The initial years following Independence were very challenging for the people of Ladakh. In 1948, the region came under siege from Pakistani tribal raiders, leaving much devastation in its wake. Not only were the people contending with the psychological scars of those attacks but also repeated crop failures, which resulted in the common folk struggling for basic amenities.
For a cold desert which is perched at an altitude of over 11,500 feet above sea level and receives minimal rain, this was as hard as things got.
So, when India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru undertook a four-day visit to Leh in July 1949, the 19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, a leading figure of the Buddhist community in Ladakh at the time, who was soon to become its representative in the nascent Jammu and Kashmir administration under Sheikh Abdullah, made a special request.
He asked Nehru whether the Government of India could send the precious holy relics of the Lord Buddha and his two principle disciples/spiritual sons Sariputta and Mahamoggallana (regarded as Buddha’s most favourite disciples after Ananda), which were held by the Mahabodhi Society at Sarnath (near Varanasi), to Ladakh.
Over 80% of the Ladakhi population at the time was Buddhist, so this was a request was steeped not only in religious symbolism but also the belief that it would bring some degree of solace to the people in such difficult times.
“This, he (Rinpoche) said, would have a very healing and beneficial effect on the people after the recent turbulence, and would also help to reinforce the people’s sense of belonging to India,” writes former diplomat Sonam Wangchuk, in his biography of Bakula Rinpoche titled, ‘Kushok Bakula Rinpoche: The Architect of Modern Ladakh’.
Additionally, for the mostly poverty-stricken people of Ladakh, undertaking a pilgrimage to holy Buddhist sites like Sarnath, Kushinagar and Bodh Gaya, was near impossible.
When Nehru returned to the national capital, he instructed the Ministry of Education to draw up the logistics of sending the holy relics to Ladakh. After all the necessary arrangements were made, a delegation comprising of high ranking Buddhist monks from India and Sri Lanka, accompanied the relics of the Buddha and his two disciples on a flight from Dum Dum Airport in Calcutta to Srinagar on May 24, 1950.
At the airport in Srinagar, the delegation was received by Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, the then Deputy Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Bakula Rinpoche and other high-ranking dignitaries. They were also greeted by a military band playing the national anthem.
After spending a day or two in Srinagar, the delegation, now accompanied by Bakula Rinpoche, brought the relics to Leh on a special military aircraft.
When the delegation landed in Leh, it was greeted with great fanfare. Waiting at the makeshift Leh airport were abbots of the major monasteries from the Leh area, thousands of monks, nuns and members of the general public.
“As the plane touched the tarmac, there was jubilation marked by the sound of music and fluttering religious banners and prayer flags. Long queues of people waited for hours to get a glimpse of holy relics (charred remains) of Lord Buddha,” Sonam Wangchuck writes.
Unlike other faiths which celebrate and revere relics of their respective spiritual masters, the Buddha’s relics are not intended for public viewing.
Speaking to The Wire, Art Historian Vidya Dehejia argues that these relics are “interned in a stupa and devotees visit the stupas to experience proximity to the Buddha.”
Moreover, the spirit of reverence is not limited to the actual live remains but more about the Buddha’s living essence. Dehejia argues that relics “are thought to retain and be infused with the quality that animated and defined the living Buddha.”
For the next 79 days, the relics were taken to all the major monasteries and scores of villages, bringing people together in holy communion and for a brief moment helping them forget their troubles.
“They were taken regions of Sham, to the upper and lower areas of Nubra, to Changthang (a region adjacent to the Chinese border), Zanskar and Kargil. People considered themselves highly fortunate to gain a glimpse of these sacred objects, and it gave them a sense of optimism, particularly in the Leh area, where people had faced severe drought in recent years and farmers had seen their crops wither away,” writes Sonam Wangchuk.
All the material offerings made by the people of Ladakh were given to the Mahabodhi Society, a South Asian Buddhist society founded by Anagarika Dharmapala, the Sri Lankan Buddhist leader, and Sir Edwin Arnold, the British journalist and poet, for the revival of Buddhism in India, and restoration of its ancient Buddhist shrines. Important members of this visiting delegation were from the Mahabodhi Society.
More importantly, the visit helped forge links with other Buddhist communities outside Ladakh. For a region geographically cut off from the rest of the country, this was particularly important. Before this visit, the only region with which Ladakh maintained close spiritual and cultural relations was with Tibet, now cut off by the growing build-up of Chinese PLA soldiers which began in 1950-51.
“In order to build on these new relations with Buddhists in other parts of India, Rinpoche also requested the Mahabodhi Society of India to accept some Ladakhi students at the Mahabodhi Inter College at Sarnath, Varanasi. With scholarships from the Ministry of Home Affairs, these students went to these important centres of learning and enhanced the region’s relationship with the mainland,” writes Sonam Wangchuk.
Following the visit of this delegation, locals speak of how the region was graced by sufficient rainfall and snowfall, bringing joy and prosperity back to the people. One could claim divine intervention, while others might call it coincidence. What’s irrefutable is how it changed the region’s relationship with India.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)