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Valley of Flowers, a Buddhist “fantasy” in the Himalayas

ROBERTO E. GARCÍA

When talking about Buddhist cinema, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is a film portraying the lives of monks, exploring the benefits of meditation for mental health or the ethical virtues of the teachings, some of the topics of current interest to Buddhist practitioners. It is more unusual to find film productions that explore aspects of Buddhism that have little appeal to modern thinking, but are quite common in traditional Buddhism, for example: spirits as a constant dangerous presence; karmic stories that span several lifetimes; redemption stories of criminal characters who amend their paths through the power of Buddhist teachings, among other subjects.

Such is the case of Valley of Flowers (2006) by the Indian filmmaker Pan Nalin, who achieved worldwide acclaim with his film Samsara (2001), in which he portrays the moral downfall of a Buddhist monk in Ladakh. Unlike Samsara, where he directly addresses Buddhist monastic issues, in Valley of Flowers Nalin develops a tragic love story set against the backdrop of the Himalayan environment, more specifically Ladakhi, where different ethnic and religious identities such as Buddhism, Bön and Shaivism coexist. Thus, Nalin manages to embed his story in a complex social and cultural environment, in which Buddhism is the predominant player, but not the only one. While acknowledging this reality in his film, Nalin clearly adopts a Buddhist perspective in his narrative, which is framed by the doctrines of karma, transience, the roots of good and evil, and the dominance of Buddhist power over other spiritual forces.

Valley of Flowers is based on the novel Love Magic and Black Magic (Magie d’amour et magie noir; Scenes du Tibet inconnu, 1938) by Alexandra David-Néel, the fascinating Belgian-French traveller and writer who first visited Tibet in 1924. Although it is an inspiration rather than an adaptation of the novel, Nalin’s film draws on the legendary world narrated by the traveller and masterfully recreates it in stunning settings in the Ladakh region, including monasteries, villages and high mountain areas, many of which are extremely difficult to access. In addition, the careful work of the production, especially in terms of costumes (by Natasha de Betak) and the many props, gives the staging an atmosphere of enormous realism, which in itself is a great artistic achievement for the director and his team, as well as an extraordinary visual delight for the viewer.

But what kind of film is Valley of Flowers? To be honest, it is difficult to say. It is a production that cannot be categorised into a single genre. It is a road movie, a thriller, a crime and even a horror film all at the same time, but first and foremost it is a Buddhist romantic “fantasy”. Now, I should point out here that, although I describe it as a “fantasy”, the elements that may seem fantastic to the modern viewer are not so from a traditional Buddhist perspective. The use of magic, the presence of protective and evil spirits, the possession of superhuman powers and other prodigies have been part of the Buddhist imagery since its inception, so in a sense this film is faithful to ancient Buddhist stories that quite naturally include such “wondrous” elements.

The plot of the film can be summarised as follows (spoiler alert!). In the early 19th century, a bandit named Jalan (literally “Blazing”, played by Indian Milind Soman) leads a gang of charismatic and multi-ethnic thieves who loot and plunder convoys passing through the Himalayan region of Ladakh. During a robbery, he meets Ushna (literally “Burning”, played by the French Mylène Jampanoï), a mysterious young woman who claims to have seen him in her dreams and who is determined to follow him. Ushna gradually awakens Jalan’s passion, as well as the gang’s support, helping them to steal more and more valuable things. However, on the trail of these criminals is a character known as the Yeti (played by the famous Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah), a free interpretation of the legendary creature that according to local testimonies inhabit some Himalayan regions. In Nalin’s film, the Yeti is fully human, has a fondness for alcoholic beverages and is devoted to taming dangerous spirits. Certain aspects of the character bring him close to the mahāsiddhas, the highly realized Buddhist tantric practitioners, some of whom, such as Maitrīpa, are associated with the consumption of alcohol, while others, such as Padmasambhava, are depicted as great appeasers of hostile spirits. Consistent with these iconic figures of Buddhism in the region, the Yeti is portrayed as a guardian and protector of the dharma wielding with a kangling, a trumpet made from a human femur, and a drum called ḍamaru, two objects that are used in tantric rituals in Tibetan Buddhism, and whose uses include the ability to summon and subdue dangerous entities, both external and mental. As anyone watching the film will realise, the Yeti is determined to use his tools of power to subjugate the lovers, in whom it is possible to find more than one evil and literally “demonic” factor.

