Meg Noble Peterson

Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

Monasteries, Schools and Heavenly Sunshine

Those of you who know me will remember how I’ve complained over the years about the wall-to-wall music in buses and jeeps in Asia. Well, nothing is permanent, as the Buddhists say, and, indeed, I have changed. I’m actually enjoying the Ladakhi and Hindi music, and find it adds to the atmosphere of collegiality found in most buses. Now I’m looking for a tape to bring home.

I also want to recommend the Ladakh Tour Escort (www.escortladakh.com), a group of helpful fellows who planned my sojourns to Tso Pangong and the Nubra Valley. It was Ajaz Ahmad who introduced us. I kidded them about the name escort and how one escort service brought down a New York governor. They laughed and said I wasn’t the first to mention it. There are dozens of such agencies in Leh, and it’s nice to find a reliable one with safe drivers and reasonable rates.

Karin Skogstad, a new friend, who is a professional photographer and yoga instructor, went with me to Thiksey Monastery on the local bus. As we reached the outskirts of Leh what did we see? A golf course…totally of sand. Now I wonder what sand traps look like on that course! But I guess if you’re an avid golfer you’ll play on anything.

We arrived at the foot of the monastery by noon, and started up the never-ending stone step switchbacks to reach the top…twelve-stories high. The monastery resembles the Potala in Lhasa and is a patchwork of buildings perched dramatically on the side of a steep hill. It was founded in 1430 and is the principal monastery of the Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhist tradition in Ladakh. The ceremonies and chanting are all in Tibetan. At the summit of the hill is the private residence of the head lama, whose 65th birthday was celebrated the next day at two long life pujas (we only attended the first). Below extend twelve levels of buildings, including ten temples, chapels, and monks’ accommodations. There is also a restaurant, gift shop, excellent museum, and new guest rooms with balconies (at which Karin and I stayed). We also visited the school for young monks where our friend, Mark Manning teaches. What fun it was to watch him play games with his small charges as he taught the past and present tense. These were eager little fellows and were thoroughly enjoying their lessons. Mark taught last year in Chang Mai, Thailand, and may stay here for six months, or until the winter makes school impossible. Further on, at the Champakang Temple, is the famous three-story statue of Maitreya. It’s the largest Buddhist figure in Ladakh and the Dalai Lama consecrated it during a visit to the monastery in 1980. I found this a very beautiful and welcoming place.

We roamed around, in and out of beautiful temples, and sat for awhile with one monk, who was wrapping a metal piece with white cotton string to make a 25-day butter lamp. By 6:30 we were ready to eat the butter lamp, so met Mark at the restaurant and had a heavy conversation about Buddhism for two hours. He recommended a small book to help clarify the complicated philosophy, and I’m enjoying it. What Makes You Not a Buddhist, by Dzongsar Tamyang Khyentse, who also wrote and directed the films The Cup and Travellers and Magicians.

The weather was cold and overcast, but the full moon still shone through. We lingered on our balcony, enveloped in a tranquility which is so often eludes us in our “busy” lives.

At 6:30 AM the puja began. Gongs, low horns blowing, young monks (starting at age 9) chanting, incense burning. Soon they filed in and sat cross-legged at low benches covered with colorful Tibetan rugs, with a wide railing in front of them where food was put. A very tall, imposing monk had draped himself in a yellow cape, and walked around, now and then tapping one of the youngsters, as if to say, I am the disciplinarian and you’d better behave.

This was an especially long celebration in honor of the head lama’s birthday. We sat in the back with Mark, getting into the rhythm of the drumbeats and the chants. I had my digital recorder on, held in the palm of my hand. Our concentration was interrupted, however, by a tourist with a large camera and an even larger lens. We had vowed not to take pictures, for it was annoying to everyone, especialy the young monks, who hid their heads with embarrassment. Mark suggested, later, that I do a photo piece showing obnoxious tourists thrusting their cameras into the faces of terrified little monks. I might just do it. I never take a photo without asking permission.

At intervals during the puja, tea was served and tsampa distributed, which was mixed with the butter tea. Then quiet would ensue. The young monks did all the pouring and cleaning up, and as we left they were carrying large buckets of barley, veggie, and noodle soup up the stairs to the chapel. We wished we’d stayed, but wanted to get back to Leh for the Saga Dawa Festival, a celebration I had enjoyed with Cary at the foot of Mt. Kailash in Tibet four years ago.

Again, the bus was crowded, and a diminutive nun insisted on putting Karin’s lage pack on her lap. She could hardly peer over it!

By the time I had dropped my gear at the guest house and huffed and puffed up the ten thousand stone steps (well, actually 554) to the Shanti Supa above Leh, the Saga Dawa was over. I had to be content with Dawa’s description of the floats and the hundreds of people who enjoyed the raising of the flag pole and the eating of mimosas and other goodies.

When I came off the mountain, I ran into Grandma, who was standing in a deep, grave-like hole, digging up last year’s potatoes. They had been buried for the winter, and were now being bagged in burlap and sold to restaurants in the area. She is a beautiful, very dark-skinned seventy-year-old lady, who does a lot of the gardening and sits at dinner, calmly spinning her prayer wheel and chanting softly. We’ve become great pals!

Dawa’s eldest daughter, Rinchen, showed me another huge hole, where giant radishes, as big as parsnips, had been buried. She cut one to show me how fresh and juicy it still was. She also suggested that I do my wash in their new Samsung washing machine, located in the shed. Now that was an experience! First you put the water in by hose, then you set the timer. After 15 minutes you reset it to spin. Out comes the water all over the cement floor. After that the clothes are put into the spin side for further wringing. I think it takes less trime by hand, but enjoyed the process with Rinchin.

