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Tibetan monk’s marriage to friend reignites tussle over claim to the Karmapa title

Thinley Thaye Dorje’s marriage has emboldened supporters of one of his rival claimants to raise the pitch and demand that New Delhi recognise Ugyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2017 08:04 IST
Probir Pramanik
Probir Pramanik
Hindustan Times, Rumtek, Sikkim
Tibetan monk marriage,Tibet,Thinley Thaye Dorje
Thaye Dorje (upper left) and Rinchen Yangzom (lower left) were married in a private ceremony in Delhi. (Picture courtesy:

Marriages, they say, are made in heaven. But ever since Thinley Thaye Dorje abandoned his monkhood to marry his childhood friend last month, the much-publicised wedding plunged the normally idyllic state of Sikkim bordering China into rare disquiet.

Dorje is one of the three claimants to the position of Karmapa — the religious head of the Tibetan Buddhist sect of Karma Kagyu. An official anointment of a Karmapa has been long held up over differences between India and China, already at loggerheads over festering border disputes and diplomatic tensions.

But Dorje’s marriage has emboldened supporters of one of his rival claimants to raise the pitch and demand that New Delhi recognise Ugyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa.

For the past nine months, monks of the famous Rumtek monastery, 24km from Sikkim’s capital Gangtok, have been holding a relay hunger strike in support of Trinley Dorje. Thaye Dorje’s marriage has now prompted them to hold protest marches as well.

To maintain order, both the Dorjes are barred from visiting the monastery, which is being guarded by armed personnel of the Indo-Tibetan border force.

The recently married Dorje who lives in New Delhi has not given up on his claim. “...My decision to marry will have a positive impact not only for me, but also for the (Karmapa) lineage,” he was quoted as saying in a statement after his marriage.

But the clamour for recognising the other Dorje has only grown.

Buddhist monks and residents during a rally in Gangtok. ( Picture courtesy: Wang Chen )

“We now want the Centre to treat Ugyen Trinley as the 17th Karmapa and be allowed to visit the sect’s two other monasteries in Ralang in south Sikkim and Phoodong in north Sikkim,” insisted Sonam Lama, the only legislator in the Sikkim assembly representing the community of revered monks.

“Previous state governments did not pursue with the government of India the people’s demand of allowing Ugyen Trinley to Rumtek. Now we have renewed our demand with both the state and the Centre,” said Lama, who is leading the hunger strike.

Both India and China want a pliant Karmapa as whoever occupies the position considered next only to that of the Dalai Lama will wield tremendous influence over Tibetans on either side of the border.

Ugyen Trinley, who fled China in 1999 at the age of 14, enjoys greater support, but New Delhi eyes him with suspicion. Indian authorities are particularly worried as to the real reasons behind his escape from Lhasa, pointed out a retired top Sikkim police officer.

“Central intelligence agencies have been watchful of Ugyen Trinley, who they believe is Beijing anointed. They also are wary of allowing him to visit Rumtek since it would give legitimacy to one claimant,” the official explained.

Unable to visit Rumtek, the temporal seat of the Karma Kagyu sect, Ugyen Trinley has made the Gyuto monastery near Dharamsala his home.

“Bringing the 17th Karmapa to Sikkim has become an emotive issue,” pointed out Karma Tempo Gyaltsen, spokesperson of the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front and a legal advisor to chief minister Pawan Chamling.

The 16th Karmapa died in 1981 and a consensus on appointing his successor has eluded since then.

Patience has begun to run out and monks across Sikkim are hitting the streets. “There is a consensus among a large section of Buddhist followers here over the selection of Ugyen Trinley and the chief minister himself met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to request him to allow the Karmapa to visit Rumtek,” Gyaltsen said.

“With Thaye Dorje abandoning monkhood, it is only a matter of time before he (Ugyen Trinley) is allowed to visit and claim his rightful place on the Karmapa throne at Rumtek,” he added.

But that is easier said than done since there is also a third claimant — Dawa Sangpo Dorje who lives in a monastery in Damthang in south Sikkim.

“No political party can decide who the Karmapa is,” Sangpo Dorje said. “The claim to the title can be resolved only by conducting a test of the claimants’ spiritual knowledge.”

An empty throne despite a surfeit of claimants has meant the “black hat” — the most important symbol of the Karmapa — is under lock and key at the Rumtek monastery.

First Published: Apr 20, 2017 08:04 IST