Tholung relics hit by tremor - 'Treasures' lie exposed in 200-year-old monastery

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  • Published 26.09.11

Gangtok, Sept. 25: The Tholung monastery, one of the oldest in Sikkim and more than 200 years old, has suffered extensive damage exposing the ancient relics dating back to the eighth century to the elements, specially the rain.

The monastery is located in the extreme end of Upper Dzongu — a protected Lepcha reserve — and devotees have to trek 20km from Lingzya to reach it. The monastery’s school for monks at Lingzya has also suffered damage. Lingzya is 35km from Mangan, the administrative headquarters of North Sikkim.

“Five persons, including two monks, were at the Tholung monastery, when the earthquake occurred. All of them had managed to come out. They are in Lingzya and had come with the information about the damage to the monastery. I understand that only the pillars remain and the walls have collapsed, exposing the relics of Guru Lhabtsun Chhenpo and other treasures to the elements. There is a danger to them if it rains. These items are of heritage value,” the monastery’s head monk Chewang La said at Lingzya.

A relief camp has been set up at Lingzya by the state government where around 60 people have taken shelter. According to tradition, the head monk stays at Lingzya and goes to Tholung eight to nine times a year to conduct only special pujas. Each puja session goes on for many days, said Chewang La.

“The monastery is still inaccessible because of the numerous landslides on the way. No one has reached there and we don’t know much about the status. We have informed the authorities in Mangan about the damage,” he said.

An expert on Sikkim Buddhism, Yishey Doma, said the Tholung monastery is known to house the relics of the 17th century monk, Gyalwa Lhabtsun Chhenpo, including his hand-written biography.

Chhenpo is one of the three wise monks from Tibet who met at Yuksum in 1646 AD and laid the foundation of the Dzogchen school of Buddhism in Sikkim, the writer said.

The relics, originally kept at Pemayangtse and Sanghachoeling monasteries, were shifted to Tholung, when Sikkim under the Chogyals (kings) went to war with Nepal in the 18th century. The Pemayangtse and Sanghachoeling monasteries were considered unsafe at that time because of their proximity to the Nepal border.

The relics also include the belongings of Guru Padmasambhava, the patron saint of Sikkim, who is known to have visited the state during his sojourn to Tibet in the eighth century, said Yishey Doma.

Every three years, Tholung monastery takes out these relics to take stock of its inventory and as well as air and sun them. The ceremony is called kamsel.

Hundreds of devotees trek 20km (from Lingzya) to reach this monastery, surrounded by deep forests, to witness and participate in the kamsel. There are no settlements at Tholung and the devotees pitch tents in the woods and in the vicinity of the monastery during kamsel. The last kamsel was held in October.

“Tholung relics have great religious significance as they consist of priceless sacred texts, ancient Buddhist paintings (thanka), the personal effects of Lhabtsun Chhenpo, sacred jewels, clothes and sacred objects,” said Yishey Doma.

“The state government should give top priority to the restoration of Tholung. Ecotourism was initiated in Dzongu as an alternative source of income and the natural calamity has dashed the hopes of the people there. Tholung monastery was the showpiece of Dzongu eco-tourism,” said Mika Lepcha, the president of Mutanchi Lom Aal Shezum, an NGO that promotes eco-tourism in Dzongu.

The monastic school of Tholung at Lingzya has also suffered ravages of the quake. A massive boulder had slammed into the prayer room of the school damaging a giant prayer wheel. The walls of the main classroom hall on the ground floor have also collapsed.

“Three of my students were washing dishes after dinner just behind the prayer room when a massive boulder fell down. They had a narrow escape and managed to jump to safety,” said Chewang La. The monastic school has 32 students.

The school has been declared closed till further notice.