08 August 2013

India - August 2013

Travels on the 'Monk for a Month' programme with Spiti Ecosphere


Rudyard Kipling in 'Kim' described Spiti as a 'world within a world' and as a place 'where the Gods Live'. 
How true. 
It's a devil of a job to get there, high mountain passes to cross, shockingly bad roads, and plenty of surprises like unexpected snowfall in mid summer, landslides, and broken down vehicles blocking your way. 
But that's half the fun. You earn the right to enjoy this Trans-Himalayan corner of India, high up in the state of Himachal Pradesh, close to the Tibetan border.
The local people are welcoming and warm-hearted. They're cut off from the world six months of the year, the average income in a Spiti village is only about £1,100, and beyond subsistence farming and a parlous existence from their main cash crop, the humble green pea, there's not much income except from tourism. 
It feels like Tibet here, the local language is Bhoti, a dialect of western Tibet, and prayer flags flutter everywhere, the elders quietly recite their meritorious mantra, and restaurants fill you up with momos and thupka.
Our hosts, Spiti Ecosphere, have pioneered tourism into this region, helping villagers to supplement their income through home-stays, bringing in groups of volunteers to assist with greenhouse and other eco-projects, guiding trekkers, and, in our case, providing a unique opportunity to learn and observe the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhism. 
Language can be a problem, especially when attempting to understand the finer points of Vajrayāna, and you have to be prepared for cold water washes (or sometimes none at all), frequent power outages, no mobile phone coverage, dust, and sudden changes to the itinerary forced by natural events. 
But there's ample compensation. 
You'll enjoy huge mountain landscapes, you'll feel the spirituality amidst the ancient monasteries which loom above the precipitous river valleys, and help some lovely, gentle people in making their way in the world.  
And all of this observed by that most elusive of creatures, the snow leopard. You won't see him, but he'll surely be watching you as you pass through his territory in this hidden corner of the world. 

There is a 10 minute slideshow of this trip on YouTube 

Day 1 
An unusual trip this. Firstly, most travellers would avoid Delhi during the monsoon period. And secondly, almost all would avoid the temptation to stay in a Buddhist monastery high in the Himalaya for five days.
But, this is the mission for this year's little adventure to India.
Monsoonal Delhi is hot and extremely damp, the rain falling in the morning and it's rather like walking in a luke warm shower when you're out and about, the afternoons revealing a hazy sun which then stimulates extraordinary levels of humidity. 
But, there's new sights and wonders to be seen, and my first day in Delhi was no exception. Having been here four times already, I was keen to get beyond the usual tourist honeypots of the Chandni Chowk, Red Fort and the Jama Masjid mosque in Old Delhi, the familiar India Gate and Parliamentary buildings, and the southern icons like Humayun's Tomb and the Qutb Minar.
So, my first stop off was a major Sikh temple, the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara, close to Connaught Place in central Delhi, and situated in a place where Guru Hari Krishan, the eighth of the ten gurus revered in the Sikh pantheon, visited in the late 17th century. Shoes off, head covered and welcomed into the temple where the Sikh 'Word of God' is sung throughout the day and the faithful come to pay their respects to their holy book, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, displayed in a central gilded enclosure and protected by armed Sikh temple guards. The singing, in Punjabi, and accompanied by accordion and tabla, was beguiling and it was a pleasure to just sit and take it all in for a while. 

A feature of Sikh temples ('Gurdwara') is that they have a Pangat (also known as Guru-Ka-Langar), a community kitchen, which provides free food for all visitors, of any caste or creed. On my visit, hundreds of people, rich and poor, were seated in rows on the floor tucking into a vegetable thali, and this would be repeated, on an hourly basis, right through the day, the next batch of visitors sitting outside and many mouthing the Sikh salutation as they waited. I was taken in to see the kitchen, huge pots with dhal bubbling away, and production of chappati on an industrial scale, some produced in a machine, but many lovingly prepared by hand by the many volunteers, who also serve the food and wash up the thali trays. I had a go at rolling out a chappatii, and didn't do a bad job, albeit somewhat slower than the volunteers around me. 

A nice visit, the Sikhs showing great friendliness to an outsider, and keen to talk about their religion in an intelligent and dignified fashion.
Once again into the heat and haze of Delhi, the gentle rain now abating, and on to our next port of call, the shrine to Gandhi, situated in the garden of Birla House where he used to lead prayers when in Delhi, and where he was shot, at point blank range, by a nationalist opposed to the partitioning of India, in January 1948. Worth a visit, and I bought his autobiography (subtitled The Story of My Experiments with Truth, published in 1927, along with Louis Fischer's biography), some solid reading for the next few days methinks.

Before a late lunch with my friend Ramesh from Welcome Travels in Delhi, I paid a short visit to the Lotus Temple, south of the city, abandoning our car for a couple of stops on Delhi's relatively new metro, here on an overground section. Fast, efficient and inevitably crowded, but we were soon at the gates of the Lotus Temple, one of seven around the world (Sydney, Panama City, Kampala to name a few of them) and created by worshippers of the Baha'i religion. Baha'i was started by a youth in Iran, Báb, and an early follower, Babáu'lláh, both of whom were ruthlessly persecuted in their home country, the former executed and the latter exiled, eventually settling in what was then Palestine. The temple itself is a nine-sided construction, with concrete petals clad in Greek marble and surrounded by nine pools. Designs in other countries differ.

Prayers are recited, and can be from any other faith, in line with the Baha'i belief in the unity of one God. We caught the end of a prayer session, and the acoustics of this 1980's construction were magnificent.
The final call of the day was to the nearby ISKCON, better known as the Hare Krishna temple, famously developed during the 1960's and now with a worldwide following (Krishna, the Hindu god of love). The temple itself is modelled on the traditional Hindu style, and 'Hare Krishna' was being sung by a small group of musicians inside, the outside now festooned in bamboo scaffolding to support protective tarpaulin for the forthcoming celebration of Krishna's birthday at the end of August. I found the whole thing here somewhat contrived, my guide adding that no-one can 'become' a Hindu, rather you had to be born into it, so for many Indian Hindus, the concept of Western Krishna followers is somewhat incredulous. 

A comfortable night and much needed kip enjoyed at the Maidens Hotel, situated just north of the Old City in grand colonial buildings, and now part of the Oberoi group. 

