Kishtwar district has the distinction of having a population of about 7000 Buddhists in the upper reaches of Tehsil Paddar. Recently a ‘Buddhists Centre’ was inaugurated at Gulabgarh by the Buddhist religious head Dalai Lama on 5/6/2010 amidst a congregation of about 25000 Buddhists drawn from Paddar, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh etc. According to historians, Buddhism flourished in Nagseni area of Kishtwar in 2nd centaury B.C. and a conference on Buddhism is said to have been held at Village ‘Bhattan’ of Nagseni. The great Buddhist scholar, Nagsen of ‘Milida Panho’ fame is also said to have been born here. Yet, it is very surprising that, presently not a single family professing Buddhism lives in Nagseni area. Presently some villages of Paddar tehsil of Kishtwar district bordering Ladakh on one side and tribal areas of Pangi and Lahul Sipti of Himachal Pradesh on the other, are inhabited by Buddhists. Villages namely Hango, Haloti, Machail, Lusseni, Dangail and Suncham in Machail Valley border Ladakh and Kargil while Kabban, Tun, Charkhoni etc. border Himachal Pradesh. The Buddhists habitations, due to their distinctive customs and traditions and way of life, have the potential to attract tourists of various interests.
On the entry to every Buddhist village you have to pass through a stone gate called ‘Manidwar’. The stone walls leading to the village have the pictures of Lord Buddha and Saints like ‘Wajar Pani’ made on them. You will also find flags of white cloth fluttering along the path and also on the roof tops named as ‘Darshod’. The flags have the pictures of ‘Munnies’ and also some edicts written on them. Buddhists believe that these flags keep the evil spirits at bay and don’t allow these to afflict Buddhists-homes. Buddhists are deeply religious, god-fearing and possess virtues like truthfulness, simplicity, honestly and piousness. Their places of worship are called ‘GUMPAS’ and their religion heads as ‘Lamas’.
For becoming a Lama, a series of actions spread to a long period have to be performed. Barring the eldest son any other son can be initiated into Lama-ship. At the age of seven the father/guardian of the boy, who is to be made Lama, takes him to the ‘Gumpa’. The Head Lama, in the presence of other Lamas admit him for becoming a ‘Bhikshu’ locally named as ‘Gaychhal’ amidst recitation of Mantras. He made to wear Bhikshu robes and administered an oath not to tell a lie, not to drink or steal, not to indulge in violence and not to toch a woman. He is, then, kept in the custody of the Head Lama in the Gumpa where he starts his education. He remains in the ‘Gumpa’ for thirteen years. During this period he attains knowledge of the Budhist philosophy and its scriptures. A board of Lamas is then authorized to give him a test. If he passes it, he is certified to be a Lama called ‘Gaylong’.
On the death of the Lama, he is cremated and the remains of his bones and ashes are preserved ina pot called ‘Kund’. It is, then, buried under ground and a stupa called ‘Chhostan’ is erected upon it in the premises of the ‘Gumpa’.
In Padder Tehsil of Kishtwar district prominent Gumpas are situated at Gulabgarh, Haloti, Kabban and Tun. These are constructed either on a hillock or a prominent place, visible from the surrounding area. These are two/three storied and look like fort from a distance. Each Gumpa houses a place of worship and a separate block used as a residence of the Lamas. All these ‘Gumpas’ have been constructed in Ladakh/Tibetan style and artesian from Ladakh or Tibet has been engaged in building the prominent among them. The work in stonemasonry and wood carving is very attractive. The engravings of the pictures of Lord Buddha, Acharyas and Munnies and also the goddesses with colorful paintings are superb and eye-captivating. Large sized idols of Lord Buddha, Shakti Munni and Sidhacharyas like Padam, Sambhv, Rattan Bhat, to name a few, made of sparkling copper stand in the middle of the worship place. Walls depicting oil-colored pictures of Lord Buddha, Shakti Munni and other Acharyas, Goddesses like Tara, Gandhari, Saraswati etc. add to the charm of the ‘Gumpas’.
Every ‘Gumpa’ on its entry gate, has a revolving wheel known as ‘Dharma Chakra’ fitted on the pillars. The devotees have to rotate it with the belief that it rids them of their misfortune. Its rotation is considered as beneficial for relieving them of ominous situations. The devotees pray in front of the large sized idols of Lord Buddha, Munnies and Goddesses led by the Lama. During prayer, a loud drum beating is also undertaken and oil lamps in small silver cups are also lighted. The lama residing in the Gumpas performs all the religious ceremonies of the villagers and also acts as their teacher and guide. Each Buddhist family offers cooked food, first to the Gumpas and later consumes it. The Lama is held in high esteem. He acts as an arbitrator in all village affairs and as a judge also. The Buddhist families bear all the expenses of the Lamas. A lama is always absorbed in mediation, recitation of Mantras, telling hid bead and study of scriptures. He is an embodiment of the virtues like truth fullness, frankness, simplicity, piety, honesty and a high degree of spirituality.