This present research paper presents a brief introduction to Sacred Land of Dakinis- Lahaul. It briefly describes the geography, religion, and culture of Lahaul. It further discusses the historical origin and importance of the place under investigation as a land of Dakinis. It also elaborates how the people of this region and other Indian Himalayan regions consider Lahaul as a holy land.
Keywords: Lahaul, Sacred land, Dakini land, Tantric site.
Lahaul in Himachal Pradesh is popularly known as the land of Dakinis by Buddhist siddhas and pilgrims. It is a pilgrimage land and it is blessed with many major and minor sacred sites and shrines. For more than a thousand years, Lahaul has attracted and hosted limitless siddhas in the quest for enlightenment in an unbroken continuity. These siddhas used to visit the divine land of Lahaul for their meditation and sadhana. The land of Lahaul is very peaceful and undiluted and it is best suitable for meditation. Maybe this was the main reason, sadhakas had chosen Lahaul for their practice.
Geography of Lahaul
Lahaul, a remote valley in the northern region of Indian Himalaya, is located between north latitude 32' 8' and 32' 59' end east longitude 76' 49' arid 77' 47. It is a sub-district of Lahaul and Spiti in the state of Himachal Pradesh. Although Lahaul and Spiti jointly form a district, the fact is that both are separate geographical units which are divided by the Greater Himalayan range. Lahaul and Spiti are very different in character as Lahaul is much greener than Spiti and as compared to Lahaul, Spiti receives less rain and snowfall. The district shares one international boundary with Tibet (now a part of China), one state boundary with Ladakh and district boundary with Chamba, Kullu, and Kinnaur. Lahaul valley is surrounded by high mountains and high passes. The district is well connected to Manali through the Rohtang pass. It is 13,500 ft above the sea level and it links Lahaul with Kullu. It is the main gateway to Lahaul, but during winters it is not accessible because of the heavy snowfall. And Lahaul gets cut off from the rest of the world. The valley is surrounded by high mountains and high passes and it is nourished by the two main rivers known as Chandra and Bhaga. At their confluence place at Tandi, the river becomes Chandrabhaga and after flowing through the barren lands of Lahaul, when it enters Kishtwar (J&K), the river is known as Chenab. The Lahaul region is divided into four main valleys, such as Tinan, Punan (Gahar/Tod), Tod and Manchad (Pattan). Tinan valley lies at the bank of Chandra river, Tod and Gahar valley lies at the bank of Bhaga and simultaneously Manchad (Pattan) valley lies at the bank of Chandrabhaga river. From Khoksar up to Dalang village comes in Tinan valley and from Darch up to Beeling village comes in Punan (Gahar/Tod) valley. Likewise, from Tandi, Gushal up to Triloknath area comes in Manchad (Punan) valley.
Lahaul is also known as different names by its inhabitants, such as Garja or Garsha, Karja, and Swangla. Although Garsha and Karja are the same words, the pronunciation seems to be slightly different due to variation and its meaning is also different. Garja and Karja are used for the entire Lahaul, whereas Swangla is used for a specific area and specific caste, but this caste does not come in the four caste system. Whereas, Lahaul is used most widely today among the other names and it is the official name of the place. The word Lahaul is derived from the Tibetan word Lha Yul which means land of the gods.
Religion and Culture
The Lahauli people follow the combination of Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism. The people of Tinan valley also follow Buddhism and Hinduism. The people of Punan (Gahar/Tod) valley are the ardent followers of Buddhism. On the other hand, like Tinan valley the people of (Manchad) Pattan valley follow both Hinduism and Buddhism but this valley has the strongest influence of Hinduism. There are lots of gompas (Buddhist monasteries) in Lahaul, most of them are very old and believed to be built by Buddhist siddhas. Such as Joling gompa and Tonpa gompa is founded by Lotsawa Richen Zangpo. Apart from these two gompas, the rest are, Guru Ghantal, Shashur, Tayul, Kardand, Labrang, etc.
Furthermore, other local deities are also worshiped by people like Raja Ghepan, Devi Bhoti, Milang Tete, etc. Among all the local deities, Raja Ghepan is worshiped by almost all the people in Lahaul.
