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Shangri La: The Tibetan Myth

Nishit patiently read his book in the library when he suddenly noticed that his friend Mihika bought an exciting book to read. The cover of the book read “Lost Horizon by James Hilton.” Intrigued by the book title and its cover, he asks, “Hey Mihika, what is this book that you are reading about?”

“Oh, this! This is the book famous for its origin of Shangri La – the remote and beautiful utopia of Tibet. It is a fantasy and adventure novel written by James Hilton during world war II.”

“Shangri La, that’s interesting…..What kind of place is that?”

“Let me take you there!”

From a distance, two people are seen climbing the crystal white Kunlun mountains. Exhausted, one of them asks, “How much more time to reach, Mihika?”

“It is still far away. We need to reach the peak and then walk down the mountain. The place is isolated from the external world, and this is the only way to reach it!”

“Oh!” exclaimed Nishit. 

After some hours of climbing in the freezing climate, they finally reach the mountain peak.

“Look! What a beautiful paradise valley it is!”, Mihika exclaimed while catching her breath. 

Nishit is in awe as he sees a marvellous city on a plateau at such a high altitude surrounded by a ring of white mountains shining in the rays of the sun. The whole city was located in the shadows of high Kunlun mountain peaks, making him wonder if the sun rays even reached the town. He was bought back to reality from his thoughts when Mihika said, “It is a sacred landscape.”

“What is a sacred landscape?”

“It is a place that inspires stories through its existence. Sacred landscapes are generally geographic locations that have a special meaning for people living in them or visiting them.”

“You mean a place that forms a connection with people?”

“Partly, yes, but they also have cultural significance. These places are known for their spiritual resilience and knowledge that is passed down through generations. They are generally surrounded by natural landmarks, like mountain ranges here, are isolated and self-sustained. 

Nishit pondered over the words that Mihika said and absent-mindedly responded,

“Okay, that is a great theory. Let’s see if this city is such a place.”

It was still early in the morning when the two of them reached the city gates. When they were entering the city, a monk who stood by the city gates welcomed them.

“Welcome to the city of Shangri La”, he said, “This beautiful land is well isolated from the rest of the world. But there are some rules that you have to follow if you enter these gates. Once you enter the city, you cannot leave this place.”

“What!” exclaimed Nishit.

He looked towards Mihika, who was calmly smiling and agreeing to the Monk.

“Mihika, what are we going to do if we don’t like their cultures and if they don’t accept us here? We can’t even go back!”

But before he got the answer to the question, he was dragged inside the city by her. “Now that we are inside the city, there is nothing we can do about it. Let’s explore the city and understand it better!” she replied calmly.

As they moved towards the centre of the city, they saw a vast lake in the middle of the nine mountains. The lake formed the central city space and had people freely hustling around it. There were markets around the lake, and people enjoyed various morning activities. Some were taking a stroll around it, while some were enjoying the peaceful morning sun, some were even swimming in the lake. The whole city centre was bought alive by the vendors shouting and selling everything from clothes to incense to food. The two of them quietly admired the liveliness and the entropy of the space. 

Just behind the sacred lake and the city centre was the city palace. Mihika was in awe when she saw it. The palace was built in grandeur and was the highest structure in the city. It was adorned with Lapis, corals, gemstones, pearls and carvings. From the palace, one could see every part of the city. 

It is a good military strategy, but it also symbolised power when one structure in the entire city is so dominant, Nishit thought to himself. He was distracted from his thoughts by the sound of prayers.

“Let’s go and see the Lamasery”, said Mihika.

The Lamasery was built on a hill overlooking the town. It had multiple stupas that gave a feel that one had stepped into a different era. The sound of prayer wheels gave a mystical vibe around the Lamasery.

“The Lamasery is headed by a 200-year-old Capuchin Lama. He is responsible for maintaining this cloistered community. It is seen as a place of enlightened consciousness in the entire city. Other than that, it is also a storage place of knowledge and culture. The Lamasery has a library and archival rooms where wisdom and cultural treasures of this city are stored through ages.”, explained Mihika.

Nishit observed how the whole place was built in harmony with nature. The structure of Lamasery was free from any materialism, which was rarely seen in religious structures he had seen. He saw people from the city coming to offer prayers guided by the monks living in the Lamasery. The Lamasery, according to him, maintained the beliefs of the community, which in turn maintained the city and kept it together. 

“We should also see the way people live here”, he told Mihika.

Mihika guided him to the cloistered community living inside the city. Mound shaped houses were built in the surrounding of the Lamasery. Almost all the houses had displays of religious relics explaining the beliefs of the city people. In between the many houses was a shared recreational space – the town square. The two of them saw people enjoying their culture in the square. Some were singing folk songs; a few were performing traditional Tibetan dance, while some were playing instruments they could not recognise. The square was decorated during the time of festivals and celebrations. It was the cultural centre of the city. 

By the end of the performance, it was evening, and the two of them agreed on going to the lake to watch the sun go down. They were sitting by the lake watching the peaceful sunset when Mihika asked, “So what do you think about this place?”

Nishit took a while before he answered, “The culture and simplicity here is amazing. But there are some things which I don’t know why they exist. For example, what is the point of putting a restriction that people can’t leave the city? Also, there is a very powerful symbolism of belief and order. I also feel that it would not be easy for people to live in this climate at such a high altitude. The difficulty level of survival is extreme in this environment.”

Mihika simply replied to this, “To maintain any society, you need some strong restrictions and order. Do you think this pace would have existed if there was no palace or king to rule? And the order is maintained through the spiritual beliefs. Beliefs always play the strong and subtle role of keeping the order in place. Living in this extreme climate would be difficult but so is staying isolated from the rest of the world and so is following the spiritual tradition. But easy or difficult, people here are following it because they believe in it!”

Nishit quietly stared at the lake as these ideas of maintaining a sacred landscape sinked in.