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The legend of Nathu La

As China and India open their trading route today at Nathu La, Claude Arpi looks back at the historic pass.

Every pass has a legend, but perhaps more than any other the Nathu La ('la' means pass in Tibetan) has a singular history.

It has been for centuries the Gate to Tibet, the Forbidden Land. Beyond its summit was the Chumbi Valley, the entrance to the most mysterious place on earth.

In 1955, Apa Pant was a senior Indian Foreign Service officer posted as political officer in Sikkim. It was an important post as the PO, though stationed in Sikkim, looked after Tibet affairs, and had to periodically undertake the long journey to Lhasa, the capital of the Land of Snows.

In his memoirs, the diplomat narrates an interesting incident:

'Crossing very high passes in the blizzard can be extremely trying. In 1955, in August, I and my family crossed the Nathu La into Tibet in a terrible snow-storm. We lost three mules and suffered a miserable eights hours of dangerous descent into the Chumbi Valley, the snow changing to sleet and wet as we got lower. About thirteen miles into Tibet there is an ancient monastery, where lived the Venerable Ajo Rimpoche. We sought refuge there, and he gave us some warm Tibetan tea mixed with soda, salt and yak butter (as a compensation there were also Huntley & Palmer biscuits). Anything would have been comfort and luxury after the ordeal we had been through.'

Pant told the 97-year-old lama how difficult it had been to cross through Nathu-la and 'how our two young children had suffered.'

The lama smiled and told him: 'Honourable Sir, why did you not let me know that you were travelling? I could have done something about it.'

Later Sonam Kazi, a Sikkimese working for India's ministry of external affairs and Pant's interpreter, told him, 'Ajo Rimpoche is believed to possess miraculous powers, and that there would be no harm at all in letting him know in advance when next we had to cross the Nathu La.'

Pant did so before each of his 13 following crossings of the pass in all seasons. He never encountered any problem.

This story is symbolic of Nathu La, a passage between two worlds: on one side an Indian subcontinent just emerging from two centuries of colonisation, on the other the Tibetans and their ancient spiritual tradition.

Nathu La was the meeting point.

In a strange coincidence, the famous pass will reopen for the first time in 44 years on July 6, the day the Dalai Lama turns 71. Have South Block's mandarins or Beijing's officials selected the date on purpose? It is doubtful.

Image: A truck winds past a billboard on the proposed re-opening of the Nathu La Pass on the India-China border between India's Sikkim state and China's Tibet region, at Bardang, some 30 km south of Sikkim's capital Gangtok.

Photograph: Deshkalyan Chowdhury/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier Slide Show: Himalayan business pass


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