Architect of Modern Ladakh

Dr Ganesh Malhotra
Jammu Kashmir especially its northern part has played a vital role in the rise of Buddhism, protecting India culturally, historically and geographically. Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, a magnetising personality considered as the incarnation of divine powers, highly revered for his erudition and his gentle humility, played a cardinal role in reviving Buddhism.
He was one of the best-known lamas of Ladakh, a statesman and international diplomat of the Republic of India. In 1988, in recognition of his distinguished service of the high order to the nation, the President of India awarded him “Padma Bhushan”. He is known for his efforts in reviving Buddhism in Mongolia and Russia linking them with the community of Tibetan exile in India. He played a leading role in the upliftment of socio-political life of the people in the Ladakh region. The Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee while paying said his condolences saying: “In the death of noble Lama Kushok Bakula, we have lost a great saint, guide and inspiring personality of the Buddhist world. It is difficult to imagine Ladakh without him.”
He was born to the Mangtro Royal couple on the auspicious Saga Dawa, Buddha Purnima day on 19th may 1917 in a small village called ‘Mangto’ in Ladakh. When the young Prince Lobzang Thupstan Chognor attained the age of 6, he was confirmed by the 13th Dalai Lama Thupten Gyatso as the 19th reincarnation of Arhat Bakula, one of the 16 Arhats ( direct disciples of the Shakyamuni Buddha). He was later enthroned at Pethub Monastery, where he received his primary education. On 22nd of February 1940, he earned his degree of “Gheshe Lharampa” the highest degree of Buddhist Metaphysics, in the presence of the young 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso. He came to be known among his contemporaries as the Gyalras Bakula Rinpoche of Ladakh.
The emergence of Kushok Bakula in the late 1940s was historic. It was the time when the great transformation was taking place with India becoming independent after centuries of Colonial rule. On his return to Ladakh, Bakula Rinpoche like a wish-fulfilling angel helped to remove the sufferings of its people. He became the voice of Ladakh. He not only ensured that Ladakh became a part of India but also ensured its future development and security. However, the significant victory came in 1950. Rinpoche spearheaded a strong opposition to the 1950 Ordinance and opposed it tooth and nail. This Ordinance prohibited Buddhist monasteries from keeping more than 120 kanals of landholding. It would have indeed been a death knell for Buddhism. Finally, it was with the intervention of the Prime Minister of India Nehru and India’s law minister Dr BR Ambedkar that Ladakh’s monasteries were exempted from the purview of the ordinance. This significant victory and his active social derive brought Bakula Rinpoche in the forefront of Ladakh’s social, religious and political sphere.
To safeguard the interest of Buddhist monasteries of Ladakh, Rinpoche founded the All Ladakh Gonpa Association. He also made available land for construction of Chokhang which became the headquarters of Ladakh BuddhistAssociation. A landmark development in the post-independence history of Ladakh was the arrival of Holy Relics of the Lord Buddha and his two principal disciplesSariputta and Mahamogallana from Moolagandhakuti Vihar located in Sarnath. To enlighten the people of their right in democratic India, Bakula Rinpoche toured every part of Ladakh which he aptly described as the land of Tattu (mule), Pattu (woollen) and Sattu (barley wheat). Under the leadership of Bakula Rinpoche, the people of Ladakh were freed from the heavy burden of debts, subjugation of landlords and atrocities of government officials. Earlier, Bakula Rinpoche had repeatedly warned Prime Minister Nehru about impending threats from China not only to the existence of Tibet but also to India’s on the border. His visit to Lhasa in 1955 left no doubt in his mind about the situation in Lhasa and told the Government of India about impending threat from China. Unfortunately, India woke up when it was too late. In 1962 when China attacked India, Rinpoche called upon the people of Ladakh to help Indian Army to defend its border which alone could save its rich religious and cultural heritage. He allowed the Indian troops to convert a section of his Pethub Monastery into a makeshift military hospital. When a section of people in Kashmir demanded plebiscite, Rinpoche categorically stated that Ladakh
would never go to Pakistan and would remain with India. For his role in building post-independent Ladakh, Rinpoche is hailed as the ‘Gandhi of Ladakh’ and ‘Architect of Modern Ladakh’.
