Monday, October 22, 2007

Country Life

A town called Pity
Dha, Ladakh, India

Hey, all you back-to-nature, organic, mother Earth types. Ever want to live in a village with no electricity (only a bit of solar power), no running water, no roads, only composting toilets, no stores or commercial enterprises, no use for cash money, no hotels and no telephones? Have I got a hamlet for you!

I just returned from spending nearly six days in a village called Dha, in Kargil district . I had to walk half an hour to the nearby Indian Army post to charge my camera battery. That's my major memory...that and the pristine turquoise-blue Indus river running down the narrow gorge. And, the guy who runs the guest house (cook, janitor, and host all in one) openly picking his nose while he was discussing what I wanted for dinner. And the crisp golden and red trees against the blue sky. And the smell of urine that hit me in the face when I walked in the guest house door. And the flawless golden bundles of freshly harvested millet. And the continually screaming baby! A mixed bag, for sure.

The occasion was a once-in-three-years (I think the technical term is triennial) festival of the Brokpa people who live up there (better known as "the Aryans"). It started off like a Nat Geo TV special and somewhere in the middle threatened to turn into Deliverance.

Anyway, I am still getting over the changes in altitude. From Leh (about 12,000 ft) I went seven hours on the 1970s bus up to Dha, which is only about 10,500 feet. Every 300 metres (1000 feet or so) will mess with your altitude. Fortunately, anti-nausea medication is over the counter here and is now part of my regular travel kit.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

On the Eve of Eid

Astrologers unavailable
Leh, Ladakh

Thubsten Sanfan (see previous post) says (through the interpreter) that he doesn't have the almanac for my birth year. Not that it was SO long ago. He has the records for the previous year, and the one before that, and the one following my year. Just not my year. Since I am going to be in the region for a while, we convinced him to go and look in his "library" or perhaps in the Men-Tse-Khang (Tibetan medicine headquarters) for the info.

Tibetan medicine and Ladakhi traditional medicine (known as Amchi) rely on a combination of natural herbs, psychological evaluation of "imbalances" and astrology. So, I figured the Men-Tse-Khang, who also do astrological analysis, should have some ephemera. (An astrological data book showing positions of the planets is called, in English, an Ephemeris.)

It's just about time for Eid el Fitr, the biggest Muslim holiday of the year that marks the end of Ramadan. Ninety-five percent of the Kashmiri merchants have packed up their shawls and jewelery into tin trunks, pulled down the metal gates on their shops and headed for Srinagar. Most of them have wives and family waiting for them there. I think a few Kashmiri and of course Ladakhi Muslims will be here to celebrate Eid.

Eid is a picturesque time; all the men put on spanking new kurtas and topis, and go around ritually embracing one another. Lots of smiles and general good will. My friend Parvez said it's mostly a domestic holiday, a visit to the mosque followed by lots of relatives and friends dropping by, bringing holiday food and feasting and sharing.

I'm getting my Restricted Area Permit together, thanks to the guys at good old Glacier Trek n Travel, to visit Dha-Hanu Valley, home of the last Aryan Buddhists. They will be celebrating their indigenous festival called BoNoNah, which occurs only once ever three years. As I am lucky enough to be here on the third year, it seemed too good to miss.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Funeral for a yak

Creature discomforts
Chanspa, Leh, Ladakh

I just saw a yak die. It was so sad and horrible.

It was the beautiful, big black and white yak in the yard just down the road, the one I wrote about a few days ago. When I walked up, it was lying on its right side moaning, gnashing its teeth and gasping for breath.


About six people, men and women, were standing around helplessly listening to the hideous groans. At first I though I had stumbled upon some secret harvest ritual of life-and-death (an annual semi-animistic yak sacrifice, perhaps). The beast is so huge and hearty, how could it be sick from natural causes? Had they sliced the yak's throat and left it to bleed? Would they do such a thing?

