Granny Lhanzom’s mother was a Tibetan named Tashi Dema. Tashi Dema’s parents arranged her marriage but her husband was unfaithful and at twenty-five, after her parents died, she divorced and left on a pilgrimage to Tashilhunpo Monastery. There Tashi Dema met and married Lobsang Moenlam. Granny Lhanzom was conceived while the newlyweds went on a pilgrimage to Bhutan, and was born in 1925 near Gantey, on a path between two rice fields. Lhanzom’s father died when she was nine months old, leaving mother and child destitute.
Her mother died when Lhanzom was a teenager. At twenty she married a trader. They had a daughter, then a son who died of chicken pox at five. Soon her son’s death, Lhanzom’s husband fell off a horse and died on a trading journey. Lhanzom decided to go on pilgrimage with her ten-year-old daughter to pray for all her deceased loved ones. She became a trader herself, buying and selling jewelry along the pilgrimage.
She started on this journey in 1950 with a group of friends, visiting Bodhgaya, Banaras, Kusinagara and other sacred sites in India. Then the pilgrims, mostly women and children, walked to Nepal and spent the Year of the Dragon trekking to Pokhara, Nyeshang, Chumi, Jatsha, Dhorbu, Sheygyi, Drukda and other sacred sites. In 1952, the Year of the Snake, they trekked to Tso Pema, which the Indians call Mandi, then continued onto Spiti, Lahul, Ladakh, Dheradun and back to Kathmandu.
During this pilgrimage Lhanzom married Ugyen Tenzin, the son of a friend of her deceased mother and a member of her pilgrimage group. Ugyen was a gomchen, a dropout monk who practiced traditional medicine and performed religious ceremonies. After making another round of pilgrimage sites in Nepal they decided to go on to Mount Kailash in Tibet, the source of three major rivers in Asia and the most sacred site in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. It was about this time that her daughter Tshering Dolkar was conceived.
After three months of walking through the high desert of Western Tibet they came to the village of Nyitirong. They bought potatoes, barley, vegetables and fruit, and a week later reached a nomad camp, where they bartered for butter, cheese and meat. They gorged themselves and their bodies went into shock; they had to stay with the nomads for several days before they could walk again.
The pilgrims came to a mountain covered in snow and Lhanzom, big with baby, had difficulty keeping up. She and her husband Ugyen lost their way in the snow. After walking twelve days instead of the planned three, they came to a nomad camp. The sky cleared and they saw the peak of Kailash further away than when they had started twelve days before. They had walked the wrong way. Lhanzom bartered jewelry for food and a sheep blanket for the baby, due any day. She had been walking for five months.
The nomads sold them meat and put Lhanzom’s pack on a yak. Ugyen helped her through the snow and across the rivers. She tightened a shawl around her stomach, tying it to her shoulders to keep her balance and reduce the pain. Crossing a pass in driving snow, Lhanzom and Ugyen separated from their group and lost the way. At nightfall they found their friends cooking dinner in a cave near Chunglung Gompa. In the nearby hot springs, Lhanzom bathed while Ugyen pitched their tent and prepared for the birth.
The next day, in the fourth moon of the Horse Year of 1954, Tshering Dolkar, was born. Lhanzom slung the baby on her back and continued the journey. Twenty miles from Kailash they reached Tretaphu Hot Springs. Lhanzom took a long bath with her baby and met some nomads who fed her while the rest of the group went on to prepare for the Kailash trip. The next day the nomads left. Lhanzom, all alone, carried her baby to a temple to make offerings of butter and tea and pray for the removal of all obstacles to her pilgrimage. The nomads had told her about Amdo bandits near Kailash robbing pilgrims. On the way from the temple a man with a large sword approached on a black horse and asked if she had jewelry to sell. Quickly Lhanzom said, “No, we are pilgrims, we have nothing,” and the man rode off.
Then her husband came walking up the trail to help Lhanzom and the baby finish the trek to Kailash. Ugyen asked if she had seen the horseman he sent to look for her, a man interested in buying jewelry.
Lhanzom became angry and shouted at Ugyen, “I’ve heard of robbers around here, how could you put our life in danger!”
Ugyen replied that the man was a nomad chieftain who had invited all the men to his tent, filled them with meat and ara, and asked Ugyen to perform prayers and rituals.
“I even gave him some Dharma teachings,” explained Ugyen in his defense. “Robbing us is now out of the question!”
They spent two weeks at Kailash, waking at 3 am each morning and circling the mountain before sunset. The daily walk was 32 miles, starting at 16,000 feet and crossing a pass halfway at 18,600 feet. After 10 months on the pilgrimage to Kailash, the little family with their group of friends walked back to Kathmandu.
In Kathmandu they commenced another pilgrimage and then headed back to Bhutan, traveling a roundabout route to the Kamakchya Temple in Assam. By then Lhanzom had sold all of her jewelry. She had walked thousands of miles and had 100 Indian rupees left, which she used to buy some things to trade in Bhutan. She had been on pilgrimage for four years.
Now, fifty years later, Lhanzom is the matriarch of a large family in Thimphu, devoting much of her time and wealth to helping needy pilgrims in Bodh Gaya. Her son, Ugyen Dorji, has become a successful businessman —a hotel owner, land developer and a pioneer in the capital’s fledgling movie and recording industry. Born in a tent below Kailash, Lhanzom’s daughter, Tshering Dolkar, the mother of Karma Wangmo, runs a large handicraft and jewelry shop, a business she learned from her mother.
From BHUTAN: Hidden Lands of Happiness, by John Wehrheim (Serindia 2011)