Sugata at 90
In April 18, 2001, trekking in the
Himalayan mountains, Sugata turned 90.
This story was written for a local Kathmandu newspaper.
Turning 90 at 2,500 meters
'How old is he?'
'Nubbe! Is she is daughter?'
If I had a rupee for every time some one asked us or Saligrame
our porter/guide these questions we'd have been kept in apple pie
for our 20 days on the Annapurna mountain trek. The questions started
from the beginning and, in a way, we never tired of them - honest
and direct, they caused a smile of amazement, accomplishment or
disbelief. And that '90' was one of the reasons we were here, to
celebrate Sugata's birthday amongst his old friends, the Himalayas.
There was another reason we were here. Sugata first came to Nepal
in 1954, and to these mountains in 1960; in writing his life story,
we were remembering and re-living these times. Surprisingly we ended
up adding to the story, tying up a 1960 loose end.
In 1954 Sugata travelled overland from Sweden, then his home, to
India and from there to Nepal where he became a Buddhist monk of
the Theravada tradition under Amrit Ananda, in Ananda Kuti, Swayambhunath,
Kathmandu. He was as much an object of interest then being the only
white skinned monk as he was in the mountains 2001 aged 90. Already
a monk with a difference, he had a further trademark of 3 Leica
cameras hanging around his neck, and because of this attracted the
attention of a certain Sham Sherchan, a merchant from Tukuche who
invited this convenient combination of monk and photographer to
accompany him in up to Tukuche to photograph what is sometimes called
'Devil Dancing' or more correctly Sha Na, or Black Hat. These were
Buddhist celebrations that took place every year to reinact, with
elaborate dance and dramatic masks, the victory of good over evil.
In November 1960 Sugata travelled with Sham Sherchan from Pokhara
to Tukuche, part in a bamboo basket on the back of a porter (he
was recovering from blood poisoning in his leg), part on a mule,
(that died in Ulleri) and finally on foot. It took 3 months there
In 2001 we took the aeroplane from Pokhara airport (which was no
longer a meadow full of cows that had to be herded away) to Jomson.
We went first uphill to Muktinath, where we were amongst fellow
eccentrics like bare footed Sadhus of indeterminate age and perhaps
because of this, the questions began slowly, but I learned the vocabulary,
the words nubbe and 'sathi. I, the 'sathi, am exactly Sugata's age
when he first arrived in Nepal, 43, and from the start I enjoy the
pace we travel at, it suits me fine: off at 7, walking no more than
6 hours a day and with frequent stops for Nepali chai and its antidote
Sugata crossing the Kali Gandaki supported
by our guide, Sallygrame
Just after Marpha on our way down now, we crossed the bridge
to the Tibetan Refugee camp in Chhairo where an unusual grove of
tall evergreen deodar trees gave shade and protection from the wind
whipping up the Kali Gandaki (as it does) to an isolated settlement
of 200 Tibetan refugees, and a substantial and old walled Gompa.
Sugata came alone to this Gompa in 1960 and took many photographs
of the ornate brass and the elegantly carved wooden Buddha figures
along with the magnificent thanka wall paintings. It must have been
soon after his visit that all that could be carried away were stolen;
when he came again in 1979 the empty Gompa was guarded 'after the
horse had bolted' by Gorkhas.
Today the wall paintings had all but disappeared to water penetration,
and only the fixed Buddha figures remained. In their faded glory
they were still impressive, perhaps even more so, humanly worn as
we all are with age; particularly the giant painted clay image of
Padmasambhava, broken but still firmly holding the heads of greed,
hate, delusion - still overcoming.
Outside Tukuche we visited another ruin, the original Tukuche Gompa
where Sugata had photographed the Black Hat ceremony. In November
1960 people had travelled for days over high passes, no doubt snow
covered then and treacherous, and the Gompa was milling. The masks
were taken out of their locked caskets, under the umbrella the Guru
Rimpoche arrived, the dance commenced, and Sugata photographed from
sun rise to sun set. Today, despite being a ruin, it was a magical
place, tucked behind a hill in a protected valley, patched green
with new grain shoots and apple trees, still fertile from the time
the monks worked the land.