As an astute and zealous parliamentarian, Bakula Rinpoche served the nation and the Government of India brilliantly. He was elected as the member of legislative assembly of Jammu Kashmir in 1951. He became a minister in Jammu and Kashmir Government. He was elected Member of Parliament representing Ladakh for two consecutive terms, i.e. in 1967 and 1971. In 1977, Morarji Desai, the Prime Minister, appointed Rinpoche as a member of the newly constituted National Commission for Minorities. In 1989 he was appointed as ambassador of India to Mongolia. He thus became the first and only Monk diplomat in the world. Over a period of ten years, he helped reopen ancient monasteries, organize Buddhist peace conferences and re-established Buddhism. Under his guidance, Pethub Monastery and Dechen Ling Nunnery in Ulaanbaatar developed into important centres of learning for the Mongolian Buddhists. He took the Holy Relics of Lord Buddha to Ulaanbaatar to let the devotees get blessings of it. This was a historic event of unparalleled religious and spiritual significance. Bakula Rinpoche worked as the Guardian of Mongolia. During a movement to establish democracy in Mongolia, he appealed to both the government and the citizens of Mongolia to maintain peace. Respecting his appeal, the movement ended without any violence from either side, or multiparty democracy was established. As an expression of gratitude towards him, he was awarded ‘Polar Star’, the civil honour of the highest degree in Mongolia in 2001.
Bakula Rinpoche was the first Buddhist monk to have been able to visit communist stronghold of USSR, Mongolia and China. He single-handedly laid the foundation for the Buddhist Revival in the region. In 1968 Rinpoche became one of the founders of Asian BuddhistConference for Peace with its headquarters in Mongolia. The Red Army vandalised the Buddhist temple in St.Petersburg called ‘Gunzechoinei’ built by Buriyat Lama Agvan Dorjiev (1853-1938). His meetings with Soviet leaders paved the way for the return of the monastery to the Buddhist community of Russia. In 1989 the Buddhist community in St. Petersburg was officially recognised. Rinpoche was also the first high Lama who visited Kalmykia, the Eurasia land whose people suffered immense persecutions at the hands of Stalin after the Second World War. Rinpoche laid the foundation of a first post-communist monastery there. During many years of public engagement, he met leaders of all faith’s and political affiliations including Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union. He was the first ever Buddhist monk to have been invited by the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace, London in 2002. Tireless in his work, he travelled on to the 3rd World Buddhist Conference hosted by His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Bakula Rinpoche was a man of vision, and his prime focus was on promoting spiritual values, a Buddhist perspective on nature conservation and reviving Buddhism in countries where political systems had denied that right to the people. He had a wonderful sense of compassion, tranquility and contentment. He believed in democratic values and never forced people to follow a particular ideology. Being fearless, he at Windsor Conference namely the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), strongly disapproved the activities of Christian missionaries particularly in poor countries who exploited the poor economic conditions of the people and indulged in criticizing local traditional faith. This was against the basic tenet of any religion.
On Tuesday the 4th of November 2003, Bakula Rinpoche attained Nirvana in New Delhi. After 14 days of prayers and rituals, his funeral was performed on 16th November 2013 at Pithub Hills with full State honours. His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama in his condolence message, said ” Bakula Rinpoche worked hard for the people… to help grow a firm seed of enlightenment in their mind. He also worked for the preservation, dissemination and restoration of precious teachings of Buddha…May the incarnation appears soon, by the power of his own prayers and the faith of devotees, …. for the sake of all sentient beings.”
(The author is a J&K based Strategic and Political analyst)