I recently visited Rumtek Monastery after a long time with Jaya and Babai. Jaya and I visited this monastery for the first time over two decades ago. Rumtek is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery located almost 24 km away from Gangtok, the capital of the Indian state of Sikkim, at an altitude of about 1,550 m (5,100 ft).
The Rumtek monastery, a replica of the Tsurphu monastery of Kham region of Tibet belongs to the Kagyu lineage. Tsurphu monastery is the main seat of the Kagyu lineage established in 1187 by the 1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193). Rumtek is the largest monastery in the Eastern Himalaya. It was built by the 9th Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje during the reign of the fourth Chogyal in 1740 in the East District.
The main temple, surrounded by monk’s quarter, is a four storey structure with a golden sculpture, the ghanzira, adorning the rooftop. The ghanzira is a combination of five distinct shapes representing the five Tathagata (Buddha) families — Amitabha; the wheel, Vairochana; the bell, Amoghasiddhi; the vase, Akshobya; and the jewel, Ratnasambhava.
The main entrance of the temple is decorated with traditional colourful murals. Huge life-size images of the Four Heavenly Kings — Virudaka, Virupaksha, Dhritarashtra, and Vaishravana — stand guarding the four cardinal directions. Also, what is instantly noticeable here is the painting of a Hindu God, Lord Ganesha. He finds a place here because of the vision of the 16th Karmapa in which he saw Lord Ganesha aiding the construction work.
The monastery has a special prayer hall, very impressive murals and thanka paintings and 1001 miniature golden images of Lord Buddha. The Main Shrine Hall inside stands on strong red pillars with long, round silk banners and ancient thankas suspended from them. The walls of the hall are replete with paintings of the Kagyu lineage, the Eight Great Bodhisattvas, the Sixteen Arhats and the Genduk Chogngi.
The monastery is currently the largest in Sikkim. It is home to the community of monks and where they perform the rituals and practices of the Karma Kagyu lineage. It also has a religious centre by the name of Dharma Chakra Centre and a big residential-cum-prayer hall. It also has an impressive library and special rooms for the high-ranking incarnate Lamas.
The Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre is the seat of the Kagyu lineage, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Kagyu lineage originated with the Bengali yogi Tilopada (988-1069) – Tilopa in Prakrit – and spread throughout the Himalayas, including Tibet. Today, the Kagyu lineage of Buddhism is practiced worldwide.
When the Communists began to occupy Tibet during the 1950s, the Karmapa realized he would have to leave the country to preserve the accumulated spiritual legacy of the Karma Kagyu. The Karma Kagyu school belongs to the Vajrayana branch of Mahayana Buddhism and the supreme lama of the Karma Kagyu is the Karmapa. During the 1959 uprising, the Karmapa left Tsurphu Monastery with a group of 150 tulkus, lamas, monks, and lay followers. Carrying spiritual treasures, relics, and texts that had been collected at Tsurphu for 700 years, they made the long and difficult journey to India through Bhutan. On reaching the Indian border town of Buxa Duar, the Karmapa received an invitation from His Majesty Chogyal Tashi Namgyal, the king of Sikkim, to establish a new seat in that country. The Karmapa accepted, continuing a very long religious and spiritual relationship between the Gyalwa Karmapas and the kingdom of Sikkim. The sacred items and relics brought out from Tsurphu Monastery, the Karmapa’s seat in Tibet, were installed.
The monastery overlooking Gangtok receives a large number of devotees and tourists throughout the year. Behind the main monastery is an extremely impressive and elaborately decorated Karma Nalanda Institute of Buddhist Studies, wherein students from all over the world are enrolled.
After our prayers, we left for Gangtok. On our way, we stopped for a while for hot tea and momo, a Tibetan food. It was raining then and hot tea and momo tasted lovely.