The Legends of Buddha
Charu Singh reflects on the inspiration, research and the landscape that inspired her best-selling first novel
Souzeina S Mushtaq Delhi
Ten years ago, when her husband was posted in Sikkim, Charu Singh spent a year and a half in the mountains, visiting monasteries and talking to monks. This opened her up to Tibetan Buddhism, an area of interest she steadily developed.
“I simply got interested in it. Nobody had done this story before,” says Charu, whose first book, Path of the Swan: The Maitreya Chronicles, Part 1, was released this year. Maitreya is a bodhisattva who, in the Buddhist tradition, is regarded as a future Buddha who will appear on Earth, achieve complete enlightenment, and teach pure dharma. Bodhisattvas are the reincarnating souls of high calibre, who visit the earth out of passion to take people into dharma, to guide others out of worldly woes.
Path of the Swan is a fascinating story of Lama Ozer and his novitiate, Tashi, who gets a call while deep in trance from the legendary kingdom of Shambala. Thus begins their journey through Sikkim and Tibet to reach the silver fort where they convene with divinity and the dark celestial beings.
“Tibetan Buddhism has a vast pantheon of bodhisattvas and its demigods and goddesses, and I thought one could put it in a fantasy novel. I tried to understand Buddhism more and started writing it,” said Singh.
The story weaves around the Mahayana sect of Tibetan Buddhism, whose followers believe not just in Shakyamuni Buddha, but also in extremes of Buddha and the legends of Shambala kingdom and its symbolic beings. In Tibetan Buddhism, Shambala is believed to be a hidden kingdom in inner Asia. It is envisioned as a pure Buddhist land, a kingdom whose reality is spiritual.
“In the book, I worked on my own understanding of what the kingdom of Shambala would be like because I was never going to reach it. I have used Buddhist thought in the imagery but not given lectures to people,” says Charu, who, besides talking to monks, read several books and articles on Buddhism. Among the books, she liked The Buddha and the Sahibs, by Charles Allen.
Born into a Sikh family and growing up in Chandigarh, Charu spent her holidays in Kathgarh at her grandparents’ place. The surrounding forests and fields intrigued her as a child. She also wrote poetry in her younger days. After finishing her Master’s, Charu left for the North East, where she worked as a freelance researcher for UNICEF. She also worked with a clutch of newspapers before settling down as a full-time writer.
“I wrote a lot of poetry in my younger days. The novel was a later development,” said Charu. “I was more interested in doing journalism. But when I had written three chapters of the book, I got the contract. So I decided to give up my job and focus on the book,” shares Charu. But it took ten years to write the three chapters, “Because I was always working. There was no time to really focus on it.”
Charu says she is drawn to fiction. “The first chapter just flowed while I was in Sikkim. Sikkim is an unusual place. The people appealed to me, and their simplicity reflects in my book. Tashi is a simple Tibetan boy from Sikkim. He reveals the character of Sikkimese people, their simplicity and their innate goodness,” she says.
Some readers might find the setting a little difficult to imagine, but Charu says her time in Sikkim helped her get immersed in Buddhism. She tried to dig deeper into the concepts of Maitreya, Shambala and other legends. While people can enjoy this flight of fancy, they can also learn about Tibetan Buddhism, as it is a combination of imagination and facts. “But I am more interested in the spiritual part,” says Charu.
According to the writer, there is a difference between Tibetan Buddhism and the Buddhism that others follow. “Tibetan Buddhism is the version that the Dalai Lama follows. They have a strong belief in bodhisattvas. In addition to Buddha, they believe in Goddess Tara, who has 21 forms in Tibetan Buddhism. They also believe in five Buddhas, which represent different directions of the universe and different abstract ideas. But the central belief is in Shakyamuni Buddha. That is the basic historical Buddha,” she shares.
For her research, Charu travelled extensively around Sikkim and the Tibetan plateau, but not to Tibet. Her book is already on some best-seller lists, and plans are afoot for a follow-up novel.