Maidens Hotel
Day 2
A slow start before I repositioned myself to Tara House, a little further north in an area known as Majnu-Ka-Tilla, situated on the banks of the Yamuna River, now flooding in places following the heavy monsoon rains.

 Room with a view! Yamuna River                
This was to be the meeting point for our little group of intrepid travellers, who will be heading north in a couple of days to reach the remote region of Spiti in the northernmost part of Himachal Pradesh, a high altitude 'cold desert' situated close to the Tibetan border. 
More about that later. 
My driver brought me away from the palatial surroundings of the Maidens Hotel to the somewhat less salubrious environs of a Tibetan refugee quarter, but I first took an opportunity to visit another Sikh temple, the Majnu-Tilla Shrine, named after Majnu, a Muslim Sufi dervish who met the Guru Nanak (the originator of the Sikh faith) in the late 15th century and who became an outstanding devotee and missionary. He subsequently converted his khanqua into a shrine of Guru Nanak. It's less impressive than the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara but thankfully devoid of tourists. 

The hotel is centrally located in the Tibetan enclave, an area which houses many refugees in a variety of ramshackle constructions which have grown up as they continue to flee Chinese oppression. 

There's a small Nyimgmapa and Kadampa monastery with two chapels, and in one a group of ten monks were chanting under the watchful eye of their lama. The streets are filled with Tibetan art, book and jewellery shops, and the inevitable internet cafes and mobile phone shops. A relaxed vibe prevails here, although judging by the number of dogs on the street, and mosquitoes breeding in puddles, it promises to be a disturbed couple of nights ahead!

Day 3

Yeh, the night was predictably bad. Room was fine, air con worked after late evening power cut, but frogs living on the flood plain provided the background track to the cacophony of local dogs fighting for territory, and other hotel residents clattering doors in the middle of the night. Hey ho, passed out eventually. 
The group, eight of us - moi, four Aussies, one from Thailand, one from Poland and one American - gathered for the first time and we went walkabout around the Tibetan enclave, visited the Sikh temple (today busier with a women's group leading the sung prayers) and walked along the Yamuna riverbank and the crude tented homes of the Dalits who live here. Appalling poverty, but people looked content with their lot.

A Tibetan lunch, momos, etc., then we travelled to Tibet House, just south of central Delhi. This is a cultural centre established by HH Dalai Lama with support from the Indian government, and we received a useful lecture on basic Buddhist principles from Geshe Dorje Damdul, one of the Dalai Lama's translators. A thoroughly competent chap, who seemed able to fend off even the most challenging of questions. There's a small museum here, and this will get a proper visit at the end of this trip. 

We enjoyed a late afternoon walk through Lodhi Park, with an interesting selection of ancient mosques and mausoleum, before a final visit to an Indian cultural centre with an excellent exhibition of photographs of Rajasthan and a simple food hall.

A speedy trip back to the hotel, the roads in Delhi faster today as it's a public holiday (Eid, and it's also a new moon, so very auspicious). Early to bed, a crack of dawn start tomorrow to head off for distant Manali. 

Day 4
So, the long journey north starts! Off on to relatively quiet major roads heading north from Delhi out towards Chandighar, and soon into the flat arable lands which stretch for a couple of hundred miles up to the start of the Himalayan foothills. I've travelled across this area by train before so got stuck into my book and the time soon passed. Beyond Chandighar, we found ourselves on the 'Himalayan Highway', a well made road that took us off the northern plains into the verdant hilly country. 
As always, the good roads run out quickly, and it was not long before we were on roads where progress is only made by breathtaking overtaking manoeuvres, although the two drivers we have seem to err on the safe side compared to some I could mention from past experience. 

Monkeys at the side of the road greeted us, and very quickly the sights of the Sutlej valley unfolded before us, an indication of the grandeur ahead of us over the next three weeks. Breakfast and a lunch stop gave us a little respite, but it was over 16 hours (about 530km) before we drew into a busy Manali to reach our hotel for the next two nights, the Shingar Regency, overlooking the town. We're now at 2,000m, so acclimatisation has started. Rest day tomorrow, before the final push to the Spiti Valley.

Some of the reprobates I'm travelling with, one an entrepreneur, another a tradesman and the other a DJ/festival organiser...you work it out!

Day 5

A solid night's sleep (felt like a coma) and a short walk down to Manali in relatively low humidity and somewhat lower tremperatures than Delhi! The rain here falls almost continuously, a light rain almost evaporating as it hits your clothing, interspersed by strong downpours every now and again. Typical monsoon weather.
Our first stop was a newly built Nyingma-pa temple, set in nice grounds with a small stupa and large prayer wheel in a little garden just behind the hustle and bustle of the main market area in the town.

Haigriva, a protective deity

Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, a key figure in the first transmission of Buddhism into Tibet
Buddha Śākyamuni with follower on left
This was followed by a little tea with our Spiti guide, Tsering, and then some free time in the town itself, full of restaurants, mobile phone shops, adventure tour agents and all the usual paraphernalia of modern day India, including CCTV.

Note that the Manali Police are on Facebook too!
I walked up the hill to visit the Hadimba Devi Temple, set in attractive woodland of giant deodar (a species of cedar native to the western Himalaya). It houses an ancient cave temple dedicated to the goddess Hadimbi. Based on a story from the Indian epic Mahabharata*, it is a shrine to Hadimba's sister, who became a goddess. 

A large rock occupies the inside of the temple, only a 7.5cm tall brass image representing goddess Hidimdi Devi. A rope hangs down in front of the rock,and according to a legend, in ancient times religious zealots would tie the hands of "sinners" by the rope and then swing them against the rock. Hidimba is one of the most powerful and spritualist deities in Kullu valley. The pagoda type wooden temple with intricately carved wooden doors and a wooden shikhara dates from 1553. Allegedly, the carver of the artwork had his hands cut off after completion so that he could never again produce such beautiful work anywhere else.

Rainy afternoon in Manali

Otherwise, a chilled day to be had, with a 0400 start tomorrow across two high passes, the Rohtang Pass (3980m) and Kunzum Pass (4590m) to reach Kaza in Spiti. Only a 12 hour ride tomorrow...

