Arindam is an RI, a Returning Indian, as the new acronym goes in migrationspeak. His Facebook page informs his friends that he’s “pinged 105 cities across the world”. So when our car crosses Melli, on the Bengal-Sikkim border, his voice is a stubble of sounds: “Imagine, I’ve never been to Sikkim!”
I like that exclamation mark and provoke it with promises of the unseen. We are headed to Namchi—at a height of 4400ft, the name appropriately means ‘Sky’ (nam)-‘High’ (chi)—and I try to entertain Arindam with stories as we climb skywards. I tell him about the spirit of poisoner-princess Pende Ongmoo, who is said to haunt the town and, when he shows no interest, perhaps because of motion sickness, I switch to a story about Sikkim’s most famous son, footballer Baichung Bhutia, after whom the stadium in the town is named. Next come stories about the Buddhist monks who climb the Samdruptse to offer it prayers to calm it down: It’s a dormant volcano, such go the whispers.
When stories of football and fear fail, I reveal the real reason for my visit to the town: I want to see how Namchi is gradually being turned into a pilgrimage town. The atheist in him sits up. Perhaps it is easier to see God in Becoming than in Being.
When we reach Namchi, it is evening. We go to the local parade ground where a mela is underway. Pretty girls dance in prettier bakus, young men sing Nepali songs, some play the guitar imitating the style of their favourite American artistes, different tribes showcase their culture through their cuisine and a display of their traditional living quarters, and everywhere, everyone eats and drinks their favourite local food and local wine.
Local: That word reverberates everywhere, turning everything exotic. The fair—a feature I notice all across the North-East—is organised by self-help groups to show the world who they are. It’s a clever concept, blurring the boundaries between the home and the world, highlighting the difference that will arouse the curiosity of the tourist. Call it the craft of living in the age of tourism.
Arindam and I carry back two things from the mela: One, the belief that a renewed, even reinforced, self-pride—a badge of ethnicity often used in protest movements—has become the symbol of commerce; and two, something akin to a nervous delight, like the energy of a bride moments before her wedding. Namchi’s destiny, it seems, would be to trade in religion, just as its neighbours, Pelling and Yuksom, deal in nature.
Next morning, I awake to a cling-clang sound. At first I think it’s the buzz of my sleep. Then I realise my brother, now posted as a banker in Namchi, in an unbecoming continuation of his childhood, is making himself a cup of Horlicks, the metal spoon beating the lump of powder into smoothness.
Outside, there are similar sounds. I wonder whether this is part of a morning ritual in Namchi, one of the many things introduced to morph this near-forgotten town into a pilgrimage centre: Maybe everyone makes and drinks their morning health cuppa at the same time.
“Is there a temple nearby?” I ask.
“Then where is the sound of chanting coming from?”
“It’s the garbage woman,” he says.
“The garbage-collector chants?” I am flummoxed.
“Yes,” he says, “don’t you hear the cling-clang metal sound asking the town’s residents to come out with their garbage bags?”
I’m surprised. Could this be possible?
The smell of incense sticks wafts through the air. A neighbour has dedicated his morning to the invisible.
Suddenly, my brother begins to laugh. I run to the balcony to see what amuses my serious-natured sibling. There’s no one on the road. In the tiny, pretty children’s park that this apartment watches over, there’s not a stir, only rows of red poinsettias that construct the geometry of childhood in structures like these all over the country.
And then I hit him on the head.
It was a joke.
How could I have believed him? How could I have really believed that a garbage-collector would chant the announcement of her arrival to the world?
There is something about the ‘atmosphere’ in the ‘hills’, as plains-living India would say, that infuses an air of the sacred—or, at least, seemingly sacred—into almost everything: the chill of the air, the length of the day, the freshness of vegetable skins, the way nature continues to create, construct and rule the lives of those who live here, out of choice or compulsion.
As I sit writing in my brother’s apartment, the woman’s chant continues at the same pace. Later, during the many times I see hill-dwellers walk up or down the mountains, looking at them from the back, from the car, where there is never a uniform pace, I feel that the unhurried temper of the chant is nearly the same as the rhythm of the hills and its life. Nothing is slow or fast. Even the curtains flutter at the tempo of the clap that musicians call som.
But these could not have been a part of the Sikkim chief minister’s grand scheme of turning an ordinary hill town into a site of pilgrimage.
Every festival season, my brother carries news of the Indian prime minister’s impending trip to Namchi. Deferred visits and planned welcomes have given birth to local jokes: Pawan Chamling might succeed in getting an appointment with God for Namchi, but one with Manmohan Singh looks unlikely.
