Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Houses of the holy

Of monasteries and militaries
Leh, Ladakh

The past four days I've been on an exhausting tour of central Ladakhi monasteries (and I only saw about six of dozens that are here).

It's a wonderful change from the neo-Indian and Nepali monasteries, the vast majority of which were built post-Tibetan exile (from 1950s onward). A 1967 monastery would be a really old one in most of India (a few exceptions include the Nyima monastery in Rewalsar, Himachal - it's about 100 years old). These neo-monasteries are naturally built of reinforced concrete, tile and have glass in the windows - like all recent buildings in India.

Here, the monasteries average about 15th or 16th century. I decided early on that anything post 16th century was just a bit too new to make the visiting cut. Here in Ladakh there are so many to choose from.

These are the ultra-traditional monasteries, built of stucco, straw and wooden poplar beams, planned as a holy fastness high on distant hills, purposely isolated and difficult to reach.

My Tibetan friend Jamyang Norbu (in Dharamsala) told me how weird it was for Tibetans to see so many monks and monasteries right in the middle of a popular place like Dharamsala or Kathmandu. "Gompa" (Tibetan for monastery), Jamyang said, "means silent place. Lonely place. Monks should not be coming into town, eating in cafes, watching movies...in Tibet the monks were real monks. They stay in real gompa---" away, he explained, from the temptations and distractions of town.

It would certainly be difficult to get into much trouble at one of these gompas, unless it was for touching the sand mandala before it's finished. Usually the gompas rise up mirage-like from the desert, on a rock outcropping. These days, the Indian military presence guarantees an odd juxtaposition - most every monastery on its hill has a military base as a neighbor, down in the dusty valley. So, while you are chanting for world peace and turning prayer wheels, you have a birds-eye view of the military base with its dun-coloured barracks and olive soldiers trudging through the sand, dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape.

Most tourists like to get a small group of 4-5 people together and hire a taxi (ie, small van or jeep) to hop from one monastery to another. They are "close" on the map...which means, at least 10 kms away from one another down dusty, bumpy, largely unpaved tracks. This costs at least 1000Rs or $15 a day.

This does save time, and physical energy, but I like just getting the local bus (10-15rs), from "downtown" Leh, to the gompa in question, and trudging up the hill to the medieval fortress. Getting the bus means that I am more on my own time. I hate the feeling of having a driver waiting (they are always impatient, as though they have something better to do) and having the clock ticking. You just have to make sure, if you stay for the evening puja, that you don't miss the last bus back to Leh - usually at 6 or 7pm.

If you do, it's no big deal. In many gompas, you can just stay overnight, then catch a morning bus onto the next gompa. The primary monasteries unwind southeast and northwest of Leh along the National Leh-Kargil Highway. With the help of the local bus and a map, you can actually go gompa-trekking.

Admission to the gompas varies - about 15-30Rs per person, and they charge the same for foreigners as for Indians, which is refreshing.

So far I have visited Spituk, Phyang, Stok palace, Thiksey and the motherlode of Indian Buddhist artwork, Alchi Chuskor. My neck and shoulders are aching from looking up and craning my neck at wall paintings for hours at at time. You must bring a torch, because most of the gompas are not well lit, and do not expect to be able to take photography (flash or otherwise) in most of them - especially not Alchi, with its unique irreplaceable paintings. You can view a few photos at Hinduonnet.com. The Alchi paintings have a fluid Indian style so different from Tibetan Buddhist art.

At Spituk, the monks were completing a sand mandala, part of the special puja they are doing to find the new incarnation of their beloved high lama who passed away in 2003, Bakula Rinpoche. At Phyang, an enormous festival with thousands of people was in process, as the head of the Drikung Kagyu school was bestowing a special long-life blessing and phowa (transmission of consciousness at death) teachings that are given only every 12 years (in the Year of the Pig).

At Stok palace, the remnants of the Ladakhi royal family still live, where they were exiled by the invading Indian Dogras some 150 years before. After 900 years as an independent kingdom, Ladakh has been a part of India ever since. The king passed in 1987, but the Queen Mother Gyalmo Diskit Wangmo and her son, the crown prince, are still there. The palace caretaker declined our request for an interview. Little does he know, I am not so easily dissuaded!

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