Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

January 2007

John Vincent Bellezza

Flight of the Khyung
Happy New Year! May 2007 bring all readers of Flight of the Khyung much happiness and understanding. May you soar high and unencumbered just like the khyung bird of ancient Zhang Zhung. Off to a good start, I have had a fine time with family and friends during the Holiday season.

A Great Show in the Making
A few weeks ago I met a Canadian named Gnetahn Jehman. He came up from Mumbai to work on a documentary about Tibetan refugees who have braved many hazards in order to reach the south side of the Himalaya. Gnetahn is also an accomplished designer, musician and audio engineer. Recently he composed songs for Anurag Kashyap’s widely acclaimed film Paanch and made a well received documentary about the Parsee community. Gnetahn is now pursuing a project called Dhamma, a multidimensional extravaganza that combines music, dance, art, and craft into a powerful and touching performance. Despite the name, Dhamma is not overtly religious. Rather it is high level entertainment targeting India’s growing affluent class with shows planned for Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, and perhaps other Indian cities as well. It is hoped that Dhamma will be then be taken to North America and Europe.

Gnetahn needs far more media coverage and financial support for Dhamma. As this musical and theatrical art form is not in the Bollywood mold, many people simply do not understand what he is trying to do and convey. Fortunately, he has a few influential backers in Mumbai so efforts to realize his performance should come to fruition. Gnetahn has signed up a very impressive group of musicians to participate in Dhamma. They include Ustad Maqbool (vocals), Zunain Khan (sitar), Anupam Shobakur (sarod), Miland Date (flute), Michael Simpson (piano), Casidy Watson (flute), Amrit Rasi (drums), Gnetahn Jehman (guitar), and others. I have listened to some of the sound track (I have also seen some of the video clips) and can say that this is fusion music at its very best. I was so taken aback by the music that I at once volunteered to write a lead-in and mission statement for Dhamma:

Dhamma is the key to happiness. It is that which connects us to the circle of life and experience. Consummate performers weave a tale of personal fulfilment and collective well-being ever relevant and fresh.

Dhamma tells the story of the innate wisdom that informs all of our lives. Through the eyes of a young girl a journey of deserts and cities unfolds, a girl with dreams who dares to realize her desire. Her past, present and future stretch forth across the stage, time measured in the pulse of music and the rhythm of dance.

Dhamma is a two hour multimedia experience – a seamless interface of live music, theatre, dance, video, and craft in dynamic sets. This spectrum of colour, form and harmony is India at its heart: sensuality and sublimity in perfect unity.

Dhamma is the portal to a marvellous universe of things to see, hear, touch, and taste. In this realm of wonder there are musicians, dancers, artists, magicians, and craftspeople. They abide in ancient tradition with the most advanced technological tools at their disposal. This is human endeavour in its most visionary manifestation.

Dhamma showcases India’s extraordinary cultural wealth to the world. It celebrates the nation’s emergence into the 21st century with its values and traditions intact and thriving. This extravaganza proclaims the new India on the global stage, a milestone in her path to a resplendent future.

Another Himalayan Experience
Leaving the world of urban culture and entertainment, let us return to the primal beauty of the Himalaya. This is another type of spectacle, but one that is no less inspiring and edifying. Despite what some might think, esthetic delight and intuitive foresight, not raw strength and brute force, are the main ingredients of success in this world of bears and eagles. I have literally reached into the middle of the trunk with my journals, pulled one out, and opened to the place I record here:

From Journal 13, February 21, 1990.
Jawalaji Temple, Himachal Pradesh, India)
About half an hour after I arrived in Lunsu, the train came. The half hour ride to the Jawala Mukhi road was delightful. The countryside and little (narrow gauge) train seemed to hark back to a simpler, less stressful age. I would like to travel the entire route some day. It would be fun and give me a better chance to survey the Shivaliks. From the Jawala Mukhi road station, I obtained a bus for Jawalaji, Himachal Pradesh’s most popular pilgrimage spot, at 3:00 PM. I wended my way up to the temple behind a group of singing Punjabi pilgrims, both Hindu and Sikh.

