How the British came to the rescue of a Buddhist prayer wheel in Himachal

by Abhilash Gaur, Times of India, July 8, 2016

Ladakh, India -- One thing the British learnt from the Mutiny of 1857 was not to grease their Indian troops’ cartridges with lard and beef tallow.

A little thing like that nearly cost them Empire. Although they regularly set Hindus and Muslims against each other, by themselves they were careful not to ruffle religious feathers on any side, not even of the most peaceable Buddhists in the Himalayas.

Back in 1914, when Simla was enjoying its first full year of electric power from the newly opened powerhouse at Chaba, a small problem arose. The powerhouse had been built on the left bank of the mighty Sutlej but it drew power from the waters of a stream named Nauti that had barely enough water in the summer months for the turbines at Chaba.

For years, villages beside this stream and its tributaries had used waterwheels to turn their corn and rice mills, and one of the villages—“a tiny Ladakhi village behind Simla,” said a report dated October 24, 1914—used its stream to turn a large prayer wheel.

“The Ladakhis belong to the Lamaistic, or Tibetan branch of Buddhists, a unique feature of whose worship is the use of the prayer wheel,” explained the syndicated report published in Stawell News and Pleasant Creek Chronicle, besides many other foreign papers. The wheel spun all day, and inside it hundreds of tumbling mantras sent up prayers to earn merit for the village.

Eager to run the Chaba hydel plant at full load in summer, the government decided that “the flow of a number of little streams which are driven on for water to drive the rice and prayer wheels of several small villages will be, for a part of the year, at least, entirely cut off.”

The Ladakhi village’s prayer wheel was going to stall. But then came another government order. “Where the owners of waterwheels, whose power will be interfered with by the Simla project, do not elect to accept a money compensation for their loss, a motor shall be installed for them and power furnished free of charge.” Free motor and free power.

Thanks to the government’s generosity, the Ladakhi village probably had the distinction of being the first in the world to run a prayer wheel with electric power. The reporter joked: “The wheel in question in sending up the first electrically driven prayers…will accomplish a feat that will make the latest wonders of the wireless pale into insignificance by comparison.”