The world of Far Cry 4 is not just about violence and armed conflict. Besides the main storyline, there are many side quests for the player (as Ajay) to explore, in which one gets to immerse in the culture of South Asia. Among them, I was fascinated with the “Journey of Kalinag” that takes the player to the mythical land of Shangri-La.
Shangri-La is the name of a mythical place in the novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton, published in 1933. In Hilton’s fictional work, Shangri-La is described as a Himalayan utopian society where there exists a permanent happiness and people live an unusually long life. This literary form of paradise on earth originates from the real mythological kingdom of Shambhala in Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The name Shangri-La was pretty much fabricated by the author but however, it, later on, became the dominant name when referring to such utopian kingdom sought by both Western and Eastern explorers somewhere in the Himalayas.
In Far Cry 4, Shangri-La was a “real” legend. Inside the fictional country of Kyrat, there exists another fictitious mythology based on Kyrati culture. That is the legend of Shangri-La.
The side quest involves the protagonist, Ajay Ghale, to collect all 5 “thangka” (a kind of painting on cotton in Tibetan Buddhism, usually demonstrating a Buddhism-related concept). Each thangka is scattered all over Kyrat. Every time Ajay locates and picks up one, he enters a trance, a state of half-consciousness in which he is Kalinag, the legendary warrior from the ancient time who, according to Kyrati legend, successfully finds Shangri-La, defeats the evil forces occupying there and returns as a victor.
According to his self-narration, Kalinag was sent by his king, who rules the ancient kingdom of Kyrat to find Shangri-La. After jumping from a high peak in the Himalayas to his death (I presume that is how you get to the mythical land), Kalinag finally reaches Shangri-La but only to realize he is not the first one to do so. There has been an ongoing battle between the demonic forces who tries to take this land for themselves, the protector of Shangri-La and other seekers like Kalinag, trying to defend the land.
The Kalinag’s ally is a white armored tiger, the sacred protector of Shangri-La which has the ability to resurrect itself after being killed. Later on, Kalinag recruits an elephant that also has the same ability. In general, these animals are immortal.
The demonic force, led by Rakshasa (a demonic being in both Hindu mythology and Buddhism) tries to take Shangri-La for themselves. They are brutal and merciless. As Kalinag reaches Shangri-La, all he can see are the devastating destruction of Buddha statues and the brutal murders of sacred animals of Shangri-La. Interestingly, Rakshasa appears to be similar to Garuda, another mythical bird-like creature in Hindu mythology.
The side quest ends when Kalinag eventually defeats Rakshasa, liberating Shangri-La from the demonic force. He then, instead of staying in the paradise, decides to return to the real world as he believes that Shangri-La is inside him, and inside all of us.
As I mentioned, everything in this side quest is fabricated by mixing Hinduism and Buddhism. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by how the game studio manages to visualize a breath-taking view of a hellish Shangri-La.
The landscape of Shangri-La has painted a pure, deep red color while the sky is portrayed with a faint yellow glow. That is the dominant color theme of Shangri-La, distinctively different than that of the “real” world of Kyrat. While Kyrat is featured with a realistic combination of colors to demonstrate its realism, in Shangri-La, the simple use of red-ish tone in the background is quite intricate. To me, this component indicates that the moment when Ajay enters the trance and starts his journey to Shangri-La, he enters a different world of mythology that no longer exists in the same universe with Kyrat. What should be emphasized here is that in that fictional country of Kyrat, there exists another world of Shangri-La that presents a deeper level of thought. This local legend of Shangri-La results in the establishment of the culture of Kyrat. Shangri-La thus explains how and why people and culture of Kyrat turn out to look like in “real” world. The use of such significant difference in color theme serves the impression of two discrete worlds.
Language is also a contributing factor to in-game realism. During the side quest in Shangri-La, Kalinag appears to speak Hindi, not English! This minor detail is what I usually find it disappointment in many popular movies, games or TV series. Just because the developers (or directs) could not afford foreign actors, they should not force everyone to speak fluent English in their product. To me, the characters, if of non-English speaking background, they should at least speak with an accent or preferably speak in their mother tongue in addition to the support of English subtitles. That is the case of this Shangri-La side quest in Far Cry 4. With the help of English subtitles, Kalinag speaks a kind of Hindi that I know it is not of modern-day India. The language is Hindi, but it sounds…antique. The developer’s effort of finding the right voice talent for the character Kalinag, then expand it into an “ancient form” of spoken Hindi is astonishing.
Philosophy of Shangri-La
There have been many explorers setting out to find the mythical land of Shangri-La or more properly addressed as Shambhala. Shambhala is described in many historical texts of Tibetan Buddhism. Other religious books dated back to the year of 159 B.C also described the kingdom of Shambhala and how it played a part in cultural and religious influence to ancient India and China. The earliest record of Western exploration for searching for this land only showed up in the 1920s. However, just like the lost city of Atlantis, no one was able to confirm the existence of this paradise on earth. With great curiosity, some of us still believe that somewhere out there, hidden by endless layers of snow of the Himalayas, the gateway to Shambhala waits to be discovered.
