26 July – Hanging out with monks & nuns

We woke up before dawn today to get over to the Diskit gompa with its new 32m high statue of Maitreya Buddha above the Shyok River, looking towards Pakistan.  The statue was supposedly built with three main functions in mind , ie.,  protecting Diskit Village, preventing further wars with Pakistan (good luck!), and promoting world peace (always a good thing and all of the Miss America contestants agree with me).  We were among the first to arrive and were rewarded with a beautiful and serene sunrise over the mountains.  After a chilly wait, hundreds and hundreds of monks arrived from all over the region.  Some walked from the nearby ancient monastery, some walked from the village, some arrived by car or motorbike but many also came by bus.  They were unified though and the last clamber up the steps to the platform at the base of the statue where the Dalai Lama was to give a monk-only talk.  We were among just a hundred or so regular folk, most of the balance being army or very faithful people who snuck in with us.  We were definitely the only Westerners on location.  The monks all took their seats on the ground around the central dais and not an inch of space was wasted.  All the others sat on the ground behind the monks, since we weren’t really supposed to be there anyway.  After about three minutes of trying to sit cross-legged, I gave up and my non-bending legs moved to the very back and supported me upright the rest of the morning. 

After everyone has a spot, the Dalai Lama came out and a there was a lot of ceremonial goings on in Tibetan.  As best I could tell, many people were coming up to the Dalai Lama and giving him things which he lifted to touch his forehead then handed them back.  Despite everything being either silent or in Tibetan, and the Dalai Lama at least 200m from me, I have goosebumps being in his presence.  From this distance, he oozes charm, peacefulness, tranquility and humor.  He gave a long speech, none of which I understood except the parts when everyone laughed.  In fact, I think many of the young monks had trouble following the address too but other than the yawns, reverence was omnipresent.

After the talk, we had a series of prayers that all the monks were chanting.  While this was going on, several monks were cooking something in massive cauldrons at the four corners of the platform.  Once hot, they and a larger group of monks used buckets to take out the steaming liquid and distribute it in cups to all the hundreds of attendees.  It turned out to be yak butter tea.  Now, in the best of times, I’m not keen to drink tea, coffee or anything else hot.  Yak butter tea?  Hmmmm…. I sipped a bit but otherwise left it in a corner.  Melanie, on the other hand, is always keen for a gastronomic challenge.  She had always heard of yak butter tea from National Geographic and other sources so what better opportunity to try it than during prayers with the Dalai Lama?  She actually enjoys the warmth of the drink on the chilly morning and she merrily slurps a bit between every “Om mani padme hum” and “Om ah hum vajra guru padma siddhi hum”.  Just as the long chanting ends, and Melanie finishes the last drop of her tea, there is a final loud chant of “Chang!” and every single other person on the platform lifts their full cups and guzzles the whole contents.  Oops.  Melanie meekly pretended to drink hers then but we know the truth.

After the morning with His Holiness, we went back to the hotel for lunch and a brief rest before going into town for a little shopping.  Diskit is a fairly small village with maybe three main streets and a few residential streets running perpendicular to them up the sides of the hills and down towards the river.  It seemed crowded for a Ladakhi town.  It turns out that this is because of the large influx of pilgrims to hear the Dalai Lama speak tomorrow. 

After shopping, we headed out to the river flats in search of camels.  Camels were not indigenous to the area but during centuries of trade along the silk route, camels came to be useful imports from Arabia traders.  They could not make it over the mountains so when they got as far as possible, they would be swapped for mules with traders heading the other way.  Some of the descendants of these camels were just released as the routes died out and they have since been re-domesticated for tourist rides.  How could we turn down a camel ride on the silk route?  We went for a half hour loop that gave us a small taste (or rather a large smell) of riding camels and all I can remember is that they are pretty ornery critters.


Kanya also held a yoga session for the group today.  It was my first and probably last attempt at becoming a pretzel.  I am so inflexible that I can’t even sit cross-legged and I never could even as a child.  I honestly tried to do the stretches and poses but I wasn’t even close and Kanya thought I was just playing the fool.  I gave up and hid in the hallway around the corner while Kanya gave special attention to Andreas.  She still doesn’t know.

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