First Trip to Rewalsar

Part 1 – Reaching Rewalsar

Something remarkable happened to me at Rewalsar or Tso Pema- as the Tibetans call it. I did not see it coming.

S told me about her plan to go to Tso Pema and offered to take me along on an all-expenses paid trip in a cab. I said yes in a jiffy. This was not a chance to miss. I am not the one to say no to pilgrimage anyway and as I usually slog it out in buses, a cab is a luxury.

I reached Maharaja Guesthouse around 8 am, after getting some fruits that she told me to get. She was making instant coffee. Then she made oats. I added some mango to mine which she was avoiding for the fear of boils.

having oats and coffee by the balcony with S before leaving for Rewalsar from Bir
Oats and coffee by the balcony

We sat on the balcony with our coffee and simple oats, chatting. I remarked, “I don’t enjoy oats but these are so nice.” She said, “Because it is made with love. That’s what my mum always says.”

Going from Bir to Rewalsar

The cab guy came and we were off. I remember little of what we were doing on the road. We were joking about the spicy air that was coming in through the rolled windows. I was doing my mala. She was recounting her episodes with her new friends in the sangha in Bir.

We reached the road which gains constant elevation till Rewalsar. I was talking about how some people are delicate and how some people are almost like ascetics when it comes to needing material comforts. She told me that she was always delicate and soft. Her mum also said this about her in childhood. She would always get frazzled as a child. She said this with a lot of self-compassion, and acceptance, and broke into a wide smile. Her flawlessly white teeth showed and her chin dimples deepened. She appeared to be so cute and vulnerable at that point that I broke into a massive “Awwrhh”.

We neared Rewalsar. She sang the ‘7 line supplication to Guru Rinpoche’ by heart. First in Tibetan. Then in English. And finally in Punjabi. She is probably the first one to translate it into Punjabi. She said if any boy wants to have to do something with her, he should know the ‘7 line prayer’ in at least three languages. “Then you can talk to me.”

HŪṂ

In the northwest of Uddiyana

Upon the anthers of a lotus

You achieved the wondrous supreme siddhi

And are renowned as the Lotus Born

Encircled by many ḍākinis

We practice following your example

We ask you come and grant your blessings


GURU PADMA SIDDHI HŪṂ

At Rewalsar we alighted in front of a beautiful pakora and chai shop. The shop was one of those quaint old-style eateries and was painted blue. A granny was at the helm of the shop. We had our fill of (350 grams) pakoras and chai. We also offered some maza bottles to a group of three wandering Theravada monks.

Then we proceeded to do a circumambulation of the holy lake of Rewalsar. It was really hot. I tried to get some meagre shade from S’s small umbrella.

Statue of Guru Rinpoche at Kora. In a reflection in the photo you can see the mountain and the sky
Shrine of Guru Rinpoche at the Kora in Rewalsar

We stopped at the shrine on the path around the lake where we spun prayer wheels and sat down to meditate in the company of monkeys. They passed barely a few feet away from me. The main shrine houses a beautiful statue. You also get a nice view of the big 123-foot statue of Guru Padmasambhava from here which dominates the landscape of Rewalsar. The statue was at that time being renovated.

The statue of Guru Rinpoche in Rewalsar which is 123 feet tall
the 123 feet statue of Guru Rinpoche

Further along the path, I enquired about a certain Khandro-la who is a healer and an oracle. Turned out that she had gone to Ladakh for the summers. She was supposed to be back in September or October.

There was a small Bhutanese statue shop on the path. S is crazy about Buddha statues so she wanted to go inside. A beautiful and kind lady was doing some finishing work inside, on some casts. Things flowed in a way that I ended up buying one instead of her. My first one.

Kind Nepali lady who was painting Buddhist statue in her Rewalsar shop
Kind lady painting casts in the shop

The lady in the Bhutanese shop suggested that we go up the shedrato get it filled with mantras. She said that without the texts inside, the statue was just a toy. It was a painful trek up to the shedrain the heat. I gave my statue to a Khenpo named Konchok who told me to come after two days. We planned to leave the same day. I told the Khenpo that I was short on time. So he told me to come tomorrow at 9 am. I didn’t press him to do it faster. I thought that I would figure it out later.

