Pang Lhabsol – a reminiscence

S. Balakrishnan

The year was 1983 and it was my first opportunity to watch a ‘chham’ (Buddhist religious dance). And it was Sikkim’s unique Pangtoed Chham performed during Pang Lhabsol ceremony in honour of Mt. Khangchendzonga. The Royal Monastery ‘Tsuklakhang’ where it is held in Gangtok was not easily accessible back then. The duty-conscious CRPF men guarding its gates made me run back & forth. While the entry for general public is through the back gate, the men there refused and asked me to approach the front Palace gate where I was asked to run back to the back gate. My BP shot up when white-skinned foreigners were let in without any hassle along with local Sikkimese. I was so upset and angry that my face turned darker & darker. I vehemently argued in my broken Hindi about apartheid, discrimination based on skin colour, trying to become another Mahatma; realizing the potential danger in another ‘avatar’ of Mahatma, the security men spoke with their higher-ups and let me in. Victorious, I literally ran inside afraid I had missed some portion of the dance, whereas in reality I was indeed very, very late and the dance had almost ended. While the festival activities start since early morning itself, I reported there only at 12.30 and then this hassle. Besides, just that morning only I discovered I had no film roll. So I went down to Fotomatics Studio, bought a colour film roll (Mitsubishi Rs. 65) and then trudged all the way upwards to Tsuklakhang with lots of expectations. Mind you, it was not a holiday for central govt. offices, so I had to take a day off.

But to my dismay the whole festivity had already ended. The three horses that are part of the festival were being led back in a circumambulatory procession around Tsuklakhang along with Pangtoed dance warriors & jesters. The warriors then surrounded the high flag post and, as is the tradition, sprinkled flour in the air to mark the culmination of celebrations before marching back to the monastery. The Lamas who scored the music for the programme followed them inside. I noticed the Prince and other royal members leaving for the Palace at the other end of the long lawn. By then some youth gathered around the flag post and started performing Sikkimese dance and then enjoyed ceremoniously sipping the local chhang drink. I returned highly disappointed, exposing only half the roll and vowing to be there at dawn next year. Well, it was 5 PM and the chillness made me longing for a chhang or at least a cup of hot chhai; so, munching the events of the day (Aug. 23) I trudged back Charlie Chaplin style to my single-room Palace near Diesel Power House for a hot cup of tea with milk powder.

I eagerly awaited the next Pang Lhabsol that is celebrated on the 15th day of the 7th month of Tibetan Lunar Calendar (Aug.-Sept.), essentially to thank Mt. Khangchendzonga, the Guardian Deity of Sikkim, for all the goodies in the past and to seek his blessings and protection in the days ahead. I promised myself to watch the pangtoed chham (warrior dance) from start to finish, as choreographed by the third Chogyal Chador Namgyal (1686–1717). I learnt that the festival also marked the commemoration of blood brotherhood sworn between the Lepchas and the Bhutias at Kabi in the 15th century.

The next year (1984), Pang Lhabsol was on Monday the 10th Sept., again a working day for me. Arriving there early, I exposed a complete film roll (Sakura Color Rs. 55; no Digital cameras then, it was the analogue age) right from firing of the gun to mark the event. I even had the doggedness to approach the first floor and take an aerial shot through the window. My curiosity to have a darshan of ‘Crown Prince’ Wangchuk was fulfilled. He was seated in a special enclosure along with his paternal grandmother and other royal members, with mouthwatering Sikkimese goodies spread before. Would I miss the opportunity to click them! As the music scored by the Lamas reached the crescendo, Dzonga, Yabdu and Maha Kala appeared from Tsuklakhang.  As the masked dancers danced their way and rested in the opposite enclosure, the warriors, 15 of them, led by their leader, came out to perform the vigorous pangtoed dance. During breaks, I was clicking the surrounding scenes – the onlookers, the naughty jesters, etc.

For the third consecutive year in 1985, I again watched Pang Lhabsol on Friday 30th August. But this time I almost did not click any shot as I had widely covered various ‘chhams’ at Enchey, Phodang, Pemayangtse, and during Kagyed & Losar at Tsuklakhang itself. So I shut my lens eye and kept my mortal eye open to enjoy Pang Lhabsol for the third time, unaware that it would also be the last time.  Though I lived in Sikkim till Sept. 1988, for various reasons I could not attend the next three festivities of Pang Lhabsol. Neither could I take my wife who lived in Gangtok just for six months to witness the 1987 festival, maybe due to rains. Preserved now in digital format, the analogue color photos of those days 35 years ago still bring back beautiful memories of Sikkim’s unique Pang Lhabsol.    

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