The Search for Kariappa
The following is an excerpt from Heaven’s Wind.
Nakamura Tempū’s story hinges on his encounter with Kariappa in Cairo. But for this fateful meeting, there may well have been no story to tell. So, then, who was this man Kariappa?
The teacher to whom Nakamura entrusted himself had been able, at first glance, to accurately assess not only Nakamura’s physical ailment but also his mental and spiritual condition. Kariappa, we are lead to believe, had attained a sophisticated understanding of the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of the human constitution not through academic learning but through ascetic training in the ways of yoga.
But Kariappa was not just a yogi. He was also well educated; this we know because he spoke English—an almost sure sign that he received British establishment schooling. Furthermore, as access to such schooling was limited to people of social privilege, we can also reasonably assume that Kariappa was from a distinguished family and commanded some degree of social status. The circumstances of his presence in Cairo would also support that assumption, for if, as we are told, Cairo was a stop on his return voyage from England, then such a journey could not possibly have been undertaken without assistance from persons in high places. The most plausible scenario suggests that Kariappa had come to the attention of one of the British administrators in India—almost by definition a person of aristocratic birth—and that, perhaps, after returning to England, that person had arranged for his visit; Nakamura, you will recall, tells us that Kariappa had been in England by invitation from a member of the English nobility.
The story of subsidy from an Indian maharaja (including the loaning of his yacht) is also not only plausible but likely, as the wherewithal to travel to the other side of the world would have been well beyond the means of a lone Indian fakir, a man who had long ago forsworn the accumulation of worldly possessions. The two visits of Swami Vivekananda to the West (1893~1897 and 1899~1902), seminal events in the history of Western fascination with Vedanta and yoga, were largely financed by such persons of wealth, and the modern development of hatha yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar’s principal teacher, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, beginning in the 1920s and ‘30s, occurred under the sponsorship of the Maharaja of Mysore.
All the more mysterious is it, then, that no record of a man answering to Kariappa’s description appears in any of the literature I have so far examined on the dissemination of yoga in the West. Historical and geographical context would point with almost certainty in the direction of the followers of the revered Ramakrishna and his principal disciple, Vivekananda; yet none of Ramakrishna’s disciples of record or of Vivekananda’s associates are suggestive of the man under whom Nakamura Tempū studied. Another more tenuous but nevertheless possible link to England is the Theosophists; here again, however, I have, so far, not discovered anyone among Theosophy’s Indian membership who might share their identity with Kariappa—nor is there anything in Kariappa’s teachings as related by Nakamura suggestive of Theosophist influence. One of my hopes in publishing the book you hold is that someone, somewhere, will come forward with new information (my contact information is given at the end).
One resource worthy of note is Paramhansa Yogananda’s classic, The Autobiography of a Yogi. Yogananda hailed from a privileged family and received just the sort of English education Kariappa must have shared. He was raised in Calcutta, the principle city of Bengal. Gorkhey, as we shall see, is located just below the border between West Bengal and eastern Nepal at a distance of approximately 600 kilometers (400 miles) from modern Kolkata (Calcutta)—not close, but also not far, relative to the scale of Indian geography (in terms of ease of travel, Kolkata is far more accessible to Gorkhey than is Katmandu). Furthermore, the years of Yogananda’s education and early training as a yogi overlap with those of Nakamura’s stay in Gorkhey.
The stories Yogananda tells of the saints and adepts with whom he came into contact bear witness to just how rich and alive India’s spiritual culture was in his day. Kariappa must certainly have known of, and perhaps even have had contact with, some of these same saints and sages. Nevertheless, by my reading, Yogananda’s account offers no clues regarding the person or spiritual provenance of the man Nakamura calls Kariappa.
So again, just who was Kariappa? In the late spring of 2014, in search of answers to that question, I visited the village of Gorkhey.
At that time, I was living and working in Beijing. To put distances into perspective, Beijing to Delhi is a seven hour flight, after which I would fly another two hours due east; so, while Beijing was considerably closer to where I would be travelling than my permanent residence on the East Coast of the United States would have been, it was, nevertheless, still a long way away.