Nyingma Monastery & Gurudwara in Rewalsar

We also encountered a Nyingma monastery on the path around the lake. We sauntered through the monastery and spun prayer wheels.

Then we went up the ‘historical’ Gurudwara. Rewalsar is special for Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs (especially Namdharis). As per the inauguration plaque, the Gurudwara was built in 1930 by the King of Mandi. It is a beautiful, robust-looking stone structure with a golden dome which is more Islamic than Sikh in architectural style. It also has a beautiful and massive flight of stone stairs which go straight up to the main sanctorum.

After spending some time in the Gurudwara, we went to the langar hall and S had lunch. I was not hungry. I was discussing how the Sikh method of service is very direct. “You want food bro? We gotchu.” She said with a laugh, “While the Buddhists are wishing you very hard to be happy.”

Beautiful stone gurudwara of Rewalsar
The beautiful stone Gurudwara of Rewalsar

I also wondered how practical non-violence was in a deeply violent world. You end up losing your land like the Tibetans did.

Part 2 – Going up from Rewalsar

We called our cab guy and proceeded towards the Guru Padmasambhava and Mandarva cave and his petrosomatoglyph which is 13 km up from Rewalsar. We had read the Guru Padmasambhava and Mandarva story in the Nyingma monastery on a notice board during our circumambulation.

According to the notice board, Mandarva was the spiritually inclined daughter of the king of Mandi. Guru Padmasambhava arrived from Oddiyana after seeing Rewalsar in a vision and took Mandarva to be her consort. The king flew into a rage. He trapped Mandarva in a well and burnt Guru Rinpoche on a pyre for seven days. He survived because of his supreme accomplishments and manifested water which doused the flames and formed the current Rewalsar lake. The king found him floating on a lotus in the middle of the lake and became a follower with his ministers.

Rewalsar Caves

We reached the cave complex which was dotted with Tibetan prayer flags but we were confused about where to go. We asked a couple of people for directions. We reached the small room which housed a part of a rock with Guru Padmasambhava’s footprint in it first.

The petrosomatoglyph is like a size 10 rubber boot imprint of the left foot. It has been painted golden. A beautiful mandala has been carved in the rock to its right and also at one other place on the same rock. An altar has been constructed below it. Pilgrims have stuck coins everywhere on the sacred rock.

Guru Rinpoche's footprint in Rewalsar caves
Guru Padmasambhava’s petrosomatoglyph

At that time it looked highly unlikely to me that this was an actual footprint in the rock. It certainly looked carved. We would never be able to ascertain what happened thousands of years ago, especially at the intersection of faith and religion and when millions of people have visited or visited these places every year.

There are certain things I am sure of as I have experienced them on my own. For example, mandalas do exist. I have seen mandalas once arising as many coloured lights and spinning on their axis on a rock while on an acid trip. They arose in conjunction with a friend singing and sitting next to me. They were a manifestation of my mind, my friend did not see them sitting next to me. But acid was involved. Her singing voice was involved. My hearing and my mind were involved. Everything together.

I had no idea about mandalas or their place in the Tibetan-Buddhist universe but then I directly experienced them. So while I still don’t have much of an idea about mandalas, I certainly know that something is out there. Something more.

Another thing I can be certain of is the existence of some powerful places. Ever since I completed my first Vipassana retreat in Dehradun in 2018, a new dimension opened up to me. I became aware of my subtle body. Now to be honest this is a whole universe on its own and probably I should spend more time being aware of my subtle body. I do nothing of the sort. However, I do get to know when I am in a special place. The energies of the place start to interact with the subtle body. Often I feel the vibrations climbing up from the legs. This happened to me in Baglamukhi and Siddhnath. Siddhnath is especially powerful. I have had the same experience every time I have gone there.

And this was happening in this small room with the Guru Rinpoche’s footprint. I did some prostrations and lit an incense that I was carrying in my bag. Then I sat down to do some mala. I felt clear, devoted, and at peace.