Still from Valley of Flowers

Pan Nalin’s film does not patronise the couple of love-struck bandits and their criminal transgressions. Nor does it express moralistic judgement on this couple who could well be a Himalayan precursor of Bonnie and Clyde. In the style of the karmic tales of traditional Buddhism, it rather devotes itself to presenting the dire consequences of the actions they themselves have created. Imbued with the theft of increasingly valuable things, not only material but also energetic and spiritual in nature (such as the good fortune of others, their powers and even their energy and life-breath), Jalan and Ushna face the relentless inevitability of their own karma.

The elixir of immortality, which at one point they manage to steal from an evil yogi, becomes a poison that bestows human mortality on the enigmatic Ushna -a powerful entity who has recklessly crossed the barriers between the realms of beings and is now trapped between worlds- and binds Jalan to live an existence of hundreds of years without being able to experience death, while the two are bound only by the painful memory of each other. In Jalan’s case, this condition of unwanted immortality, marked by the longing and absence of his beloved, leads him to procure the assisted death of those who ask for it, taking the narrative to 21st century Japan, where the last meeting between the lovers and the Yeti will take place, who will finally restore order, drawing on the power of the Buddha who, according to him “is the one who can turn conflict into collaboration”.

Several Buddhist doctrinal aspects are present throughout the film, however perhaps the most notable are the constant references to the transgression of the second Buddhist precept, abstention from stealing, and its karmic consequences. Jalan and Ushna are not monastics; however, their story unfolds in a cultural environment where Buddhist ideas and practices predominate, and where the presence of powers associated with Buddhism is taken for granted. Thus, the Yeti serves as the guardian of the dharma and of the regions where Buddha’s power reigns, and his task is to bring the criminal couple to justice, but above all to make it clear to them that their actions are subject to the inexorability of karma, so that their punishment is not something imposed from outside, but something gradually built up through their own actions.

The Buddhist vein running through Valley of Flowers is by no means obvious. It appears here and there through metaphors that refer to various ideas central to the teaching of the Buddhas. One specific example of this is the symbolism of the flower throughout the film. The flower represents the joy of the senses, the pleasure of being alive and experiencing the world intensely, just as Jalan and Ushna do. That is why their purpose is to retreat to the safety of a place known as the Valley of Flowers, a region located in Uttarakhand, a state in northern India. In their vision, this valley would represent an eternal, unfading region where the couple could enjoy the immortality they had stolen. But in Buddhism, eternal happiness cannot be stolen. Neither the bliss of nirvana nor the joy of the Pure Lands, described in the sūtras of the mahāyāna (and which, by the way, overflow with unfading flowers made of precious stones), can be obtained through robbery. Only merit, the cultivation of virtue and wisdom can lead to them. In contrast to this, the Yeti offers the couple a flower, a Buddhist symbol of transient pleasure, of the mortality of beings, of impermanence (one of the hallmarks of right view according to Buddhism), thus showing them the inevitability of their death and separation.

The conclusion of Pan Nalin’s film is tremendous and profoundly Buddhist. There is no passion without suffering, no pleasure without decadence, no evil act without fruition. However, it also points out that right understanding leads to balance. After all, Buddhism is a system that teaches how to transit from a state of disruption and conflict to one of mental healing and balance. From this perspective, Valley of Flowers can be seen as a great metaphor for the dangers of the mind and the need to keep its harmful manifestations under control. Jalan and Ushna’s is a world where it is possible to identify evil on the outside, as part of people’s behaviour, as a characteristic of certain human or non-human characters, who might be thought to be intrinsically evil, or at least to have a tendency to act with malignity. However, the film points out that the real evil, the genuine evil, is not to be found outside of us; it is in our own minds, in harmful states of mind: it is an enemy that lurks from within. It is not fortuitous that the film opens with the following quote attributed to Milarepa, the great Buddhist sage of the Himalayan region:

” What looks like a demon, which is called a “demon”

That is recognised as a demon, exists within the

human being and disappears with him”.

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Roberto E. García is a translator of Sanskrit and pāli and a scholar of Indian Buddhist narrative traditions. He is currently Professor-Researcher of Buddhist Studies at the Centro de Estudios de Asia y África (CEAA) of El Colegio de México, where he conducts research on the lineages of regal authority in Indian Buddhist literature and on the history of Buddhism in Mexico. He has published several academic essays on Buddhist literature and culture. His publications include the book Jatakas, before the Buddha, Buddhist tales from India (JātakasAntes del Buda. Relatos budistas de la India), a direct translation from the pāḷi of Buddha’s past life stories. From 2015 to 2017 he was a researcher and translator at the Buddhist Translators Workbench, a Sanskrit lexicography project of the Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages in Berkeley, California.

*This article is part of a special issue “Buddhism and Film”  in Buddhistdoor en Español.

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