Tempū identifies the village in which he stayed by name as Gorkhey and describes its location as within the long shadow of the world’s third highest peak, Kanchenjunga and proximate to Darjeeling. Upon pouring over Google Maps, I was delighted to discover that, not only was there, indeed, a town of Gorkhey located not far from Kanchenjunga, but that it was also located on the popular Sandakphu-Phalut trekking route. What better antidote to the long winter months of notoriously polluted Beijing air, I thought, than a five-day trek with views of the Himalayas, culminated by a descent into Gorkhey, where I could ask after Kariappa. I contacted a trekking company in Darjeeling and began planning my trip to coincide with a late-April, early-May Chinese holiday.
I also contacted the Tempūkai in Tokyo and was kindly emailed a three-part account of a thirty-six-member expedition to Gorkhey in 1993, led by a former Tempūkai director named Shimizu Eiichi; the account is published in the July, August, and September 1993 issues of “Shirube,” the Tempūkai monthly journal. Shimizu and his group came away with strong circumstantial evidence for this Gorkhey as Nakamura’s Gorkhey—not the least of which was their encounter with a ninety-two year old man who recalled having seen, when he was about ten years old, an Oriental man studying under the local fakir.
In the mean time, my trek organizer, a man named Navin Tamang, to whom I explained the nature of my interest in Gorkhey, made some inquiries of the locals in the village and emailed me to say that the responses to his inquiries had come back stone cold: no one had ever heard of anyone even remotely matching the description of Kariappa or of any association of the village with yoga or yogis. I took a closer, second look at the 1993 “Shirubei” account. The Gorkhey that the Tempūkai group had visited was not in West Bengal but in eastern Nepal. And sure enough, Google Maps did show another town of Gorkhey (or Gorkhe, as it is spelt in Google Maps) just over the India-Nepal border. Furthermore, when Navin made similar inquiries in the Nepali Gorkhey, the response was immediate: Kariappa? Japanese visitors? Yes, of course. These matters, they knew all about.
The dates of my departure, by now, quickly approaching, Navin hastily and flexibly rearranged my schedule. He would also provide, I was assured, both an English-speaking guide and a car and driver.
This tale of two Gorkheys has a final chapter. After my visit to eastern Nepal, I returned to West Bengal to complete the Sandakphu-Phalut trek and thus ended up also spending a night in the other town of Gorkhey. It is a tiny hamlet, completely inaccessible by motor vehicle, located on the Phalut descent (or ascent, depending upon which way you are going) at the floor of a narrow valley where two swiftly flowing rivers converge. The hostel accommodations were comfortable, including the first flush toilet I had seen in a number of days, and the food was outstanding: potatoes and other vegetables came directly from the terraced fields above the village; milk in my afternoon tea was less than an hour old (I watched the young mother of the hostel milk the cow with her with two small children in tow); and dinner included river fish—trout?—caught that morning, as well as a curry made with locally grown goat-meat.
Both of the rivers easily fit the description of the river in which Tempū sat every morning—they have numerous pools of varying depths where the local children, and sometimes trekkers, swim. The river to the north of the village is also the Sikkim border; it is spanned by a simple footbridge without any kind of border control, let alone even a sign, and in the morning I took a leisurely stroll across the bridge and up the Sikkim side of the river.
The peacefulness and pristine beauty of Gorkhey in West Bengal is naturally conducive to meditative self-reflection, and I could easily imagine a yogi choosing it as his place of practice. Inquiries revealed, however, that the village was founded in 1935, long after Nakamura’s sojourn, and that, one hundred years ago, this valley was almost completely uninhabited. These facts, alone, do not necessarily preclude the possibility that a yogi could have chosen this spot, precisely because of its remoteness, for the location of his retreat; however, had that been the case, Nakamura would not have referred to it as Gorkhey, since the name arrived with the first settlers—Nepali immigrants who may even have come from the Gorkhey in eastern Nepal—in 1935. Safe to say, then, the Gorkhey in West Bengal is not the Gorkhey visited by Nakamura Tempū between 1910 and 1913.