Once upon a time—and the people of Namchi are quick to use that phrase when harking back to the days before greatness was thrust upon them—no one bothered to visit Namchi. Kanchenjunga, the resident guardian angel of tourist operators in nearby Pelling and Yuksom, showed itself rarely to visitors in Namchi. It had no grand claim to history either: Pelling, on the other hand, also possesses the beautiful Rabdentse ruins, while Yuksom is revered as the site of the coronation of the first Chogyal of Sikkim, back in 1641.
With no industry and inconsistent agricultural production (cardamom and rice), the chief minister was quick to realise that the tiny town of Namchi could survive only on tourism. Sikkim, with Nagaland, has one of the most progressive ecotourism infrastructures in India, but a solitary ‘Live Like Us’ policy—the father of many artificial “tribal” villages, especially in the North East—would not bring the curious tourist to Namchi. A state whose economy survives almost exclusively on tourism needs more than amazing glimpses of the Kanchenjunga and mirror-clean lakes and insect-buzzing forests.
The Buddhist monasteries in Rabangla and the Char Dham in Namchi, which are works-in-progress when we visit, are, therefore, designated lodestones for religious tourism.
For the last few years, truckloads of bricks, sand, stone, paint and prayer have climbed up the hills to Namchi. These trucks, I notice, cause much irritation to the locals because, like most hill towns, the traffic system here is wobbly. But the curses and abuse that would ordinarily come the driver’s way have been replaced by an extraordinary patience. Every citizen of Namchi seems to have become a brick in the creation of history. It is fascinating to note how the changing character of the town has also changed the character of the townsfolk.
My brother insists that Arindam and I first visit Rabangla, a tiny town 26km from Namchi. It’s Lhabab Deuchen, an important day on the lunar calendar, Pema Leyda Shangderpa, the PRO in charge of the Sakyamuni Project, tells us. But I would have guessed it from the ceremoniousness in the air—the pipes and Buddhist prayer chants that come to tourists as some variant of the aubade—even if I did not know of the Sakyamuni Project, the construction of a 140ft statue of the Buddha. It’s an engineering marvel, sure, but there is something about the empty, even vacant, eight-pillared corner that turns building to prayer hall; a temper that, for want of a better phrase, I will call meditative pause.
Sitting on the wet grass, I see an assembly of shaved heads in front of me. Everyone sitting in front of me is a monk, and everyone behind me a wannabe pilgrim or at least a pilgrim of the future. We have our different ambitions, but surely there must be something that unites us? It is not the Buddha, we know, both the child monk and I. Could it be a common search for newness?
As the chant crescendos into moments of common belief, the architecture of hairless heads, rough-skinned pillars, half-domes and a Buddha who is not yet Buddha helps my mind form an analogy: Like the cheap plastic Dzi beads ornaments that make teenagers of men and women all over the world, symbolising the pop-religionisation of Tibetan Buddhism, the Sakyamuni project in Rabangla seems to make the Gautama a giant toy in a doll house. The Buddha, hidden behind bamboo scaffolding, with masons tweaking an eyebrow or plastering the chin as beauticians and plastic surgeons take minutes to do today, is still preparing a face to meet the faces that he will meet.
From there to the immensity of the 135ft Guru Padmasambhava statue in Samdruptse, 7km from Namchi, is a real change of landscape. The Guru, worshipped here and in most of the North-East as Rinpoche, meets the eye as one climbs up the hill. After the sombre chants at the monastery in Rabangla, the face of his statue—represented with a thin moustache, a startled, near-angry gaze and lapis lazuli eyes—is like a necessary anticlimax. There is congregation here too: Incense smoke, useless sunglasses, fire burning in instalments, woollen caps, fake Kashmiri shawls, and everywhere, camera flashes, the incremental addition to the photographic moment.
Arindam and I climb cold marble steps to get closer to the Guru, but are rewarded with much more: The distance seems closer, the hills and the surrounding forests and saipatri (marigold) gardens seem within reach. Guru Rinpoche remains unfazed as men come and go, shouting Hello Hello, into their cellphones, as clouds make journeys, as the sky washes and changes.
My eyes measure height. I can almost smell the sky.
A young boy asks his father, “How old is this god?”
The father, unsure of the number of birthday candles on Guru Rinpoche’s birthday cake, takes only a few moments to answer, “He is almost your age”.
The stone inscription reads: ‘The Holy Statue of Guru Padmasambhava at Samdruptse, South Sikkim, conceptualised and visualised by Shri Pawan Chamling, Hon’ble Chief Minister, Sikkim. Foundation Stone laid by His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, on October 22, 1997. His eminence Kyabje Dodrupchen Rinpoche supervised the religious aspects of implementing the project and later performed the Rabnay (Consecration) ceremony of the Holy Statue. Shri Pawan Chamling, whose dream was to establish this pilgrimage centre for the benefit of the people of Sikkim and all Sentient Beings, unveiled the Holy Statue on February 18, 2004’.
The statue is only six years old when we, Chamling’s “Sentient Beings” visit it. On our way back, I notice ‘Government Orders’ framed inside wall notice boards. They are all from the Ecclesiastical Affairs Department, Government of Sikkim.
The driver insists that there couldn’t be anything more splendid than Chamling’s Char Dham on a bright November afternoon. I, a reluctant Hindu, only notice construction signs on the way: ‘Name of Work: Pilgrimage cum Cultural Centre, Solophok. Project conceived by Dr. Pawan Chamling .... Consultant: HUDCO, New Delhi. Project Cost: 9956.23 lacs. Date of Completion: ...’.
Everywhere, there’s a blank after the date of completion. God is a site permanently under construction in Namchi. Only the ‘Construction of Meeting Hall, Carpark’ at Samdruptse, with a ‘project velue of Rs. 43,744,902’, assigned to ‘Contrector’ Ashok Agarwal, is timed at ‘24 months’.
Traditionally used to describe the “four abodes” of Hindu pilgrimage—Badrinath, Dwarka, Rameshwaram and Puri—Char Dham is now loosely tagged on to several similar sites in the Garhwal Himalayas. Namchi’s Char Dham is Disneyland Hinduism, announcing itself with a cautionary ‘Work in Progress’. Thousands of workers polish marble steps and chisel facial features and give the gods a good hose-pipe bath. I think of my brother complaining about the perennial deficit of water supply in Namchi as watch Lord Shiva, he of Creation and Destruction, being created out of Tata Cement bags. Blue, yellow and white pipes give birth to the gopurams of Rameshwaram. Arindam counts the number of slippers on the stairs, and when bored, Googles “pilgrimage”.
Namchi is symptomatic of a new movement in India, one that tries to deny history and its complex workings. History here is not a chain of aggregational events that take place in time, but a literal construction, much like a museum, where an assemblage of artefacts can condense time into enclosed space. In Namchi, there are no time divisions, no ancient, middle or modern. There is only now, an everlasting present, like the seven architectural wonders of the world brought together in a child’s school project.
There is another thing that is to be noted in Chamling’s investment in superlatives in Namchi: The statues here have to be the “biggest” or “highest”, summing up the flamboyance of an artificial architectural tourism.
In spite of a riot-free present tense, questions slither into the consciousness. What would be the dress code for this ‘pilgrimage to Namchi’? Would these tourists be ‘pilgrims’ at all? Or, would it, in keeping with the spirit of play, be a fancy dress or dress-as-you-like?
The appropriate time for visiting the original Char Dhams is between May and October. I wonder what could be an appropriate pilgrimage time in Namchi. Shouldn’t it coincide with the ‘tourist season’ which is, unsurprisingly, around the same time?
Going forward, it will be interesting to see how pilgrimage sites without the association of myth or history grow. Who is the target here? The tourism infrastructure—there are no four or five star hotels yet—suggests that it is the budget Hindu tourist that Chamling wants to woo, someone who wants a six-in-one package, the Char Dham, the Buddha, along with the pleasure of the mountains, a grand surplus.
What is also extraordinary, in spite of commerce not being a religious faithful, is how a town such as Namchi is playing poker with the Indian idea of the secular. When I leave Char Dham, looking back through my car window to take it in last time—the way a modernist critic perhaps does at the gaudiness of a pre-Raphaelite painting—the shining new paint of the temple towers is blinding. And far away, the driver, a Christian, points out St Peter the Apostle Church to me. I cannot help thinking that after the Buddhist, Hindu and Christian religious sites, an ostentatious mosque could not be too far away. That would complete the parallelogram of the Indian constitutional secular perfectly, making Namchi a toy “union” territory.
Postscript: A few months after my visit, Namchi was hit by an earthquake on September 18. On my way there after the debris had been cleared, I heard stories about how this was nature’s way of “getting back” at us. “It is significant that the earthquake happened on the day of Biswakarma puja (the day Eastern Indians worship the god of engineering and architecture): It was nature’s challenge to the god who had created the world,” said a co-passenger in the taxi that took me to Namchi.
His words came back to me when I stood in front of the “damaged” statue of Shiva at Solophok Char Dham: the trishul was broken, so was a finger holding the damaru, and there were several cracks on the body. I wondered whether my father had actually been right in his prediction. This earthquake, the half-broken trishul and the cracks on the statue of Shiva, he had said, would be left as “ruins” of that September day when two villages in Sikkim disappeared forever, many died, even more lost homes. It would all go to enhance the myth of the upstart pilgrimage centre that was Namchi.
Perhaps or perhaps not, but there’s another, of course: The Prime Minister of India, the people of Namchi still hope, will someday inaugurate the Char Dham. Which Prime Minister, in our history, has ever had that honour?
(This story appears in the 11 May, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)