Though a native, I had never been to Pongchala until earlier this year. Pongchala, which is revered as an abode of Avalokiteshvara lies only some six kilometres from my home in Mongar, yet it took me more than four decades to set my foot there. This particular experience of mine is testimony to the fact that some of us don’t revere what lies within our vicinity but often yearn to visit faraway places despite risks and hardships. Of course, we believe that ‘the more the hardship, the better it is to cleanse one’s sin but that doesn’t mean that the nearer ones are not to be visited and revered.
Pongchala is also known as Pongchala Gonpa. Six kilometres of farm road connects Pongchala Gonpa with Mongar town. My nephew Karma Samten Wangda and I took the same road. The road was good enough for all types of vehicles. En route, Kadam Ngayab Yoesel Choeling Gonpa is worth visiting, it lies on the left side of the road leading to Pongchala. It is another place of worship which houses some 80 lay monks headed by Khenpo Tashi Chophel. This Gonpa was founded by late Kadam Lama. The view of Yakgang on the other side of the valley from Phosorong village is another visual treat for travellers. And, to drive through villages and forest of broad-leaved trees with twittering sound of birds and abundance of fresh air was an exciting experience.
We reached Pongchala and my GPS machine read EL 2011, meaning we were at 2011 metres above sea level. The view of valleys below was mind-blowing and confirmed that we were indeed at a great height. We met Lopen Yeshe Jamtsho at the entrance. He is a senior monk from Mongar Dratshang who was assigned to look after Pongchala Goempa. According to Lopen Yeshe Jamtsho, Lama Tshulthrim Jamtsho founded Pongchala Goempa in the 15th century as per the prophetic command of Zhabdrung Rinpoche. When Lama Tshulthrim Jamtsho was at the present day Pongchala, he heard reverberating voice of chanting ‘the six-syllable mantra’ of Avalokiteshvara (OM MA NI PAD ME HUNG) emanating from there. The Lama, thus, declared the place as abode of Avalokiteshvara and named it Potala. However, over time, people have mispronounced the name and it is now known as Pongchala. The lama also discovered a drupchhu there. Whether it is known as Potala or Pongchala, it is an abode of Avalokiteshvara and revered as one of the godliest paradises on earth. It is believed that the merit obtained by chanting the six-syllable mantra for one time at Pongchala is equivalent to the merit obtained by chanting the same mantra for hundred times elsewhere. Besides, visiting Pongchala is regarded as the same as visiting the heavenly abode of Avalokiteshvara.
Pongchala Goempa sits on the highest of the four great mountains of Mongar. It is known as Phaktsang. The three other mountains are Tsenphug, Kengkhar and Larjaab, and are known as Dretsang, Dhomtsang and Taktsang respectively. The weather is usually windy in the evening, but on any clear day, even far-off places such as Pemagatshel, Kengkhar, Lingmithang, Jaiphu Gonpa and Drepong are visible from Pongchala.
A choeten crafted by Atisha, sculpture of Lama Tsulthrim Jamtsho, statue of Amitabah Buddha and a human-size- replica of local deity known as Dorji Gyeltshen are some of the age-old relics housed inside the lhakhang in Pongchala Goempa. A choeten crafted by Atisha is a wish-fulfilling relic and drips drupchhu (a holy water) during auspicious occasions. Just as it is in other lhakhangs in the country, photography is strictly prohibited inside the lhakhang.
This Gonpa is adorned both spiritually and aesthetically with choetens and prayer flags. One of the most sacred choetens is the Kudung Choeten of Lama Tshulthrim Jamtsho. From this particular choeten drips drupchhu during the 30th day of every month in lunar calendar, and some people can hear religious chants from there during such auspicious days.
Pongchala also has a retreat Centre for Buddhist practitioners. Lopen Yeshe Jamtsho informed us that there are six practitioners, including two from Ladakh, and they are undergoing a higher-level practice, and will leave upon completion of their retreat. Practitioners come here for retreat considering the sacredness of the place and other favorable conditions for such practices, he added. The sound of damaru and trumpet signalled their presence at the centre. The retreat centre is restricted for visitors to avoid disturbance to practitioners.
Pongchala is a beautiful place of important religious significance but it is not devoid of challenges. Lopen Yeshe Jamtsho said that water shortage is the main problem. He hopes that it will be solved soon. However, the toilets for visitors are well maintained despite the acute water shortage. The year 2019 is Lopen Yeshe Jamtsho’s fifth year at Pongchala.
I got so much of solace from this very first visit, which I call blessings. I offered my prayers and left that holy place with hope to visit again and again.