Day 6

Shock and awe! A stupendous day. Another long one, almost 13 hours of travelling from Manali, but, quite simply, among the best mountain and high desert vistas I have seen.
We left Manali  at 0415, the road up to the Rohtang Pass (52km away) fairly clear of traffic as we ascended in darkness, passing through dense forest and occasional banks of fog. Rising from about 1950m to 3950m meant a steady climb of some two hours, with hardly any relief for our poor vehicle! It reminded me of the climb from Ambleside to the Kirkstone Pass in the English Lake District, except this one took two hours to get up it!

The road surface was better than expected and drivers on this road showed unexpected courtesy by Indian standards, thankfully waiting for vehicles to pass by on the narrower sections rather than trying to squeeze past and risk the precipitous drop to one side. As we approached the top of the pass, daylight happened upon us, and huge views, often looking down on to the cloud tops, appeared but the road surface had now become very rough, wet and slippery due to a road widening scheme here. But this section was quickly passed and we emerged at the summit, the sun rising behind the mountain peaks ahead of us.
This was our first taste of high mountain country, marked by a white stupa and dilapidated prayer flags, a wonder to behold. The descent was initially on tarmac but very quickly we found ourselves on rough gravel as we negotiated the many switchbacks and steep hairpin bends, magnificent empty country all around us, the region of Lahaul.
Then, the inevitable happened. A lorry with broken drive shaft was blocking the road at a narrow point, in fact actually straddling a stream that emanated from a nearby waterfall.

We waited a while, but it was clearly going to take hours for the driver and all the other lorry drivers now stuck behind him to somehow fix it. So we walked, leaving our vehicles behind, and after a few kilometres found a little teahouse aside a marvellous stupa looking down on the ravine of the Chandra River far below us. Chai and noodles were consumed and as we walked on, the first vehicle came past us, soon followed by our own. The local's solution? Well, just build a new bit of road around the outside of the broken down vehicle. Quite how they managed this I have no idea, but full marks for effort!

Our descent continued for what seemed like hours, continuing along the magnificent Chandra valley, the river in full flow and carrying a heavy sediment. Mountains and glaciers all around us, and hardly a soul to be seen apart from a few beekeepers tending their hives and a few lonely goat herders and shepherds. Awesome, remote space.

We eventually stopped for lunch at Batal, 3960m, a relatively busy spot for truckers, Israeli backpackers and motorcyclists (enjoying their freedom after military service) and assorted small tourist buses and jeeps. A good dhal, rice and vegetables were enjoyed, then we were off to surmount the big pass of the day, the mighty Kunzum Pass, 4482m, reached by a very dusty series of switchbacks, with only a momentary halt forced by a punctured jeep ahead of us.

The pass was windy, and typically adorned with stupas, mani walls and a vast array of prayer flags. The view, snow-capped peaks to the west and north, and our objective, the Spiti Valley, ahead of us to the east. The ride into Spiti was a joy. 
Rather like Ladakh, multi coloured rock strewn mountains 5,000-6,000m in height (in places rather like the technicolour mountains of Landmannalauger in Iceland), amazing 'hoodoes' on the heavily eroded valley sides, eventually broken by patches of green pea and barley cultivation, and, eventually, some signs of habitation starting at the village of Lossar, after which the road surface improved somewhat.

The Spiti Valley is wide at this point, offering expansive views in all directions, with notable sights like the Kee Monastery high up on the cliffs to our left, and finally, Kaza at 3660m, some 220km from our start point.
Once just home to 13 families, it's now the capital of Spiti, with a population of some 2,500 people. It's a very small town, with an old town area of typical Tibetan style houses, thick walls, the flat roof covered by wood and hay drying for winter feed for their animals, and prayer flags flying from every rooftop. There's a bustling market at the other end of town, but it has an innocent, friendly feel, and is very new to tourism. 
I met Sunil of Ecosphere, the folks who have arranged this adventure. He mentioned that the head of the Sakya-pa sect was visiting the local monastery, and also let slip that HH The Dalai Lama is visiting the region in 2014. Spiti is really getting on the map! Sunil also advised that tomorrow's entry into the Kungri Monastery may have to be put back due to a landslide that has completely blocked vehicular traffic into the Pin Valley.
Hey ho! We'll find a way!
Our little guesthouse, sitting above the 'Taste of Spiti' restaurant was basic but fine for our purpose, albeit with no electricity or hot water. But who cares, tired, but very happy, our adventure has begun.

A few other points of interest on this region. It's cut off by snow for over six months of the year, the passes opening in June and the government mandated to keep them open until the end of September, after which you take your chances! This year, 2013, they has an unusual fall of snow, some 2 feet, in June, reflecting the heavy monsoon which caused devastation in the next state south, Uttarakand. It's this that has knocked out power supplies in Spiti, 40% of Himachal Pradesh state without mains electricity now for over two months. Generators and solar power take some of the edge off though. For us, candles, head torches and cold showers are now the order of the day. 
The snow this year stranded a group of trekkers. They were helicoptered out by the Indian Army, a relief flight subsidised under a Rural Aid scheme, and therefore quite inexpensive. But to have got a private helicopter would have cost 10 times more!
So what do the locals do during the months they are shut off from the rest if the world? Well, judging by comments from our guide, the men play cards and drink chang, whilst the women tend to kids, prepare food, weave carpets and make socks and hats, etc. Sound familiar?

Day 7

A disturbed night. The village dogs performed as usual, kids were playing out late, a local Buddhist temple had drums and horns being played late evening, and a nearby generator chugged away. 
The landslide in the Pin Valley is still making access exceedingly difficult, so today's plan is to visit the Tabo Monastery, some two hours further along the Spiti Valley from Kaza. However, we first had a short introduction to Buddhism by Sunil of Ecosphere and a short while to explore Kaza and avail ourselves of the unreliable internet connections in the few Internet cafes now springing up here. It's indicative of the number of Israeli travellers who pass this way that many of the cafes here offer 'Israeli Food' on their hoardings.
Proceeding further along the Spiti Valley it gets increasingly vertiginous in places, but that is soon overshadowed by the sight of the snow capped peaks in the direction of the Tibetan border, now under 75km from here. Once again, truly spectacular driving along a narrow gravel road, with evidence of frequent rock fall and landslides. 