Nonetheless, does Shambhala actually exist? I mean, is it physically located somewhere in Tibet? While Hollywood has been exploiting this for many sci-fi movie plots, the Shangri-La of Far Cry 4 has a different approach. In the beginning of the side quest, Kalinag slowly approaches a very high peak of the Himalayan snowy region and he then makes the jump, saying that he finally finds the path to Shangri-La. The ground collapses and Kalinag find himself in an underwater passage in which he tries to swim to the surface. When almost drowned, Kalinag makes it to the surface, only to find out he reaches the mythical Shangri-La at last.
This detail makes me think about the path to Shangri-La. Does that mean Shangri-La never physically exists but we can only reach there by death? One may just refer Shangri-La to heaven in other religious concepts. In Far Cry 4, Shangri-La is no heaven. It is sacred, yes, but I feel this Shangri-La is of a separate universe. More clues are revealed along the journey of Kalinag. While battling the occupying demons in Shangri-La, Kalinag perceives a sense of dedication to this land. He binds himself to the duty to serve Shangri-La. He lets everything of the “real world” go, including his identity and the loyalty to his former king (who sent him on a quest to find Shangri-La in the beginning). Now, Kalinag only focuses on fighting for Shangri-La. Nevertheless, in the end, after defeating Rakshasa, Kalinag decides to return to the “real world” because he understands he actually does not leave Shangri-La. Shangri-La is within him and within everyone. That is when Kalinag finishes his narration and asks the painter (who is the creator of the 5 thangkas I mentioned above) if the story is enough for him to paint the thangka. This detail is important as it indicates the whole thing, from the beginning, is just Kalinag re-telling his journey AFTER he returns to the real world. That may imply everything about Shangri-La is just in his head or it is just a metaphorical story for next generations. However, the side quest ends there without further explanation.
The unique philosophical aspect of Far Cry 4’s Shangri-La does not end there. The demonic forces, the battles and the bloodshed at Shangri-La are things that also fascinate me. Ubisoft Toronto, the studio that develops this part of Far Cry 4, calls this concept “Sacred Under Attack“. Shangri-La is assumed to immune to suffering, yet, what the player, or Kalinag, discovers when arrived is the scenes of chaos and massacre all over the place. Such is the antithesis of the paradise, meaning that Shangri-La is hell. This concept really impresses me when playing through this part. As Kalinag, I see the destruction that the demonic forces have wrought upon the land. The majestic temples and enormous Buddha statues are devastated and stained with the blood of the majestic animals of Shangri-La. Their disemboweled organs are displayed on the hands of Buddha statues, making it look like a sick offering of some sort. All of these are described as “Sacred Under Attack“. The concept creates a sense of urgency as when experiencing this impression, one tends to feel the urge to quickly liberate Shangri-La before it is dirtied by the unholy forces. It is somehow disturbing and satisfying at the same time, is it not? Having something sacred and sanctified messed up by the most wicked and filthy forces of all.
Time is also a philosophical aspect in Shangri-La. Before Kalinag, there are many other seekers, the ones that also attempt to find this mythical place and seek its enlightenment. They also encounter the hellish beings, try to protect Shangri-La but are unsuccessful. They are brutally killed. However, as Kalinag finds their bodies, they appear to be frozen in time. It seems that at the very moment when they are killed, time stops running for their bodies. Everything just stands still. Kalinag shares his empathy to the dead, knowing that they dedicate a great effort to locate Shangri-La, only to be killed by the monsters here.
On the other hand, Kalinag wonders if this is also a form of immortality that the seekers have been seeking. There is no more meaning for their existence, even for their spiritual one. I find it interesting. Given that one you have to sacrifice your life in order to get to Shangri-La, then what does it mean to die (again) in Shangri-La and get frozen in time? Where does your soul go from there? And is Kalinag right when saying this may relate to immortality?I find this concept of “frozen in time equal immortality” relatable. Many Buddhist books always refer to Nirvana, the ultimate state of enlightenment where there only exists a complete emptiness in oneself. There is no sorrow, no suffering, no material and sexual desire. Such is permanent happiness. My mother, who raised me a Buddhist, used to refer to this as a dimension where you are out of the Samsara, the endless circle of repeated birth (reincarnation). You are not reborn and you are not dead. You are not a man or a woman because you no longer have any desire to reproduce. You have the unbounded knowledge of the universe. Now, when I rethink about it, I wonder if the immortality that we all aim for getting us out of the flow of time if there is even one.
In Far Cry 4’s Shangri-La, perhaps Kalinag is right. The murdered seekers are the highest state of enlightenment in which their existence, suffering and individual desire no longer matter.
Watch the walkthrough of the whole Shangri-La mission: