In Praise of Kolkata

Practices › Pilgrimage | Literary Genres › Praise | Places › India | Tibetan MastersJamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö

English | བོད་ཡིག

Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö

Chowringhee, Kolkata, c. 1945

Translator's Introduction

Much has been written in recent years about the life of Gendün Chöpel (dGe ‘dun chos ‘phel, 1903–1951) and his travels through India and Sri Lanka in the 1930s and 40s. The very latest offering, Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler (trans. Thupten Jinpa and Donald S. Lopez Jr, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014), is in many ways the most fascinating.

Part of what makes Gendün Chöpel’s story so intriguing is that the attitude of openness and curiosity that he exhibited in his travelogues, translations and essays was in such marked contrast to the official policy of insularism then prevailing in his homeland. And it was all the more tragic, therefore, when he was condemned and imprisoned by the Tibetan authorities before his premature death. For it meant that the country lost a liberal, modernising voice, precisely at a time when, it might be argued, it needed one most of all.

Gendün Chöpel’s case might be unique, then, but he was not the only Tibetan to write about the encounter with modernity. As Tibetans fled the Himalayan plateau in the late 1950s and arrived in India and Nepal, they were confronted with a very different world. Among those who recorded their reaction to the new and the unfamiliar was the famed Rimé (ris med) master Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö ('Jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse chos kyi blo gros, 1893–1959). His collection of praises to the sacred sites through which he passed mostly focuses on traditional places of pilgrimage, such as Bodh Gaya and Sarnath in India or Boudhanath and Yangleshö in Nepal, but it also includes a less typical work, In Praise of the Great Indian City of Kolkata (rgya gar ka la ka ta’i grong khyer chen po la bstod pa). This, Jamyang Khyentse says, was “an expression of his sense of wonder” (nyams mtshar brjod), and we can only imagine how the Indian metropolis might have appeared to a Tibetan visitor in the 1950s. Of course, I do not mean to suggest that Khyentse Rinpoche was in any way an ordinary or typical Tibetan visitor! He certainly wasn’t. By the time he first visited India in 1956, he was already established as one of the most senior Tibetan teachers then living. As the inheritor of the Rimé mantle of his predecessor, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (‘Jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse’i dbang po, 1820–1892), he held the transmissions for multiple lineages from various schools and was constantly called upon to teach or grant empowerments and transmissions. He also wrote a great deal.

Returning to the subject of Kolkata, we should recall that in the late 1950s, when Jamyang Khyentse wrote his praise, the city had a population of around 5 million. By contrast, Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, was then home to – according to some estimates – as few as 50,000 to 60,000 people. To get a sense of what a major Indian city looked like in 1958 we can watch the opening scenes of Roberto Rosellini’s India Matri Bhumi, filmed in Bombay, then a slightly smaller city than Kolkata. In fact, it is remarkable how closely Rossellini’s commentary mirrors some of Jamyang Khyentse’s own observations. For a look at Kolkata at the same time (and for an entirely magical cinematic experience) the reader is directed to Satyajit Ray’s The World of Apu (Apur Sansar), which was released in 1959.

Jamyang Khyentse’s feelings of wonder at the sights and sounds of the city are expressed in traditional terms, and here, as in his other writings, there are references to Hindu (or Indic) mythology, with which he was obviously very familiar. He refers, for example, to the traditional etymology of Kolkata as a field – or ‘grove’ as he puts it – of Kālī, the consort of Mahādeva (i.e. Śiva). And the praise also speaks of the treasure vaults of Vaiśravaṇa, as well as Indra with his thousand eyes, and the languages of the kumbhāṇḍa and gandharva. This display of erudition is combined with an equally characteristic playfulness, through his use of metaphor. Thus, the swarms of people are like bees in search of nectar; the vehicles and machines roar like thunder; boats sparkle like stars and seem to have been deposited by the river; electric lights shine like jewels; and all the wares and produce on display appear to have been magically emanated through a bodhisattva’s prayers of aspiration. The whole scene, he feels, is like something from the deva realm mysteriously transported or somehow made visible down here on Earth.