I love to listen to the Ladakhi women speak. They have a high-pitched, excited tone, which also comes across in their singing. There seems to be an underlay of joy and good humor running through their conversation. And you are always greeted by a wide smile and a lilting Julley! Julley! from every passerby. It means hello, goodbye, and thank you. Now I call that an economy of words.

Yesterday the sun rose early and stayed bright all day. I walked to the 8 AM school bus, leaving Leh for Stok and the Siddhartha School. We took a different route from the one I had become familiar with, and I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, sitting next to one of the teachers as the bus became fuller and fuller. I like the idea of pupils and teachers on the same bus. They care for the little ones and make it quite a social occasion.

The acting principal, Ugyen Tsering, a Tibetan who lives in a refugee camp in the valley, met me, throwing a kata around my neck. The children, all in uniform, sat down in front of a large outdoor stage. This is desert country, so there was no grass, just dust. First they sang, then several students performed songs, or recited poetry. Everything was very orderly as they walked to their various classes. The school goes to level ten, and Ugyen took me to several classrooms. In two of them they were studying the causes of World War II and in another they were discussing the problems of global warming and how Ladakh could adjust its lifestyle to solve such problems. They already use solar heating panels extensively, because of the amount of sun, but they haven’t dealt with the terrible pollution from the cars and trucks, the garbage caused by plastic, or the lack of water. I was greeted in each room by polite children standing up and saying,”Good morning to you, Madam.” I helped with English pronounciation, which I thought was already extremely good, and took one class, where I would read and discuss and paragraph and the children would then take turns reading. I really enjoyed the English teacher, who told me that he had written several short stories and was translating them into English. He promised to send them to me. I also asked several people why everything was in English…the office sign, the teachers’ room, all the instructions. The answer was that Ladakh was a small country and English was the international language. If they were to succeed in the global economy, especially tourism, they needed English. This, of course, means that their economy is now becoming almost totally money-based, and they are subject to the vagaries of international monetary trends. But it looks as if this is the direction they are taking. I was also told that they have various school programs, one of which is debating, both Buddhist and western-style. This intrigued me, especially when I was told that the next subject would be: A woman’s place is in the kitchen. How I’d like to hear that one! These children are adorable and amazing. Can you believe that they not only speak their own language and Tibetan, but also Hindi and English. Makes me feel a bit provincial.

The reason I came to this school is Tamara Blesh, a librarian from Maine, whom I met in Dharamsala last year, and who came to Ladakh last spring and summer to set up a library at the Siddhartha School. How beloved she is for the work she did! She built the bookcases and put rugs on the floor. The books are catalogued, but they need many more. So she’s returning this summer, having ordered a challenging list of 130 more books for the students. And she told me that she will take books to the villages in the mountains, using donkeys to pack them.

Before lunch I was driven by Susheel, the school secretary, to Stok Palace, the home of the present king and of the former king, who died thirty years ago. His widow still lives in Manali. It’s an impressive place to visit with a museum of thangkas over 600 years old. After this we went to a local home where an authentic Ladakhi kitchen was preserved in a small outbuilding. The owners had a new house and extensive farm, but a very old woman took us into the cramped, low-ceilinged room where the old kitchen was, and up perilous stairs to the roof, and into a museum showing the old traditional clothing of the farmers, and their various implements. All of this she did free-of-charge, enjoying the fact that we were interested. I couldn’t believe the road that we took to get there…narrow and rimmed with mud-brick high walls. It was like a dry stream bed.

Lunch was a community affair, with one teacher in charge each month and a small amount of money contributed by everyone to cover expenses. After lunch I was able to tape and photograph kindergarteners…a lively bunch, who sang and danced on and on, and giggled with delight as I replayed their songs. I hope to return to the school and to visit Ugyen’s village.

The evening with the guest house family was warm and the food delicious. But the conversation with a young man getting his doctorate in anthropology, researching the changes in traditional Ladakhi life and medicine, was disturbing. The problems of Ladakh are not known by many of the tourists who visit the beautiful mountains and trek to the ancient monasteries. Many guest houses are going up all around, mostly using Nepalese or Indian labor. Each new room will have a western toilet, which uses precious water that they don’t have and empties it out into the gutter. It’s a total waste. There is no sewage disposal plant and the water, due to the warming of the glaciers, is fast disappearing. In the old style Ladakhi toilet, all waste was mixed with ash and composted, to be used as fertilizer. Now that westerners have insisted on more luxurious toilets, this has been abandoned in many places and insecticides and fertilizers, banned in the West, have been sold to the Ladakhi farmers. They seem to do well for a year or two, but, eventually, deplete the soil. The old system of farming is being tested, and the desire of the younger generation to make more money by moving to Leh has stripped the farmer of its labor force. In some cases there are even farmers who are hiring Nepalis to do their harvesting…something unheard of ten years ago. The new importation of rice, cheaper because it’s supported by the Indian government, now displaces the staple barley and wheat grown here.

Whenever I get discouraged about “progress,” I realize that there are those, like the Woman’s Alliance of Ladakh, who are working on these problems. The strange thing is that while this part of the world is embracing the West as the ideal (Barbie Dolls, chewing gum, and Lay’s potato chips), the West is realizing more and more that their materialistic life is not bringing happiness and peace of mind and is looking toward the East for answers.

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1 Comment

  1. Unfortunately many people still think that English is already the new global language, which as a native English speaker, I think is completely erroneous.
    May argue the case for Esperanto as well?
    You might like to check http://www.esperanto.net

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