The Mahakal Dara Archives | Mahakala's Dorjeling - Mountain Tunes

The Mahakal Dara Archives | Mahakala’s Dorjeling

How does one carve an image of God?
Anglicizing local names and words was a popular pastime for our foreign masters. To the foreign tongue, Kalikata became Calcutta, Kalebung became Kalimpong, Dorjeling became Darjeeling, and Swami Vivekanand became, well, Swami Vive-ka-munand (awkward clap). Even post independence we have casually adopted most of this anglicized words as de facto names. George Orwell once said, “The most effective way to destroy a people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of history.” Our forefathers named places (and everything else) in an interestingly esoteric manner. Albeit, sadly for us, most stories have been lost to anglicized names, and fantastic legends have been punched below the waist by boring history lessons.

A sculptor was provided a stone and was asked to carve an image of God. The sculptor gave a reassuring smile.
You got it.

Subsequently, a hammer was placed above the chisel, ready to strike. The sculptor was sure about the God that should be carved. So an outline was chiseled with strong masculine features, a handlebar moustache, and a soothing smile was placed on the deity`s lips (after all one could not have a stern-looking God).

There are many suggestions for the root word of ‘Darjeeling’, and almost all point to the syllables ‘Dorje’ and ‘Ling’. This has often led to a simplistic translation of Darjeeling as ‘The Land of Thunderbolt’. ‘Dorje’ is recognized as the sacred element of thunder, (physically symbolized by a scepter) or as a title given to a high monarch in Tibetan diction. While ‘Ling’ is the Sanskrit (also Nepali) term for a holy rock or a pillar, as the symbol of victory, it also represents the phallic symbol of the Puranic God Shiva. The Hindu Lord of change and de-constructor of the world, Shiva is also seen as Mahakala, the Dharmapala, one of the wrathful guardian deities in Vajrayana Buddhism native to the Himalayas, and he is visualized holding the dorje in thangka illustrations.

dorjeling mahakal temple
Mahakal Temple in Darjeeling (Dorjeling) | Unsplash Image Credit: Claire K

The word ‘Dorjeling’ is commonly acknowledged to the 1765 AD monastery established by a Lama Dorje Rinzing at Observatory Hill (as it is called today). According to LSS O’Malley, writer of The District Gazetteer of Darjeeling 1907, ‘Dorjayling’ was another word used by Sikkimese monks which meant “the invincible holy stone.”

While the Nepali tribes called the place Gundri Bazaar as a place of active trade, among the original inhabitants, the Lepchas have given the name ‘Dar-jyu-lyang’ to this land, meaning “The Abode of Gods” or Mayel Lyang, “The Land of Hidden Treasures”, while they called themselves the Mutunchu-Rongkup, which means “Mother`s Beloved Children”.

To add upon this, Wikipedia confronts Darjeeling as: “a place of worship of the Rongs (the Lepchas), where three stones stand erect (Lung-Chok) till today.”

A certain holy stone is a recurring motif to these various names – perhaps an indigenous tribal shrine, maybe a Hindu Shiva ling, or a Dorje in a Buddhist monastery. However, it is clear that this shrine engendered an identity, and a common place of worship, and activity to the early hill settlers.

But the sculptor paused; suddenly unsure. By carving a male figure, the sculptor realized, that the feminine Goddess had been denied. The sculptor had been aware of feminism in the air, and so decided that everyone must be pleased. After all, it is an artists’ duty to create something that is pronounced beautiful by everyone, thought the sculptor. Only then would the sculptor’s name be remembered for centuries. So the head nodded in agreement.

History notes that Darjeeling was a part of the kingdom of Sikkim until 1835 when the land was acquired as a sanatorium by the East India Company.

By the 15th Century, herders from Eastern and Central Tibet had channeled to the fertile hills of Sikkim through the Chumbi Valley. The migrated community settled in and their monks named Phuntshok Namgyal as their first Chogyal (meaning dharma king) in 1642.

Prior to this, the Lepchas had been residing over the northeastern region of the kingdom while the Limbus and Magars occupied the west and the south. Darjeeling which had been home to these tribes until then was now part of a vast new Sikkimese empire. Since the crown was a Buddhist patron, they took to themselves the construction of many monasteries. Dorjeling Gumpa at Observatory Hill was one of them.

It is interesting to note that the area of Darjeeling was once captured from Sikkim by a mighty Himalayan empire and it was surprisingly the British who rescued Darjeeling and returned it back to the Chogyal.

The moustache was removed with a flick of the chisel and the muscular edges were softened into delicate curves. The sculptor was ready to carve in the pair of divine eyes and invoke the Goddess, when the process was intervened again, at the very right moment by another doubt.

By this time, Nepal had been united under the ambitious Gorkha King Prithvi Narayan Shah, who sought dominance over the Himalayan terrains and correspondingly competed against the British who had just entered the big picture. Soon in 1788, the Gorkha army waged a war against the Chogyal and under the leadership of its fabled captains Jowhar Singh, Purna Allay, and Jayant Khatri overwhelmed the allied Sikkimese forces. At the same time the eastern province of Sikkim, which included Kalimpong had been captured by the Bhutanese troops. The Sikkimese empire had lost much of its areas to neighboring invaders and this period marked an undeniable dark phase.

