Ladakh cannot be understood with the mind alone; it can only be visited as a body, mind, and soul experience of a remote land from a more traditional age. The mountains, the heavens, the broad expanse of valley and flowing river all speak of high and sacred mystery, and imprint themselves on the mind like the woodcuts of one’s first primer, primitive, ancient, and mythic. The true spirit of this experience sinks deep into the well of the traveler’s soul to reveal a natural awe that awakens a sense of transcendence and contains an intimation of higher worlds. The country cannot be thought through, reasoned or measured in terms of size, shape, or population figures, although it undoubtedly lies far above the lapping shores of the Indian Ocean and just under the roof of heaven. Its physical presence contains a special stature like the natural wonders that create its otherworldly mystique. The force of its experience strikes the traveler in the same way that a bell creates a resounding note when struck. The area strikes a resounding cord within the bell of one’s being that resonates with a purity and truth that is hard to come by in today’s modern, frantic world. Ladakh has a gift to give; the unsuspecting traveler needs to explore the silent places of its mountainous terrain and its ancient, traditional sites in order to uncover what that gift might be.
In planning any trip to a far away destination, some secret desire lies within us in search of fulfillment. Whether it be the lure of a virgin landscape to lift the spirit of the weary traveler, the hush of a distant horizon promising some untold, bold adventure, or the mysterious spell of the legendary Shangri-la as home to every traveler’s fondest dream, we seek to escape from ourselves and the mundane turmoil of our lives for a few weeks a year in order to enter the realm of some never-never land where our dreams may come true . Indeed I had two weeks available this summer and wanted to be “taken away” to that far distant land where the sun forever shines and where the mountains glow through the mist. Where might that be but on the rising plateau of the grand Himalayas surrounded by magnificent snow-covered mountain peaks in the land of the eternal snows, with the promise of the lost valley of Shangri-La nestled somewhere as a testament to the myth of a living Eden, less a physical place perhaps and more a vision of enlightened consciousness where peace and harmony reign supreme.
I recently made an unexpected journey through the silent places of Ladakh, a province of Northern India nestled between the scenic Kashmir in the West and the Tibetan plateau in the East, an area that echoes the broad silence of distant ages in the presence of its natural wonders and ancient artifacts. Whether it be the broad valley of the Indus River creating a brushstroke of lush farmland on its either banks amid the vast stretches of this brown and desolate moonscape, the imposing snow-clad mountain peaks reaching to carve the meaning of their mystery on Heaven’s walls, or the ancient monasteries perched atop a mountain crag like a watchful eagle witnessing the passing of centuries, an eerie silence pervades the landscape, offering the promise of an alternative and unique experience to the hustle and bustle that we have grown accustomed to in all the major metropolises of the world.
After flying into New Delhi early one morning, a city bedecked with a steel grey murky sky that hovered over the land as a ghostly cloud cover pregnant with the monsoon rains soon to break out across the land, I quickly transferred to the domestic side of the airport to catch my flight to Leh, capital city of Ladakh deep within the heart of the Himalayas. Not a half hour into the flight, I knew I was entering another world. Not far below lay the immensity of the snow-capped mountains flagrantly defying the mid-July temperatures as they glistened in the intensity of the early morning sun. The mountains themselves recalled all the power and force of a herd of sleeping buffalo you would not want to awaken, lest they overcome you with the force of their presence and latent spirit. The captain suddenly announced a safely warning to fasten seatbelts for the “special descent” into the valley of Leh. The plane immediately made a rapid descent creating the sinking sensation of a fast moving elevator. The small Boeing 737 veered around a broad mountain pass and headed down into the narrow valley that housed the miniaturized town of Leh in the distance. This is a one chance, last chance descent with no margin for error as the plane enters the cul-de-sac of the valley below. Within minutes we were gliding down the airport tarmac of the world’s highest airfield at 11,500 feet after that breathtaking descent into the narrow valley beyond the horizon of this world.
As soon as I left the cabin of the aircraft, I was assaulted by a number of sensations: the surprising lack of oxygen that immediately gripped the body, the spectacular ring of mountains that encircled the airport, the clarity of the air and light that conveyed a sparkling quality seldom experienced in big cities and finally that broad blue sky as it must have been freshly painted at the dawn of creation by the Hand of the Creator. Indeed as I climbed into the airport bus that was to take us into the small terminal, I was already suffering from a breathlessness that a 30% lack of oxygen will produce and my heart was aflutter and beating wildly in its demand for more oxygen. Still, I calmed myself by gazing serenely upon the grand scene of mountains and valleys that surrounded me and the crackling quality of the air and light that filled my senses with their sublime purity, as though the crisp air and shadow-edged light had been touched by the wand that created the first day, full of revelation and edge. This was the real thing, true mountains and a real blue sky interrupted only by the occasional puff cloud to counterbalance the broad monotony of that brilliant blue heaven, and making the smog and cloud covered entry into Delhi but a pale remembrance to the grandeur of this magnificent landscape.
