idol

After the coronation of the first king, each of the three lamas set up their own monasteries, with Lhatsun Chenpo setting up his at the Dubdi hilltop, an extremely steep climb from the base at the Yuksom coronation site.

Dubdi Monastry
Dubdi Monastry

It was a gruelling climb to the top to reach the personal chapel of the lama. Carrying his heavy camera equipment, Rishi rested for a while and I walked to the monastery. And no sooner, I came back rushing.

“Rishi… there is a Kali idol inside the monastery!I gasped.

I was truly shocked, for there she stood in her all her fury. I thought I was imagining things, for where does Kali figure in Buddhism?

Heruka and Tara

Over the past twenty-two years of trying to study Sikkimese Buddhism, clearly, a derivative of Tibetan Buddhism, I know Kali is almost central, though the term they use is Heruka.

They also use the term Tara, and primarily, there are two Taras: the White Tara and the Green Tara, and these deities can be seen in every family altar of Sikkimese Buddhist homes.

These two Taras were actually tantric and mythological human beings, two princesses.

The White Tara and The Green Tara
The White Tara and The Green Tara

Over a long period of time, Buddhism in Tibet had to struggle against the dominant shamanistic Bon religion. And when King Songtsen Gampo (who ruled between 618 and 650 CE) fought to establish Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet, he married two Buddhist princesses.

These were Bhrikuti Devi of the Licchhavi clan of Nepal and Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty. These two ladies truly fought it out to establish Mahayana Buddhism, and thus they are to date revered as White Tara and Green Tara.

Lama Gongdue Episode

Before going on further, let me narrate another interesting episode: in 2002 in the Ringhim Goenpa (Gumpa, or monastery) in Mangan, North Sikkim, prayers were going on duringLama Gongdueone of the most sacred of all Sikkimese Tantric Buddhist pujas.

There were one hundred lamas inside the monastery compound chanting the mantras, mostly in Tibetan. Suddenly, I heard the mantra

“sarvamangala mangalye shivey sarvaartha saadhikey,

sharanye traiyamvake gauri narayani namastute”.

A day later, I asked the revered scholar Khye Rinpoche, principal of the much-cherished center of Buddhist learning, the Rinchenpong Goenpa monastic college, and he readily said that most tantric mantras of Vajrayaan Buddhism were rooted in Sanskrit tantric mantras.

And very recently, I asked another fabled scholar of Sikkimese Buddhism, Yapo Sonam Yongda, about the Kali idol inside Dubdi monastery: was it really a Kali idol or was I mistaken? I asked him.

Feminine Bodhisattvas

Yapo confirmed:Yes, you are right, we call her Jetsun-ma Dölma. She is Tara, the primordial feminine force, a Bodhisattva.”

Jetsun-ma Dölma
Jetsun-ma Dölma

(“Jetsunis a term in Tibetan that signifies that the person referred to is of very high stature, meaningrevered”. Jetsun Milarepa is one of the highest achievers of spiritual realism, for instance. In the case of the feminine gender, the term is Jetsun-ma, like in the case of Maa Kali in her Tibetan form.)

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She appears as a female bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism and as a female Buddha in Vajrayaan Buddhism. She is known as themother of liberation“, and represents the virtues of success in work and achievements.

Now, the concept of a Bodhisattva is that /she is a person who has attained Buddhahood but has chosen not to escape the rebirth cycle, but instead, has pledged to keep coming back for delivering humankind from all ills of the Kali Yug.

Contrary to the concept of this female Buddha, however, Heruka is a male deity, an emanation of the buddha Aksobhya, and is depicted as blue in colour with two arms, which hold a vajra (thunderbolt) and a kapala (skull cup) full of blood.

Tantra in Crematoria

In A Garland of Vajra Gems, the biography of Guru Padmasambhava, revealed by the most important of his five consorts, Yeshey Tsogyal, it has been mentioned that Padmasambhava had practiced tantra in eight crematoria across northern India.

This was long before Padmakara got to know Buddhism, though hagiographers insist, without substantial evidence but with much sentimental devotion, that Gautama Buddha himself had predicted thattwelve years after my parinirvana, there will come a Second Buddha whose works will be even higher than mine”.

That 12 years actually was to mean 1,200 years, but that really happened. Gautam Buddha passed away circa 483 or 486 BCE, and Padmakara was born around 714 to 717 CE.

Guru Padmakara
Guru Padmakara

But in any case, Padmakara’s early life story clearly shows that he was banished from the court of his adoptive father, King Indrabodi of Uddiyan, and sent to acharnel groundor crematorium named Sitavan.

This should have been around 725 or 730 CE, though no precise dating is possible.

One cannot miss the fact that Yeshey Tsogyal, till this point in time while narrating Padmakara’s life, has not mentioned Buddhism at all, which suggests that Padmasambhava’s indoctrination in Buddhism was a much later development.

The Wheel of Life (bhavachakra) is a common motif in Vajrayana art, representing samsara, the cycle of suffering and rebirth; the six realms of rebirth; and the three poisons that keep beings trapped in samsara: greed, hatred, and delusion.

In the next part, we shall see how this evolution took place over a period of roughly eight years in Nalanda, and why he merged the two systems of Tantra and the quintessential Buddhism of Gautama into one very strong new belief system: Vajrayaan.

Till then, he was deeply into the feminine force of tantra.

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