Like an angry, wrathful demon whose spirit is aroused to a fiery tempestuousness, the thunderbolt crashes to earth with an indestructible power, with venom as strong as a vicious serpent.
The thunderbolt is known in the Himalayas as the Vajra or Dorje. It is an unusual elongated bell-shaped vessel whose configuration belies its strength in the hearts of the Himalayan people. It is a symbol of unity and strength across Nepal, Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan.
Lord Ronaldshay's explorations take him from hillsides of tea plantations, through Tolkienesque, impossibly luxuriant forests, to juniper bush moorlands, across barren plateaux and to the foot of the sublime sentinels of the Himalayas. Along the way he endeavours with perception, wit, humour and insight to illuminate the story of Buddhism in these jasmine-and juniper-scented mountains.
The pure Buddhism of the Gautama is lost from the Indian plains, metamorphosed by Tantrics. Carried across the mountains, it merges with pagan animism, reincarnated in a complex and baffling form. Its concepts adapted and broadened; its purity visible but masked by imagery of fanciful daring.
A remarkable tale of adventure, learning, excitement and culture, this volume stands the test of time, a classic, a fascinating record of the colonial exploration of the northeastern Himalayas.
Some explanation of the title which I have given to this volume is, perhaps, called for. The countries described are situated in the Eastern Himlayas on the northern borders of Bengal. They contain some of the most impressive mountain scenery in the world; and if their interest lay solely in their physical characteristics, they would be worthy of the homage of the most blasé traveller. Of Sikhim-the scene of the greater part of the excursions described in these pages-it has been said that it is probably the most mountainous country in the world; that within its small compass-it rises in a tumult of ranges from 700 to 28,000 feet; that in a two hours' scramble one can descend from Alpine gentians to tropical bamboos; that the higher altitudes are ice and rock, the lower a wilderness of forest ridges and precipitous gorges, with seldom a level space and barely room for a footpath by the side of their torrent beds.
But the interest of these countries by no means lies solely in their scenery, magnificent though it is. They possess also an unusual human interest by reason of the curious lines on which the thought of their people has developed, and of the strange customs and practices to which that thought has given rise. The peculiar bent of their minds has been produced by the meeting of two fundamentally opposed ideas concerning the nature of things which, instead of rebounding when they met, coalesced. Those ideas were rationalism on the one hand and superstition of the other. The former was represented by the metaphysics of early Buddhism; the latter by the demonolatry which, under the name of Bon-pa, passed for religion in primitive Tibet. It is true that the former had already undergone large changes as a result of contact with thought akin to that of the latter, before ever it penetrated the contain regions; but the process of coalescence was completed after it had done so, and it is only in these countries that the thought and practice which are the products of this process have survived.
The man who more than any other was responsible for this paradoxical combination of ideas was a Buddhist missionary known in India as Guru Padma Sambhava, and in Tibet as Guru Rimpoche. The story of his mission, during which were laid the foundations of the elaborately organized religion to which the term Lamaism is usually applied, is told hereafter. He became a power in the land, and one of the chief emblems of his might was the vajrah, or symbol of the thunderbolt of Indra. In Tibet the word vajrah became dorje, and as time went on it became one of the most common of all the emblems associated of the most common of all the emblems associated with priestly power. It is almost always to be found among the objects on the altars in the temples. It is an essential object on the tables of the three priestly office-bearers whose duty it is to officiate at the temple services. The abbot or spiritual head of a monastery bears the title of Dorje-lopon, "the wielder of the thunderbolt or scepter." In Bhutan the title of the spiritual head of the country, known to the outside world as Dharma Raja, is Druk Gye-po, the meaning of which is the "Thunder king," that is to say, the king of the Drukpa or Thunderer sect of Buddhists; and his motto, engraved in the centre of his official seal, is Bdage Druk Yin, signifying "I am the Thunderer." And-station which was the starting-point of all the expeditions which form the subject matter of the following pages, is commonly said to be a corruption of Dorje-ling, "the place of the thunderbolt," the name of a monastery which once stood on a well-known eminence in the modern town, now known as Observatory Hill. In the interests of historical accuracy I should, perhaps, add that I believe the commonly accepted explanation to be incorrect. A derivation seldom heard, but which I have the best of grounds for believing to be correct, is that which attributes the word Dorje in the first half of Darjeeling to the name of a lama, Dorje-rinzing, who founded the monastery which once stood on Observatory Hill. The shrine was subsequently removed to the Bhutia Basti, where it remains to this day; but the former site retained the name of "the place of Dorje lama."
It is, however, immaterial to my present theme whether the true derivation is from "the place of the thunderbolt" or "the place of the lama named thunderbolt." Either theory bears witness to the fact that in lands in which symbols are at a premium the thunderbolt takes a prominent place. And in any flag or coat-of-arms designed for Lamaism, in accordance with the traditions of heraldry, it would most assuredly appear as a conspicuous object. So much in explanation of the title.
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