Chorten of The Himalayan Club

Colonel Ashok Abbey

When I first became member of the Himalayan Club in 1994, I was intrigued by a curious looking design on the application form, which was meshed between the words H and C. That, it was the crest of the Himalayan Club was evident, but what exactly was this design, got me thinking. Subsequently, when I received my first volume of the Himalayan Journal, a prized possession of any club member, with the same crest, my imagination was truly fired. Prima facie, it resembled a military symbol, akin to that of a temple on a Survey of India map, yet it was different...... very different!

As I gathered more information and knowledge about the club and its rich heritage, I learnt that the Himalayan Club logo was a chorten, a deeply revered Buddhist structure. While I had seen a number of chortens during my service and climbing expeditions to the Himalaya, yet I knew very little of them. I was fortunate to be at that time serving at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) Uttarkashi, where the Chief Instructor of the institute, Sonam Sangbu, a devout Buddhist from Darjeeling, gave me a good insight into this little, but a truly grand structure. As time passed, I gathered a lot of information about chortens, which fascinated me then and indeed continues to do so till date. Yet many questions remained unanswered with relation to the Himalayan Club, such as who drew the Himalayan Club logo? Who approved it? Why was the chorten chosen as the club insignia? These lurking questions galvanised me into action and I started interacting with a number of our club members on the subject.

My generation of club members were mostly unaware and so I finally turned to our senior fraternity. Even then I must confess, that the answers to my queries were not easily forthcoming, but finally persistence paid off and I was rewarded. With assistance from the current Honorary Editor of the Himalayan Journal and his dedicated team of Assistant Honorary Editors, and guidance from our President Emeritus, I finally got some answers which I was looking for. These were indeed revelations.

It is interesting to note that when the club was founded in 1928, there was no talk then of adopting the chorten as the Himalayan Club logo. Nor is there any mention of it in the first volume of the Himalayan Journal published in 1929.1

The chorten in simple terms is a dedicatory building or a mausoleum, erected in the honour of the holy Buddhas or Bodhisatwas. The Gazetteer of Kashmir and Ladakh describes the chorten as : Monumental erections in Tibet; usually built near villages and monasteries. They are receptacles of the ashes of defunct lamas and lay Buddhists of distinction, and are set around the village limits in the belief that the souls of the departed still take an interest in the scenes of their earthly life, and protect the precincts of their former habitations.

The Chorten or Chhorten or Churten or Chhodten as it is called in Tibet, is also known as the Stupa in India, the Dagoba in Sri Lanka, Chaitya in Nepal, Candi in Indonesia and Malaysia, Chedi in Thailand and Chedey in Cambodia. Chorten is derived from the Sanskrit word of Chaitya, which means an ‘offering receptacle’. Similarly the word Stupa in Sanskrit is derived from the word ‘pile’ akin to a heap of stones.

The chorten as a receptacle of the enlightened Buddha, symbolises the eternalness of his teachings. It symbolises the five purified elements of nature, which are forever present in nature. Broadly speaking the four cardinal sided base of a chorten represents the earth. The vase or the hemispherical dome represents the element of water. The thirteen umbrellas one above the other, represent the element of fire. The upper lotus parasol and the moon crescent represents the element of air and the sun and the high point, the element of space.

The chorten also represents Buddha in a state of deep meditation. The square base of the chorten is the throne on which the Buddha sits in a perennial state of vajrasana. The vase symbolises the torso and the upper body. The conical spire of thirteen wheels, represents Buddha’s head protuberance and crown. The moon, the sun and the flame symbolise his enlightenment. The three main parts of the chorten, namely the throne base, dome and the spire thus symbolise the body, speech and mind of the Buddha. Therefore in its totality, chorten or the stupa represents the enlightened one.

It is interesting to note that the architecture of the chorten is basically divided into three categories which relate to the early Buddhist paths of Shravaka, Prateyeka Buddha and the Mahayana. In case of the Mahayana chorten, the dome is shaped like an inverted bell. It is in this category fall the eight great stupa designs of the world, which are universally known. These eight designs are intricately associated with the life of Sakyamuni Buddha and commemorate the events of significance in his life. Normally, it is one of these varieties of the chorten which will be encountered by climbers, trekkers and travellers during their forays into the Himalaya. These are briefly described below.

The first in line is the chorten of the heaped lotuses which commemorates the birth of Buddha. The second, is the chorten of enlightenment and is also called the chorten of the conquest of Mar. The chorten of many doors, commemorates Buddha’s ‘first turning of the wheel of dharma’. Next is the chorten of the great miracles which commemorates Buddha’s display of inconceivable miracles. The chorten of descent from the god commemorates Buddha’s descent from the heaven and the chorten of reconciliation commemorates Buddha’s reconciliation of the disputing factions. The chorten of complete victory commemorates Buddha’s prolongation of his life by three months. Lastly, is the chorten of Nirvana which commemorates Buddha’s passing away. All the above eight chortens can be seen in their true form at the Red Hat or Nyingmapa sect monastery at Clement Town, Dehra Dun and is a sight to behold.