The bus ride into town gives testament to the brave new world that I had just had the privilege of flying into. The town itself was nestled amid the sleeping forces of those grand mountains, as though these troughs and peaks had been thrown down at random to please a divine wisdom that was not to be fathomed. The early morning air brought out the local inhabitants all dressed in their distinctive traditional attire. The shops and houses line the side of the road as in all cities, but they also cascade down the side of the hills and cliffs that make their way beyond the end of the street. It is the faces of the people however that immediately strike my imagination as worthy of note. There was much variation in their features, some being markedly Mongolian with thick folds making the slit eyes, while others could have passed without difficulty for Europeans, descendents some say of the army of Alexander the Great when he passed through this area. Many of these faces are dark and deeply lined by the intensity of the elements of sun and wind at this great altitude as thought the forces of nature had engraved their own hardship and experience onto the faces of the local inhabitants. Yet by way of compensation, I also note an aura of strength and presence that one doesn’t usually see in Western faces that must endure the hardships of pollution and stress that is the mainstay of Western society. These faces appear solemn and sober as opposed to the twisted, painted and depressed faces that you see on your way to the Mall. These faces are determined and full of purpose, as though the life they live in close proximity with the natural environment has left its mark on their broad visages to the extent that their faces reflect the spirit and nobility of the mountains they live among. If anything, these faces have the mark of eternity about them; there is a natural sanctity and spirituality within the flesh and bones that gives the people walking down the street nobility and purpose as they go about their business.
The aging jeep climbs the steep hill and turns a sharp corner to reveal the grand archway through which all and sundry enter the town. It is painted in the Buddhist fashion, full of color, light, and symbolic meaning, this traditional artistic proclamation leaving no doubt as to the orientation of the inhabitants of the town, for this is a deeply Buddhist community with clear allegiance in terms of guidance and direction in life coming from the dictates of Lord Buddha. Beyond the gate and central to the entrance of the town stands the grandiose prayer wheel, a round disk housed within a small protective structure whose handles are there for the passersby to turn the wheel and activate the prayer cycle. Upon the prayer wheel are mantras and prayer epithets etched upon plate brass. Setting the wheel in motion sets in motion the aspirations and holy sentiments of the wheel to be sent into the pervading atmosphere to dispel evil spirits and sent forth sacred energy in the elements. My guide, driver and I breeze past this traditional archway reflective of a higher spirituality, setting a special tone as we enter the town. We move past the shops selling pashmina shawls and Kashmiri hand-woven carpets. The handcrafts hang randomly from windows and awnings giving the impression of an abundance of hand craft and art work that is stunning to behold and inviting to explore and buy. A short distance away and perched at the edge of the Namgyal hill overlooking the town lies the ancient palace of Leh, much smaller but resembling the Potala in Lhasa, build in the 17th century and now a captivating architectural ruin creating a feeling of history and lore.
However, this is no extended metropolis and soon enough, we turn down a side street narrow enough for one car with small streamlets running along either side of the dusty road. Even the driver and guide had trouble finding the small country inn that I have reserved on the Internet. It was tucked away anonymously about a mile outside of town, a sturdy structure of two floors that looked quaint and inviting. I am greeted with smiles and bedecked with three silk scarves over my head and shoulders as tradition dictates. “We give you the best room in hotel,” the obliging attendant tells me with deferential politeness. “You have a two-sided view of the mountains from this corner room,” he beams and indeed, I quickly take in the spotless chamber complete with fresh towels and TV. The glistening mountains shine in upon me like a living postcard from two sides of the room. I can look upon these images of snow-capped peaks and rugged cliffs and ponder their eternal message of stability and strength, now that I have arrived on the first leg of what promises to be a very interesting journey.
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Ladakh is a land of ancient artifacts and spiritual remembrance, whether it be through the wonders of its natural beauty or the miraculous spiritual heritage that still represents a living tradition in today’s anti-traditional and materialistic world. The people seem to live in this natural environment of river and mountain with the same acceptance that they adjust themselves to a thirty percent reduction in oxygen at this altitude of over 11,000 feet. To the unaccustomed eye of the traveler such as myself, this is a primordial landscape, untouched and wild and achingly beautiful. My parch sensibility drinks in this draught of natural beauty like nectar of the gods. Scattered through the landscape are the spiritual vestiges of a traditional past in the form of stupas spread dramatically across the sweeping plain and prayer flags and prayer wheels by the side of the road. They stand as silent sentinels of some ancient memory that bears kindling and they amply fulfill their function by simply being where they are, sending the spirit of the mantras written upon the flags and wheels into the blowing wind.
I am on tour through this primordial never-never land and hope to visit some of the more spectacular monasteries and gompas that are sprinkled throughout the province as a testament to a strong and enduring traditional spirituality that continues to intrude itself into the modern world in these remote places. I awake after my day of mandatory rest to acclimate myself to the exigencies of the altitude, ready for my first foray into the wilds of the Indus Valley and the architectural treasures that it provides sanctuary for. Fortified with cornflakes and warm milk and a glass of the Ladakh traditional tea, with my stomach rumblings now subdued and headache nearly gone, my guide and I, together with the ever silent and faithful local driver, make our way down the east side of the mighty and swift-moving Indus River, intense rays of the high-altitude sun streaming in through the window of the jeep and settling on my face and arms with a ferocious intensity.