By 1816 the entire British Sikkim (Chogyal allied with the British) had been captured by the Gorkha army. Darjeeling was now under the Gorkhas and remained so for nearly 28 years. It was only after the defeat in the Anglo-Gorkha war that the Asal Hindustanis (as the Gorkhas called themselves) were forced to retreat. The British then returned the annexed lands back to the Chogyal under the important Sugauli Treaty (signed between Britain and Nepal) of 1816 and the 1817 Treaty of Titalia (signed between British India and Sikkim). This transaction had been a pure diplomatic move by the British and interestingly until then the future-masters had neither visited nor had shown any interest towards Darjeeling. It was only fifteen years later in the late winter of 1829 that one Captain Lloyd claimed to be the first European to step foot into Darjeeling and after that, it was, as they say, love at first sight.

The sculptor (who was convinced that a bolt of yellow lightning had also flashed at that very moment) had recalled a line from a holy book that had once been leisurely flipped through. How strange, remarked the sculptor at this rather dramatic turn of events, the universe doesn’t seem to agree with me today. The line was in fact God is beyond all physical forms.

Since 1765, Dorjeling Monastery of the Nyingmapa sect had stood tall over the Observatory Hill. On 28 October 1788 the Gorkhas rammed over Sikkim and destroyed several monasteries on their way. As such, the Dorjeling Gumpa was also in shambles.

However the shrine had not been ostracized and the residents continued their routine pilgrimage to the sacred spot dedicated to the Lord Mahakala, whom the Buddhists revered as a form of Guru Padmasambhava, the lotus born Buddha and the Hindus as the embodiment of Lord Shiva.

It is ostensibly believed that three lingas materialized inside the cave present atop Southfield College in the year 1782. These three lingas were regarded as the physical representations of the Hindu trinity (Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu) by local Hindu Brahmins. The lingas were allegedly moved to the site of the monastery by the Gorkhas as an ostentatious display of victory; a notorious practice of the Gorkhas then.

The demolished monastery was relocated from Observatory Hill to a nearby space above Saint Andrew`s church in 1861. Finally, in 1878 the monastery was moved to its permanent location at Bhutia Busty. The monastery was then named Karma Dorje Choiling or Sangay Shedub Ling (‘Dorje’ and ‘Ling’ had still not been abandoned). Commonly addressed as Bhutia Busty Gumpa, the monastery houses various ancient Buddhist scripts including an original piece of the Bardo Thodal, the Book of Dead. Every day divines from the monastery go up to Observatory hill and conduct their rituals in adherence to Buddhist sutras along with the Sanskrit chants of a Hindu priest.

The sculpture was left unattended. The sculptor sat besides it in and contemplated deeply (much like Le Penseur). The Supreme must certainly be beyond human physicality. A dreadful unease as if all creativity had been lost, weighed the sculptor. To bring back some clarity, the sculptor cleaned the sculpture back to its natural shape. Should the omniscient be carved as an animal? The sculptor kept digging. Or maybe as a tree of knowledge, or some sacred symbol? But how can someone carve a single form of God without excluding the rest? The sculptor`s notion of forms started fading and a realization blossomed in the heart like a lotus, God is beyond all physical forms – God is in fact, formless. But the sculptor was moved too soon and a thick blinding fog escaped in again.

Now how could a formless God be seen, understood, or dealt with? God became too obscure, too mystic, too distant – again, for the sculptor. I have lost God this way, cried the sculptor. Imagination started failing. The wail of the sculptor resonated in the air along with a solemn question.

How could the formless be carved?

In the dim beginnings of time when jungles were as dense as ever and tigers, bears, and leopards roamed freely, the Great ascetic Shiva came down to Sinchell Hill and meditated. News of the Mahakal`s descent reached the tapasvis who arrived there to seek the Lord. The Lord was pleased with them and entertained their prayers with great affection. But population started to increase in the hills and one day nobody could find the Lord. The Lord had retreated back to the Himalayas.

It is said that the Lord takes the form of the lingam at Mahakal hill. However due to excessive interference and exploitation of the surroundings, the lingam ceased to grow in size.

Another lore describes the journey of Lord Shiva as he travels from the Himalayas to Mahakal Hill. As Shakti, His consort, makes an indifferent ascetic Shiva (who disdains all worldly activities) responsible to the world around him, He becomes Viswanath, the Lord who nourishes the world. On reaching the foothills of the Himalayas the Lord assumes the form of a Sokpa. The Lord roams in this form and blesses the jungle dwellers and forest deities. The Lord then enters villages as a Banjhakri and tends to the ailments and sufferings there. Thus, the benevolent guardian deity travels through Tumling, Phalut and Sandakhpu mountains reaching out with help to the unaware needy in various forms; finally returning back to His Himalayan abode.

dorjeling sandakphu
The Himalayas as seen from Sandakphu, India-Nepal Border | Unsplash Image Credit: Md. Al-amin Nowshad

