Former Nazi soldier fights to save Nepalese monastery

Indo-Asian News Service, Oct 14, 2004

Kathmandu, Nepal -- At the age of 93, a former Nazi soldier has taken up a new battle -- fighting to restore a 200-year-old Buddhist centre in Nepal ravaged by time, nature and human hands.

Conscripted into Hitler's army against his wishes, Karl Henrik Wagner was part of the troops that occupied Norway in the spring of 1940. More than six decades later, Wagner came to Nepal in 2001 to celebrate his 90th birthday and retrace a journey he had undertaken way back in the 1960s.

When he went to Tukche village in the remote northern district of Mustang, he was shocked to see its principal cultural and religious site, the Chhairo monastery, in a state of dilapidation.

He is back again in this Himalayan kingdom to join in the efforts to save the monastery from complete ruin.

Three years ago, driven by the awareness that an important part of Thakali - people of Tibetan origin living in Mustang - culture and heritage was on the verge of destruction, two local groups decided to restore the monastery.

The Chhairo Gompa Restoration Community and the Himalayan Buddhist Conservation Foundation have been joined by two American organisations, John Sanday Associates, who will supervise the repair and rehabilitation, and the Cultural Restoration Tourism Project, that is heading the fund-raising and overall implementation.

And Wagner -- who long ago became a Buddhist and adopted the name Sugata -- decided to put up for sale 400 of his photographs and donate the proceedings.

The black and white photographs would be any historian's delight, recording events as diverse as the funeral of King Tribhuvan, grandfather of the present king, and the flight of Tibetan refugees from Mustang.

This month, as Sugata arrived on his seventh visit to the country, the photographs as historic documentation have been reinforced by the launch of his biography "Bird of Passage", authored by New Delhi-based environmental activist Rachel Kellett.

Reflecting on the past and the epic journey that brought him to Nepal for the first time with his wife in 1954, he said: "My heart was on the side of the underdog Norwegians and in 1943 I deserted."

The spry 93-year-old, whose razor-sharp memory would put a computer to shame, recalled how he skied across the border into Sweden that had remained neutral, and was a haven to hundreds of refugees of every nationality pouring in every day.

"Had I been captured, I could have been put to death. But there were over one million refugees in Sweden and I managed to survive."

He became a painter, married a Swedish girl and both joined the Theosophical Society.

It was there that the Wagners learned about Buddhism and resolved to travel to Sarnath in India and Swayambhunath in Nepal, two places holy to Buddhists.

It was a long journey since the Wagners couldn't afford to fly. From Stockholm they went to Stuttgart, Basra in Iraq and from there by boat to Bombay (now Mumbai). A train took them to Sarnath and they travelled back to Patna from where a tiny Dakota flew them to Kathmandu that had just opened to foreigners.

In 1954, both he and his wife Ingrid became Buddhists and Wagner was renamed Sugata.

Though the war was over and he was free to return to Germany, he refused to do so, opting to become a Norwegian.

In 1960, he returned to Nepal on the invitation of a Nepalese friend who asked him to the Devil Dance, an esoteric rite practised by the Thakali community.

The masked dance symbolised the destruction of evil power and bringing peace worldwide.

Though Sugata took hundreds of photographs, the Buddhist priests frowned upon the idea of the sacred rite being put to commercial use and the images stayed in storage for four decades.

When he returned, it was only to see that the Chhairo monastery had been ravaged by robbers, the vagaries of weather and sheer neglect. China's annexation of Tibet in 1950-51 had triggered an exodus from Mustang, which was part of the ancient Tibetan kingdom. The last monks had left the monastery in the 1970s.

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