Call of the Mountains: From Romance to Meditation: Some Reflections…

It was as simple and spontaneous as breathing. The law of cause and effect wasn’t born. I was building my universe – my way.  As a little boy, playing on the sand, my restless hands had already laid out landmarks and set up milestones. My first memories as a creator are those of a builder of mountains.

If you haven’t erected mountains on sand or soil, you haven’t been a child!

As the circuit of my little universe expanded, I needed the landmarks and monuments to make my world intelligible to me. When everything was fluid and fleeting, the mountains beyond waited for me every day and I knew I was right. I needed my mountains because my sun rose from behind them every morning. I needed them again because my childhood sun went to bed behind them.

Above all, I needed the confidence that somewhere over there the earth and the sky could finally meet.

Getting old now, I need my mountains all the more because the snow looks glorious on their peaks and the rainbow is gorgeous against their backdrop. I need to trace the last mountain-trail and wonder what secrets it might hold and unfold. Certainly, I need the echo of the mountain as a point of reference to the eternal law of action and consequence – as we sow, so do we reap.

Mountains don’t lie!

Whatever the continental collisions and tectonic convulsions and geologic configurations, mountains give a contrary nuance to the general flatness of the earth; provide a point to the otherwise uneventful plain of the valley; even issue a counterpoint to the workaday tendency of lowlands. The humdrum view of level fields is redeemed by the expanding vision of the heights. The lone uni-dimensionality of the basin is enlivened by the multiple dimensions of the peaks.

That is the reason why you have your side of the hill and I have mine. In the plains, your plot is categorically yours as your neighbour’s is undeniably her’s.   

Peak after peak, height beyond height, range over range, the call of the mountain responds to the eternal quest of the human heart for adventure, for freedom and for fulfilment. They tower over many lands and appeal to myriad goals – calling the climber and miner, food-gatherer and health-seeker, seer and scholar, hermit and way-farer, spiritualist and materialist.

Without the mountains, there would be no Sherpa Tenzing, no Edmund Hillary, nor Junko Tabei. A whole industry of climbing gear and camping paraphernalia, the spirit of skiing and the excitement of surfing, the traffic of tourists and the entire business around mountaineering would be lost to humanity. Mountain study and scholarship, high altitude ecology and allied science and economy could well be non-existent as could temperature profile and air density.

Mountains have been a perennial source of inspiration for poets and philosophers, singers and chanters, minstrels and musicians, artists and naturalists. We all need our mountains to give us a sense of size and scope, time and space, high and low, the relative dimension of nature’s phenomena. Even a hyperbolist cannot do without the heights! How could one make a mountain out of a mole-hill, otherwise?

As things stand, but for our mountains, we would not be here today!

Beyond and above all these, there is a call that speaks to the primeval impulse of all of us humans – a call that links the dead with the living and the living with the unborn, a lingering echo of the elemental that brings the real to the mythical. It is this call that you could not resist, a call that urged you to travel from all around the world. Mountains are the reason why we are here today.

We have known our founts and our mounts – Kailash and Olympus, Everest and Alps, Sinai and Jomolhari, Fujiyama and Kanchanchanga, Makiling and Annapurna, Hindu Kush and Kilmanjaro, Gunung Agung and Merapi, the Rockies and more…  These are our link to the heavens, to the sacred and the sanctifying.     

These heights are the object of our worship before they become the subject of our study. We approach them through faith and apprehension rather than through consecutive logic and comprehension. We spiritualize our mountains and honour the powers that preside over the valley below. We deify them and seek their succor and support. That is why Pandit Nehru objected to the conquest of Everest! That is also the reason why Bhutanese are not normally avid mountain climbers.

As Drukair glides in and out of Paro International Airport, you are face to face with most of the tallest and the magical mountains of the world with their crown of white. Even for a reluctant traveller like myself, the spell of the heights draws me naturally to the window even before I realize it. This is less important though.

What I really go through is a sense of unease almost bordering on guilt that I am sitting on the sacred. I often feel myself lifting from my seat in a little symbolic penance. I make my confession. I seek forgiveness.

I guess it is this sense of the sacred and the spiritual that we all share that has led us here. And we have made no mistake! This Land of the Peaceful Dragon, the birthplace of the ideal of Gross National Happiness, is home to some of the most ancient spiritual traditions of the world. For a deeply reflective and inward-looking people that most of us are, every object of nature has life and is part of the sacred. We believe that our mountains and hills, rivers and lakes, woods and forests, trees and rocks, caves and passes are the abode of gods and goddesses, spirits and sentinels, guardian deities and zealous custodians.

Our landscape is dotted with objects of prayer and of worship that inform and inspire. Our temples and monasteries, manidangrims and tshhatshhas speak of a culture deeply steeped in the life of the spirit. Prayer-flags line the route and the ridge and link hill to hill and hill to heaven. Our Himalayas hold the treasures that the second Buddha, otherwise known as Guru Rimpochhe or Padmasambhava, is believed to have hidden. The hills and heights and the valleys of Bhutan are, therefore, a part of a spiritual saga as much as that of a secular entity. They are our altar, our home and hermitage, our objects of dedication and of meditation.      

The mountains of the South and South Asia region are the sources of some of the greatest river systems in the world and provide the water of life to billions who depend on this gift to offer to the deities, to prepare food and drink, to wash and clean, to irrigate the land, to run the turbines, to sail the ships. For a landlocked country like Bhutan, our mountains are our life-line. They hold the snow that melts and makes our rivers that run the machines that produce the power that brings the money that runs the economy.

