The War of Attrition

SANTOSH SUBBA

Chakdor Namgyal was incensed by Pedi Wangmo’s machinations that forced his flight to Tibet and Sikkim’s loss of territories to Bhutan. He stormed out the palace to consult the Lama Jigme Pao who had accompanied him from Tibet. He highly venerated Jigme Pao. Chagdor visited Jigme Pao’s quarters instead of sending for him whenever he consulted Jigme Pao on personal matters. 

As he rushed towards Jigme Pao’s quarters, he heard Gyurmed calling out to him -“Appa!” He turned around and saw Gyurmed, barely 6 years old, looking at him smiling, holding his mother Lho Ghyelma’s hand, at the edge of the palace garden.

Chagdor dashed towards Gyurmed, who let go of his mother’s hand, ran forward and jumped onto Chagdor’s arms. Chagdor walked up to Lho Ghyelma, who nodded as he approached her. He gently put Gyurmed down, stepped back a couple of paces, and scanned them. 

He gazed at them for a long time, quietly. “Your Highness, is everything alright?”, enquired Lho Ghyelma, appearing a little concerned. “Yes, everything is fine. I got to go.”, said Chadgor dreamily. He turned and swiftly walked towards Jigme Pao’s quarters. Lho Ghyelma shook her head, puzzled.

Chagdor’s mind was made up when he entered Jigme Pao’s quarters. “Your Holiness, I’ve decided not to punish Pedi Wangmo.”, Chagdor said calmly. Jigme Pao closed his eyes, remained quiet for sometime and said, with his eyes still closed, “Has anything developed that made you change your mind, Your Highness?”

“Your Holiness, today in Gyurmed I saw myself when I was his age. It reminded me of how fondly I used to play with Pedi Wangmo. I’ve no desire to pursue and punish her like I wanted to.”, said Chagdor gravely.

“Your Highness,”, spoke Jigme Pao determinedly, “let us then direct our efforts to thwart *Rabgye’s attempt to encroach upon our territory. I, however, urge Your Highness to keep an eye out for any plot Pedi Wangmo might be devising.” 

When Chagdor Namgyal was gone, Jigme Pao thought, “The years His Highness spent in Tibet has been more than worthwhile. Living among Lhasa’s learned priests has turned His Highness into a devout Buddhist, committed to compassion, religion and learning. Alas, compassion counts for zilch in the hideous game of power.”

~~~

Doctor sat behind a huge wooden table. On it were strewn an assortment of cloth and hide pouches, vials with potions of varied colours, claws of eagle, tusks of wild boar and numerous other paraphernalia. 

The room was dimly lit by two lanterns, and Doctor was absorbed in writing on his diary. A soft double knock at the door startled him. He put down his diary, limped to the door and pushed it ajar. He almost shrieked when his eyes fell upon the visitor.

“Your Highness Princess Wangmo, at this hour!”, Doctor exclaimed, and bowed his head. “Won’t you invite me in, Doctor? It’s pretty cold here.”, broke Pedi Wangmo, smiling mysteriously. Doctor quickly opened the door. 

Pedi Wangmo stormed in and seated herself at Doctor’s chair. Her eyes fell upon Doctor’s diary. “Writing herb combinations, eh? Well, I’ve come to offer you a deal I’m sure you won’t refuse.”, said Pedi Wangmo, rising from the chair.

“But Your Highness, I will be executed if His Highness even so much as catches a whiff of it.”, Doctor protested feebly upon hearing Pedi Wangmo’s deal.

“And do you suppose you won’t be publicly executed if I expose your lecherous misdeeds? I know how many women you’ve dishonoured in the garb of treating them with your herbs and elixirs.”, Pedi Wangmo hissed threateningly, gazing intently at Doctor. Beads of perspiration mushroomed on Doctor’s forehead. He ran his tongue on his lips and gulped his spit as if his throat was parched. Pedi Wangmo smirked victoriously. 

Readying to leave, Pedi Wangmo drew closer to Doctor and hissed into his ear, “I know what you did to Dolma. A handsome reward awaits you at the completion of this mission. Fail me and be hanged.” Pedi Wangmo flew out of Doctor’s room and vanished into darkness. Doctor wiped his perspiration and slumped in his chair. His face contorted with terror.

