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The lost world of Bhanodi Gompa: Discovered and now fading away

October 28, 2008

By Swarn Deepak Raina
HimVani (India)
October 26, 2008

There's an unusual silence up here at this place hidden from the
world. It's a one-man civilization, that of a lama - Bawa Sonam
Gyatso - the last of Buddhist believers living here guarding the
centuries-old Bhanodi Gompa tucked on one side of the Pir Panjal
mountains separating mainland Chamba from the Pangi sub-division.
It's a world that has lived in isolation and is now dying in isolation.

While Buddhism has been flourishing in Himachal Pradesh for
centuries, it has remained confined to areas adjoining Tibet
including Lahaul & Spiti and Kinnaur and lately all areas except for
Chamba, where its influence has been near negligible. But Bhanodi has
been an exception, with some folk tales even suggesting that Buddhism
flourished here even before it entered Tibet. Ironically, the state
tourism department, historians, researchers, trekkers and even the
Tibetan community have remained ignorant about the historic Gompa,
which, though a dilapidated roof shed today, is nevertheless a
historic monument.

The irony has been that while the monument survived the vagaries of
nature for centuries, winds of change has brought about a sudden
threat to its existence. Bhanodi lies on the old route through which
people going from Chamba to Pangi used to travel, and was thus an
important trade link providing employment to the small Buddhist
community living here. When a new all-weather road was constructed to
Pangi via Bairagarh village, people stopped taking this route, and
therefore the Buddhists living here too moved out to places like
Tissa, Chamba and Dharamshala. The only one left behind was Baba
Sonam Gyatso, the Gompa caretaker. Even he has to migrate to Chamba
during winters, which has recently also led to theft at the sacred
place. With no financial aid coming, the Gompa is anyway crumbling
under heavy snow each year.

While there is no recorded history of the place, folk lore has it
that Bhikshus wandering in the Himalayas settled here finding the
place conducive to their religious needs. Later 30 to 40 such
families settled here and during winters they used to come down to
Chamba and returned when the snow started melting. It is said that
Raja Ram Singh of Chamba, who ascended the thrown in 1919 decided to
visit Pangi and found the helmet of Bhanodi, where a good number of
Khampa people used to perform Buddhist religious ceremonies. This
aroused the interest of Raja Ram Singh and he acquired more
information about them. The Guru of the monastery welcomed the Raja
warmly and the Raja also took part in their religious ceremonies. At
that time the temple was located in a small cave, and s new monastery
was built on land granted by the king.

The Gompa was also visited by the first Chief Minister of Himachal
Pradesh  Dr. Y.S. Parmar, whose photograph is still displayed proudly
on the side walls of the Gompa, but the state  government forgot the
place after that. A study of the Gompa architecture, the wood work
and the few wall paintings left reveals that the artisans who build
this monastery hailed from Laddakh or Tibet. In the sanctum is
installed a stucco figure of Padmasambhva. Placed on a high pedestal,
the statue reaches almost to the ceiling. The style and face of
Padmasambhva suggest that it is one of its kind in the world.

Recently a society named District Padma Chhokharling Bodh Tibitan
Association, Bhanodi, was formed to preserve the Gompa, but the
remoteness of the place is still proving a hindrance as the Gompa is
eight kilometers' climb from the nearest road. Perhaps, the wise Lama
may have foreseen a better future for the Gompa and thus stayed back.
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