S Mahinda Thero was not a Sri Lankan by birth. He left home in Gangtok when he was 12, and achieved iconic status in a country beyond India’s southernmost tip, Sri Lanka
“A life that is not documented is a life that within a generation or two will largely be lost to memory. What a tragedy this can be in the history of a family. Knowledge of our ancestors shape us and instill within us values that give direction and meaning to our lives”
~ Dennis B Neuenschwander
It is amazing to me how we sometime tend to highlight all what we perceive as “negative” today of our history with so much earnestness and ease that we have little or no time for the inspiring bits.
We need to understand that we can’t undo the past nor change what little we know of it as our absolute truth. However, what we can do is accept, leave it be and move on.
It does occur to me that a 1,000, maybe even a 100, years down the line, our history of today would mean very little -- maybe even nothing, because every day, consciously or not, we are recreating history for another 100 or 1,000 years hence...
There are, however, certain figures in history (I will here be referring to the more recent ones for now) who inspire due to their sheer grit, passion, determination, integrity, genius and contributions to the modern world we live in today -- they definitely did not have it easy -- their stories are compelling and you get the idea of how they had to put a lot of their personal belongings in line, just to achieve what they did or could have done further; be it with researches, translations, writings, poetry, art or just their ideologies -- not only because they were way ahead of their time but because they were not even given credit when it was due.
For example, for most of Kazi Dawa Samdup translations, his name hardly figures in most of his books or that of his younger brother, S Mahinda Thero, who is little known in his own birthplace but regarded a national hero in Sri Lanka.
A couple of months ago, I was invited for the inauguration ceremony of the AYURVIE Sigiria -- an exclusive Sri Lankan Ayurvedic Retreat. Since my father had shared with me snippets of S Mahinda’s life story growing up (and that of the Sikkim history at large) and had always been keen on visiting Sri Lanka; I decided to surprise my parents with a paid holiday to the island with a historical connection to Sikkim and our family. I had already backpacked my way around Sri Lanka as a college student in Bangalore over a decade ago.
As luck would have it, the day after their arrival in Sri Lanka, February 4 happened to be the Sri Lankan Independence Day and they visited the temple of Sri Sudharmaramaya Maha Bellana in Alubomulla, amidst swarming press and news channels -- to pay homage to the life-size statue of Rev S Mahinda Thero, where he had spent the last 15 years of his life and was even cremated there.
The temple is said to hold the remains of the prelate and home to many of his belongings which are treasured in a museum.
All else aside, I am delighted to share a piece of our family history of the two illustrious brothers -- that of my great grandfather and great granduncle not only because their story needs to be told but because one kind soul once thanked me saying, “Thank you for sharing a part of your family history -- I hope you realise that this is not just your family history you share but that of the erstwhile kingdom of Sikkim and, of the world of course...”
Snippets of the Life Story of Rev S Mahinda Thero : The Sikkimese Monk of Sri Lanka
Known as the Sikkimese who gave Lankans their freedom song, the poems penned by S Mahinda Thero, are celebrated to this day as freedom songs in the Island nation of Sri Lanka. Lankan historians are unanimous in endorsing these verses as having infused the Lankan freedom struggle of the late 1930’s through the 1940’s, with the courage, strength and impetus required by the movement to inspire nationalism among the people and wrest freedom from British colonial rule.
The man himself remains an enigma; a monk who engaged in the Sri Lankan freedom struggle – not as a politician as is usually the case – but at a more community and social level which is rare anywhere in the world. He spoke of national pride and responsibility with such conviction and mass appeal that even the increasingly chauvinistic present-day politicians of Sri Lanka tend to invoke his poems as political slogans. However, S Mahinda was not a Sri Lankan by birth, he was a Sikkimese, a young lad who left home in the Gangtok, when he was 12 and achieved iconic status in a country beyond India’s southernmost tip.
Recognised in Sri Lanka as ‘Tibet Jathika S Mahinda Thero’, he was born Pemba Thondup (more commonly known as Sarki Tsering) in 1901 into the Shalngo family of Sikkim which traces its ancestry back to Khye Bumsa’s grandson Guru Tashi to whom even the Royal family of Sikkim traces its lineage.
S Mahinda belonged to a generation of siblings who definitely had a difficult life, but still managed to seek destinies, which remain unrivaled. Not much is known about their early life but it is reasonably well established that they were orphaned young. He was the youngest son of Shalngo Nimpenjo, who was the head monk of the Bhutia Busty Monastery in Darjeeling- then a part of the erstwhile Kingdom of Sikkim. His eldest brother was the illustrious Kazi Dawa Samdup, 34 years his elder and a celebrated translator of Tibetan scripts. By the time S Mahinda was orphaned, his eldest brother had already served a rewarding career with the British administration and was in Sikkim as the head master at the Bhutia Boarding School, Gangtok in 1905. The school itself was opened on May 16, 1906 with 16 boys. Kazi Dawa Samdup also taught Sir Tashi Namgyal, the 11th Chogyal (Dharma King) of Sikkim. He left the School in 1919 to join as a Professor of Tibetan studies at Calcutta University. Unaccustomed to the humid conditions of Calcutta, he passed away in 1922.
Kazi Dawa Samdup was proficient in both English and Tibetan and translated the following books n English:
1. Tibetan Book of the Dead
2. Tibet’s Great Togi Mila Ripa
3. Tibetan Yoga & Secret Doctrine
4. Tibetan Book of Great Liberation
5. History of Sikkim
He compiled the first English – Tibetan dictionary in 1919. His services was also rendered by the then political officer of Sikkim in the Simla Convention of Indo-Tibetan Border in 1914 which defined the McMahon line.