But then, if the Gorkhey of Nakamura Tempū’s three-year sojourn is in Nepal, not India, why does he not say so? Tempū speaks often of India but never once of Nepal. Is that not enough of a discrepancy to disqualify the Nepali Gorkhey as a possible location for the events of his story? I do not think so.
At the time of Nakamura’s visit, the peoples of both India and Nepal, both then under the British Raj, had little sense of national identity. As poignantly described by Ramachandra Guha in his seminal work, India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, India, even after its 1947 independence, consisted of a most unlikely confederation of ethnicities, religious affiliations, linguistic groups (twenty-two officially recognized languages), principalities (over 500 in 1947), castes, and social classes. Any one of those ethnicities, religious affiliations, local polities, or social strata or substrata was a stronger attractor of identity than nationality—so much so that the nation’s post-independence survival is, in Ramachandra’s analysis, nothing short of a modern miracle.
The same sort of ethno-cultural diversity applied to Nepal—on top of which, nothing makes for the segregation of cultures like mountains, and mountains Nepal has: not just the sparsely populated Himalayas, rightfully known as the roof of the world, but also the surprisingly densely populated foothills and deep valley’s of the country’s temperate middle zone, where small farms cling, precariously, to steep hillsides. While the explosion in Nepal’s population is relatively recent, most of the valleys of this middle zone have been inhabited since before Tempū’s day, and they include a wide array of ethnicities made up of different tribes and sub-tribes, each with its own language and dialect and culture and sub-culture. In short, social intercourse between the towns and villages in these valleys can be a complicated affair.
My guess is that the people of Bengal one hundred years ago would have been as unlikely to call themselves Indian as the people of Gorkhey would have been to call themselves Nepali. Nor was there much in the way of border control between the two countries: if the Gorkhey in Nepal is indeed, as I believe it to be, Kariappa and Nakamura’s Gorkhey, then Nakamura may have been oblivious to the fact that he had crossed a national border to get there. The India to which Nakamura refers, I believe we can reasonably assume, is the geographical one, the Indian subcontinent, rather than the geopolitical nation state.
The Gorkhey in eastern Nepal is located just seven kilometers (four miles) by foot from the high ridge that marks the Indian border. The closest border crossings are at the towns of Pashupatinagar and Manebhanjang (there is even a road between Pashupatinagar and Gorkhey; however, I was told, it is in such an advanced state of disrepair that it is impassible by motor vehicle), and the border is crossed freely by Indian and Nepalese nationals. My driver and guide, both from Manebhanjang, had friends in and around Gorkhey, and the driver in particular was greeted as an acquaintance by a number of people we met on the street; this, because he routinely ferried them in his car, along with their produce and cottage industry wares, between Manebhanjang and the market in Darjeeling.
Upon locating the Nepali Gorkhey on the map, I naively assumed that I too could make a day trip of my visit to the town by walking down and back from Manebhanjang. Not so, Navin advised me: Since there are no Indian or Nepali immigration offices at either Manebhanjang or Pashupatinagar, I would need to enter from Kakribhitta, at the southeastern corner of Nepal—a diversion that would add a full two days to my itinerary.
The flight from Beijing arrived in Delhi in the wee hours of April 28th, and after several hours of sleep in an airport hotel, I caught a mid-day flight to Bagdogra, an airport in West Bengal located just outside of Siliguri. There, I was met by my guide and driver, and after a forty-minute drive on relatively good roads through flat landscape covered by vast tea plantations, we reached Kakribhitta, where we signed me out of India and obtained my entry visa into Nepal—the bureaucratic ramifications of which procedure would have been difficult to negotiate had I been on my own. The same, flat landscape continued for another forty minutes or so into southern Nepal. As the temperature was in the high thirties Celsius (high nineties Fahrenheit), the mountains remained hidden under a steamy haze until we were right at their base—whereupon, they appeared out of the haze like a wall. My driver downshifted to the lower gears of his Indian made, four-wheel drive Tata, and this beast of a vehicle virtually ate up the endless switchbacks in front of us; anything less than its ilk, I was soon to discover, when we exited the paved surfaces, would never have brought us to our destination.