Access to Tabo Monastery was a little time restricted due to the death of the secondmost senior abbot the day before our visit, but we were able to visit Spiti's most important monastery, attributed to the royal lama Ye-she-'od in 996 CE (he later collaborated with the great translator Rinchen Zangpo). 
The central temple features the four-headed Vairocana, and is, in fact, a mandala, containing many ancient frescoes and 32 clay figures representing Bodhisattvas of the Vajradhātu-mandala. Photography is, of course, forbidden inside the temple, unless you obtain a special permit from Shimla. In all, there are nine temples here with 23 chortens, and Tabo's architecture and iconographic style reflect its early origins. We were able to visit the Central Temple, the Golden Temple and Mandala Temple, all containing priceless Buddhist images. The monastery had started as a Nyingma-pa temple, but has since been adapted to Gelug-pa. The Dalai Lama is scheduled to make a repeat visit here in 2014 (he celebrated the millennium anniversary there in 1996). 

After a quick tea break at our stop-off for the night, the Maitreya Guest House, we walked up to the meditation caves on the adjacent hill side, preparations already underway up there for the cremation of the deceased abbot tomorrow. Tonight in Tabo we're a little lower than Kaza, at 3330m, and the lack of light from the village and crystal clear skies gave us an opportunity for a little star gazing from the rooftop. Otherwise, the usual routine prevailed, early dinner, early night, dogs barking. Earplugs to the rescue!

Day 8

It was obviously meant to be. Our delayed entry into Kungri Monastery had led us to Tabo earlier than scheduled, but this meant that we were able to witness the cremation parade for the head lama of Tabo Monastery, who had died, apparently just preparing himself for some meditation, a couple of days earlier. 
Armed with burning incense sticks we joined a row of villagers queuing alongside the monastery in readiness for the procession. Everyone, man, woman and child, were quietly chanting a mantra used for these occasions. It was hugely atmospheric in the bright morning sunshine, the village ringed by huge mountains on all sides.

As the procession of monks appeared, a single monk blowing on a conch horn followed by monks bearing a large coffin covered in white silk, the women spread flower petals on the path ahead of them.
As the procession passed, everyone fell in behind the coffin, circumnambulating the monastery's outer walls and spinning prayer wheels as they advanced, before it started its way up the hill to the cremation site up at the meditation caves. We left the procession at this point, grabbed some breakfast, and heading out of Tabo caught sight of the first smoke from the pyre, white clouds billowing over the barren mountain slopes. 

So, we had a somewhat delayed start, but it served to create the right mindset for the days ahead in the monastery. 
We retraced our steps back towards Kaza, and after an hour or so of bumpy travelling, we passed through the village of Schiccilling, and then turned off the 'main road' for an 8km uphill stretch to the magnificent Dhankar Monastery, a fort monastery dating from the 9th to 15th century, and also now the site of Dhankar Tashi Choling Monastery (Gelug-pa), consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 2009. Dhankar translates to a 'fort on a cliff' and it was once home to the early rulers of Spiti, the Nonos, and was in fact the capital of Spiti in the 17th century. 

The uppermost part of the nearby old temple complex, reached by a short scramble, has a tiny chapel, the Lhakchang Gompa, and we were given the chance to do a short meditation here, surrounded by images of the Dhyani Buddhas.
We then worked our way downhill to the main hall, the dukhang, which features a silver Maitreya statue encased in glass, and the walls festooned with many thangkas. Sadly, the original frescoes here were water damaged and therefore no longer visible, unable to support the local claim that this is Spiti's oldest monastery. Set amongst the buildings of the Dhankar village the old temple complex offers a marvellous view down into the Spiti river and its confluence with the Pin river, and from here it was very obvious that the latter was carrying a very heavy sediment load, almost black in colour, as a result of the landslide that was to prove our challenge a little later.

After lunch in a small restaurant next to the new monastery we backtracked downhill and headed in the direction of Kaza before turning left into the Pin Valley, a bridge taking us on to a tarmac road. About 10km later we were confronted with the devastation of the landslide. Huge slopes, adjacent to another river valley entering from the west, had collapsed. Massive boulders, at the base of the slope, with some scree slopes still running downhill, and a large fan of dark grey silt had taken out the road here. The silt is like quicksand, and yours truly christened his new lightweight trekking boots in this gloopy mess. 

A  couple of bulldozers were working away, but most of the reconstruction work was in the hands, quite literally, of an army of villagers from the Pin Valley, clearing rubble and laying down new rocks to form an embryonic pathway, soon to be a road again. Their imperative - to move their freshly harvested green pea crop to market before it rots - vital given that it represents 75% of the valley's annual income. 
So we had to decamp from our vehicle, manhandle our luggage across the gloopy mud, crossing a small river to reach the road at the far side of the landslide, two local jeeps waiting to transport us the 30 minutes or so uphill to the monastery.
The Urygen Sang Choling Monastery in Kungri is Spiti's second oldest monastery and has recently been renovated with the help of some large foreign donations, currently housing 75 monks. There is a small nunnery nearby. 

We were shown our rooms, shared but relatively spacious, and, as we were to discover later, powered by a generator from 2000-2200 each evening to enable monks to study. Basic, but better than expectations.

We settled in, had a short briefing, a dinner of rice and dhal and (inevitably) green peas, and then enjoyed some chill time. An eventful day 

Day 9

Our life as 'temporary monks' starts today. We were spared the 0400 prayer session (but only for today) as we needed to take our vows with the Khempo (a senior teacher) beforehand. 
Although not compulsory for us, part of monastic practice is to have your head shaved and four of our number elected to do this, the monastery administrator also 'administering' the clippers, shearing the guys standing on the roof of one of the wings of the monastery. The practice is firstly for hygiene within the enclosed environment of the monastery, and second it's all about reducing ego, and ensuring equanimity within the community. Unfortunately my ego is too big, and I couldn't stand the ribbing in the pub when I get back, so I still have my hair!