Our ultimate destination is the renowned Hemis Monetary situated about 50 kms. from the capital at Leh on the opposite side of the Indus River (Singge Tsangpo); but on these roads and with this traffic, including all manner of bicycles, motor cycles, trucks and wandering water buffalo, it takes well over an hour to make our way. Along the way, the guide suddenly shouts through the wind and roar of the Jeep, “There’s the Shey Castle and Monastery. We will stop here first and visit the grounds before making our way further to Hemis.” Indeed, off in the distance, perched atop a rocky cliff off to the left, I have my first glimpse of one of the many monasteries that adorn the arid landscape of Ladakh. Its ancient aura of power and grandeur dominated the vista of this magnificent landscape. It could be a sleeping dragon full of latent energy and primitive power. Its very image summons the respect of the ages and invites questions such as how and when and why. The castle was build by the first king of Ladakh, Lachen Palgyigon. Within
its walls stands a sacred copper-gilt statue of Lord Buddha, three stories in height, renown as one of its kind and build in 1633 by Deldan Namgyal in memory of his father King Singge Namgyal. Not far beyond lies Thiksey Monastery situated yet again on top of a hill and founded over 500 years ago. There are over 80 monks in residence and the monastery itself houses many sacred shrines and precious objects. At this point lunch time is fast approaching. The guide suggests that we stop to enjoy the picnic that the hotel has prepared for us. We walk through a small roadside restaurant and out again into the back garden where we spread out our lunch of bread, boiled eggs, boiled potato, crackers and a candy bar washed down with mango juice on the table. “We will have to pay something for the use of the table,” the guide apologetically tells me. “How much,” I ask. “About a dollar,” he tell me. I think we can handle that.
Another lengthy drive finally brings us into the vicinity of the Hemis Monastery. First, we cross the mighty Indus River, muddy brown and fast moving in agitation as it makes its way west and then south where it passes through the length of Pakistan before emptying into the Arabian Sea. The road is narrow and windy and we move through a parade of stupas on either side of the road as we approach the great edifice of the monastery together with its cascading buildings and cells tucked deep into the inner recesses of the parched and rugged mountains. Hemis is the largest and most famous of all the monasteries in Ladakh, founded 350 years ago by Stagsang Raschen, invited to Ladakh by King Singge Namgyal. He was a Lama who had traveled all over India and Kashmir and who was known to have received a vision of all eighty mahasiddhas and who later realized the “rainbow body”. Within the monastery, we view the copper-gilt statue of Lord Buddha, various stupas made of gold and silver, sacred thankas and many other precious objects, including sacred books housed within the walls of the temple precinct. On the other side of the mountain beyond the monastery lies a sacred hermitage founded by the great Gyalwa Kotsang where his meditation cave can be seen. His footprint and handprint are on the rock within the cave. As much as I would have liked to visit this sacred place, I simply didn’t have the stamina or wear-with-all to make the climb deeper and higher into the rugged terrain. My guide told me that he once visited the place and found two Englishman there. They had been there for several months and had grown long hair and beards and according to him looked very wild.
Many of these monasteries still maintain the tradition of holding elaborate ancient festivals that are well attended by the local inhabitants from miles around. The festival of Hemis Tsechu was held on the day that we visited the monastery. We parked the Jeep at the base of the hill and wandered up with the rest of the crowd to find our place within the central courtyard of the monastery. Shortly after 9:00 am, with a huge crowd of locals and foreign tourists jammed into the confines of the courtyard, the grand festival began in all its true spectacle. In one corner of the courtyard sat the musicians with their drums and horns and cymbals, playing that distinctive ancient Buddhist music that we have become familiar with through movies such as “Kundrun” and “Seven Years in Tibet.” The serene monks sat in their red robes and meditatively played on their instruments as though the melodies they construe d were emanations of their own soul in harmony with the other players. Particularly notable was the droning of the horns, deep and rich and vibrant, and whose unearthly sound seemed to echo across the vast silent spaces of the mountains only to return as some animate specter giving voice to the deepest emotions of humanity, or was it my stimulated imagination thinking that the earth itself was giving voice to some preternatural sound coming from the abyss of some underworld. Beyond this eerie preternatural sound lay the symbolic sight of the monks dressed in elaborate regalia and donning hand painted face masks that made these humble individuals larger than life and somehow spectacular. They descended the central staircase from an upper story of the building into the courtyard which was itself bedecked with a central prayer flag flapping its divine remembrance into the morning wind, descended that is and entered the courtyard in a slow motion dance that obviously had balance and symmetry as a central message of the choreography. The great painted face masks displayed every emotion from happiness to despair and conveyed a larger than life quality in their projection toward the onlookers. As for the spectators, such as myself and the other foreigners, we were spellbound by this magnificent display of color and costume and tradition. Of course, we didn’t realize what it all meant for the locals; but as colorful drama embodied in sound and dance and light, it resurrected feelings of wonder and awe, stirring deeply latent feelings of reverence that lie sequestered within every human being ready to be roused through the force of such ancient, arcane traditions. These rites and ceremonies would continue for another several days; but my guide signaled me that it was time to leave, and we made our way through the dense crowds and eventually took our leave of the premises, making our way once again down the rugged hills to the waiting vehicle that would take us back across the river and into town.
On another day, not far from the shadow of the Hemis monastery, we visited an oracle inhabiting a small rustic house by the river. We had to leave the Jeep and driver behind to make our way over hills and rocky crags down toward the edge of the swift moving muddy river. The turbulent waters of the Indus were not inviting even if its name was mythical; but the courtyard enclosure in front of the small mud and yellow brick house was warm and inviting. In this desolate setting, with the sound of rushing waters invading the background of my expectant mind, we sat under a verdant tree that graciously spread its shade over us against the relentless mountain sun. A monk sat with us draped in deep red robes, head shaven of course, and looking ascetic and boyish at the same time. While chatting with my guide about what to expect from the oracle and giving me some background and guidance, the monk suddenly spoke up. “What a magnificent river,” he said. “You speak English,” I replied, surprised to learn of this monk’s linguistic ability and delighted to have the opportunity of speaking with him. “The Pakistanis call it ‘the father of rivers’ while the Tibetans call it ‘the Lion River’.” “I can see why,” I replied and the monk smiled. “Where does it originate,” I asked and he told me that it flowed down from the glaciers of Tibet, across Ladakh and the Kashmir and over into Pakistan whence it flows in a southerly direction the entire length of Pakistan to merge into the Arabian Sea in the vicinity of the port city of Karachi.
While I was hoping to gain some insight into the kind of man he was and the kind of routine he might lead in his life as a monk, I quickly noted that he didn’t say much about himself and I for my part was too reserved to ask directly what being a monk meant to him as we do in the Western style. He did mention the long history of Buddhism in Ladakh, having been brought over from Tibet in the early history of the spread of the religion. While we were talking, an old woman came out of the house dressed in a long black tunic with a red plaid belt holding it together. She had a sprightly air and a deeply lined, darkly tanned and incredibly strong face. She made a couple of comments to the various people around, as thought she were looking for something of no consequence. The guide leaned over and whispered in my ear: “That’s the oracle.” Indeed I thought, I never would have guessed. She looked like someone’s grandmother rummaging around the dust of the courtyard. Closer scrutiny however revealed a deeper mystery embedded within the fold of her ancient face. She had a thick patch of dark black hair pulled back from her forehead and dressed as a single pony tail that resembled more a thick rope than a horse’s tail. Her toothless grin was endearing; but somehow belied the potential energy and strength that I was beginning to observe in her every gesture and movement. There was promise here of something much deeper than somebody’s grandmother searching for an infant.
After she disappeared within the stone cottage, numbers of people arrived, many of them foreigners come to attend the oracular session gripping their digital cameras, and replete with all kinds of electronic equipment such as videos handing down from their necks to capture this rarefied moment in time. Soon we were all ushered within one of the rooms of the house that resembled some kind of religious shrine, with images of the Buddha on the walls, various mandala paintings with their striking workmanship and hidden messages reaching out to those that gaze upon them. The place smelt of earth and overripe fruit and incense as we all sat crossed legged and expectant on the floor in front of the shrine. The old women I had seen earlier, the oracle, came into the room and knelt down on a carpet in front of a small shrine equipped with the bells, oils, clappers and shawls that she would need in the execution of this ceremony. This was not the same women I had observed earlier in the courtyard. She was now bedecked with colorful traditional garments and an elaborate headdress whose every tassel and peak contained some hidden meaning that I was not privy to; but it didn’t matter because the effect was the same. This was now a presence to be reckoned with. When the oracle speaks, people listen.
She then proceeded to chant the ritual Buddhist sutras in Sanskrit with a strong, unwavering high-pitched voice that seemed to pierce the air like a knife. There was no doubting the power and efficacy of these ritual intonations whose reverberations filled the room and undoubtedly moved deep down into the bodies and minds of many of the people there, including myself. I believe in the power of prayer and incantation whatever the particular religious form it may take. In my own case, I have experienced the power of Quran reading, when through reading the words and verses a powerful energy is established first within the body through vibration and resonance, then in the mind through the meaning of the words and finally down into the very soul of the individual in order to shower the total entity with the higher consciousness and blessing that the sacred texts and ritual ceremony convey. This incredible chanting continued for some time accompanied systematically with the ringing of a bell with the left hand and the use of a clapper in the right hand. I have knelt or sat crossed legged for hours on end and chanted Quranic scripture, so I was able to realize the effort and concentration such a discipline required of the woman.
At the end of a lengthy session of chanting, the oracle was ready to receive the petitions of the people. The room was crowded, but suddenly a local Ladakh peasant moved through the crowd and knelt down before the oracle. I later learned that he was complaining of some kind of stomach ailment. I saw the oracle open his tunic and massage his stomach for a time while applying some medicated oils. Whispered remarks could be heard, but I had no idea what was being said. He eventually stood up looking relieved and return back into the anonymity of the crowd. All the while, some of the Westerners were moving about taking pictures, angling for a better video shot, tripping over the people sitting around the room. I questioned the wisdom of this effort, thinking that they were capturing perhaps a moment in time; but were somehow actually missing the true experience of the moment in their frantic effort to seize it forever on cellulite.