Relative to road conditions, the easier but longer approach to Gorkhey is a roundabout route that avoids high climbs and comes into the valley from the west. We chose the more direct route that took us to the top of a high ridge and through acre upon acre of tea plantations. The township of Kanyam produces some of the finest tea in the entire region, and this part of the drive was still on relatively well maintained, paved roads; but at a point several kilometers beyond Kanyam, we dove off the side of the mountain onto a dirt path, the likes of which I have never driven before. The final thirteen kilometers (six miles) of the journey took over an hour and a half to navigate, as we bounced off of boulders, in and out of bathtub-sized potholes, and through streambeds. Having watched, between passing tree branches, the sun go down behind the line of hills to our west, we arrived, finally, in Gorkhey at dusk.
The roads into Gorkhey by either approach are unpaved and consequently non-navigable for about three months of the year during the monsoon. The village is inaccessible during that period, other than by horse or on foot, and more than one person told me that nothing would change the economic landscape of the valley so much as better roads: a paved road in from the west would greatly ease the villagers’ access to the rest of Nepal, and a navigable road—even a dirt one—to the Indian border would greatly enhance the prosperity of the valley by giving its people easier access to cross-border trade. So far, however, the central government in Katmandu has lent a deaf ear to Gorkhey’s petitions, and the allowance for road maintenance that the town receives is hardly adequate to cover repairs, let alone improvements.
The entire population of Gorkhey is about seven thousand. The town consists of one and two story, wood frame buildings arranged along a single, cobblestoned street running parallel to the approximately east-to-west flowing river at the base of the valley. The houses are served with electricity—although, as in much of Nepal and even in West Bengal, power failures and deliberate power outages are a common, even daily, event. When I asked about a small, shed-like building carrying the Red Cross logo, I was told that, while it was stocked with basic medical supplies, there were no doctors, nurses, or even paramedics in the village to dispense or administer these supplies. The closest medical facility is several hours away—and this, only when the roads are passable—in the town of Ilam. The villagers rely primarily on local herbal lore for the treatment of common ailments, and as for serious injuries or life-threatening diseases, as one man told me, “All we can do is pray to the gods.”
Gorkhey has not always been such a backwater town. Up until the 1980s, and certainly during the first half of the twentieth century, the town hosted the central marketplace, or bazaar, for the surrounding region—in part, again, due to its proximity to the Indian border. And in fact, just six weeks prior to my arrival, the town had reopened, after a twenty-five year hiatus, a bazaar on Wednesdays that was drawing several thousand people. Furthermore, Gorkhey was also, formerly, the starting place for the Sandakphu trek and, consequently, profited from the beginnings of Nepal’s tourist trade: Sandakphu is the only point in either India or Nepal where the Himalayas from Bhutan in the east to Dhaulagiri and Annapurna in the west, and including four out of five of the world’s highest peaks, are visible in one, unbroken panorama. The Sandakphu trek gateway function has long since been ceded to Manebhanjang by virtue of its adequate road access and higher elevation.
When we reached Gorkhey, I was shown to a tiny guestroom in a small shopkeeper’s house. The window looked out on the main street. Later, we walked some fifty yards up the street to another small storefront and invited ourselves into the kitchen: we ate all of our meals in this same kitchen—that evening; the morning, noon, and evening of the following day; and the morning of our final departure. Every meal consisted of rice with dhal (lentils) and some sort of curry—vegetable, chicken, or egg. Of moderately vegetarian persuasion by habit (a vegetarian who cheats, as I like to say), I found this food both tasty and satisfying.
That first evening, several of the locals joined us in the kitchen. English was limited, and while I relied upon my guide for interpretation, far more was being said than was filtered down. I gathered, however, that they were genuinely curious as to what should bring me to their village, where foreigners of any kind, and Westerners in particular, were a rarity.