Having done this, we met the Khempo for an introductory meeting after which we saw him individually to take our vows, which then remain applicable for our time in the monastery. So, early afternoon it was my turn to meet Khempo Tsewang Ringzin, and sitting before him he explained the vows I would be making:
To take refuge in the Three Jewels - Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
To refrain from killing anything, even the smallest insect
To refrain from telling untruths
To refrain from stealing
To refrain from consuming intoxicants
To refrain from music and dance
Of course, up here in the monastery it shouldn't be too difficult to follow these. There's no mozzies up here and a few days off the beer should be a good thing, right?
Seriously though, the ceremony was a solemn one, and I was asked to kneel and repeat the vows in Tibetan after him, each one interspersed by the Khempo reciting a prayer. Finally I was given my monastic name, Nawang Kungh (pronounced 'Koonga'). Nawang meaning 'good speaker with self confidence' and Kungh meaning 'a person who is liked by many'. Well, OK with the former (although some would say I frequently talk rubbish) but I'm sure there'd be a few dissenters on the latter. Might even have it tattooed. 
Um. Probably not.
Those who had had their head shaved had been left a small tuft of hair at the back. The Khempo cut this off after the vows were completed. A small tuft of my hair was also cut...as if I could spare it!
The rest of the day was spent with the Khempo, who wanted to take us through the reasons for the vows and the thinking behind them, to talk us through the background to the early summer retreat that the whole monastery is in at present, give us some background to the four sects in Tibetan Buddhism, and brief us on meditation practice. Far too much in too short a time, particularly when his spoken English was poor. But we were in the presence of a tulku, a reincarnate of a previous great teacher, and it was clear that he had great command of his subject, plus being a really nice guy. 
Some of us then sat in for the last part of afternoon prayers, the rhythmic recitation interspersed with the usual cacophony of horns, trumpets, drums and conch shells. A key part of my stay here is to understand these ritual practices, otherwise I'll be unable to cover these adequately in my planned book on Buddhism in the Himalaya.
A weird day, but tomorrow we follow the daily life of the monks:
0400-0600    Prayers
0900-0930    Breakfast
1000-1130    Class
1200             Lunch
1400-1500    Class
1500             Tea
1600-1700    Prayers
1900             Dinner
I need a holiday already....and we've just heard that there's been another landslide at the same spot. We may be here some time...

Day 10
Up at 0330 and into the main assembly hall for morning prayers. I got there early to find two monks blowing hard into conch shells to summon the monks from their slumbers. It's a large and well lit assembly hall (dukhang), and the quality of images reflects the recency of the renovation. The central feature of the temple is Śākyamuni Buddha, flanked by Guru Rinpoche and a Tārā. There are eleven different mandala painted on ceiling panels. The side walls have a total of one thousand small golden Buddhas and one thousand golden Padmasambhavas, and the rear wall has four magnificent Dharmapāla (Protector Deities) painted on it. The entrance vestibule (sgo-khang) has the Four Guardian Kings in resplendent colours.

The senior monks, about ten in number, arrived at 0400 and proceeded with three full prostrations on entry, followed by lower ranked monks who repeated the ritual. There is a senior monk who then leads the session, flanked by another who led some prayers and kept the beat for some of them with a bell. The full programme lasted until 0545, and was mainly serious in nature, with spoken prayer, some sung mantra, and one section interspersed with sound from conch, long horns (tong-chen), bells, an oboe like instrument, cymbals and two large drums. It was not all serious though, one of the conch horn participants blowing one hard in the ear of his neighbour to wake him up and prodding him on the head with it on another occasion, and even the senior monks seemed to be sharing a joke just before the session concluded.

As I write this, at 0700, another prayer session is underway in the Rinpoche's residence directly behind our room, and nuns are present. A different set of prayers, and much of it sung, accompanied by bells, cymbals and small drums. This was a special ceremony as it's the tenth day of the month in the Tibetan calendar and this is when special homage is made to Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), one of the founders of the Nyingma-pa. An atmospheric start to the day.
After breakfast, classes started, today with another Khempo who took us through the rudiments of the Tibetan alphabet (in this case, Bhoti, a western Tibet form) and then some mantra basics. Our mantra for the day - Om Ah Hung Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hung - a homage to Padmasambhava, and to be repeated as many times as possible. 
The afternoon session covered some of the ritual instruments used during the prayer sessions, employed during tantric prayer sessions to further concentration, to attract protector deities, and in special ceremonies, to invoke the presence of the celestial Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and their attendants. 

We then had a tour of the older parts of the monastery, firstly the Guru la-kang, a small but atmospheric chapel dedicated to Padmasambhava. Next, the older chapel, the Sug la-kang, devoted to peace and protection of the valley, and an adjacent room containing a large prayer wheel and a statue of Avalokiteśvara's parents in yabyum. 
The day concluded with the shorter afternoon prayer session, attended by many of the younger monks and it was a fairly relaxed affair. Local ladies and girls served us puri and a curd sauce to accompany it, and biscuits and nuts were also distributed along with sweet milky tea. 

We concluded the day with a yoga session in the library behind the main assembly hall, which I led, and this helped to close the day nicely. We had a quick climb up on to the roof of the main hall, with great views of the adjacent village and the valley setting below the mountains all around. We also happened upon a store room containing ceremonial objects, a three-dimensional mandala, face masks for the Cham Dances that happen in June every year and a marvellous statute of Samantabhadra (Kuntuzangpo in Tibetan) and Samantabadri in yabyum (both in a vivid blue colour).

But I'm now bored with food, as expected. Lots of rice and dhal, never my favourite, and I'm down to two meals a day, rather like my time in an ashram back in 2011, the appetite also affected by altitude. Also we've discovered that the water supply is unreliable...often there's no water in our shared washroom, so it's back to wet wipes again!
An early night.

Day 11

Up at 0345 and in the prayer hall for 0400. The monks had had their day off yesterday, as is the case every Friday, so they had been engaged in clothes washing, badminton and volleyball, or otherwise chilling out. But it had obviously taken its toll, as most turned up late, the younger ones yawning their way through the session. 
Today's prayers were simpler and commenced with monks performing multiple prostrations at the start, before a series of prayers accompanied by a bell or drum beat. It was very hypnotic and helped facilitate a little meditation, somewhat easier today as we are all getting used to sitting on the floor for long periods. Sweet tea and a pack of biscuits were most welcome at 0500.
Our first class took us through the methods of teaching in the Nyingma-pa sect, with three routes depending on how quickly Enlightenment might be achieved. The afternoon session, following a raid for chocolate in the little shop just up in the adjacent village, covered the different lineages, from Kama, the written teachings, to Terma, the mystical 'Treasure Teachings' passed down from Padmasambhava. 