The chorten is one of the most fascinating structures, that I have seen in my 32 years of wandering in the Himalaya. One of the most imposing chortens, that I have come across is the reliquary chorten of the 5th Dalai Lama, in the Potala Palace at Lhasa. The chorten which is gifted with over 3½ tons of gold leafs, is studded with thousands of precious stones and pearls, is an unforgettable sight. The Gyantse Khumbum is another spectacular chorten, which has left an indelible mark in my memory. Similarly, the gentle hemispherical breast like shape of the Swayambhunath and Bodhanath in Kathmandu, are the other great chortens which I have seen. Here the eyes of the Buddha are painted on the Harmika.2 These are the eternal eyes of the Buddha, which cover the four cardinal directions - there is no escaping them! In India, the chorten3 adorns the Himalayan regions of Ladakh, Lahaul and Spiti, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Some of the biggest concentrations and variety of these structures at their best, can be seen in the Nubra valley of northern Ladakh, around Leh in Shey and Basgo, the old capitals of Ladakh. Yet the visual symbolism of the chorten, which can be read in the cosmic as well as the psychic sense remains omnipresent, unchanged irrespective of the shape and form!

Although chortens in the Himalaya were originally built to enshrine the relics of great spiritual leaders and lamas, they have also been constructed for several other reasons. While they may commemorate major events, mark sacred sites, they are also constructed with equal fervour on mountain passes, at crossroads and on pilgrim trails. History has it that in a show of strength, the victorious soldiers of Sir Francis Younghusband’s expeditionary force entered Lhasa city, under the Great Chorten located at the foot of Marpori, the mountain on which the majestic Potala Palace stands. Construction of the chorten is also said to bring peace to strife torn lands, as they counter illness and neutralize epidemics. At the roof of the world and in the cold wind swept desolate plains of Tibet and the Himalaya, where survival is always at stake and nothing much survives, the chorten stands in all its glory and grandeur. It instills a spirit of character by bringing in peace, tranquility and stability to the environment.

The Himalayan Club logo was designed by C. Reginald Cooke4 in 1946. The very aesthetically designed logo is a combination of a rectangle, which is above a trapezium followed by another inverted trapezium. The top portion is an elongated semi circle with a spearhead shaped design. Finally, there are two unequal notches towards the tapering end of the spearhead jutting towards the sky. The rectangular base has H and C alphabets, bearing the club initials. Although not stated anywhere, the design to my mind depicts the chorten universally and not specifically, as one of the eight types mentioned above. Cooke has recorded the event as under :

I also submitted for consideration as a Club emblem an outline drawing of the well-known Tibetan Chorten which features in photographs of the Rongbuk Monastery on the Tibetan route to Mt. Everest. The design was approved and used for a few years until a more formalised version was introduced. This version is the more suitable and artistic, and appears on all the Club correspondence and covers of the Himalayan Journals.

(Dust and Snow, Half a Life time in India,
by C. Reginald Cooke. p. 195. Privately published, 1988.)

As the logo was formally adopted in 1946, it started featuring in various club documents and publications thereafter, including the Himalayan Journal. It is today embossed and embellished, on various club souvenirs and memorabilia and is the first symbol of the Himalayan Club legacy. Surprisingly, the formal adoption of the logo is not recorded by the club in the minutes of the MC Meeting held in 1946.5

From time to time, using the Himalayan Club chorten logo as the base, some other logos were used by the Club to celebrate various events. These logos were used to commemorate only that particular occasion and the Chorten designed by Cooke remains the main emblem of the club. (See illustrations)

Himalayan Club Chorten Logo History
Himalayan Club’s Tiger Badge

1. Tiger Badge

The Chorten of the Himalayan Club is synonymous with the Himalaya and will always remain so. In retrospect, I can only say that in choosing the chorten as the club insignia our elders could not have chosen a more appropriate symbol. The chorten not only symbolises the essence of the greatest, grandest mountain range of the world, but is a true beacon of enlightenment, perseverance and survivability . It is perhaps for this reason that, the Chorten was chosen as the logo for the Himalayan Club. As long as the Himalaya stands, the chorten too will stand and as long as the chorten survives, I have little doubt that the Himalayan Club will always be around to encourage, assist and enlighten generations of mountain climbers and travelers, who venture into the High Himalaya!


Study of Chortens as symbol and its history as logo of the Himalayan Club. The author is the current President of the Himalayan Club.