Finally, there was a rustle of limbs and a modest, attractive looking middle-aged European woman approached the oracle with a local guide as translator. A hushed silence fell across the room. At first, the women thanked the oracle for listening to her troubles through the voice of the translator; then she began to relate the story of the loss of her 25 year old son several years ago. He had had an unexpected car accident and was suddenly gone from this world, to where she did not know. This afflicted soul began to sob heavily and I saw her shoulders shaking in convulsions. A deeper silence covered the room as I felt my own emotions rise to the surface subliminally through this women’s tragic loss of her son. Without hesitation, the oracle made extensive comments in the local Ladakh language and through the translator we together with the afflicted mother were all able to learn what the oracle said. She told her that there was a time for tears, for they can be a blessed and purifying gift of the higher powers, but that the time had now passed and further tears would merely be a human indulgence detrimental to her spiritual health and well being. It was time to move on because her son was safe and where he should be. And where was that? came the timid question; but the oracle simply replied that it was enough for him to know and experience and enough for us to respect the individual destiny of others. Finally, the oracle advised the woman to move beyond the sorrow and suffering and perform good works and reach out to others with compassion and love. This is what her son would appreciate and this is what would temper a broken heart. Of course, this seemed to be the message that came to me through the crowded room and as a result of the translation. I felt uplifted by the experience and hoped that the woman who had lost her son had begun to find him again through the knowledge that he still existed within the fold of his own unique destiny, somewhere, sometime, but not of this world.
I finally summoned the courage to rise from the floor and seek the advice of the oracle, although I am reluctant to make a public display of myself, much less give voice to my innermost thoughts. Still, this was a rare and unique occasion that I didn’t want to let pass by. With a nod to my guide, we rose and knelt in front of this ancient presence. I whispered my comment into the ear of the guide. When my guide translated my words into the Ladakhi language, I detected a faint smile cross her lips, as though a cool breeze had passed us by: “What should I be doing in my life that I am not doing?” I do not like to air my troubles in public, thinking that they have a natural life cycle and will eventually pass on their own. However, I was interested in finding out what more could be done in order to fulfill my destiny here on earth. I could see her rhythmic breathing as she gathered her words: “You can never do enough of what you should be doing. Seek within yourself . . . reach out to others . . . stay on the path. You will find your true destination.” The oracle had spoken. We both receded back into the shadows and soon thereafter took our leave of the cottage. Her advice had the quality of an iridescent flame, ephemeral and burning with light.
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Several days into my stay in Ladakh, I was scheduled to travel deeper west on the way to such places as Kargil and Kashmir. The attendants at the hotel made a great fuss, insisting that I have a solid breakfast to fortify me for the coming journey. I am not sure I knew what they meant, but their engraciating smiles and the promise to keep my room ready for me for the several days that I would be gone endeared me to them. Once out of the protective cocoon of the capital city Leh, we were heading further west deeper into the more impassible mountain ranges of the Himalayas. This area was indeed mountainous desert, with high, rugged barren mountains bereft of any trees or vegetation. The road itself followed the course of the Indus River which itself made its own meandering course through the desolate hills. The mountains themselves rose straight up from the valley floor at nearly right angles. As we drove through the area on hair-pin turns and looked down through the car window at a drop hundred of meters bellows to the muddy, swift-moving river, I took note of the steep cliffs on either side of the narrow valley. This is earthquake country I thought to myself. The shuddering of the earth in this environment would bring immediate catastrophe to anyone with the misfortune to be a part of this primitive landscape. And yet for all of the rugged topography, the steep drop to the river and potential for land and rock slides, there was an enchantment to this natural setting that was intoxicating to behold. As a modernite of the metropolises of the world, I was thirsty for the natural beauty and mystique that nature offers the human soul. You could drink it like a draft from which dreams are born; it sets a person thinking of the natural wonders that God has scattered across the earth like tinker toys, but that we hold in awe at their very sight. At several points along the way, I asked the driver to stop and cut the engine. As the engine voices flowed away like vapor, a fragile, brooding silence quickly emerged to overwhelm the mind with its deadly suspension of sound. These were the silent places of Ladakh out in the middle of nowhere, but that around every corner was a new vista and a new destination. One of the natural byproducts of such natural environments far away from any sign of people and civilization is that deeper thoughts and emotions begin to emerge from some deep well within us, leading to questions that have few true answers. Would I find what I was looking for I wondered, indeed what was I looking for that would bring me to this moment sitting on the edge of a rocky cliff with the Indus River flowing majestically below my feet amid such fragile and delicate stillness.
In these silent places, nature becomes gigantic and we as humans are reduced to the insignificance that we truly are. We become Lilliputian and the spaces in which we find ourselves are gigantic beyond the measures of the earth. The mountains loom above us and the valleys drop below our feet; the sun moves across the heavens casting stark shadows across an indifferent earth like some great inimical and magnificent spirit. In withdrawing from the world and arriving in such far distant, wild and remote regions of the earth, the journeyer feels drawn into some mighty simplification through the experience of these raw manifestations of nature, as though the complexities of the world were reverting back toward their original primordial unity in which all of created nature including the sun, moon and stars become once again powerful symbols of a higher order of magnitude that accompanies a higher consciousness. The natural environment was no longer apartment blocks, advertising signs, networks of highways; but rather mountains, valleys, rivers and streams, the blue sky overhead and the intense sun moving westward, casting ominous shadows across the earth. In such an environment, extraneous considerations disappear. The entire cosmos of experience comes to be an expanse of rugged plain and a solitary trail leading beyond the next bend toward some unknown destination about to be arrived at. As a once in a lifetime journey, I hoarded the drops of this experience, as the life of the world beat through me together with the beating of my own heart.