When it was explained that I was there to do research on Kariappa, they responded with a knowing nod. In all, four Japanese groups from the Tempūkai had visited Gorkhey—three more after the first one in 1993—and the most recent one, in December of 2013, had hosted a picnic dinner at the edge of the town that attracted hundreds, maybe even over a thousand people. Furthermore, just one month prior to my arrival, a Japanese cameraman and his crew had arrived by helicopter with an eye to later do a documentary. Now, they were being lead to believe, Kariappa had caught on with not only the Japanese but also the Americans! This Kariappa of theirs was, undeniably, a most valuable asset.
Upon prying only slightly further, however, I discovered that the name Kariappa had arrived with the Japanese: No one in Gorkhey had heard of Kariappa prior to the arrival of Shimizu’s group in 1993.
What they did know was that, up until 1950, a hermit or fakir, known by the name Koribaba, had lived on a grassy patch of riverbank located just below the village. Koribaba was said to have spent long hours in meditation each day atop a huge boulder that sat in the middle of the river.
This marked the beginning of my inquiry into the origins of a name—an inquiry, the result of which, as it involves the workings of a language with which I am unfamiliar and was conducted through the medium of my guide and one other young man from the village who spoke good but imperfect English, I can be only moderately confident. But what I understand to be so regarding this name is as follows: First, kori is a derivative of kora, the Nepali word for river. Second, baba is the common term for father or grandfather, and by extension, a tittle of respect applied to any elder male fulfilling a fatherly or grandfatherly role; baba is used in this way by not only the peoples of Nepal but also most of the peoples of northern India. Taken together, then, “Koribaba” was, evidently, a title conferred by the villagers on the fakir, for it describes a revered old man they saw sitting every day by the river.
That, however, is not the end of the story. The Nepali script is syllabic, and within this script, as it was explained to me, the syllabic character for ka is sometimes read, not ka, but ko. That is, the alphabetical renditions of the Nepali characters used to write what sounds like kori and kora are, in fact, kari and kara. Nakamura, if working, not from what he heard, but from what he was told to be the English spelling of his teacher’s name, would have transcribed the first syllable of that name into Japanese using the katakana character for the syllable ka.
Furthermore, appa, as in Kariappa, can have exactly the same meaning as baba in Koribaba. In many of the languages and dialects of southern India, for example, people call their fathers and grandfathers “appa” in just the same way that northern Indians call their fathers and grandfathers “baba.” Kariappa and Koribaba, then, appear to be the same name as rendered in two different dialects.
But why, then, does Nakamura refer to his teacher as Kariappa if this was not the name used by the people of Gorkhey? This, no one could explain. Was Kariappa, perhaps, originally from South India?
Later, while in Darjeeling, I learned that the title appa is not entirely foreign to Nepal. Navin Tamang, the man in Darjeeling who organized my trip, belongs, as his name indicates, to the Tamang tribe or clan, one of several Nepali tribes who inherited genes from Genghis Khan and his warriors when they invaded Tibet in the thirteenth century; the Tamang are among the tribes that, collectively, make up the Gurkhas, the acclaimed soldiers of mettle employed by the British Raj from the early nineteenth century through the end of the Second World War. In the Tamang dialect, Navin told me, fathers and grandfathers are addressed as “appa,” not “baba.”
To be clear, not all of the Gurkhas call their fathers “appa”; but at the very least, one tribe, the Tamang, does. Furthermore, Gorkha, from which the town of Gorkhey derives its name, is an alternate spelling of Gurkha; Gorkhey is a name for a town that was originally inhabited by Gurkhas. Were there other people living there when Tempū visited who might have referred to their fathers as “appa” rather than “baba”? No one I spoke to had any knowledge or evidence to support such a thesis.
Provokingly, in at least one place in his writings, Tempū identifies Kariappa as being of Lepcha ethnicity. The Lepcha’s are a mountain people with distinctively oriental features who inhabit the regions directly surrounding Kanchenjunga, including Sikkim, northern parts of West Bengal, and the Ilam District of eastern Nepal, in which Gorkhey is located. They also, I am told, use the title “appa” to address their fathers. So far, the connection holds, but subsequently it breaks down: the Lepcha are predominantly Buddhist, and the likelihood that one of them would have had the wherewithal, in the nineteenth century, to pursue an English education—and moreover, then to pursue yoga, presumably under a Hindu master—is, my Gorkhey associates agree, too remote to deserve consideration. Nakamura probably misunderstood something he was told or overheard.