No. "Kya hua?" I asked the elder Ladakhi man in the yard. In English he said, "It ate the urea." Urea - the fertilizer? "Yes. The urea was left in the yard." He lit a cigarette with resignation and walked around to the yak's other side.

"HREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEUGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!"screamed the yak. Its stomach was horribly bloated - ballooned into a big hump, looking like one of the surrounding mountains. It was still tied to its stake in the ground where it normally grazed. I thought it horrible that the animal would as it had lived, staked to the ground. I really wanted to leap the stone fence and cradle its enormous head just so it could die looking into someone's eyes. Maybe the people (for whom the yak was probably a considerable expense) would have thought a stupid foreigner was interfering.

And maybe I was, but I felt a real sense of waste and regret coming from the people. This was an unusually big and fine yak, and besides, one would have to be extraordinarily insensitive to not mourn the death of such a striking-looking creature.

I really look forward to seeing this yak every day. I felt like a new neighbor I'd barely gotten to know was dying in front of me, for such a stupid reason, and suffering so badly.

A man who was obviously the vet strode up, carrying two large vials of clear fluid and a giant syringe. He pushed various points on the yak's body and waved his hands in front of its eyes. Then he pronounced it "too late." The poison had been consumed hours ago and was now well on its way through the labyrinth of the poor animal's bowels.

"We could not get the doctor in time," a young Ladakhi lady wearing a headscarf said to me (of her own volition). "Because, it is Sunday."

Then with a mighty roaring moan, the yak's legs raised a bit, sticking straight out; stiffened all the way down to the hooves as though it was bracing itself against the pain, and shuddered into collapse. He was gone.

As the enormous eyes glazed over, I began to think of the next step. The efficacy of eating yak meat on this occasion became obvious. After all, how on earth would they get that bulky body out of the stonewalled yard? Ten men couldn't drag it and it would never fit through the gate. I remember when horses died on the boarding farm when I was a kid, they had to bring a bulldozer to dig the hole big enough, then drag the corpse over unceremoniously and dump it in. That wasn't even available here.

The men moved away. Two women brought out what looked like old flowered bedsheets and covered the body, flower-side down, white side up.

A grandmother in her heavy goncha robe, with long grey braids, thick frosty glasses and toboggan hat, wobbled off down the street. She wailed aloud and beat her chest as though a human had died.

I stumbled into the nearest restaurant, which is an upmarket affair with new-age music playing and lovely views from the terrace. I had to tell someone.

"A yak just died," I said bluntly to the table of young "granola" tourists, obviously mountain bikers and hikers, seated there. As if to back up my claims, the grandmother's wails could be heard behind me."

"The one over there?" said a guy wearing a hand-knit hat. "We saw it every day." I nodded.

"Are you all right?" another guy asked. I thought that was sweet. I must have looked really shaken up.

On the next table, a group of seven sparrows twittered merrily and pillaged the sugar bowl. An innocent Jersey cow calf grazed oblivious across the lane just a few feet from the dead beast. I listlessly drank my coffee and ate porridge, watching the dancing sparrows fight over sugar grains.

Back out on the street, a gentle chocolate-coloured cow was dozing in the sun. I bent down and offered her a scratch behind the ears and chin. Instead of snorting and pushing my hand away, she appeared hypnotized by the touch. She raised her chin far into the air so I could scratch further. I stroked her long, lush eyelashes and wiped some sleep from her liquid eyes.

A central teaching of Buddhism is that "all sentient beings," every living moving creature, share a basic desire to be free of pain, suffering and discomfort. Hinduism says, "May all beings be happy, peaceful and free" (lokah samastaha sukhino bhavatu).

I was angry that someone would leave an animal to graze where fertilizer had carelessly been kept. Yak and cow dung is such good fertilizer, I didn't know people really bothered with other substances here. The illusion of tradition and "being one with nature" in Ladakh started to break down.