The greatest wonder of all though, Jamyang Khyentse says, was the opportunity to view the Buddha’s relics (ring bsrel). This is presumably a reference to the contents from the stūpa at Birdpur (now Piprahwa) in Uttar Pradesh, discovered in 1898 and then placed in Kolkata’s Indian Museum.

Although the colophon does not specify the year of the text’s composition it was most likely 1958.

In Praise of the Great Indian City of Kolkata

by Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö

Oṃ svasti!
Vast grove delighting Mahādeva’s mighty consort,
Realm of the glorious Lord of the World,
Eternal wonder transported to this land.
Place where all eighteen trades are plied,[1]
And people from every race in Jambudvīpa
Gather spontaneously, like bees to honey.
Such varied and splendid riches abound,
As if Vaiśravaṇa's very troves of treasure
Had offered up the world's wealth, with nothing wanting.
All kinds of people—beautiful, ugly and in-between—
As numerous as specks of dust,
Come to vie with one another;
Not even Indra's thousand eyes could behold them all!
So many contraptions and machines
Fill the ears with a thousand clatterings,
Make earth tremble and air rumble like thunder,
And the talk in kumbhāṇḍa, gandharva and other tongues –
It's a wonder we aren't all deaf!
Boats, sparkling like stars, sail back and forth
As if the Ganga herself—finely laid across Jambudvīpa,
Had dragged them there, as precious stones.
Plants and trees laden with fruit,
And, better still, tangled groves
Of luscious greenery—a sight to behold!
Mansions too, magnificently balconied,
With silver and gold, many doorways
And skylights to gladden any heart.
Electric lights, like radiant gemstones,
White, red, yellow, blue and green,
Make it hard to tell night from day—
Fools might even wonder which is which!
Food, drink, clothing, adornments, garlands,
And ointments—everything you might need—
All are here, readily and instantly available,
As if conjured by a bodhisattva’s prayer.
That such a heavenly scene as this
Should exist here in this human realm
Seems hardly possible, but I've seen it—
Certain proof that it's no phantom!

As for the pearl-like relics of the tathāgata,[2]
Supreme amongst all precious vajra substances,
Everything else in existence and peace, all gathered up,
Would not approach even a fraction of their worth.
With offerings from gods and men that defy the imagination
All laid out before them, to look and see is to be liberated!
These sacred objects gracing the world with their beauty
Are more than worthy of veneration, both earthly and divine.

These words of wonder were composed by Lodrö Gyatso
In the twelfth (rgyal) month,
On the tenth day of the waxing moon,
When the vīras and ḍākinīs gather.
May they be virtuous!

| Translated by Adam Pearcey and edited by Janine Schulz, 2014. With many heartfelt thanks to Ringu Tulku Rinpoche who kindly answered questions about the text. Originally published on


Tibetan Editions

'Jam dbyangs chos kyi blo gros. "rang la gros su 'debs pa/" in gsung 'bum/_'jam dbyangs chos kyi blo gros/ (dbu med/). TBRC W21813. 8 vols. Gangtok: Dzongsar Khyentse Labrang, 1981–1985. Vol. 1: 291–293

_____ . "rgya gar ka la ka ta'i grong khyer chen po la bstod pa/" in ’Jam dbyangs chos kyi blo gros kyi gsung ’bum. 12 vols. Bir: Khyentse Labrang, 2012. W1KG12986 Vol. 10: 371–372

Secondary Sources

Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé, Buddhist Ethics. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1998

  1. The traditional definition of a major town (grong khyer) is a place where the eighteen trades or crafts are present. For a list of the eighteen see Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé, Buddhist Ethics: p. 422, n. 70.  ↩

  2. As noted in the translator's introduction, this is presumably a reference to the contents from the stūpa at Birdpur (now Piprahwa) in Uttar Pradesh, discovered in 1898 and then placed in Kolkata’s Indian Museum.  ↩

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