The similarity between the two names is too close to be coincidental, and we can, I believe, reasonably assume that Kariappa and Koribaba are the same man. But whether Kariappa or Koribaba, the name is no more than a nickname given him by the villagers; the sage in question must have also had a proper name. As I have already noted, the circumstances of the meeting between Nakamura and Kariappa in Cairo tell us that Kariappa enjoyed some kind of reputation among the British community in India as well as among Indians, and the absence of any record of a yogi named Kariappa from this time suggests that he was known outside of Gorkhey by another name. The greater mystery is still, just who was Kariappa/Koribaba? Where did he come from? From what teacher or in what lineage did he derive his knowledge of yoga?
To these questions, the people of Gorkhey had no answers. Even the notion that their beloved village fakir should have, on at least one occasion, travelled overseas to far-off England was news. This is all the more remarkable given that, in at least one of the transcripts of Tempū’s talks, Tempū asserts that Kariappa’s visit to England was not an isolated occurrence but one of several, perhaps even many, such visits.
Then again, the lack of knowledge by people in Gorkhey with regard to Kariappa—his name, his provenance, and his reputation outside of Gorkhey—may not be so remarkable after all. As a Brahmin, the uppermost caste in Indian and Nepali society, Kariappa may have had little actual contact with the villagers. The villagers, while charitably providing Kariappa and his disciples with grain and vegetables, would have been preoccupied with the concerns of their own livelihoods and may have otherwise left him alone. Furthermore, if Kariappa was not native to Gorkhey, as the difference in naming—Kariappa as opposed to Koribaba—suggests, then he may also not have spoken the local, Gorkhey dialect.
Several people in Gorkhey intimated to me that Koribaba was also a healer with considerable knowledge of herbal medicine; if so, then this would explain his usefulness to the village and the motivation for their charity. That said, it was not clear to me whether this was information passed down from the elder generation or whether it was an assumption made by the villagers after hearing the story of Nakamura and his cure as it was related to them by their Japanese visitors.
Memory is fallible, and memory across generations is more fallible still. I met no one in the village with firsthand knowledge of Koribaba: the saint departed Gorkhey in 1950, so anyone with such firsthand knowledge would have had to be at least seventy years old—and even then, that memory would be an early childhood one. What people in Gorkhey know today is based, predominantly, on what they heard from their parents and grandparents, and what those parents and grandparents remember is largely dependent upon how much interest they took in Koribaba’s existence.
The villagers did tell me the story of Koribaba’s departure from Gorkhey. In 1950, there was a flood. The river rose so high as to have covered the top of Koribaba’s rock, a height of at least four meters (twelve feet) above the current river level. The flood caused considerable damage to the village and also washed away Koribaba’s hut on the riverbank. Koribaba, it was said, waited patiently by the river while the flood raged, expecting that someone would come to his assistance. But when no one did—the villagers were, undoubtedly, preoccupied with the aftereffects of the flood in their village—he simply picked up his things and moved on.
Where he went, no one in the village knew. But by telephone I was introduced to a man who had grown up in Gorkhey—his older brother was one of the people who joined us in the kitchen the evening of our arrival—and who currently runs a small retail business in Katmandu. The man spoke good English (his older brother did not) and explained to me over the phone that he has been conducting research of his own into the story of Kariappa/Koribaba. He has availed himself of historical archives in Katmandu and has even succeeded in arousing the interest of the Nepal Archeological Society.
According to what he told me, the man called Koribaba shows up in Katmandu several years after his disappearance from Gorkhey and is known to have lived there for several years—before disappearing a final time. More intriguing, the temple at which he is said to have stayed, Pashupatinath, venerating the god Shiva, is of South Indian provenance and, even today, largely maintained by South Indian Brahmins.
I have subsequently been in touch with this man by email and have established that he escaped injury during the recent earthquake. The earthquake has, however, disrupted my tentative plans to visit. (Continued.)