When I came back up the path a few hours later, the men were hacking apart the body. One man dug a hole to store the parts in (in frozen winter the ground is as good as a fridge). The others wielded axes. The roots of the legs were the size of bloody tree stumps and I covered my nose against the smell.

Wikipedia says this about urea:
It was the first organic compound to be artificially synthesized from inorganic starting materials, thus dispelling the concept of vitalism.

Urea can be irritating to skin and eyes. Too high concentrations in the blood can cause damage to organs of the body. Low concentrations of urea such as in urine are not dangerous.

It has been found that urea can cause algal blooms to produce toxins, and urea in runoff from fertilizers may play a role in the increase of toxic blooms.[1]

Repeated or prolonged contact with urea in fertiliser form on the skin may cause dermatitis. The substance also irritates the eyes, the skin and the respiratory tract. The substance decomposes on heating above melting point producing toxic gases. Reacts violently with strong oxidants, nitrites, inorganic chlorides, chlorites and perchlorates causing fire and explosion hazard.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Desperately Seeking Thubstan

Astrologers Anonymous
Leh, Ladakh

Finding Ladakh's only Government-recognized Tibetan astrologer isn't easy. He's almost never in either one of the two stores that are named for him (either Thubstan Sanfan Stationer or Thubstan Sanfan Shopkeeper Now Shar Leh, which sells fabric for Buddhist thangka hangings and printed photos of Buddhist deities. I had to ask around and finally found him in yet a third store on the block. He doesn't look like an esoteric ritual specialist - just an elder Ladakhi man with a grey crew-cut, wearing a cheap navy-blue parka. But he is the man who has determined the dates and timings of all Buddhist festivals in Ladakh - which is quite a few - for the next five years.

Traditionally, each monastery has its own annual festival at a date determined by their own monks, by consulting placement of the moon and so on. But this was inconvenient for the growing number of tourists to Ladakh, who come from far away and need to plan ahead. The Jammu and Kashmir Tourist Board needed concrete dates to "fix" the festivities.

Who you gonna call? Thubsten Sanfan is the man.

Thubsten speaks not a word of English, and in my broken Hindi ("mere jyotish mandala milega? mere janam samaya, janam bhoomi chahiye?" or "is my astrological chart possible? do you need my birth time and place?) we established my request.

Fortunately, Tashi from the District Commissioner's office happened to be passing by. I had met Tashi just Thursday, when I visited the DC to establish the date of the BonoNah Festival in Dha-Hanu (that's another post).

Tashi speaks decent English and generously translated. Thubsten says my jyotish will be ready on "Dawa" (Ladakhi for Monday) .

The Day After Tomorrow

No Polls in Nepal
Kathmandu, Nepal

There is a favourite expression in Nepal: "Bholi parsi." As in, "When is it coming?" (shrug) "Bholi parsi."
Bholi parsi literally means "the day after tomorrow." In practice, it means "possibly sometime in the near future, if we are lucky."

What have I been saying the past six months? "There is no way the elections will take place this year." And lo, so it was. The Constituent Assembly elections have been Bholi Parsied!

The good news is that travel will be quite a bit easier for tourists, since all the election security won't be an issue. The bad news is that even all the Gods of Nepal don't know when the hell the elections actually will be.

Nepal polls called off indefinitely
AFP via Yahoo! News
Thu, 04 Oct 2007 11:48 PM PDT
Crucial elections to decide Nepal's future were postponed indefinitely on Friday after the government and Maoists failed to agree on the fate of the monarchy and the election system, officials said.

Nepal to delay elections in blow to peace deal
Reuters via Yahoo! News
Thu, 04 Oct 2007 11:33 PM PDT

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Calcutta Calling

3 Days in the Haze? - Viewer mail
Leh, Ladakh

Harry from Pune writes:

Got your email address from BootsnAll Travel Forums.