Before dinner a few us walked up to the site of the Rinpoche's new house and retreat, close to a meditation cave high up in a remote is valley. The views were stupendous, the late afternoon light bringing the marvellous rock scenery in this region into sharp relief. From there we took a rough road down to the nunnery and had some refreshments with an volunteer American woman who was teaching the nuns English. Dinner, early to bed as usual.

Day 12

Final full day in the monastery, same routine except there was a sudden possibility to go and meet the Rinpoche before he left for a three day trip. This proved to be a false alarm, his itinerary probably brought forward because of the need to walk around the landslide site which is now blocked again. Incidentally this means we'll probably have to walk out of the valley as well, and, interestingly this means crossing a fast flowing river in a rope chair set up. That'll be another new experience!
So, back into the routine. 

Early morning prayers that we're observing at present are augmented because of the summer retreat that the monastery is in, so the monks add a special introduction to the puja, honouring Śākyamuni Buddha and the Perfection of Wisdom sutras with prayer and multiple prostrations. Tea is then served and swifty followed by the standard puja, involving quite a lot of rhythmic chanting, with drums, oboes, conch and horns interspersed, all in praise of the founder of the Nyingma-pa sect, Padmasambhava. Occasionally, the monks then retreat into themselves in quietly mumbled private prayer to Śākyamuni and Padmasambhava. 
Our classes today covered the Three Jewels, the stages of monkhood and an introduction to Tantra.
There was quite a lot of downtime today, so plenty of reading in between sessions and we attended our final afternoon puja, a session dedicated to attracting the monastery's Dharma Protectors, including the fierce deity Rahula. It's more repetitive than the morning session, much of the prayer delivered at speed, with the drums and bell setting the tempo.
The small horns precede the rest of the instruments in this session and there's much throwing of rice or roasted barley grains into the air as an offering to these Dharmapāla.
Finally we were shown up on to the roof of the main temple in order to show us the poor state of repair of the monastery roof. They need to raise INR42 lakh (about £400,000) and requested any donations to be routed through Ecosphere. 
Our dinner tonight is at the nunnery (home for 35 nuns), their cooking a lot better than the monks get, no doubt because the cooks up there are ladies! And it was, an awesome vegetable soup, and momos filled with peas and veg. Delicious. 

Day 13
Today we leave the monastery, but 4 o'clock prayers beckon first, then breakfast, and farewell meetings with one of the teachers, and our main teacher, the Khempo, with whom we individually 'gave back' our vows. It was a nice parting. These are genuinely friendly, open and compassionate people, who gave of their time freely to us. Many happy memories of a short stay here will prevail.

We then walked some 5-6km further west to our retreat for the next two days, Phukchong, a tiny hamlet overlooking the Pin River at an altitude of 3690m. It's a great little guesthouse with nice comfy chairs (the first for days!) and a balcony. We fast after lunch and then tomorrow will be a day of silence, meditation and reflection, very welcome after the routine of the monastery. 

I took myself off for a walk and enjoyed the complete isolation of this setting, watching cows and sheep negotiate precipitous slopes far too steep for their hapless herdsman to follow them on. I got caught in a brief shower that passed through the valley, the reward being an enduring low but intense rainbow that ponderously progressed up the slopes of the valley below, refracting the late afternoon sun. It was good, as Wordsworth once said, to 'stand and stare.'
A lazy day for us all, and a short talk in the evening by Ischita, the founder of Ecosphere, on the principles and methods of fasting and silence.

Day 14

I'm writing this as the last orange glow on a nearby summit subsides. It's been a strange day. But quite satisfying. 
The usual banter of our little group suppressed by our commitment to silence has brought with it a mental as well as oral calm. People drifted through the day. Some walked, others sat by the river and contemplated, others napped whilst all of us, at some point, buried ourselves in a book or two. I struggled with Tibetan history of the tenth century and started Louis Fischer's excellent biography of Gandhi. 
We were all fasting until 5 p.m. too. Altitude suppresses hunger, but the mere fact that you had committed to deny yourself any food just makes you pine for it even more. 
So, in silence and with rumbling stomach, I set off to explore the upper Pin valley and find myself a rock upon which to sit and attempt some serious thinking.

Good intentions, but as usual, even with a fine view into the higher reaches of the valley, absolute silence all around, and the perfect opportunity for some introspection, I singularly failed to settle the 'monkey mind', random thoughts shattering any hope for meditative equipoise. In fact, I managed to avoid having any profound thoughts whatsoever, either about the recent experience in the monastery, or the life I have temporarily left behind. Sad thoughts of my mum's recent passing came and went, I thought about my close family and resolved to be around a bit more in the future, but there was nothing revelationary or revolutionary to come. 
I suppose the whole interest in spirituality that has pervaded my life over the last few years  has still come to naught. But I'm more intent than ever in finishing my planned book on Buddhism in the Himalaya, because it's a rich tradition that's being squeezed to death by the Chinese in Tibet, and so poorly understood in most of the Western world. Far be it for me to claim I'm going to be responsible for another 'transmission' of Buddhism, but it really needs a simpler and better explanation than one finds in most books or on the web at present. And I really will try to be nicer to my wife! Gillian, you should remind me I wrote this from time to time!
So, I won't be seeking ordination anytime soon, the interest remaining an intellectual one more than spiritual, a conclusion I've come to before having spent time in an Indian ashram two years ago. But hopefully, maybe I'll just show a little more compassion and selflessness in the future. We'll see!
And tonight's glorious full moon bears witness!

Day 15

Hanging over us over the last week or so has been the challenge of getting out of the Pin Valley. The huge landslide, which has caused considerable difficulties for the valley's farmers getting their pea crop to market, had slipped a total of three times over the last week, washing away any repairs that had been attempted, and forcing a tricky walk and a basket transfer over the river to get around it. 
Our guide thought we might just get through today, but the roughly hewn new road was deemed too dangerous, so we had to make a steep climb up a loose zigzag path (about 130m of ascent), then take a vertiginous route through some crags before descending to a higher part of the subsidiary river from which the landslide emanated. Here were took a metal basket ride across a steel cable before descending to fresh vehicles waiting for us in the main valley on the other side of the landslide. Good fun.