Before these two religions came into existence, there prevailed an indigenous religion known as Lung-pai-chos (Shamanism). Somehow this practice is still prevailing in Lahaul. Similar to the other primordial populations throughout the world, the inhabitants of Lahaul also developed ancient forms of spirituality to help them deal with illness, death, etc. They specialized in dealing with the forces of nature and local spirits that affect daily life through the practice that includes shamanism. This is sometimes regarded as a prehistoric Bon that has nothing to do with the present Bon. It was focused on worshiping mountain-spirits, local-spirits; tree-spirits as called Zhi-Dag (Local god) in Lahaul and Sab-Dag (Lord of the Soil) are another symbolic form of nature which is still worshiped in Lahaul. Phallus worship is one of the most ancient religious practices still existing in Lahaul. Apart from that, the influence of Bon religion is also seen in Lahaul. For example prayer flags. When Buddhism spread in Lahaul all these shamanic aspects got intermingled with Buddhism resulting in deepened spirituality and in a distinct form of religion. And the teachers who explained Buddhism saw no need to reject these shamanic customs as they hold a very important value in the local culture. During winter when Rohtang Pass closes, Lahaul becomes an entirely different world. Most of the festivals are celebrated in winters, such as Halda (Fagli) is celebrated between the month of January and February and the celebration date is decided by the Lama. And this festival is celebrated as the mark of the beginning of the New Year. There are other festivals which are observed by the inhabitants of Lahaul, like Kus, Gotsi, etc. Kus is an important festival of Manchad (Pattan) valley and it is celebrated on the new moon after Khogla. Gotsi is mainly celebrated in the Bhaga (Gahar) valley and this festival is celebrated as the birth of the son.
“Many sublime beings have wandered in this world for our sake. Those who came to Lahaul (Garsha) or took birth here have expressed what they could see with their wisdom eyes, revealing the sacredness of the abode of Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi. They call Lahaul “The Land of the Dakinis.” Through their accounts, we may develop confidence in our hearts that Lahaul is actually how they perceived it- powerfully divine, truly enlightening.”
Lahaul known as the Dakini land by Buddhists is regarded as a supreme pilgrimage site. Among the Buddhist siddhas, it is considered as a tantric site because of its spiritual legacy. Though it is blessed with so many holy sites, among them three sites are considered highly sacred. Such as the divine site of Drilbu Ri is considered as the abode of Chakrasamvara, Maru nowadays known as Udaipur as a site of Vajravarahi and Triloknath is regarded as the abode of compassion Arya Avalokiteshvara. Siddhas who have meditated at various places in Lahaul had also blessed these three places with their presence and through their spiritual power; they also knew the true value of these places. It is believed that Drilbu Ri and Maru are the parts of the Chakrasamvara network. They also lie on the pilgrimage route of the other major tantric sites such as Oddiyana, Kulluta, and Jalandhara. According to some local beliefs, Lahaul is the last stop on the way to Oddiyana. Despite the fact that Drilbu Ri was possibly not mentioned in early scriptures, but many siddhas have meditated here including the Indian master Nagarjuna (alchemist), Mahasiddha Gantapa (Drillbu Pa), Himalayan yogis such as Gaylwa Gotsangpa, Drubthop Orgyenpa, Taktsang Repa, Ragrik Repa, etc. Some of them are the top name for all Tibetan traditions and also an important figure in the oral tradition of Lahaul and its sacred history. In the 12th century, the Himalayan siddha and scholar Kyopa Jigten Gonpo wrote the glory of the Tirtha Gandhola and Drilbu Ri. After that Lahaul became famous as ‘Garsha Khandroling’ (Lahaul Land of the dakinis).
Dakinis and Sacred Caves
A Tibetan yogi called Gyalwa Gotsangpa (1189-1258) used to meditate at Sila caves around Drilbu Ri. Although he did not visit it himself, he saw Drilbu Ri surrounded by dakas and dakinis while its peak appeared to him as the self-arisen stupa. Buddhist siddhas whoever visited Lahaul in past or present saw Drilbu Ri is such a divine site, that ordinary human beings cannot feel the presence of these dakas and dakinis until one can achieve the deep purification. To approach the holy site and gain merit, the locals of Lahaul as well as pilgrims from outside of Lahaul, undertake the circumambulation (Kora) of the Drilbu Ri. ‘This tradition started by siddha Orgyenpa when he first opened the way in the 13th century. Since then countless devotees have performed the circumambulation of the holy mountain. In the last decades, the greatest spiritual gurus of Vajrayana have also performed the circumambulation. Among them was His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Sakya Trinzin, Gyalwang Drukpa, Drikung Chetsang Rinpoche, etc.’