The second brother, Pemchoder aka Bhaypo, sought a completely diverse career -- he joined the British Army during the First World War and died in action in Mesopotamia.
The third brother Phurba Dhondup preceded him to Sri Lanka to study Teravada Buddhism and is still remembered there as Sikkim Punnaji.
Although there is not much literature available on Mahayana Sikkim’s interactions with the Hinayana form of Buddhism or the Sikkim – Sri Lanka connection, there was a substantial exchange in the first decade and half of the twentieth century and it was through this connection that S Mahinda discovered Ceylon and the Theravada form of Buddhism which was in stark contrast to the Mahayana Buddhism that his eldest brother was a respected exponent on.
Sometime in 1913-14, three boys from Sikkim took the train from Darjeeling to Calcutta and then a steamer to Ceylon. Records put together by the Cultural Affairs and Heritage Department of the state of Government of Sikkim suggest that Sarki Tsering, took this journey along with his elder brother Phurba Dhondup and another youth from Pendam village in East Sikkim, Tempa Rinzing Lepcha (who unfortunately passed away while at Galgodiyana, Matara, Sri Lanka on January 20,1918 due to enteric fever). The same records mention that they were chaperoned to Ceylon by Rev. Kali Kumar.
The then Crown Prince of Sikkim Sidkeong Namgyal, who had received a reasonably well arranged Western education and was well traveled, was experimenting with reforms in Sikkim. By 1912, he was already officially in charge of education and ecclesiastical affairs, and already mooting monastic reforms. Many western travelers who came to Sikkim and met him have remarked how he was keen to reform the manner in which Buddhism was pursued in Sikkim. Even Sri Lankan sources mention that S. Mahinda was part of an experiment to groom Sikkimese youth in the Hinayana form of Buddhism so that they could return and adapt its stricter codes to Sikkim.
Coming to Ratmalana:
Once he had the opportunity of giving a discourse at the Ratmalana Purana Rajamaha Vihara and his heart was captivated by the Chief Incumbent of the temple, Ven. Dharmabriti Sri Dharmarama Indajotyabhidana Nayaka Thero, and also by the temple. The Nayaka Thero was equally taken up by the Buddhist Orator. As a result of their mutual fascination and respect, Ven S Mahinda Thero came to reside at Ratamalana Rajamaha Viharaya in June 1930.
Although, his ordination was done under the Amarapura Sect, his venerable teachers were now no more, hence, he took second ordination with the Syamopali Sect under the tutelage of the scholar monk whom he wished to live under. Thus, having the chief Iincumbent Sri Indajoti Thero as the teacher and Lunupakune Sri Dharmananda Nayak Thero, the Principal of the Vidalankara Pirivena at Peliya - Goda as preceptor, he received ordination once more.
As a teacher at Ananda College, Colombo:
Having being appointed as a teacher at Ananda College, Colombo in 1934, he was responsible in implanting an abiding interest within his students in the study of Sinhala, Pali, Buddhism and Singhalese Art. It was S Mahinda Thero who was responsible for the resurgence of the Sinhala Vannam which was in the province of Dr M E Fernandez.
His Literary Services:
Once he participated at the All Ceylon Verse Competition held at the Royal College, Colombo, and won the Championship award which he declined to receive.
In the literary world today, he shines as the resplendent moon in great brilliance, due to his many exquisite publications which have been placed before the public. Some of his notable compositions are:
1. Parakramababu's Childhood
2. The Singhalese translation of Buddhamo -payara.
3. Nidahase Mantraya
4. Lama Kor Kalamba Series
5. Mina Book Series
6. Jatika Dara Nelavilla
7. Lanka Mata
9. Daha Ata Vennama
10. Nidahase Dehera
11. Mutu Potpela
12. Saddharma Morgaya
14. Kusumanjali, etc.
& various Vaisakha Varnana
"Such was his require composition, born out of fully developed mental facilities, so spontaneous and natural in style. His glory is inscribed in golden letters for posterity"
~ Written on March 21,1951 by K. Chandjoti and H Atthadassi of Purana Raja Maha Viharaya Ratmalana on demise of Ven S Mahinda Thero in 1951.
S Mahinda Thero was a great freedom fighter, whose poems inspired the Sinhalese to rise against the British Rulers for Independence. It is believed that the Rev did not die a natural death, but was poisoned by the British. The Sri Lankan Government honoured the contribution of this great monk for development of Sinhala language and culture, spread of Dhamma, promotion of education and fight for freedom by issuing postage stamps, erecting life size statue(s) and a museum in his honour.
Thus ends the story of a 12-year-old Sikkimese boy who entered Sri Lanka in 1914 and died there in 1951 -- leaving behind a legacy of literary work -- the creator of rousing verses of Sri Lankan nationalism. He remains an enigmatic figure; the story of life known only in fragments, so this article is an attempt to bridge the gap and the little understanding we have of Rev S Mahinda’s birth place and the land where he inspired a freedom struggle.
(The writer is the great grandniece of Rev S Mahinda Thero. She is an entrepreneur [hospitality and agriculture], a budding philanthropist and runs the popular Biksthang Heritage Farmhouse at her ancestral village in Biksthang, West Sikkim)