Other cultures have recurringly used India as a foil to define their own
historical moments: to reassure or to doubt themselves.
One cold and overcast summer day during the mid-1980s, I visited the ruins of the great fifteenth-century monastic complex of Ganden in Central Tibet. It was there, at this spectacular 4,000-metre hilltop site, that I unexpectedly learned to consider India from an entirely new perspective. At a point along the famous pilgrimage path that encircles Ganden, I came upon a group of Tibetan pilgrims inspecting a deep crevice in a rock face. When I enquired of an elderly man among the group about the significance of this spot, he ventured with earnest that it was a natural portal or “door” leading to a long underground passage or tunnel. Whoever managed to enter this passage and travel along it, he said, would, with sufficient faith and perseverance, eventually emerge once again in India. And, he confidently assured me, the traveller would resurface at no lesser place than the Vajrāsana or “Adamantine Throne” at Bodh Gayā on the plains of India, at the precise spot where Buddhists believe that the Buddha attained his profound awakening some two and a half millennia ago. The Vajrāsana is considered the most potent of all Buddhist holy places, a site that traditionally minded Tibetans still maintain is the very “centre of the world.” The new information I was being offered intrigued me. I immediately began to imagine the journey through this underground, subcontinental passage and what it must be like to reemerge in oppressively hot and dusty premon-