At one point along the road, we passed through an area called “the magnetic hill” which is an area that allegedly defies the law of gravity. It is said that when a vehicle is parked in neutral on this metallic road, it will slide up rather than down the road. As we made our way through this picturesque landscape, we finally came to the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar Rivers. The narrow valley that we had been following along the river suddenly opened into a crossroads of multiple valleys through which the mighty Zanskar River flowed. It was a rude awakening for the Indus which until that point had had free reign of the landscape tracing its sinuous path through the line of least resistance through mountains valleys in search of its terminus in the broad opening of the Arabian Sea. Now this muddy, turgid river met the emerald green placidity of this other great, meandering river, a meeting of mighty forces if there ever was one. It was a sight to behold, these two proud rivers, the one dark and turgid and the other deep green and slow moving, coming together in a marriage of opposites that from henceforth would make their way together through these sublime mountains.
As it happens, we did know our destination and I had the luxury of a guide, jeep and bottled water to service our needs along the way. We were on our way to a base camp deep in the western mountains of Ladakh on the road to historic Kargil and Kashmir which for the last decade has been off-limits for most travelers because of the sectarian turmoil that continues to plague the region. The promise of a deluxe tent awaited my arrival; but before settling into camp, we made our way off the beaten path into a side road barely worth the name to the village of Alchi that hosted a monastery that was built over 1000 years ago. Unlike many of the other monasteries I visited during my stay in Ladakh, the Alchi monastery distinguished itself by remaining hidden at the tail end of the village. We made our way downhill through the village amid the gurgle of running streams on either side of the road. It was a hot and dusty mid-afternoon after the long drive from Leh and the sound of the rippling streams was refreshing if not uplifting amid the ancient ruins of this small village. In turning one final corner, my guide pointed up beyond the wall. “The story goes that the Lama who founded and constructed the monastery placed his walking stick on this spot near the entrance of the gompa he intended to build on his way from Tibet.” I looked up and saw a number of crude walking sticks placed along the back of the wall. “I don’t understand,” I said confused. “You see that tree behind the wall?” my guide asked me. “That’s the Lama’s cane. It has grown into a tree.” And indeed, I now clearly saw a beautiful willow tree rising heavenward that was once the walking stick of the Great Lama Rinchen Zangpo, called the Translator, who 990 years ago build the ancient and still beautiful Alchi monastery tucked mysteriously in the back end of the village Alchi. We visited the various temples that house ancient traditional mandala paintings, now fading and disintegrating from age and weather. There are also exquisite wood carvings in the Kashmiri style said according to the biographies of the famous Lama to have been done by 30 craftsman personally brought over from the Kashmir by the Lama Zangpo who is said to have been responsible for the building of over 100 temples within the province. What extraordinary souls these people must have been.
It was now time to take rest and settle down at the base camp deep within the Himalayan mountain range. We arrived at the camp around 4:00 in the afternoon where I had arranged to stay in what was identified in the travel documents as a “deluxe tent”. I had no idea what to expect, but both the tent and the camp grounds met my every need for reasonable comfort. The camp itself comprised about thirty well constructed tents together with other facilities, including a large open-air building used as what the Arabs call a majlis or social area where people from all over the world could meet and discuss the wonders of their travel experiences. The tents were constructed on a waist-high cement base, followed by a tent-like structure complete with windows and screens for air circulation. Several people could easily stand and walk within the tent. There were two beds separated by a night table constructed on a cement base and fitted with comfortable mattresses, duvets and bedding, in the end a fortuitous arrangement since I was going to spend a lot of time in that tent over the next day.
That night, I decided to step out into the night for a breath of fresh air to celebrate the return of my strength. There was a hushed silence all about as I sat myself down in one of the bamboo chairs in a nearby garden. The feeling that overcame me as I sat there in the darkness, however, was much more than the presence of an unearthly silence. It was as thought I had stepped through an open door into another dimension altogether. This was not the same garden and wicker chair that I had sat in when I first arrived in the light of day. This was another world entirely and the feeling of deep silence that hovered at the edge of this experience had an otherworldly quality to it strong enough to arouse the instincts of the soul. As I looked up into the night sky, I felt stunned with disbelief. At this altitude and within this rarefied setting deep within the Himalayan Mountains, the night sky was a brilliant field of myriad stars, enough to take your breath away. There were so many of them in clusters and clouds that they seems to form pathways to infinity. I have walked through all of the major cities of the world, but have never witnessed such a spectacle before. It reminded me of an enchanting evocation of nature I once encountered in one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. He encourages the 19th century reader to “look at the stars” and know that God has provided humanity “the perpetual presence of the sublime,” through the inspiration of these heavenly bodies. “Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which men have been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile." Indeed, how true , I thought, as I sat there looking up at the brilliance of this particular night. How we ignore the beauties of nature that we have available to us and how we forget the secret message that lies hidden within the symbolic signs of nature that surround us every day of our lives. As I sat there gazing upward in astonishment, the stars seemed to shine as specks of light through a blanket of night, permitting the light of heaven to shine through to us mortals below and recalling the words of Genesis referring to the stars as “lights in the firmament of heaven.” Here, in the image of the night sky, we have the perpetual image of the “city of God” at our disposal, and yet we very seldom have the time or inclination to take note of the spectacle of this mystery, much less understand the sacred implications of “what is written in the stars.” As I made my way back to the tent, I took note of the three quarters moon that seemed to hang in suspension in all its beauty as it climbed over the horizon of the looming mountains like the eye of an owl hidden in a tree.