~~~

Chagdor Namgyal was engrossed in studying the Lepcha language in which he had developed passionate interest lately. A guard announced one of his ministers. He signalled to let the minister in. “Your Highness,”, the Minister spoke without sitting down, “the Bhutanese army has invaded!” 

“So the inevitable has happened. These marauders will tire me out to death.”, Chagdor thought. He rose and rushed towards the conference hall where all his ministers and generals were arguing hotly.

As soon as Chagdor seated himself, one of his ministers rose and bowed reverentially. Chagdor signalled him to speak. “Your highness, this time, Bhutan has invaded with a larger force, and one of our own has joined forces with them.”, blurted the minister in one breath.

“Who has joined our enemy?”, demanded Chagdor. “Yungthing Arub, Your Highness.”, exclaimed the minister, unable to hide his disbelief.

“Oh, so that was why Ngawang Tshering didn’t kill him even after capturing him. He won Yungthing Arub over to his side to use him as a Trojan Horse. No wonder then it was so easy to secure his release.”, a train of thought invaded Chagdor. But he quickly brushed aside his thoughts and sat with his ablest generals and ministers to chalk out a strategy to foil the Bhutanese expansionism.

The war continued for several months. The Bhutanese forces came deeper into Sikkim, capturing huge tracts of land. However, once they reached Rangpo, their advance was firmly halted by the Sikkimese army. As neither side failed to gain any decisive edge, the ferocity of the war waned. 

The Bhutanese army remained fortified just a mile away from Rangpo. They, however, failed to pierce further inside Sikkim, nor could the Sikkimese army drive them back. This impasse led to redrawing of a de-facto new borders. Sikkim shrank while Bhutan expanded.

~~~

Chagdor Namgyal was distressed at having lost Kalimpong and Rhenock to Bhutan. He had started looking far too old for a man of late twenties. Distress and anxiety wrapped around him like a boa and starting taking a toll on his health. He took refuge in religion. 

Seizing the opportunity, a Tibetan doctor of some renown had endeared himself to Chagdor and had thrown himself at Chagdor’s service with a promise to restore his failing health.

Doctor entered the Chogyal’s room. He bowed reverentially before the Chogyal  who was absorbed in reading. Chagdor signalled him to sit at the table arranged especially for Doctor. He unpacked his bag and placed some of the cloth and hide pouches and vials on the table. 

His hands were trembling lightly as he was unpacking. He wanted to throw everything and run away, but Pedi Wangmo’s threat rang in his ear, “Fail me and be hanged.” Trembling slightly, he mixed and stirred herbs and potions in a glass. He offered Chagdor the greenish concoction, with his head bowed.

“Why are you sweating in such a cold weather? I’m almost shivering.”, enquired Chagdor smiling, taking the glass from him. Doctor’s knees almost gave way. “Your Highness, I walked faster than usual today, almost ran, so that I’m not late. That’s why.”, Doctor barely managed to utter. 

Chagdor signalled him to leave. He quickly collected his pouches and vials in his bag, bowed low and he rushed out of the room. He slowed down at the door, and stole a furtive glance at Chagdor. He saw Chagdor emptying the greenish potion. 

A cold smile of accomplishment got painted on Doctor’s face. Wiping his beads of perspiration from his forehead, he hurriedly limped out of the palace.

Santosh Subba is a bibliophile to the core with an eye for politics. He loves staring at the incoming call till it disconnects.

Author’s Note: Sikkim’s history is very interesting – with all the intrigues inevitable in monarchy or any form of government for that matter. History told as-a-matter-of-factly appears quite bland unless one is interested in the subject. There are also gaps in history about which we can only hypothesise for want of written records and other evidences. 

How about “fictionalising” history, retelling them, filling gaps and adding meat to the bare bones, but without actually distorting it?  Well, I just tried ‘fictionalising’ a section of Sikkim’s history about conflict between the third Chogyal Chagdor Namgyal and his half sister, Pedi Wangmo. 

This is NOT reinterpretation of Sikkim’s history and must not be treated as such. I’ve tried filling the historical gaps with my own imagination which must not be construed as my attempt to distort history. Anyone who’s read Sikkim’s history will be able to tell where history ends and fiction begins. I’d be happy to answer questions regarding why I imagined the historical figures the way I did.

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