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The Origins of Iliana

IlianaThe Shambhala Times wishes you all a delightful celebration of Children’s Day!

interview with Walter Fordham
by Sarah Lipton, Shambhala Times Editor-in-Chief

The renowned meditation master and social visionary Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche established Children’s Day in 1979 for his western students and their children. The holiday, which took place each year on the 25th of December (it was later moved to December 21st), provided an uplifted and magical celebration for children, and a way of empowering them with a sense of their own dignity, sanity and goodness.

Walter Fordham happened to be around when Trungpa Rinpoche was arranging the first Children’s Day shrine. It was a thing of beauty and playfulness, he says. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any photographs of that first shrine.

After witnessing its creation, Walter felt a strong connection to Children’s Day. “I remember thinking at the time that someone should write an origin-of-Childrens-Day story,” he says. Otherwise the holiday would have no narrative.

Then came Christmas 1987. Elizabeth Pybus, Rinpoche’s mother-in-law, was entertaining some of her English friends and enjoying a very English Christmas dinner. Fordham happened to be there as well. During the dinner, one of her friends asked Mrs. Pybus what Children’s Day was. There was a Children’s Day shrine in the dining room, so it was a natural topic of conversation. Lady Pybus turned to Fordham and asked, “Walter, tell us the story of Children’s Day.” Of course there was no story, but she didn’t know that.

Walter wound up creating the story on the spot.

“In the moment, I didn’t want to say, ‘Sorry, there is no story.’ So I excused myself to the kitchen and tried to come up with something to say. I came up blank, went back to the dining room, and looked around for inspiration,” Fordham shares. There was a little toy soldier on the Children’s Day shrine. He picked it up and started to tell a story about this little soldier boy named Jigme who overheard his parents talking about the days getting shorter, and decided to go into the wilderness alone to find the sun. It was very simple; it couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes to tell, but it seemed to satisfy Mrs. Pybus and friends. At least they were too polite to say otherwise. Later that evening he wrote down the story of Jigme on a scrap of paper and forgot about it.

The next year the Fordham family moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia. As he was unpacking, Walter found the scrap of paper and started to work on it a little bit. For a while it became a favorite bedtime story for their oldest daughter Catherine Iliana. (Catherine was our only child at the time old enough really get into bedtime stories.) Over the next few years the songs emerged, the story got a bit more elaborate, and Jigme became Iliana, the girl who brought the sun home to the kingdom. In 1992, Fordham read Iliana to the children at the Halifax Shambhala Center. The next day the father of an eight year old boy told Walter that when his son came home, he said, “Now I know the true meaning of Children’s Day.” “I think that was the moment when I first started to think that Iliana might someday become a book,” Walter says.


Fordham worked on the story more intensively in ’94 and ’95, and by the end of ’95 it was published with a print run of 4,000 books. Tatjana Krizmanic’s vivid and cheerful illustrations really brought the story to life, and the book sold well to Buddhist families. But people outside the Buddhist community enjoyed the book as well. Five years later the books were all sold, and ever since Iliana was out of print until 2012.

In many ways, Iliana fills a need that naturally presents itself at the end of December. All the world is geared toward celebrating something, but many people no longer have much of a connection with the original meaning behind the celebration. Iliana presents an additional or alternative reason for the season. The Children’s Day celebration that happens spontaneously at the end of the story is inspiring and non-sectarian. It presents basic human values of courage, dignity, inner strength, and wisdom without entering into the realm of religion.

Over the years, Walter has heard from children who grew up with the story expressing that it was not only a major part of their Children’s Day experiences, but also a gateway to their study of buddhism and the Shambhala teachings.

What’s next for Iliana?

“I would love to have time to write a play version,” Walter shares. “Every year I receive emails from people who are putting it on at their local centers and want a script. I have a few scripts pulled together but nobody has really made it yet. The songs make it easy to stage, however, and there are recordings from the Shambhala School,” Fordham says.

The songs have been really successful. A friend once told Fordham a funny story about a time they were driving across the country. They stayed in a motel in a small town and wound up wandering into the local church around Christmas time. Downstairs they could hear singing that sounded familiar. The local church group was staging Iliana!

The songs – sheet music and mp3 recordings – are available on the Iliana Story website. Over the years meditation centers, schools and churches have staged productions of Iliana with children singing the songs and dancing like tigers, lions, garudas, and dragons.

“I’d love to take it further though. I’d like to do a version for younger children with more pictures, and a play version for pageants,” Fordham says.

You are warmly invited to stage local productions and pageants based on the story. Please let the Fordhams know what you’re planning. They’d love to hear about it, and if there are recordings of your local performance (audio or video), they’d love to see them and maybe post them on their website as well. Contact them here.

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2 responses to “ The Origins of Iliana ”
  1. Judith Smith
    Dec 23, 2014

    Thanks, Sarah, for doing this, and many thanks to Walter for this fabulous book and story. I do not remember knowing that the beginning was inspired by Lady Pybus’s interest and curiosity. Great story.

    The 5 songs are so delightful, and it was great to hear them. Was this production at the Shambhala School (Halifax) from 2014 December 6? Or a previous year? Have wondered if it is being staged anywhere.

    As for Iliana the book — was it it reprinted in 2012 and are there copies available anywhere? Would love to see it revived everywhere on the stage.

    With love to the children in all of us,,

  2. Thank you Sarah. Nicely done. Here are recordings of the songs, sung by the Halifax Shambhala School a few years ago. Wonderful energy!


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