Incidentally, the successive landslides have now formed a sufficient barrier to dam up a lake above it. No doubt there'll be more problems if the dam is breached. Life in these parts is really on the edge of existence. 
We re-entered the Spiti Valley, and after a few kilometres turned off for our next objective, a viewpoint at 4973m known as Balangri. After many switchbacks on a relatively good surface, we parked up just below a pass marked with a brilliant white stupa and prayer flags, and set off for our walk, a climb of about 250m on a good path. Of course, at this altitude the air pressure is only about 60% of that at sea level, and despite an easy gradient it was moderately hard work, but what a prize! A 360 degree view, mountains of between 5000-7000m all around us, distant glaciers and snow capped peaks in abundance, and an awesome drop to the Spiti and Lingti valleys below us, all from our vantage point on a narrow rocky peak marked by a chorten and prayer flags. Awesome.

An easy descent to our start point and then we ventured on to the remote settlement of Demul, a modest community of Tibetan style houses on a slope above barley and pea fields. Tonight we are in a homestay, and as I write this, a cup of black tea in hand, I can hear all the usual cacophony of a happy household, the pressure cooker hissing away (more dhal!) and a young child playing with mum. The view from the bedroom is awesome and a warm comfy night is anticipated in these basic but homely surroundings. We're sleeping at 4300m tonight.

View from our homestay room
Dinner with the family!
Day 16

Not a bad night, no dogs whatsoever in the village, and just a little shuffling from the cows, donkeys and sheep contained in a small pen joined to our home for the night. The thin air was telling however.
We set off fairly early for the village of Komic, a remote settlement at 4513m, contained in a bowl amidst rolling alpine pasture. 
The road from Demul was amazing, but quite scary in places. I've never passed along a road with such a high risk of significant rockfall. Below a large buttress there were huge boulders on the road, which our driver deftly missed as we progressed up the hill. 

There were some diversions from the danger - some golden eagles and a herd of yaks encountered along the way.
The road improved a little as we approached Komic, and our first objective for the day appeared below us, the Komic Lundup Chemmo, a Sakya-pa monastery. There is a new monastery, freshly repainted for a recent visit by the head of the Sakya-pas, Sakya Trizin. This was deserted as all the monks were away at another monastery in Kaza. We then went into the adjacent original monastery, a tiny chapel, 900 years old, featuring the original painted frescoes. A lone monk was chanting, beating a drum and occasionally blowing on a horn. This was a weird temple, apparently honouring Mahakala, a wrathful deity, and the atmosphere was oppressive for some of our group. This wasn't helped by a stuffed snow leopard facing you as you entered the front door, adjacent to a sign stating 'Women Not Allowed', and an inner door featuring an image of an upside down disembowelled human (apparently a warning to those who are unkind to the elderly). Very odd indeed.

In full view of the highest mountain in this region, a pyramidal snow domed peak called Chho-chho (6330m), we moved on to the village of Langza (translated this means 'mud', after the local clay used for pottery). The village is overlooked by a large Buddha statue (apparently built to ward off evil spirits which had been affecting the health of the children in this tiny hamlet). We had our lunch served from tiffanies filled earlier, and taken in a house in the village, before travelling a startlingly steep and exposed series of switchbacks to Kaza.

An afternoon of warm showers, catching up on email, and enjoying chocolate croissants and coffee at the German Bakery in the town. And lemon pancakes for dinner later. Bliss.  

Dinner in Kaza. Note the serviette being used as a lampshade!
Day 17

Another bright sunny day emerged and we had the privilege of meeting the King of Spiti (called 'Nono'), a very personable and knowledgable chap, who took us through the transmission of Buddhism into this region and explored some current socio-cultural aspects with us. 
Lunchtime saw us visiting the famous Kee monastery, a large Geluk-pa monastery prominently situated on top of a hill overlooking the Spiti valley at 4166m, about half an hour west of Kaza. The main dukhang is a relatively recent addition, but upstairs rooms, one exclusively for the Dalai Lama on his visits, and another small chapel dedicated to the founder of the sect, Tsongkhapa, are said to be much older and were very atmospheric. There were great views of the valley and the surrounding mountains from the rooftop. 

On our way back we stopped at the very impressive new Sakya Kaza Moanastery, beautifully decorated both inside and out. Apparently, the monks here knocked down a perfectly good 300 year old temple to build a brand new one in readiness for a visit by the Dalai Lama. Apparently, he was unimpressed with the gesture seeing it as a waste of resources, and not something he would have expected or wanted. 

Then back into Kaza to debrief the Ecosphere team, and an early dinner as we depart at 0400 for Manali tomorrow. Fingers crossed for no landslides and no broken down vehicles blocking our way on the narrower sections!

Day 18

A good drive, albeit in rain before it got light, and we had got over the Kunzum Pass in about three hours. There's obviously been a fair bit of rain in these parts since we last passed this way, and the very bouldery upper reaches of the Chandra valley were made more difficult with the need to cross various waterfalls that were now crossing our path. As usual, our drivers coped well and we felt we were in very good hands. 

After a quick lunch at the turn off to Ladakh (480km to the north), we started up the Rohtang Pass, much busier in the middle part of the day, and both sides subject to major resurfacing and widening schemes, so there were a few hold ups, but even with these we descended the verdant south side of the pass and managed to get into Manali for 1500, a very brisk journey by standards, just 11 hours including two stops. Incidentally, road building in India remains a very manual process, many men and women smashing large rocks with sledgehammers to create smaller rocks as road foundation. Our vehicles disturbed a large flock of vultures as we left the pass.
Back in the same hotel again, the first hot shower for ages and wifi! Happy days.

Day 19

We left Manali today, bearing south along the valley of the Beas river, the road running parallel to it for much of the way, through Kullu and down into the Mandi district. The river gathers pace, crashing over boulders in a tumultuous rush, before finally becalming ahead of a large hydro-electric dam. 
En route, we're back into the tumult of everyday India. Car and lorry horns honking, cows meandering in the middle of the road, sleeping dogs to be avoided, a child picking nits out of her sister's hair by the roadside, apple markets overflowing with activity, and the relentless throb of human activity and endeavour. 
The landscape is now green, steep forested slopes eventually giving way to a gorge below the dam, but as we gain height after a lunch stop we're into the hill country, much favoured by British Colonialists as a summer retreat from the heat of the Indian plains to the south. We gain height again, settling at our final destination at 1600m, half the altitude we've become accustomed to over the last fortnight. But the monsoon is still with us, a heavy shower punctuating our progress and humid dark skies hanging over us. 

