May His Tribe Increase, photo essay by Subrata Roy Chowdhury
As our Tata Sumo went past NH 22, it proved a painstaking journey through a dusty, rugged and uncertain state highway from Kurcham. The car stuttered though an ethereal landscape crossing small mountain villages like Pooh, Khab, Nako, Sumdoh and Hurling. The moment our driver Mamaji parked the car in front of Millennium Guest House of Tabo Monastery for a tea break, there was a sense of relief for our tired bones rattled by this prolonged journey on a mockery of a highway.
Tourists generally enjoy a brief stopover at Tabo Monastery (3280 metre) located on a barren, snow covered thinly populated valley crisscrossed by the Spiti River. As a seat of Buddhist religion and culture, this oldest continuously functioning Buddhist monument in India is second only in importance to Tholing Monastery of Tibet. It houses a priceless collection of manuscripts, thangkas (Buddhist scroll paintings), and exquisite paintings depicting tales from the Mahayana Buddhist pantheons. Nearly 36 almost life-size clay statues are perched on the walls of the assembly hall of Tabo Monastery since 996 AD. There seems to be hardly any justification to spare more than an hour or two for a place reeking with an antique flavor.
This was what we felt before we met an amazing young man called Siddhit Tamba near a tea stall. While other engineers of his age remain preoccupied with lucrative career option, Siddhit looks beyond that. He leaves aside the temptation of consumerism to work of the underprivileged tribal children of the mountain. We are struck by the information this young man from Goa possesses about this place and the love and affection he showers on the poor children of a local residential school run by the monastery. He led me to the room of the Executive Head of the monastery Zangpo Lama. Over a cup of Tibetan tea, the monk spoke softly about the monastery and the school. I listened with rapt attention the story of how Venerable Geshe Sonam Wangdu, the abbot of the monastery and patron Serkong Tsenshap Choktul Rinpoche under the active encouragement of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama have worked tirelessly to establish a school at Tabo to impart modern secular education in Bhoti language for the underprivileged children of the locality.
Only a visionary like Dalai Lama can think about introducing the study of modern science in a school run by a monastery. This is a move pioneered by his realization that people cut off from mainstream society will forever remain backward due to a lack of scientific knowledge. Science has been an extraordinary tool for understanding the material world. If this is supplemented by an attainment of inner peace through meditation and spiritual practices, there can be nothing better than this. Dalai Lama has ensured that in Serkong School the stress should be more on the intellectual training than on the monastic ritualism. This is just a revelation for us. We rescheduled our tour program to explore the school. In place of Kaza, we opt for a night halt at Tabo.
The next morning undeterred by the near freezing temperature, I stand a little before 6 am at the gate of the prayer hall of the new complex of Tabo Monastery. It is an experience of a life time to visit the monastery under the guidance of such a knowledgeable man. When we stopped for tea, it was almost 9am. It is now time for us to move on to Serkong School. Last night, Siddhit arranged everything over phone. The Principal Kalsang Yadol welcomed us at the gate of the school.
Since his arrival in this alien Spiti Valley for research work, Siddhit has fallen in love with Serkong School. When he turns up at Tabo from Goa-a distance of about 2600km- with a sack overflowing with books collected from his friends and relatives to furnish the school library for the little angels, people are awe-struck. I stand bemused as the principal madam recounts the story of a missionary in a world thickly populated by self-seeking individuals. I can only breathe a silent prayer. May his tribe increase! Through the ubiquitous social networking site, Siddhit draws the attention of people to the problems of Serkong School which is limping along due to insufficient and irregular government grant. What began as a relatively modest effort in 1999 has blossomed into a full-fledged residential school for nearly 350 tribal students coming from virtually inaccessible locality. The students here learn under the guidance of teachers subjects like Sanskrit, Hindi, English, Mathematics, Science, General knowledge and Computer in their mother tongue Bhoti. They are constantly made aware of health and hygiene problems and environmental issues so relevant for students living in a transitional society. In spite of financial crisis, Serkong School has proved to be an irresistible draw for the guardians in this part of the world due to the sincerity of the teachers, devotion of the students and the discipline imposed by the monks .
Under the liberal outlook of the Mahayana Buddhism, we witness everywhere in the school a quiet transition from the study of faith to the quest for knowledge. We come to realize why Dalai Lama has not lost his relevance even in this age of globalization. He looms over Tabo more as a social reformer than a religious preacher. As the Himachal Government provides only 50% of the annual expenditure for the school, the monastery finds it difficult to meet the deficit. The crisis is so acute that the school has stopped admitting new students. The hostel is in need of renovation and further expansion to accommodate the growing demands. Severely understaffed Serkong School suffers due to the paucity of books in the library, bench and desk in the class room, toilet in the girls’ hostel. I do not have an answer to Siddhith’s question why a group of innocent tribal children will be deprived of their right to education simply for the lack of fund.
Basking in the mellowed sunshine, I patiently stood for the students to appear in the assembly for their prayer. Students in their school uniforms were found slowly heading towards the school compound. Their faces are lit up by the first rays of the rising sun. They seem to be blissfully unaware of the uncertainty that rocks the school. On the foothill of the mighty Himalayas at a height of approximately 10000 feet, the entire school compound reverberates with the melody of a divine song that suddenly holds a new meaning to me:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
In the light of the golden lamp (Serkong means a golden lamp), I discover in every child running and jumping, falling on the ground and standing on their feet a potential Siddhit. My heart brims with joy at this sudden realization. As the melody of the prayer song slowly dies down, I keep on wondering: Was it a vision or a waking dream?