I am traveling for the first time to Calcutta (currently live in Pune India about 100 miles south of Mumbai) next month and hope to spend 3 days there on my way to Bhutan and Nepal. Can you advise what are the places to be seen in Kolkatta in 3 days.

Thanks and awaiting your answer.

Dear Harry: Namaskaram and Jullay from Ladakh!:

If you were coming from any other city, I would say, "prepare yourself for air pollution." However, Pune just might be the one city even more polluted than Calcutta.
You should feel right at home in that regard. ;-)

Definitely, there is much to see in Calcutta in 3 days. I highly recommend the Victoria Memorial and Calcutta History Museum there, which are walking distance from Sudder St., the "usual" tourist guest-house spot. (It is full of hassles, like all Indian tourist spots. But, you will meet interesting people who are doing volunteer work there.)

The India Museum,
also just round the corner on Chowringhee from Sudder, is a must-see. Allow several hours for this museum, which includes a transplanted and reconstructed Buddhist stupa-torana from Sanchi, MP, and one of the most frightening Tibetan wrathful-goddess statues I've ever seen.

Aurobindo Birthplace is (I think) on Shakespeare Sarani, also walking distance from Sudder. You can see the Rabindranath Tagore home which is now part of Rabindra Bharathi in a different section of town. The former home of Swami Vivekananda is also open now, but I did not personally visit there.

Park Street is the chic, hang-out and shopping street. The Barista coffee bar is there, as well as Oxford Books and several upscale restaurants. Last I heard they were thinking of renaming it after Mother Theresa. Doesn't seem like an appropriate choice to be named for an austere nun.

I feel no trip to Calcutta is complete without a visit to its spiritual heart, the
Dakshineswar Kali Mandir in northern Calcutta, better known as Sri Ramakrishna's temple. (stock photo at left.) The best thing to do is go for evening arati and stay at one of the guest houses there - Holy Nest Guest House is very nice. You can take the Metro to the next-to-last stop, but then you must take a taxi to Dakshineswar (for some reason, pronounced DakINeswar without the H).

Then in the morning, go to morning arati or fire-puja at 5am, (very moving with bhajan-singing); check out the rooms in which Sri Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi used to live. Later take the boat ride (in a traditional distinctive Bengali-style boat) across the Hooghly River, to
Belur Math. Belur Math, the ashram and HQ of the Ramakrishna monastic order, is a fantastically atmospheric place, not to mention the wonderful architecture of warm, brown African sandstone. The 5-year-old Ramakrishna/Vivekandanda/Sarada Devi museum there is great and very worth seeing, containing things like the famous brown robe you see in every photo of Vivekananda! Swami Vivekananda's memorial is also at Belur Math.

Getting around Calcutta:
you have more choices than any other Indian city. Walking, cycle rickshaw, foot rickshaw, Metro, local commuter above-ground train, local bus, Ambassador taxi and in some areas, autorickshaw. The trick is that each has their limitations. Autoricks are only allowed in certain zones, for instance, as are foot ricks.

As much as possible, try to take the Calcutta Metro. It is a world away from the rest of Cal - modern, clean and timely. Even air conditioned! Calcutta is perhaps the last place in the world you can take a wooden, hand-pulled rickshaw to the gleaming, modern subway.

As a foreigner and history buff, I found the colonial graveyards very intriguing, with their elaborate Victorian headstones all overgrown with greener
y. There are also several historic churches - the Armenian church, one of the last remnants of the formerly flourishing Armenian community of Calcutta, and St Paul's Cathedral, at the end of the Maidan near Victoria Memorial, which has fantastic stained-glass windows by the famous PreRaphaelite artist, Sir Edmund Burne Jones.

The Mother House,
the HQ of Mother Theresa's Missionaries of Charity, includes Mother Theresa's tomb. This is walking distance from Sudder Street.

