It’s -19 degrees C and you are trudging back to the hotel after a sumptuous thukpa dinner at the Amdo Tibetan restaurant on Leh’s main market street. Your companions are much younger, not given to wheezing as they traverse the frigid streets, not given even to the debilitating episode of altitude sickness that kept you in bed for a whole day, your heartbeat booming in your ears like a murderous foghorn.
You notice too that they are still keen on quizzing religious figures like Gyalwang Drukpa, head of an order of Mahayana Buddhism popular in the Himalayas, about the BIG questions: “Explain tantra to us; How come there’s a picture of Shiva outside?’ and are generally full of a liquid enthusiasm for life that, in you, has congealed into the bland all-knowing soul borscht of the middle aged.
Still, there are some mysteries that continue to intrigue you. Like, why would a woman willingly opt for a life of self abnegation, one that steers away from the firm pleasures of the flesh, unhears the quiet shout that urges most to be fruitful and multiply, resists the clutching of tiny arms?
“I was interested in spirituality from a very early age,” says 27-year-old Jigme Tingdzin Zangmo, a kung fu-practising nun attached to the Drukpa sect, when you meet her in late February at the 386-year-old Hemis monastry, where crowds in traditional dress have gathered to celebrate the Winter Hemis festival, that marks the advent of spring.
“I became a nun when I was 14. Even before that, whenever I thought about what I should be doing in my life, the instant answer was always: ‘You shouldn’t just be ordinary in this life because this life is very precious,” says Jigme as we queue up to ladle helpings of rice and light mutter paneer onto our plates. “If you just study and have an ordinary life, of course, you can have money or become famous but there is not much point in that life,” she says with absolute conviction. As a novitiate, Jigme studied at the Tia nunnery where she learnt English and Hindi and “the most important – the preliminary practice”. This involved executing 4,000 prostrations a day. A single set of preliminary practice includes “100,000 prostrations, followed by 100,000 vajrasatva practice, 100,000 mandala offerings, and 100,000 guruyoga.”
“It’s quite tough,” Jigme says with classic understatement. You can only nod and chew thoughtfully on bits of paneer and attempt to get closer to the wood chip fired bukhari at the centre of the room.
Did she ever miss her family? “Though we can visit our families, we are not fully involved with them. As a spiritual practitioner you shouldn’t get too attached to your family because, from the point of view of spirituality, from the vajrayana point of view, all of life, everything, is an illusion,” Jigme says. “Your judgement is clouded by your attachments; that’s why you shouldn’t be fully involved in samsara. The main intention of being a nun is to be alone and to be a practitioner.” Jigme believes she has a karmic connection with her guru, the Drukpa, who named her as a child.
As an agnostic who appreciates religious belief without ever being able to commit to it, you are constantly surprised at how Ladakhis – from Jigmet, a sometime teacher at the Rancho school made famous by Aamir Khan’s Three Idiots, whom the monastery has assigned as your guide, to the Drukpa himself – speak in a matter-of-fact way about karma and their own multiple births.
“In my life, in this life, I have done this mela (the traditional Naropa festival to be celebrated as ‘the Kumbh of the Himalayas’ on the banks of the Indus in July this year) only in Ladakh; I have not yet done it anywhere else though people are requesting me to,” says the Drukpa, who wears his power as a spiritual leader very lightly. Dressed in robes that expose his arms to the elements while his audience of nonplussed big city journalists shivers in three layers of woolens and windcheaters, he laughs easily and answers even the most inane questions sensibly, and presents abstruse philosophical concepts in digestible nuggets.
“What is the winter Hemis festival and did it always exist?”
“It’s the circle of the year, the circle of day, circle of moon and sun; we do certain practices like Mahakali practices, Mahakala practices. Most of these practices need to be done at the end of the year; it’s a very deep kind of thing to understand for commoners like us,” the Drukpa says, and you think of the thousands who had gathered on the vast grounds adjacent to the Rancho school, for a glimpse of him and to participate with deep devotion in the Hemis festivities. “These are practices connected with Shiva, Avalokiteshvara and Mahadev. Practices connected with tantra should be done in the upper part of the year. That is connected with physiology, the physical body, the cyclic existence, the human body has circulation too you know; it’s something to do with astrology and all these things,” he says.
Despite being an inveterate skeptic, you are impressed by this cheerful guru who speaks of both spirituality and the very worldly need to care for the environment. “The Naropa ceremony, which is held once in 12 years, is considered as a side liberation according to religious belief. The ceremony is not specifically for the environment but the philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism is to help the environment. I am more excited by the environmental issue than the ceremony itself, which is just a religious ceremony... which is just me,” the Drukpa shrugs and you receive an unbidden insight into what it must feel like to be perceived as holiness incarnate.
The spiritual leader’s interest in protecting the environment, and the general Ladakhi sense of impending doom brought on by climate change and the melting glaciers – no doubt worsened by the cloudburst of 2010 that left great destruction in its wake – has led to the launch of many initiatives. One is the use of filtered instead of mineral water by trekkers in the Hemis national park. The Drukpa is also encouraging eco-friendly means of transport like walking and bicycling through padyatras and cycle yatras. “Ladakh is on the top of the Himalaya and 75 percent of all people depend on Himalayan waters so we have to really look after them. The environment is a big issue,” he says.
This concern for the natural world extends to animals and the cheerful Padma Tashi, president of the Young Drukpa Association points you to the Live To Rescue Stray Animals Care and Management Centre (SACMC), which rehabilitates injured animals and shelters even aggressive stray dogs. “The government wanted to cull the dogs but that’s not a real solution so this centre was started,” Tashi says. There’s much that states like Kerala that recently opted to decimate its strays could learn from Ladakh.
There is much that the rest of India too can learn. Sadly, the ‘ugly Indian tourist’, who only really discovered the region after the stupendous success of Three Idiots, leaves a trail of trash in his wake. “They throw plastics about even if you tell them not to and clean their cars in the lakes and rivers,” Jigmet, the guide, laments.
You try not to be the embodiment of the ugly Indian tourist at the Shey nunnery where you’ve chatted with 40-year-old Jigmet Palden Lamo, originally from Choglamsar, who has been a nun for 20 years. One of five children and the only one in her family to opt for the religious life, Lamo never wanted children or a family of her own. “You can’t think if you do that,” she says pointing you towards the outhouse. Trudging there in the bright Himalayan sunshine even as the crisp air makes your teeth chatter, you wonder about the nuns traversing this distance to relieve themselves in the middle of the subzero night. Then, once you get there, you gawk at the dry composting native toilet, that strangely enough, brings to mind the outhouse of long-dead relative’s home in Kerala, a pit in the ground where he, frightened that he’d be accused of violence in his dotage, disposed a stray heirloom sword at the height of naxalite activity in the 1970s.
Crouching over that eco-friendly but fearsome loo, you think about mortification of the flesh, the environment, man’s place in the world, Time, the Himalayas, climate change and end-of-the-world neurosis. Is it real you wonder or is it all maya? When you arise, you see the snow covered mountains framed perfectly in the toilet window. Agnostic you might be but in that moment of oxygen-deprived relief, your blood once more thrumming in your ears as the Diamox wears off, you think giddily that this is the best of all possible worlds; that perhaps in this life and in the ones to follow, and the ones left behind, you haven’t been to a place quite as unsettlingly beautiful as this; and that perhaps, just perhaps, Divinity does exist.
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