Recalling Chhairo

This is a testament to the help given by Subha Narsingh Bhattachan to us in Nepal 1998-2004 in context of the Chhairo Gompa and Sugata.

I first met Subha Narsingh Bhattachan in the midst of the extraordinary story of Sugata.
We were writing his life story together, which concentrated on the most dramatic events during the 2nd world war. However his life also involved a profound and fascinating time in East, when he travelled overland to Nepal in the 1960’s and became a buddhist monk under Amrit Ananda, in Swayambhunath, Kathmandu.

In order to write this part, we stared – in 1998 – following in Sugata’s 1960’s footsteps. (while I was mid 40s, Sugata was 90!) We ventured up the Kali Gandaki, to a place where in the 1960’s he witnessed the Sha Na Devil dances, and took photographs as commissioned by Sam Sherchan. Back in Kathmandu we met Mrs Sam Sherchan, the widow of Sam Sherchan who Sugata travelled with in 1960. She made contact with Sashi Djoj Tukuche, the current monk at Chhairo Gompa. Here’s this moment in the story:

It was our last evening in Kathmandu. Sashi, Sugata and I sat in the restaurant, as Sashi began to tell us about Chhairo. He was a Thanka artist like his father. His father in fact had partly painted and in part restored the original Thanka paintings in Chhairo, so it was with understandable sadness that Sashi witnessed their degradation over the years. He told us that with a group of others (the Kali Gandaki Foundation Trust) he is raising funds to restore the Chhairo Gompa.

The idea dawns on both of us: perhaps Sugata’s unused photographs could be used in some way. Not only as a record of how it was then, but used to help raise some money to restore the crumbling Gompa.
Yes, we both said, let’s bring the photographs back to Nepal.

At that point in the evening, Sugata turned to Sashi and said:

‘When I came up to Tukuche I visited a Thanka artist. He had two houses: one he lived in and one he used only to paint in, which 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 the art of thanka painting. In the courtyard was a dog and a hen, and I asked if the eggs from the hen provided the yolk for the tempera. ‘Yes’ said the Lama.’

Sashi’s face became more and more incredulous. He lifted his hands in the air, and finally bust in laughter.

‘I was that little son!’ he said. ‘He was my father.’

It was at this time that we met Subha Narsingh Bhattachan

While on this journey I discovered that the Tamang Thakali were grouped into four clans – Cyoki, Salki, Dhimzen and Bhurki. Today the four traditional clans are referred to as Gauchan, Talachan, Serchan and Bhattachan. Subha Narsingh Bhattachan made contact with us through Bhuwan Gauchan who’d we met in Tatopani. We began a correspondence regarding the sorry state of the Chhairo Gompa, and while I made various recommendations, the one that materialised was using Sugata’s photographs to raise money for Chhairo, and potentially to leave the legacy of his photographs for Chhairo to make use of to their benefit.

Alongside the launch of our book ‘Bird of Passage’ published by Mandala Publications, we had an exhibition in Patan museum, of 100 of Sugata’s photographs. The money raised (£2,000) went directly to Chhairo. The exhibition was a greater success than I could have imagined. There were not many – if any – photographers up in the mountains in the 1960’s and the joy of people recognising themselves as children in the photographs or their relatives, often moved them to tears to see.

It was not possible to leave Sugata’s original photographs in Nepal as these were inherited by his daughter (who’s existence we did not know about then!) and she has taken them all back with her to Sweden.

Subha was immensely helpful all during this time of collecting the story, launching the book and exhibition, interpreting the traditions and stories, helping us to negotiate the different ways in Kathmandu. I could not have done it without his help and insight. He was a pleasure to work with forging a bridge between east and west, understanding our needs and those of Nepal and fitting them together.

It has been a pleasure to recall this time and re-live some of the moments while writing this testament.

Rachel Kellett
August 2020

Information about Bird of Passage and our journey east

Photographs of the Patan exhibition
Dear Rachel,

my name is Subha Narsingh Bhattachan, I am actually taking this liberty to write to you as had been recommended by your host in Tatopani Bhuvan Gauchan.

We were the curators and the lord protectors of the Chhairo Gomba for many generations, as Sashi Dhoj Tulachan must have briefed you. With the fall of Lhasa, all business from and to Tibet came to a grinding halt, my grandfathers were forced to travel south for better avenues, as a result the 
valley of Thak was left to itself.