* * *
The next morning, we made one final foray deeper west on the way to Kargil and the Kashmir, a province that enjoys legendary fame for its carpet weaving. We soon left the main road which was hardly wide enough for two cars. The road we entered followed the snake route of a small tributary stream hardly worth the name that flowed down from some dwindling glacier far beyond those distant peaks. We were on our way first to the Lamayuru Gompa followed by a brief visit to the Rizong Monastery before heading back to the capital city of Leh. Lamayuru, with its medieval village seemingly growing out of the rocky hillside, belongs to the red-hat sect of Buddhism. Ancient legends say that at the time of Sakyamuni (the Historical Buddha) Lamayuru's valley was a clear lake where holy serpents lived. The Bodhisattva Madhyantaka foretold that the lake would be emptied and a monastery built there. In the 11th century an Indian Buddhist scholar named Naropa came to Lamayuru and spent many years meditating in a cave which can still be seen in the Dukhang. The guide led me to the Dukhang, a large building next to a tall prayer flat pole in the central courtyard. The entrance verandah has been recently painted with a colourful depiction of the Guardians of the Four Directions. In the wall on the right side of the Dukhang is a small cave known as Naropa's cave, where he is supposed to have meditated for several years. Each of the many monasteries scattered through Ladakh have incredible histories attached to them, how they were founded and why a particular location was chosen. These were the centers of power and enlightenment down through the ages until the present era where they continue to exist and influence the area as a living spiritual tradition.
From there, we made our way deeper into the mountains to Rizong Gompa, built more recently about 150 years ago by the great Lama Tsultim Nima and famous for its strictness in upholding the Vinaya teaching and for its apricot trees that when in bloom must be a magnificent sight. This gompa lay hidden behind the many folds of the mountains. We followed the narrow mountain road steadily uphill with room enough for one car only. God forbid that anyone should come down from the other direction. A number of stupas lined the way to announce the proximity of the gompa. “There’s Rizong in the distance,” my guide shouted, and I saw the magnificent monastery tucked into the cul-de-sac of these dense mountain crags, a virtual miracle of construction, built in terraced layers along the ridge of the mountains, gleaming white in the sun like a mountain village. We passed through the gate of the monastery and arrived at an open court
yard full of children at the base of the layered building. This monastery housed a school for young monks; the children were very young indeed running and playing in the courtyard, their red robes flowing in the wind. They were very rough and tumble and not especially monk-like, but then what would one expect from children anywhere. An older boy was holding a young one by his two hands and was swinging him around in circles lifting him completely off the ground. The younger boy draped in his red robes was flapping in the wind like a flag banner, his face lit up with exultation. It is all natural to these people, I thought, the rugged mountains, the monastic traditions that date back centuries, aging monks sequestered in small cells wrapped in meditation, small children going to school and flapping like a flag in the wind. Life goes on in the same spirit that it has for centuries without missing a beat.
We climbed up a back stairway higher and higher into the inner sanctum of the monastery. There are outgrowths of rooms upon rooms, doors leading I know not where. The guide went to find a monk and get a key to the uppermost temple where we spent some time looking at the mandalas painted on the wall full of meanings I cannot fathom, but can appreciate as works of sacred traditional art that are incomparable, rare and unique. Equally rare and unique are the books that at first I didn’t recognize as such that lined the walls, until I was told by the guide what they were. The walls contained cubicles that held one volume of the long Tibetan manuscripts, wrapped in rich cloth and placed between two painted wooden slabs to keep the precious contents as perfect as possible. I noticed that there were a few items on sale on a shelf, one of which was a book written by an Englishman who has come to stay at Rizong in the early 60s as a novice monk. Out of curiosity, I bought the book and later read it in the hotel when I returned to Leh, enchanted to have the opportunity of reading about the life of a novice in the famous Rizong monastery that I had personally visited.
Before leaving the sacred precinct , I stepped over to the porch of the temple and gazed reflectively at the panoramic scene before me. As the mountains fell away down the face of the cliffs, I listened to the silence that lay over the land as an abiding presence. The sea has its reflection of the stillest and darkest night; the woods are quiet with hundreds of lesser noises but here was the suspension of sound, except for the occasional bird or movement of the rows of prayer flats flapping in the wind. At first, the silence of the landscape strikes the visitor like a flea in the eye or a splinter under the skin. It feels bothersome, leaving you to wonder where the comforting noise that we are accustomed to has disappeared. You look around and wonder what happened. The silence floats on the wind and whispers into the ear of mysteries unrevealed and narratives unread. The bell of one’s sensibilities echoes with the waves of this emptiness clear down the bottomless well of the soul. It is as invisible as the wind and as soundless as the void; a borderless and boundless overlay to the serenity of the valleys and the majesty of the mountains that surround me. I feel shaken and humbled by this unaccustomed silent intruder into my consciousness, as if the noise of the city were a long lost and comforting friend, far from the familiarity of the chaos and cacophony that reminds me I am alive. We have grown accustomed to the turmoil of sound and feel uncomfortable with the silence of the night sky or the hush that hovers over the valleys and mountain peaks. Will I grow as accustomed to the unheard and unseen premonitions of this native landscape in the same way that we grow accustomed to the hush of a church and the lingering scent of incense and feel comforted by their abiding presence?