Some of my favourite Calcutta moments came at very non-tourist places. To stand on the
Howrah Bridge, for instance, at sunset, and feel the bridge groan under the relentless weight of commuters (two, four legged and wheeled) as the dark comes and the air turns purple with dusk, is to feel part of the immensity of humanity. (If you don't like that cliche, use another. You get the idea.)

The famous
Kalighat temple is the polar opposite of Dakshineswar - more bloody and less "spiritual." Expect "priests" to hit you up for "donation" or "puja" money even before you reach the actual temple gates. Be prepared to smell and perhaps see goat sacrifices.

Mother Theresa's famous
Home for the Dying Destitute is very nearby Kalighat temple, but I did not personally visit there. However, half the foreign people on Sudder Street (you can detect them by the idealistic gleam in their eyes) are volunteering there, if you want to share a ride. Or, you can take spotless, silvery the Metro directly to the Kalighat area. It's a good opportunity to reflect on the simultaneously medieval, colonial, and modern worlds that still co-exist in Calcutta.

Photo of Hooghly at dusk by Paul Wagner.
Photo of temple from Calcutta Tourism site.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Burma's burning

Mind on Myanmar ----
Body in Leh, Ladakh, J&K India

At left is a photo of my friends, some Burmese monks now studying in New Nalanda University, Bihar. Although Buddhism has not been a majority religion in India for about 1000 years, India remains a centre of Buddhist learning. These Burmese monks have come to study the sacred, ancient Pali language here.

Thoughts of the brave monks and civilians still in Burma, who are being killed while protesting the Burmese junta, are on my mind. This is the only Burma-related photo I have.

All the banks, schools and government offices are closed here today.

It's Gandhi Jayanthi, or Mohandas K. "Mahatma" Gandhi's birthday - a major national holiday throughout India. Gandhi is revered throughout India for obvious reasons, but especially in Buddhist areas for his commitment to non-violence (his photo is up in shoppes all over Dharamsala, next to the Dalai Lama's).

Ahimsa or non-violence (including vegetarianism) is a central concept in Buddhism, first developed by the Jains, and later adopted by some Hindus. Jains were especially prominent in Gandhi's homestate of Gujarat and it is believed they were a great influence on his philosophy.

There have been several recent attempts to malign Gandhi's saintly image by "telling the truth" about his personal life and relations with his family. Who cares - the guy never claimed to be a saint (that was thrust upon him, as was his role in Indian history - read the bio, he just wanted to be a middle class lawyer) and no one is perfect.

Nor need they be. The bottom line (as with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was later shown to have had affairs and such) is, "is the world generally a better place because of this person?" Who could answer "no"? (by the way, if your answer is "no," for either one, please do not write to me. I mean it.)

I think a lot of modern Indians have a great need to show how "modern," "progressive" and irreligious they are by knocking down sacred cows and icons. Perhaps I would feel the same if I had grown up in such an icon-worshipping, hierarchical environment. I saw the same stuff happen at the Dalai Lama press conference in Andhra Pradesh. Wow, I sure was impressed with the "impartiality" those commie "reporters" (propagandists) showed by being disrespectful and rude to the Dalai Lama! Really demonstrated open-mindedness and progressive thinking!

Reactionary is reactionary - regardless of the direction in which you're reacting.

Burma bummer
However, I digress. Today's headlines were - I hate the word ironic, it is so overused. I'll just say the headlines regarding the situation in Burma (Myanmar) would be horrifying on any day, but especially today.

Hundreds killed, thousands arrested (includes photo of dead monk floating in river)
In photos: Burma crackdown (mostly shots of blocked city streets - looks like Kathmandu)
photos from Flickr members in Burma now
Burmese monks "to be sent away" to distant mass prisons
Satellite imagery shows Burmese plight
Losing hope inside a Burmese monastery

Okay, I'm going to say one last thing regarding armchair critics of Gandhi, King, HH the Dalai Lama, whoever. Actually, Teddy Roosevelt (26th US President) is going to say it.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”