The locals undertake circumambulation once a year and it also attracts devotees from all over the Himalayas. One can easily complete this common circumambulation in a single day. Nowadays it is impossible to go close to the peak as the steep path has collapsed. Even His Holiness Dalai Lama himself discouraged this traditional practice saying “that peak is also too holy to be trampled by feet.” According to the local belief, it is said that whatever prayer is made from the depth of the hearth at the sacred land of Drilbu Ri will be fulfilled. According to the Gyalwang Drukpa Rinpoche, a single kora of Drilbu Ri is worth three koras of Mount Kailash. Furthermore, the Drukpa and Gelugpa Tibetan sects, who hold the Mahasiddha tantric transmission, also regard Drilbu Ri as the very site of his enlightenment.
Apart from this, Sila caves and the Gandhola monastery are the two divine sites located on the ground of Drilbu Ri. These two sites are also blessed by the siddhas from the past decades. Gandhola was also a very important meditation centre as well as a very old pilgrimage site for the siddhas who practiced mystical sadhana. After the decline of Indian Buddhism, this powerful site became the meditation centre for the local yogis as well as for the Himalayan yogis. From the 13th century, this site became very popular throughout the Himalayan regions. Gandhola was also the starting and finishing point for the famous Drilbu Ri circumambulation (kora). By the 17th century, Gandhola has become one of the most celebrated monasteries of Lahaul. From the past decades, the ground of Gandhola is blessed by the presence of countless yogis. Besides being blessed by the presence of dakas and dakinis, these yogis experienced that all the water streams and herbs are filled with the healing properties.
The Sila caves are another sacred site of several caves which lies on the southern side of Drilbu Ri and it was once inhabited by siddha Gyalwa Gotsangpa. In earlier times there was no shrine and the place was known as Sila Phuk (Sila Caves) by locals and as well as Tibetans. A few centuries ago a shrine was built by the locals out of devotion. The largest cave has many stupas, which can be seen from the road. One cave has the imprint of Gotsanpa’s head. All these sacred caves are a powerful site sought by the siddhas for their serious sadhana until recently. Many yogis have meditated here across the centuries such as Kyabje Apho Rinpoche in 1965. Ruins of meditation cells can be seen all around. Certainly, many ancient stupas contain the relics of some of these Siddhas. Inside the main shrine, one can see the footprint of a dakini which is embedded on the solid black rock. This rock is highly worshiped by the locals as well as pilgrims.
Maru (Udaipur) is another site which is also considered as a highly sacred site by the siddhas. The local name of the place is Margul or Markula and nowadays it is known as Udaipur. Margul (Udaipur) is considered as the abode of Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi. And this site is revered as the great tantric site of the underground dakinis. At the point when transmission of Tantras or Vajrayana started to spread around the 8th century, Margul was mostly covered by dense forest. Back then it was a frightening site, haunted by the spirits and non-human dakinis. Siddhas who were ready to face all the odds for their spiritual practice had started reaching here. Siddhas including Himalayan yogis also came there and they even practiced tantric yoga. Their surprising experience at Margul is very inspiring. Himalayan yogi Rangrik Repa (1619-1683) from Rangrik in Spiti was among these yogis who came to Lahaul for their spiritual practice. He first stayed at Sila caves on Drilbu Ri and later came to Margul for further practice. At Margul frightening mysterious displays of local dakinis overwhelmed him and he got distracted from his meditation. But later a wrathful non- human dakini believed to be ‘Ekajati’ appeared to him and he received guidance from her to maintain his meditative ability. Clearing all the obstacles he became victorious. He then offered prayers and praise to the tantric site Margul and for the happiness of the numerous siddhas who were practicing there.