Sugata on his 90th birthday in the Tatopani
Sugata's birthday itself was spent mostly in the hot springs of
Tatopani, where he more or less lived for 4 days. In the evening
however, he ascended the stone steps to the garden of the Dhaulageri
Lodge and partook of a Tuborg beer and birthday cake under the falling
clementine trees. Our courteous and friendly host, Bhuwan Gauchan,
invited him the next day for a feast of milk rice in memory of his
1960 journey. Then, under strict orders from Amrit Ananda, Sham
Sherchan fed him milk rice for his entire 3 months expedition, turning
Sugata's finger nails white but avoiding the uncertainties of local
When asked what had changed in the valley over the years Sugata
would reply 'The ubiquitous trail of pink Chinese toilet paper is
no longer around - which means there are more toilets. And there
are less blisters - when I came in 1979 everyone seemed to suffer
from blisters. But the mountains, they are the same, and still as
awe inspiring.' The whole trek, organised by Explore Alpine Adventures
(Kathmandu), was for both of us a gentle unravelling of a past as
well as plenty of the here and now, in a timelessly inspiring setting
of great mountains.
Sashi Djoj Tukuche and Sugata, artists
togethe, discussing mixing colours.
The Chhairo Gompa circle
In the end the photographs commissioned by Sham Sharchan in 1960
were not used - the Lamas did not want to publicise their ceremonies
and, like the masks, the hundreds of photographs and slides lay
in Sugata's boxes these many years.
Until now that is. Until we had dinner with Shashi Dhoj Tulachan,
a Thanka artist, on our 2nd last evening in Kathmandu.
Over an extraordinary dinner he told us that with a committee (the
Kali Gandaki Foundation Trust) he is raising funds to restore the
Chhairo Gompa, and yes, definitely the 1960 photographs would be
extremely useful for the restoration work. It took a circuitous
and fascinating route, every turn of which was a surprising adventure,
to get to Shashi. We had to meet Patrick and Purna in Tukuche who
first mentioned Shashi Dhoj Tulachan's interest in restoring the
Gompa. We had to meet Bhuwan in Dhaulagiri lodge, Tatopani, and
talk to him about the Sham Sherchan family; Bhuwan had to meet the
widow of Sham Sherchan at a wedding in Pokara and mention Sugata's
travels with her husband in 1960; Mrs Sham Sherchan had to be so
interested to meet us she returned a day early from another wedding
in Pokhara and when we met her she had to be immediately decisive
enough to telephone Shashi Dhoj Tulachan. Shashi, without knowing
anything about us, said we should meet immediately.
There was a touching moment when we first met Shashi. Inspired
by a memory of a photograph taken at that time, Sugata turned to
Shashi and said: 'When I came up to Tukuche I visited a thanka artist.
He had two houses, one he used exclusively to paint in and it was
little way from his family house to give him isolation and concentration.
I took a photograph of him and another of him with his little son,
who was just beginning to lean this old tradition. In the courtyard
was a hen, and I asked if it was the hen that provided the yolk
for the tempera. 'Yes' said the man, and I took a photograph of
the hen as well.'
Shashi's face became more and more incredulous and finally bust
'I was that little son,' he finally said.
Sugata in the mountains - Dhaulageri in
Reflections in Kathmandu
I am thinking on Sugata's longevity. This morning at breakfast
he had his usual 'petrol' as he calls it - porridge, 3 eggs, 4 cups
of chai and curd. There has to be more to it than nearly 80 years
a fulsome vegetarian.
There is his forehead shiva lingha, that strong horizontal line
between his eye brows, that indicator of the 'will do'. 'Whatever
you want you will get', said the Sadhu we met on his way up to Muktinath
on the Kali Gandaki plain who sat down on a stone and gave Sugata
his astrological reading. (I've watched Sugata passing a loiterer
on the Annapurna circuit, I've seen him pick up speed.) '108 will
be your best year,' were the Sadhu's parting words.
But there is something more. It is his depth and serenity of enjoyment.
Hours he spent in the Tatopani hot springs, 2-3-4 times a day, often
returning well after dusk in torch light feeling his way up the
stone steps to a beer or hot chocolate. He can sleep any where any
time. Never that modern cry of 'I had a restless night'. None of
that. Gone. Fast asleep. In a bed or in an Nepali bus from Pokhara
to Kathmandu, over paved and unpaved roads, he sleeps. No problem.
The bare footed sadhu and Sugata share an
astrological joke on Kali Gandaki.
'2001 will be your best year yet, and you
will live to be 108',he predicted.
Mrs Sam Sherchan, the widow of Sam Sherchan
who Sugata travelled with in 1960, Sugata and I outside her Kathmandu
The Kali Gandaki Foundation Trust can be contacted
at firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.kgft.org
Explore Alpine Adventure, the honest and friendly people who
organised our trek, are based in Kathmandu: PO Box 5371, Kathmandu,
Nepal. Tel 422714 email@example.com