This benevolent form of Lord Shiva is also worshipped as Kirateshwar, the Lord of the Kirat people. The Kirats were ancient Himalayan hunter tribes who were known to be expert archers. The Mahabharata tells the story of Arjuna who had come to Indrakeel (regarded as the ancient name of these surrounding hills) to learn the legendary archery techniques of the Kirats and while doing so was humbled by Lord Shiva who took the form of a Kirat leader (the dispute being over whose arrows killed a wild boar). The Lord was pleased with Arjuna`s effort and dedication and so, granted him the divine Pashupati astra. The Kirateshwar Mahadev temple located along the banks of Rangeet khola in West Sikkim is a pilgrimage for many local ethnicities who worship Lord Shiva as their Kirat ancestor.

The culture in these hills meet over a confluence of local shamanic faiths with the Puranic “jet black” God, much like at the sand bed of Triveni where the two lovers, the fair Teesta and the dark Rangeet conjoin. This only seems natural when we realize that the Mahakal too was once part of an esoteric faith, before being incorporated into the syncretic Brahminical pantheon.

It is said that the cave at the edge of the Mahakal Dara leads to three other sacred caves in Sikkim. While some say that the cave leads to Lhasa, some say it leads to Kurseong. There have been many local assumptions to ancient routes through this cave which once sheltered the three lingas of Mahakal temple.

Once the British haughtily set up a canon at the Observatory Hill which would be fired everyday at noon. The immoderate display of power was evident and so the locals pleaded the British authority to remove the canon lest it angered the Lord of Mahakal. The British were quick to measure the public disapproval and the canon was shifted to Jalpahar, but it is said that the damage had already been done. So on 24th September 1899, torrential rain followed and a heavy landslide befell on the eastern slope of the Observatory Hill leading to the fatality of several Britishers. Soon a ‘Day of Humiliation’ was observed by conducting pujas and raising prayer-flags at the Observatory Hill, (as put by Douglas W. Freshfield, writer of ‘Round Kanchenjunga’) “to propitiate the God of Kanchenjunga and expiate the insult (canon fire) that had enraged him.”

The sculptor felt defeated. Worldly understanding had been crushed by a rock. The sculptor abandoned the chisel and hammer, left the stone as it was, and reverently bowed before it.

That was the linga, through which the formless God breached in the fog of ignorance that enshrouded the human mind. That which is the form of the formless, the container of infinity, which provided the devotee with an insight into the intangible. The linga invited, Come seek the formless!

The shrine perched over Observatory Hill is a witness to the vicissitudes of different cultures and practices throughout the course of history. As of today, it is a religious shrine visited by Hindus and Buddhists who double (sometimes triple) during important religious days, and enthusiastic tourists (the sort with lofty camera set ups hanging about their necks, and are usually overcharged for a half way pony ride up the hill) rejoice the mystic atmosphere decorated with prayer wheels and flags hung over the branches of the mountain fauna, the smell of burning incense enrich the otherwise cool atmosphere and the sound of the bells rung ceremoniously in triplets reverberate the hill (not to mention the marijuana smokers at the “backside” who are perpetually disturbed by the continuous swarm of tourist vehicles and occasional police visits).

The temple vicinity comprises of several shrines built during the 80`s Gorkhaland movement and like anywhere else religion is sold to passersby on the side lanes. Monkeys (who have purportedly settled here recently) and beggars with their entire families (fresh batch of colonizers) don the path up to the shrine and one must be mindful of their prasads and footwear, and be wise enough to carry loose change.

dorjeling monkey
A Dorjeling Monkey | Unsplash Image Credit: Smit Patel

So why is Mahakal still so special to us?

Because He is a symbol of our changing times, a beacon of light, a structured metaphor to our unified spirit, and really, everything a devout or a secular Paharay needs Him to be. We need to understand once again that religion serves only as the finger that directs our gaze towards an ultimate goal, the eternal source; spirituality lies beyond that, it is our goal to seek that one true light and not make the dog`s mistake of looking at the tip of the finger instead of at that to which the finger points.

Mahakala is our treasure (in every sense) and we are His gems. As the liberal and responsible generation of Dorjeling we must preserve the axioms of our land, and the pride of our rich heritage lest the fog of ignorance blind us completely on our insensitive quest to “modernization” and we become part of that cumbersome way to kill a man.


This article would have never existed if I had not come across “महाकाल डाँडा”, published by Paika Prakashan, Darjeeling. My sincere thanks to the authors and publishers. Various lore and facts have been sourced from the aforementioned book.

The story of the linga is an extended retelling of an extract from “7 Secrets of Shiva” by Devdutt Pattnaik.

As a thank you for wanting to know more about the history of Dorjeling/Darjeeling and the famous Mahakal Dara, we have a surprise for you: a collection of short stories and illustrations by artists from Sikkim, Kalimpong and Darjeeling for FREE.
Click here to get your free ebook – A Hidden Valley of Rice: Short stories and illustrations from the hills of Sikkim, Kalimpong and Darjeeling.

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