We began to make our way down the side of the mountain once again, when the guide asked me if I wanted to visit the nunnery that we were just passing by. “Yes, indeed”, I said immediately, thinking what a rare and unique opportunity that I should not let pass by. We backed up on the narrow road and pulled into a dirt driveway leading up to the nunnery perched on the hill. There were some old buildings and a small courtyard where we sat in the shadow of some willow trees. As we took rest and absorbed the quiet ambiance of the place, I suddenly heard the sound of robes flapping like bird wings in the air. “That’s one of the nuns,” my guide explained as I saw a fleeting figure run from one building to another. “It’s difficult to tell the difference between the monks and the nuns.” Indeed, the fleeing monk was indeed a nun, head shaved with the prominent Mongolian features of slanted eyes and moon face, smiling demurely at the elderly pale-face sitting in repose under the tree. I could hear running water in the background and the guide led me over to a small waterfall that cascaded over a rock ledge in the hill. “Have a drink,” he encouraged me. Indeed, I took up his offer and drank deeply the crystalline waters of this glacial stream. The Chinese would call it “qi” and the Indians “prana”; I call it a poem in motion. By all accounts what I experienced in these clear refreshing waters was a life force that was original in quality and from a unique source. I do not exaggerate when I say that I could feel the energy of the snowmelt mountain stream course through my veins depositing its clear and pure essence like some electrical charge through the meridians of my body. This was a true nectar of Shangri-La.
* * *
The longer a traveler journeys through a place like Ladakh, the more one takes on the enchantment of nature and the spirit of the sacred traditions that are the essential reality of such a place. The mountains, the valleys, indeed the primordial wilderness are all there as ancient artifacts that are timeless and eternal, and yet having had the privilege of passing through such a primordial wilderness, I did not feel as though I were leaving this miraculous place behind, but rather that something of the wilderness itself—whether it be the ink-blue sky, the flooded, swift-moving river, or those cloud-free, snow-capped mountains—had entered and become a part of me as an experience that would stay with me and endure as a sign of a new sensibility. As such, I returned without regret to the familiar surroundings of the capital city of Leh and the hotel I had stayed at earlier, the faithful hotel attendants there once again to greet me as we pulled up to the front door in the jeep, as though I had just journeyed across the mountains of the moon only to arrive back at this familiar and most welcome setting to be greeted as a prodigal traveler now returning from the edge of a lost horizon.
Toward the end of my stay, the driver and guide brought me to a village nearby Leh that happened to be the homestead of the driver himself. I didn’t know this at first, but soon realized that something was not the same when people began to greet him, while the driver beamed his smile in return as we made our way deeper into the village. The guide and I eventually left the jeep to make our way into the center of town. There was a great crowd of people gathered together in the town square. At first I didn’t know what was happening, but soon enough the guide explained that a famous Lama had arranged a town meeting of the community to give them instruction on the Buddhist doctrine of compassion for all things in this life and the possibility of escape from the “wheel of existence” through good works and honest living. We soon discovered that the Lama had just left and people began to walk about and have lunch. We briefly visited a temple on one side of the square, but at this point I was much more interested in taking in the ambiance of this rare and unique gathering. At one end of the square, a kind of throne was set in place covered with carpets and adorned with flowers. The Lama had sat there to address the crowd. Now of course, this area had been cleared with his departure, but the entire square was still full of people, sitting here and there in groups on carpets that had been laid for the occasion. Clusters of people were having lunch and chatting. There was the scent of incense in the air and overhead the entire square was covered in great coloring awnings of cloth to block the direct rays of the sun. In addition, from one side of the square to the other, prayer flags were strewn, sending their prayerful messages into the air as the wind blew through the square. The entire scene had an enchanting quality to it, like something from another time and place, proving that there are still ancient traditions that are still living and real in the hustle and bustle of today’s modern, secular world.
As we roamed about, my guide and I were invited to sit down and partake of some lunch. People were snacking on buttered bread and I was offered a taste of a thick, flat and weighty brown scone, called a taki, followed by the traditional tea of the area. As I sat there cross-legged on carpets taking in this unique experience, a woman passed by carrying a young infant. Suddenly, the child looked down upon me, beamed an angelic smile, and reached out to be taken up in my arms.
Those sitting around the carpet were astonished by the child’s behavior, and I secretly wondered if this weren’t some instance of a young infant remembering some connection to me from some previous lifetime, since by now I was beginning to think that anything is possible in these places. I took the adorable bundle into my arms and basked in the warm of his endearing infant sentiments for a few minutes, then passed him back to his mother. I later learned that I looked like the child’s grandfather, whose white beard, shaved head, and eye glasses resembled my own.
We eventually left the village scene behind to return to the city, but I have carried away with me the image of that child reaching across chasms of age and culture and language to convey a universal truth to my unsuspecting soul. We are all one in the universal scheme of things, interconnected on subterranean levels of experience by the forces of deep-seeded spiritual traditions and the enchantment of virgin nature and human expressions of good will. It may take a journey to distant lands and the experience of its silent places to realize that a virgin wilderness of spirit lies within us that awaits discovery and exploration, permitting the weary traveler to transcend borders and cross chasms of experience to arrive home at the end of a journey as a changed soul, ennobled by this encounter with people from other cultures and enriched by this visit to distant places from other worlds.
Selected Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Larzer Ziff (ed.), New York, Penguin Books, 1982, p. 207.