Rinzen wears the Tibetan long dress that reaches her ankles, called a chupa, in black cotton and under it a soft white long sleeved shirt with tiny, black polka dots. She gives me a small smile to acknowledge my presence. She remembers me from two days ago, when I first visited the shop at the Norbulingka monastery at Dharamsala. The shop houses and sells the items produced by the workshops held there. These are Tibetan crafts, exquisite to look at. I walk up to her and tell her that I wish to speak with her. We decide to sit on some steps inside the shop, surrounded by artefacts and clothes on display. I mention the fact that I have just seen the 14 feet high Buddha at the monastery and the huge thangka hanging there, just as one enters the space.

“You know how much time and effort goes into the making of a thangka?” she asks. “I did not know it myself till I saw the people working on a piece. It is truly a work of art. What is remarkable is that although 5 people may be working on a thangka, on let’s say, the image of the Healing or Medicine Buddha, when the final piece is ready, no one will know that it is the work of 5 different people. It will appear to be the work of one individual. No one can call a thangka painting his own, the work is anonymous.”

In today’s world, each of us wishes to lay claim on his or her own work. It becomes obvious to me that this process is a way to overcome ego.

I ask her about the Healing Buddha and she says he is blue in colour, sending out blue healing light. Earlier, before coming to work at the monastery, she knew of the various Boddisattvas, but did not know ‘about’ them and why they were a part of any thangka. The Healing Buddha is dressed in the robes of a monk, he sits in the vajra position and holds the stem of the arura plant in his right hand, which rests on his right knee. His left hand holds a bowl of medicine. She also mentions Manjusree, the Boddhisattva who carries the flaming sword of wisdom in his right hand to cut away ignorance and duality. The lotus in his left hand supports the sutra of ultimate realization. Manjusree rides a blue lion, where the lion symbolizes the ferocious mind to be tamed through wisdom.

Rinzen has a thangka at home and is grateful for the knowledge that has made her aware of its significance. “It is patchwork on silk, did you know that? I did not know till I watched the thangka being made here. They take horsehair and wrap the silk thread around it and then they use it for stitching. It requires religious understanding, training, concentration…and good eyesight.” She smiles a slow smile and I wonder at the peaceful expression on her face. There is no restlessness in her body and there is not a single line on her face. She sits there quietly, giving me her time and her views.

A thangka is painted on cotton, or appliqued or embroidered on silk. Usually, in a thangka, a central deity is surrounded by other identified figures in a highly geometric and symmetrical composition. A thangka may depict a mandala or a narrative scene. Most of the thangkas are small, required for personal meditation or religious instruction, though those designed for display are extremely large.

Rinzen was born in India and studied in Simla. Her parents are Tibetan refugees who crossed the border in Nepal. She says her parents only tell her about their good life in Tibet, their farm with yaks and sheep. She smiles, “They never ate ‘channa dal’ which was fed to animals…but I sometimes cook it at home here and eat.” She taught at the Tibetan school in Simla where she realized that she could not answer the questions the young Tibetan children asked her about their land and culture. She felt that though she proudly claimed to be a Tibetan and a Buddhist and had a thangka at home, she did not really know anything about her land or her religion. This is what prompted her to leave a relatively well-paying job to work at the monastery in Dharamsala.

She says, “Now I can answer the questions visitors ask because I understand the craft and dedication that goes behind the making of any object and also the spiritual reasons for it.”

“Do you remember you asked about the earrings you purchased?” I had bought a set of sterling silver earrings at the last visit to the monastery. “They denote the Endless Knot or Unbroken Knot, one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols. It shows that through the inter-twining of compassion and wisdom, all pain and suffering can be understood and overcome. It especially holds meaning for those who are unhappy or depressed. I could tell you about them because I now know what all these symbols mean and their significance.”

I am amazed at the peace on her face as she speaks. I feel her quiet magnetism.

I respect her wish to not be photographed or named. Tibetans live freely in India, but they have to be careful since they come from a land where they are a repressed people, under Chinese rule. Their families and connections there make them wary of speaking of anything political or doing anything that will turn the torchlight on them. Meanwhile, as I leave the monastery, I feel enveloped in a healing light.


Abha Iyengar

Abha Iyengar is an award winning, internationally published poet, author, editor and translator. She is a British Council certified creative writing mentor. Her story, ‘The High Stool,’ was nominated for the Story South Million Writers Award. She received the Lavanya Sankaran Writing Fellowship for 2009-2010. Her short fiction, The Marshlands, was shortlisted in the DNA-Out of Print short story contest 2015. Her poem-film, ‘Parwaaz,’ has won a Special Jury prize in Patras, Greece. Her published works include Yearnings, Flash Bites, Shrayan, Many Fish to Fry and The Gourd Seller and Other Stories.