On my last visit to Tukuche, I had gone there specifically to take note about the Gomba that had been under our care for so many years. I was horrified to see what had become of it, there and then as has happened to many a people who visit the Gomba, I decided to do something about it. My 
uncle Subarna Bhattachan who lives in Kansas was also keen about the restoration and renovation and together with a handful of other family members we decided to form an NGO.

Today, John Sanday and co. have provided an elaborate study about the renovation and restoration of the gomba, Sashi Dhoj Tulachan and his brother Chakra hace pledged to stay in Chhairo. We have an extensive plan for the place, we need to instill life in the Gomba without which the Gomba is useless.

Do write in about what you think and feel and I will let you know more later. till then

Dear Subha Narsingh Bhattachan

Yes, Bhuwan Gauchan told me of you in an email, and I am glad to hear from you, remarkable in what must be extraordinary times for you in Nepal. (I gather Tatopani is now ‘policed’ by the Maoists – I hope Bhuwan is ok). I presume you know of my interest in the Gompa – through Sugata who travelled with Sam SerChand in 1960 and took photographs of the Gompa in its full

Of course I am very interested to hear about your plans to restore the Gompa, with the help of your Kansas uncle Subarna Bhattachan, John Sanday and co (not sure where they fit in), and the committment of Sashi Dhoj Tuluchan and his brother Chakra.

Restore to what end is my immediate question. To a working Gompa? Or to something more active in it’s ability to self support?

From my very brief experience – one brief day – I would say that the Tibetan refugee community nearby could be your firm allies. It was the urbane school teacher from the camp who showed us round, and described a hopelessness he felt at having to watch the decline of the Gompa. I would think that the community would be excellent custodians (and workers of the basic renovations) of the Gompa once it had reached a certain stage of renovation. However, their local problems might be important for you to take on board. I understand that any publicity they try to muster up – like sign boards encouraging the tourists to visit the refugee camp – are blatantly sabotaged by the main stream community – mainly Hindu. You are probably more aware of this than I.

When we spoke with Sashi Dhoj Tuluchan, we discussed what the Gompa and surrounding outbuildings could be successfully used for, agreeing with him, that a straight Gompa for worship would not ensure its continual upkeep. The ideas we came up with were to tap into the very near by ‘tourist’ market, but into a selective niche of the market, those interested in Buddhism/spiritual matters. Many tourists come on the Annapurna trek with no previous knowledge of Buddhism, but a strong interest in finding out more. These passing tourists could be one source. Another would be ‘spiritual tourists’, who come to India and Nepal for the growing popular vispathana retreats, and would like to continue on to be amongst like minded people or events.

With these two markets in mind, and with the rich historical and spiritual background of the Gompa, we considered the following ideas
a. vispathana retreats, group and singular.
b. Tanka art exhibitions
c. Tanka art courses
d. Weekend or two day courses on Kali Gandaki/Tanka painting specificallyfor passing tourists.
e. Rest house for tourists.

Excuse me if I am speaking in any way out of turn. I am just sharing a few off the top of head thoughts that came to us.

As regards the actual restoration of the Gompa, as I’m sure Sashi Dhoj Tuluchan has told you, Sugata has an array of colour photographs and slides of the Gompa in it’s hay day, which we would be very happy to reprint and send to you. First I must know, would they be useful? Second I must have a secure address to send them to. Ideally I would like to send the original slides – but it is always dangerous to send originals! If you know of any one passing through London to Kathmandu this might be the best transport. But first I have to go to Norway to get the originals from Sugata, which I plan to do in the next two weeks. Let me know.

I am very glad to hear from you, especially on email. I have no idea if my letters to Sashi Dhoj Tuluchan ever arrived.


3 thoughts on “Recalling Chhairo”

  1. Hi,
    I write to you on behalf of the Norwegian organisation Folkeakademiet. I’m the editor of their magazine, and in the coming edition we will have a story on Sugata’s lecture that was cancelled at Finnøy in the 1960s. I really need some photos for this story, and came over your blog. Unfortunately, the pictures on the birdofpassage site is too low resolution to print, so I am very grateful of getting hold of photos that we can use. I happen to be a buddhist myself, and I am really grateful for the book of Sugata’s life that you wrote together. I have been discussing his life with the leader of the Norwegian Buddhist Federation, Egil Lothe, who sent me a picture of one of Sugata’s painted bowls.

    Hope to hear from you!

    Best wishes,
    Hans Petter Wiken

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