According to the local traditions in ancient times, there was a shrine dedicated to Vajravarahi and once there was a six-armed image of her. As it is mentioned above the local of the hamlet is Margul or Markula. Therefore the goddess inside the temple is known as ‘Mirkula Devi.’ Till the 14th century, the temple was famously dedicated to Vajravarahi. But in 1570, the effect of nearby Hindu kingdom of Chamba prevailed and the hold of Buddhism became weak there, and later on, an idol of Mahishasurmardini was installed here, which still can be seen here. Although she belongs to the Hindu belief, she is highly respected by both Buddhists and Hindus.
Margul is the house of Chakrasamvara. It is a site where the negative or evil forces of wicked are subjugated. However, the centre of Margul is not just its temple, but the whole area is blessed by the presence of Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi. Therefore, the goddess inside the temple is still regarded as the form of a Vajravarahi by all the Buddhists. It is said that Margul is connected to the feet and the toes of the Vajra Kaya. It is the land of the underground dakinis. Furthermore, it is also said that the actual tantric spot of the Margul lies near the temple under a huge tree in the shape of a heavy stone ‘Buddha’s Toe’ and according to the local belief despite its modest size, one cannot lift the stone until some purity is achieved.
The presence of the dakinis is established around the Margul, as there are several solid rocks which have the footprints of dakinis. One of these footprints lies just meters from the temple. It is enshrined and worshiped by the people. Another one is enshrined about 200 meters downstream under a large tree while the other two lie on the other bank of the river.
Triloknath locally known as Rephak is the abode of compassion Arya Avalokiteshvara (Phakpa Chenrezik). It is one of the very rare places of the world which is equally worshiped by two distinct religions and it holds a very important place among the Buddhists and Hindus. In this place, both Hindus and Buddhists pay their homage to the same deity. For Hindus, this place is highly revered as the Shiva shrine while the Buddhists consider the deity as ‘Arya Avalokiteshvara’. Among Buddhists, this place is known as ‘Garja Fagpa’. This holy shrine is so important that it is considered as the most sacred pilgrimage site next to Kailash and Mansarovar. This shrine is very popular among Buddhists and Hindus. It is one of the holiest places in India, which attracts a large number of Sadhus (Hindu hermits) who came to visit this place once a year. In the meantime, Buddhist pilgrims likewise visit here from Tibet, Ladakh, Zanskar and other parts of Indian Himalayas.
Palden Lhamo as a Dharma Protector in the land of Dakinis
Across the Lahaul, there are many sites which are considered as the manifestation of the dharma protector ‘Palden Lhamo’. On the bank of Chandra River opposite to Sissu village, Palden Lhamo arises in the form of a huge waterfall. And to pay homage to her presence, the local monastery named Labrang enshrines a very old and holy statue of her. From the past decades, she is highly respected by the villagers and it is said that she miraculously radiates heat. Apart from this in upper Bhaga valley, opposite to Khangsar, Palden Lhamo along with the Great Mother-Ekajati arises on the rock. In the Khangsar Palace, there is another very old statue of her which is renowned for manifesting the electrical energy, swinging her leg ornaments like a clock. Thus these self-arisen manifestations of her are another expression of the extraordinary landscape of Lahaul, livened up by the many worldly as well as transcendent divine beings. Palden Lhamo is related to the tantra of Chakrasamvara and she protects its true practitioners. Her natural presence in Lahaul boosts the special quality of the holy land of the dakinis.
Here in the land of Lahaul any action or prayer gives multiple benefits compared to other places. One single lamp offering is worth hundreds of lamps offered in another place. One circumambulation (kora) is worth hundreds of circumambulation (kora) performed at another place. Three days meditation is worth three years anywhere else. By practicing at the major tantric sites of Lahaul many great siddhas attained the realization. These siddhas have left behind such an inspiring story, relics and sacred imprints to inspire and explain the preciousness of human life and the value of the spiritual path. Their legacy also proves that enlightenment is possible.
It is believed that Lahaul was home to dakinis. Reason for this belief is probably the natural environment and geographical feature of the Lahaul might be suitable for siddhas and yogis for their tantric practice from time immemorial. They visited this region and stayed in high mountain caves. In the 12th Century, Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism established their camp in Lahaul and the land popularly came to be known as ‘Dakini Paradise.’