Sunday, May 22, 2022

Lakes, Caves, And Monasteries: A Day In Rewalsar

Located close to Kullu in Himachal Pradesh, Rewalsar is a hidden spiritual gem with monasteries, a sacred lake, and a cave looked after by a nunnery

Lakes, Caves, And Monasteries: A Day In Rewalsar
Rewalsar is a Buddhist pilgrimage place located near Mandi in Himachal Pradesh Shutterstock

The myth of Guru Padmasambhava is known to every Himalayan Buddhist and Buddhist enthusiast, and each year I succinctly listen to the myth, to imagine it in new colors and scents. As the myth explains, Mandarva, the Princess of Mandi, on the arrival of Guru Padmasambhava, immersed herself in his teachings such that she embarked on everyday journeys to the cave in which he resided. However, the King of Mandi, her father, could not acknowledge this and immediately sent soldiers to the cave. As the soldiers entered, they saw both of them in some form of meditation pose, and proceeded to kill them in a fire, as per the King’s instruction. But the power of meditation made Guru Padmsambhava realize the conspiracy, and he vanished from the site, leaving behind the sacred lake in its wake. This myth has variations, but a sure fact was that the powers of Guru Padmasambhava were recognised, and celebrated over the centuries to follow.

The lake in Rewalsar is considered sacred
The lake in Rewalsar is considered sacred Navaashay / Shutterstock

The town of Rewalsar circles around the sacred lake, Tso Pema or Tri Sangam. Once upon a time, fish inside the Tso Pema, generally considered sacred in Tibetan Buddhism, were fed by pilgrims and tourists alike. But ever since the death of hundreds of fish in 2018, such a practice has stopped and now only the serenity of the lake survives.

As a Buddhist, my family used to come here on our way to our hometown in Kullu. The last time that we came here, we stayed for a few hours to visit the monasteries and the cave, as most pilgrims do, and returned to the district headquarters of Mandi, around 22 kms away from Rewalsar. What I hadn’t realised back then was that the experience of visiting the cave in Rewalsar would be so fulfilling. 

The Tso Pema Monastery in Rewalsar
The Tso Pema Monastery in Rewalsar Shutterstock

We first started with the Drikung Kagyu monastery, which belongs to the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism (which I follow). Although all Tibetan schools follow the basic principles and honor the spiritual leaders of Buddhism, they differ on certain practices and methods. We walked around the courtyard and entered the inner sanctorum, where the lamas could be seen praying. After paying our respects, we take a clockwise walk around the sanctorum while rotating the mane (prayer wheels). I am not sure if it is open to the public, but upon requesting and paying a certain fee, we did chunme pulna for which they took us to a room inside the monastery. In chunme Pulna, we light the butter lamps, only to vanquish it with water-filled peacock feathers. I enjoyed the scent of the room in which thousands of butter lamps were kept, waiting to be burned, watered and reignited. 

Outside the monastery, I found several local restaurants and cafes such as Emaho cafe where we sat for a cup of coffee and snacks. There were other cafes too such as Kora community cafe where there were plenty of Indian food options. After buying knick- knacks, we immediately proceeded to the upend road. 

It takes around one hour to reach the cave of Guru Padmasambhava from the main town of Rewalsar. It took us a far greater time with an Alto K10 to ride the single-laned mountainous road. With several blind turns and the lack of guest houses or directions, we were pretty much lost. But the orange-colored leaves of the forest that surrounded our journey captured our visual aesthetics. We even met a few monkeys along the way! It is said that you encounter seven lakes in total before you reach the cave of Guru Padmasambhava.

I do not remember the count, but I do remember entering a green-lush valley near a shallow but beautiful lake from where we could identify some human settlements on the top of a mountain. Finally, we were relieved to find the entrance to the cave, but the steps appeared countless as we hiked towards the cave. By the time we reached, the clouds had started forming in the sky, and the chilliness in the air was so profound at such height. I felt that the skies were pretty generous to fill our experience with rain showers in the July heat. 

As we entered, we found a man - deep in meditation - sitting on the stone bench beside the main statue of Guru Padmasambhava. We took our steps quietly and reverently, paying our respects by humming his mantra and prostrating. We could hear the clouds pouring down outside the cave. This added to the relaxed feel of the cosy, spiritually-filled aura inside. Towards the end of the cave, we saw the statue of a goddess, Tara (the mother of all Bodhisattvas), behind a glass wall. Then, taking a circumambulatory turn, I was disappointed by the random names carved on the inside walls of the cave. 

The rain hadn’t stopped by the time we exited the cave. My parents and I decided to sit on the bench provided by the nunnery beside the cave. The nuns who take care of the cave and the nunnery just above the cave, smiled at us as we sat down, giving us butter tea to drink as we soaked in the rainy weather. 

Eventually, when the rains were left to drizzle, we decided to head back, down the hiking trail, towards our car. The sky and the landscape just after the rainshower looked straight out of a watercoluor painting. The mountains appeared fresh green, and the lake in that part of the valley looked filled and satisfied as if it had a feast.

With this rejuvenating scene engraved in mind, we drove our way back to Mandi. 

Note: There are four other monasteries that I did not visit due to limited time such as the Nyingma Gompa, the oldest monastery in Rewalsar, Zigar Drukpa Kagyud Monastery, which houses the 12 m high statue of Guru Padmasambhava, and Zangdok Palri Palace Monastery.