Then we came out of the room and we stood next to an old nun who was sitting on a plastic chair and doing her mala. I could feel the prana from my chest leaving my body and flowing towards her. I took this as a sign that she was a good practitioner. I could have been wrong. I don’t know the exact dynamics of how this prana thing flows or works. Then she said, “You should visit the cave.”

She made some small talk with us. I wanted to donate some money to her and stood there thinking “How much should I donate? ₹500 or ₹100? Will she take offence? Do I have enough money to give her a 500?” Meanwhile, S pulled out a 500 rupee note from her green wallet and bid her to accept it. She desisted initially but then accepted it and cheerfully told us to visit again.

We tried to find the cave. It was our first time so we were pretty clueless. Then we came to the building that housed the cave. An old nun sat at the entrance doing her mantras, spinning her prayer wheel. I asked her if that was the entrance to the cave. She was so engrossed in her mantra that she didn’t respond. Probably millions of recitations deep into your mantra, it becomes a very strong mental habit.

We opened the hinged door and went right into the room. The door opened to a big hall. We walked up to the first shrine which had around eight statues including that of Padmasambhava. I stood watching the statues. This place was powerful. I watched the dilated pupils of Guru Rinpoche’s statue and just that mere act of registering his eyes threw me into awareness. That gaze is special. It is called the Mahasandhi (Sanskrit name for Dzogchen) gaze and it has that effect on me every time I behold it.

Then we walked into the main cave shrine which has a huge towering statue of Padmasambhava. We both were alone in the cave. It is here that all my conceptual thinking was simply lopped off its head. Awareness began to blaze like a fire. I am not a good practitioner at all but here I realised what all was possible if I kept on practising the Dharma.

There was a small alcove to sit and there were some meditation cushions stacked up on it. I sat below on a cushion that was already placed there.

I was aware of everything that was arising. In a very tiny corner of my mind, I could see thoughts were arising. Awareness arose very strongly. I had never experienced something like this. All this by the virtue of the energies of the place.

Strong devotion arose in my mind. I was aware. There was no doubt. I could also see those small embarrassing self-effacing thoughts arise. I decided to confess my hidden faults then and there and end them. “I am conceited. Selfish. Lazy. Delusional. Crazy.” Then I decided to take the Bodhisattva vow. “May I achieve complete freedom and then lead all beings to it.”

I also did the Padmasambhava mantra for one mala. ‘Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum”

The energies that hastened awareness were so strong that I feared I would go crazy. I softened up a bit and gave rise to compassion to make it milder. When I let go, the energies resumed their work. I could feel their force in my central channels. This place was unmistakably the most powerful place I had ever been to.

Part 3

I think I sat there for around half an hour. The cave was so cool and peaceful that I certainly didn’t want to leave. There was a smaller cave to the fore which housed a shrine of Mandarva. S nudged me after a while to say that it was time to go.

I did ten prostrations and then we went out. There was a nice view from the edge of the hill when we came out. You could see Rewalsar and the lake. S asked me jokingly if she should have left me there for a few years. Indeed there were miserable and squalid retreat houses along the cave with roofs not even high enough to stand. I wondered about the unknown retreatants who were practising there.

I wondered what gave the cave its power. Was it the long-term retreatants? Or the powerful lamas who performed practices there? Or because of the throngs of devotees who came with the energy of devotion? Was it the power of the statues with precious and sacred objects inside? Or did Guru Padmasambhava have to do something with it? Or perhaps all of it?

Whatever the case, I wanted to reach this level of awareness naturally, the same as what I had experienced in the cave. The cave changed me.

We descended the hill and my mind was still clear and aware. I enjoyed the nature around me and the cool mountain breeze rushing on my body. I went to the dhaba at the foot of the hill and decided to have Maggi and chai.

I knew I would come back here to the cave and Rewalsar again. I wanted to have a connection with this place.

Epilogue

This was my first visit to Rewalsar in May 2022. Since then I have revisited Rewalsar more than 10 times. I came to have a special connection with the Khandro la, I was enquiring about earlier in the story. Meeting her was one of the great highlights of my life. I was at the receiving end of her tremendous kindness and power. Rewalsar is indeed magical.

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