Our stopover today is the Deer Park Institute in Bir, about 3 hours east of Dharamsala, the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile and of the Dalai Lama. It's a Buddhist educational institution, established by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche to emulate the historic Nālandā University, complete with a small temple, classrooms, and basic but comfortable accommodation. A slow end to the day, welcome after almost seven hours of travelling.

Day 20

We didn't have too much time at the Deer Park Institute but we managed a quick tour of the three levels of the temple, and had an hour's teaching on the Four Seals, the four fundamental bases of the Buddha Dharma: impermanence, emptiness, samsara/dependent origination, and Enlightenment. An excellent teacher made it all sound very simple.

Deer Park Institute
Then into the cars again, for a 55km journey to Dharamsala and nearby McLeod Ganj, 10km further on and 300m higher. It took some two and a half hours, the tarmac road weaving its way across forested ridges, around interlocking spurs and through tea plantations. Nice scenery, overwhelmingly green, but oppressively humid at this time of the year.

Dharamsala looked like a bit of a dump, and we continued up the hill, through a major military base, and finally reached the very Tibetan McLeod Ganj and our delightful hotel, Chonor House, high above the town (we're now at 1900m) and with good views of the Dalai Lama's temple where we'll be going tomorrow to listen to the last day of his teachings on Tsongkhapa's Three Principle Aspects of the Path.

The Dalai Lama's huge teaching temple high in the hills above Dharamsala, seen from Chonor House
The town is quite touristy, backpackers and 'seekers' mingling with the many monks and nuns in the town, and the local Tibetan and Indian population selling the usual array of Tibetan and Buddhist trinkets. 
We went to the Tibetan Office to get permits to enter tomorrow's teaching, new security in place following a recent bombing at Bodh Gaya. I went around the Thekchen Choling temple during the afternoon. It's huge and very utilitarian, the assembly hall covered in rugs and light mattresses owned by monks, nuns and pilgrims where, presumably, they'll sleep tonight, then sit and listen to the teachings tomorrow.
The hotel is excellent, and food very good. A comfortable couple of nights ahead.

Day 21

We left the hotel early for the short walk up into the temple for the Dalai Lama's teaching. It was very crowded but the security fairly perfunctory. The various sitting areas around the main temple area where he would be seated filled up fast, and it was interesting to observe the mix of people here. Apart from hundreds of monks and nuns, the devout from Korea (who had requested this particular teaching) and ageing Tibetan refugees, I summarised up the rest as either pious, pretentious, just curious, or genuinely there for the lesson. And it never ceases to amaze me how some people retain their basic selfishness, even in a Buddhist environment, one group hogging the front row of the English speaking session, standing up to see the Dalai Lama as soon as he entered the hall to the disadvantage of everyone behind. Very un-Buddhist!
Before His Holiness arrived, the sense of anticipation was palpable. I got the usual goosebumps. When he did enter the temple, he did so with his usual humour and humility.  A great man, as history will show. He's showing signs of age now, not surprising at the age of 78, with slower gait and a slight stoop, and currently the security around him was quite tight, one or two chaps toting machine guns. But he'd wander off, making their job just a bit more challenging: clearly fearless and keen to acknowledge the faithful. 

We were not in this group of Westerners greeting His Holiness: we were behind him but did get a smile as he passed! 
[Picture courtesy of Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL via Facebook]
I hadn't expected to sit through much of the teaching. I find the long discourse in Tibetan followed by the English translation too disjointed for me, and simultaneous Korean translation via an adjacent speaker system was cacaphonic. A salty tea and some bread was served to all present, but shortly after this I took my leave. Great to have seen him again, and grateful for the opportunity, but I'll get back to my books for the wisdom just now.
Wandered up and down the streets of McLeod Ganj (the monks cannot pronounce this, so is often called 'Mellow Ganj'), bought some mara beads (made from the seeds of the rudraksha tree which are considered sacred by Saivas, devotees of Siva), and a meditation cushion. 
Our afternoon visit, about an hour away, is to the Norbulingka Institute www.norbulingka.org, a centre dedicated to the preservation of traditional Tibetan arts (thangka painting, sculpture, woodworking, etc), research, and provision of employment for the displaced Tibetans. Our hotel, Chonor House, is affiliated to the Institute. 

Norbulingka Institute

It's a nice spot, set in beautiful gardens funded by Japanese patrons, and there are workshops where students are taught the art of thangka painting and the creation of intricate wooden boxes. A temple sits at the far end, complete with a giant appliqué thangka, and finally there's a rather fine shop selling high quality examples of Buddhist art. I could have spent a fortune here, but self control prevailed...perhaps I'm now practicing the Buddhist concept of non-attachment!
Returning to McLeod Ganj by a very steep shortcut, a monsoonal storm hit us, the roads quickly running with torrents of water. 

Entering McLeod Ganj in a rainstorm
Day 22

Today, the long haul from Dharamsala to Delhi, about 12 hours with a couple of short stops. We started at 0415, a huge electrical storm having just finished, taking the local power supply out as we attempted to pack our things. 
We descended the Kangra region through more monsoonal deluges, and on difficult road surfaces in the upper stages of the journey, and as daylight broke through, we reached the more populous areas north of Chandigarbh, which brought the usual congestion, manic driving and constant hooting of horns. What a contrast with Spiti!
And, so our adventure completes. A parting of ways as the group dispersed to their various destinations in Delhi and beyond, but despite our very different motivations and backgrounds, a common bond set to persist through this most engaging of adventures. 

Day 23/24

Stay at the Connaught Hotel, New Delhi. Return to UK on Royal Jordanian Airlines via Amman.

* The Indian epic Mahabharata narrates that Pāndavas stayed in Himachal during their exile. In Manali, a strongest person named Hidimba,a brother of Hidimdi, attacked them, and in the ensuing fight, Bhima,the strongest Pandav, killed him. Bhima and Hidimba's sister, Hidimdi, then got married and had a son, Ghatotkacha, (who later proved to be a great warrior in the war against Kauravas). When Bhima and his brothers returned from exile, Hidimdi did not accompany him, but stayed back and did tapasyā (a combination of meditation, prayer, and penance) so as to eventually attain the status of a goddess.

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