South and South East Asia regions are also the sacred founts of most of the major spiritual traditions of the world – Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Taoism, Christianity and other sects. Here we weave our vision of the universe in intricate mandalas; dream our Shangrilas and Shambalas and our dewachen gi phodrangs. Here roam the yetis and the abominable snowman, fauns and fairies who often cross their paths with yaks and the blue sheep.

Here is the interplay of the mortals with the immortals, the ephemeral with the eternal, the reality of this life with the longing for the forever.

As man and mountain share a common space, dwellers on the hills and heights develop special mechanisms to cope with the reality of nature and to fend for themselves at multiple levels – physical, social, cultural, psychological, spiritual. The unevenness of the landscape, the extremity of temperature variations, as well as the diversity of life-forms, influence the development of a way of life and the shaping of a world-view that supports and sustains life in such a setting.

Cooperation and altruism, a spirit of sharing and caring are the hallmarks of such communities brought together by shared experiences and common pre-occupations, All these factors guide the evolution of the external as well as the internal, the objective as well as the subjective, life of the inhabitants.

The art and architecture, language and literature, customs and costumes, rites and rituals, beliefs and superstitions, foods and drinks, songs and dances, sports and games, modes of exchange and kinds of occupation as well as the world-view that evolve are a response to the demands of the landscape. The art of negotiation between the human and the natural, the physical and the spiritual, the earthly and the divine is the secret of survival on the heights.

It is significant to note that the initial terms of negotiation are almost inevitably spiritual. We begin on the plane of faith, with a sense of humility, in awe and obedience. The mountains are too mighty for comfort and we are too puny on our own. The natural impulse, therefore, is to submit and surrender because that is the way to gain the confidence and trust of the powers that be. We have the humility of the faithful and gods have the charm to protect us from harm. And so it has been for millennia.

But, now the terms of negotiation are changing, and changing rapidly. Our mountains are under attack! The age of innocence and of faith is being replaced by a heady dose of experience and the excitement of experimentation. How many editions of Mount Everest and K2 and Kanchanchanga can we have on our lap-top or mobile phone? If you can hold out on a peak, you believe, you have the valley below. If you can garrison the heights, you think, you have the power of the hawk.

The rising heaps of trash, the gaping wounds of mining, thoughtless release of toxic waste, the plague of global warming… are part of the saga of pain that our mountains are being subjected to. At the current rate of the heating of the earth, the Himalayas may no longer be the abode of snow that we have always known them to be. And the awe and reverence that so linked us to the mountains may be giving way!   

And here comes Friedman with his world gone flat. At a time when the world is technologizing at such a mad rush, and when the centre does not seem to hold any longer, today’s certainties may no longer be tomorrow’s certainties. When the pervasive impulse is to conquer and control, measure and master, nothing of the sacred may remain!

It is precisely on account of these emerging threats that we need to reclaim our mountains, and reclaim them urgently. The growing secularization of our mountains and the trivialization of our heights of glory and symbols of security could partly explain the angst and anxiety that largely seem to define modern life. The more we have, the poorer we seem to be.

Thanks to the ethic of consumerism and the principle of the survival of the fittest, with all our achievements, more and more human beings seem to sink deeper into the slough of despondency and the winter of despair. The fever and the fret of the valley, its choking stench and deafening noise, its stress and tension limit and do violence to the lives that dwell there. We need the liberating freshness of the heights to redeem us from the blinding dust of cynicism and suspicion. We need our Mount Meru and Emei, Nanda Devi and Hindu Kush, Andes and Adam’s Peak, Gangkhar Puensum and Parnassus to beckon us and to remind us to a life beyond the mundane and the mercenary.

Mountains give us a vision of the magical and the wondrous and provide a template that redeems and sustains. They make us look up and beyond. Mountains remind us of the need to rise above our baser instincts, grow to our fuller potential, transcend the limitations imposed by time and place, awaken us to a greater awareness, climb to a higher level of sensitivity.

Mountains are real and historical markers of geographical space, but they mark political, cultural, demographic and psychological spaces as well. The objectives, theme and sub-themes of the conference are, therefore, not only appropriately identified but wisely contextualized.  

This convergence of scholars and confluence of minds on such a scale and size could not have come at a more urgent time. I would like to look upon this conference to explore the tension between the mountain and the valley, the permanent and the transitory, the real and the ideal and see perhaps if and how the tension might be resolved. We need to re-establish the relevance of our mountains as a point of reference in a world that is fast globalizing and imprisoning us to far lower selves.

I hope this conference will excite a flurry of scholarly activities among our scholars and help develop a new ethic of research that will respond to the call of the healing power of the heart and moderate the tyrannizing propensities of the head. We need to build knowledge imbued with integrity.  

Certainly, what humanity and our world need today are some revitalizing and life-giving mountain-showers to cleanse the dust and clear the sky. We need the chastity of the peaks and the vision of the heights. Above all, we need the spiritual and intellectual Helicons before “we too into the dust descend” as warned by Omar Khayyam.

You need your mountain just as I need mine. For, if and when we lose our mountains, we lose our vision. When you go home, do take your mountain with you, and hold on to it! By all means!  

I wish the conference every success.

Tashi Delek!

Notes for an address

4th SSEASR Conference, June 30-July 3, 2011, ILCS, RUB, Motithang, Thimphu.

Thakur S Powdyel, Minister of Education, Royal Government of Bhutan, Thimphu.