Where Stones Speak | Columns

Prayers in ‘snow land’

I had heard a lot about Ladakh, a breathtakingly beautiful land in the clouds with austere monasteries and palaces. The name itself is full of mystery and promise. So, when I finally got a chance to visit it, I grabbed it with both my hands. The first sight of Ladakh from the aircraft was magical: there was a vast expanse of rolling hills and clouds. No wonder it is also known as khapa chan, or snow land. Ladakh is a cold and arid desert with a low level of atmospheric oxygen. Afraid of falling sick, I had taken some precautionary medicine for altitude sickness before travelling. After a day of rest after my journey and bowls of garlic soup, I was good to go.

Visiting monasteries

The first place my co-travellers and I wanted to visit were the monasteries. The local word for a monastery is gompa, and as per Buddhist precepts, a monastery should be built in a solitary place far away from the people. Most monasteries in Ladakh are built on isolated hilltops. Of course, today buildings have sprung up all around them with tourism booming, but when the monasteries were built more than 1,000 years ago, this must have been harsh terrain where people could meditate and pray in peace and the austerity that is the mark of Buddhism. Each monk had his own cell and we were told that often ladders were used to access it. Today there are modern conveniences and electricity in the monasteries.

I had a certain image of the monasteries, borrowed from the pictures I had seen: walls painted with murals depicting the life of the Buddha and his disciples, a central hall with an altar with an image of the Buddha and other deities, low wooden stools and tables for the Lamas to sit, and a high stool next to them meant for the head Lama.

We visited the Hemis monastery, which is situated about 45 km from Leh. The road journey past the Indus river and snow-capped mountains was so beautiful that we took forever to reach our destination — we kept stopping to click photographs.

The Hemis monastery belongs to the Drukpa sect of Mahayana Buddhism. It was built in the 11th century, and was re-established by King Sengge Namgyal (1590–1620) in the 17th century.

The monastery was stunning. It is located on a steep hill and has whitewashed walls and wood. A colourful doorway leads into a courtyard that is paved with huge stones. It is in this courtyard that the annual Hemis festival is celebrated on Guru Padmasambhav’s birth anniversary. The festival has been a draw for locals and tourists alike for centuries. As it showcases masked dancers, it is a popular fixture in the Ladakh calendar. It takes place on the ninth and tenth days of the fifth month of the Tibetan calendar, which usually falls in the months of June or July. Unfortunately we did not visit the monastery during those months.

A museum in the monastery houses many relics and statues related to Buddhism. Due to its treacherous terrain, the monastery escaped the plundering armies. Hemis is probably among the richest monasteries in the region. As we entered the main monastery, we were taken in by the rich murals and frescoes on the walls. The colourful paintings on the verandah depict the Buddhist kalachakra. The monastery is divided into two parts: there is an assembly hall known as Dukhang and a temple called Tshogkhang. There are huge statues of the Buddha and Guru Rimpoche. There is a huge copper statue of a seated Buddha on the opposite hill which overlooks Hemis.

Then and now

The upper part of the monastery has two assembly halls, a temple and a beautiful view. What held me in thrall was a hermitage known as Gotsang Gompa, built by Syalwa Gotsangpa, which predates the monastery. Seeing that it requires effort to reach the hermitage, a one-hour trek to be precise, I would only recommend it to those with young and strong feet. I stood there contemplating the life of those who lived amidst such stern climatic and geographic conditions, driven by an inner energy and spirituality so strong that they devoted their lives to prayer and to the pursuance of nirvana. In the olden days, their meals would have been wild berries and barley, as not much else grew in these parts, and they would have been completely out of touch with the world when they were snowed in. It is amazing that monks use the monastery even today.

Rana Safvi is a historian, author and blogger documenting India’s syncretic culture

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 7:50:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/prayers-in-snow-land/article25587247.ece

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