The central Jawalaji temple has a golden roof and spire, and the mounts of the goddess in bronze are in the mandapa (anterior hall). I was singled out by a young poojari (priest) for a special guided tour of Jawalaji. The main feature of Jawalaji is the natural gas flames that issue forth from the sanctum. The flames in the middle of the pit in the sanctum represent Sri Maha Laxmi and Sri Maha Kali. On the outer walls of the sanctum are five flames. In clockwise order they represent Sri Chandi, Sri Hinglaj, Sri Bidawashani, Sri Jawalaji (the flame goddess proper set in a silver receptacle), and Sri Annapoorna. I was instructed to bring a small copper vessel full of water from the temple kund (tank). The poojaris then threw the water from the vessel in the pit to demonstrate that the perpetual flame consumes anything. Sweets and whatever pilgrims bring as prasad (blessed substances) are passed over the flame to sanctify them… It is claimed that the Pandavas established Jawalaji thousands of years ago. The buildings themselves are modern. The main shrine is flanked by other ones. The most interesting is the one with a yellow metal disc. According to legend, this was a golden umbrella presented by Akbar (the Moghul emperor), which was rejected by the goddess because he was prideful. It is reputed that it was turned into an unknown metal. The pundit (theologian) pointed to a hole in the disc that he said was bored out by scientists to determine what it is made of. To this day no one knows?

…The main attraction at the upper level of the central shrine is a small chamber where water is boiled by natural gas. The water roils like boiling water but when it is thrown on the faces of the onlookers it feels cold as I experienced. The poojari explained that the heat of the water is counteracted by Sri Gorkhanath and consequently becomes cold. About eight people can cram into this chamber. As the poojari collects money offerings he asks for the people’s names. He repeats them loudly for the goddess to hear. I donated my one rupee in the name of the human race. Back on the ground level I visited yet another shrine. In this one an elderly pundit was collecting donations. We got to talking. His name is Sri Gian Chand Almast. He is an old freedom fighter who was jailed by the Angrez (British) for 28 months, in 1940-1942. In his fervor to win freedom for his country he quit school early and joined the ranks of the resistance. Mr. Almast is a writer/poet and told me about a famous classical singer, Desh Bandu, who lives in Dharamsala. I am very grateful to the Jawalaji poojari for their time and assistance. They added significantly to my knowledge of Sri Jawalaji. Sri Jawalaji is a form of Parvati (a personification of the Himalaya) and has the traits of many goddesses incorporated into her…

February 22, Chintapurni
It is predawn but the flurry of activity for the day has begun. The temple bells ring frequently. About one hour ago a group of children came by shouting, Jai Mata Di! I arrived at the seventh tirtha (sacred station) of the pilgrimage, Chintapurni Devi. Sri Chintapurni is one of the most important goddess shrines in the hills along with Vaishnav Devi, Vajreshwari Devi, Jawala Devi, and Nanda Devi. The temple is made of marble and the sanctum is full of silver accoutrements. I asked a young poojari about the history of the temple. He allowed me into the sanctum to see the material manifestation of the goddess.

One of the most intriguing aspects of goddess worship is that it is aboriginal in origin although it has of course been Aryanized. How long has this Shivalik hilltop been venerated? Perhaps the very Stone Age people considered it sacred… In Kuamoan and Kinnaur, the Aryanization process is still underway. It has received impetus from modernization and the development of an infrastructure that has allowed modern cultural penetration into erstwhile isolated regions. With Aryanization a patriarchal cultural dominance is a given. That is why goddess worship is so important. It acts as an epistemological and ritual check to male religious domination. Most vitally, goddess worship may help to save India’s dwindling natural resources. This will depend on the political mix between the masses and secular elite. The moneyed and intellectual elite of India are far from entirely secular but secularism constitutes a significant force within it. Many more people are milling about the temple precinct than when I arrived…

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