Being in India again is enough of a gift, but the unexpected bonus prize is a reunion with Nepal as well — not geographically this time, but culturally. This whole chunk of the Himalayas from Sikkim to the northern West Bengal hills (from the Bhutanese border in the east to the Nepali border in the west and the Tibetan border in the north) is predominantly Nepali, culturally and linguistically, with generous helpings of Tibetan, Indian, Bhutanese, and indigenous spices in the masala. A tasty mix, to my palate.
As we climbed higher into the foothills on the way to Kalimpong, we heard less Hindi and more Nepali, and i got to play in my favorite linguistic playground for the first time in seven or eight years. As some of you know, i find great joy in being the me that i become when i speak and think in Nepali (which i learned back in college during a life-changing semester in Nepal). It somehow feels like a more native tongue to me — a linguistic framework more readily conforming to the ways in which i experience the world and myself within it (whereas i often feel i’m “translating” when trying to express myself in English). So, all the more delightful it is that Ani Sonam La, our new old friend with whom Artyom and i spent three precious days last week, comes from a long line of Nepalis with broad minds and deep commitments to natural living and selfless service to their communities.
Ani Sonam La traveled several hours from her nunnery to meet us in Kalimpong. Physically tiny but energetically giant, and with a slightly weathered forty-something-ish face that could just as easily be Tibetan or Native American, she sailed down the hill to our lodge as if her nun’s robes were concealing the fact that she was gliding just above the ground rather than walking, and she lit up when i called her name. Instant friends — just add eye contact. We spent the four-hour jeep journey north toward her village yakking away about our dreams about H.H. the Dalai Lama, our visions for sustainable community, and our family legacies of service to society. Ani Sonam La was excited, she said, because it was clearly our good karma that brought us together to create this project to benefit the village and those who will come to meditate on this sacred land.
We reached the end of the “road” (using the term with maximum generosity here) after dark and walked the last hour through the forests and rice paddies to the home of her cousin, one Mr. S.N. Rai, who serves as the headmaster of their village primary school. A very thoughtful, gentle, and cheerful man, Mr. Rai, like many of his fellow villagers, is a devotee of Sai Baba (the world-famous afro-wallah guru whose motto is “love all, serve all”) and, as such, is exceptionally open-minded and more socially and environmentally conscious than your typical Indian or Nepali villager.
As we (Mr. Rai, Ani Sonam La, Artyom, and i) talked service, spirituality, politics, and sustainable development over dinner by lamplight, i was moved to tears as i listened to them and it struck me how similar we are — in some ways, more similar to each other than we are to the mainstreams of the societies from which we’ve emerged. It felt like the universe was doing some stellar matchmaking.
We slept in the guest room of Ani Sonam La’s parents’ home (a traditional two-story wood-and-adobe affair) and emerged in the morning to see the beauty of the village that we had only felt the previous night. We met her delightfully friendly parents and younger brother, sister-in-law, and nephew, and then joined Mr. Rai after breakfast to trek down to the school and then continue along the trail to meet the plot of land we’ve been offered.
The schoolhouse was built by the villagers in the early ’70s, with their own funds (the government promised school funding long ago, but… well, someone in a Kolkata office needed chai instead) and entropy has had its way with it since. One of our first projects will be to find a modest amount of financial support to enable to the villagers to do some basic renovation on the school for safety, and to build a fence around the courtyard to keep the kids from falling off the cliff when they play!
From the school, we wandered down a maze of trails, through rice paddies, forest, and cardamom plantations, to Pichung Lakha, the old name (which means something like “the seasonal encampment or resting place of Pichung,” though no one today knows what person or people were named Pichung) given to the hillside that hosts our date with destiny. Pichung Lakha is perfect.
The land (about half of which is visible in the photo, though it’s a bit larger than it looks here) stretches from the forest at the top (just beyond the right edge of the picture) down to the river below, which you might barely make out in the horizontal center photo, and includes a strip on the other side of the river. The land being offered to us includes terraces for growing food, caves and grottos which could easily be built into spots for long-term retreats, and several other flat spots suited to a dining pavilion/kitchen, dorm huts, a yoga pagoda, and a meditation hall/classroom.
Water is plentiful, for both cooking and farming, and there is no shortage of cash-poor locals who would benefit greatly from some paid work to construct the place (with their traditional, eco-friendly methods) and work with our international friends to create and maintain the gardens according to local, permaculture, and biointensive principles. In short, it’s everything we need for the humble first incarnation of the vision of a service-learning ashram and eco-retreat center.
Ani Sonam La wants to start by replanting the orange orchards that were there in her childhood and later clear cut to make space for rice paddies and terraces. Double-yum.
There are still many questions to be answered before we can be sure if this can happen here, but we’re off to a good start. We had left Sarnath with the Karmapa‘s blessings for the project, and we concluded our tour of Pichung Lakha with a puja (prayer and offering ceremony) at the Shiva cave down by the river for the removal of all obstacles and the success of the project… and the rest is just details. 😉
Seems i’ll be returning this summer to continue the conversation. For now, there’s plenty of visioning and homework to be done, and that too is a rewarding process.