Day #33: The Kingdom of the Monasteries
Stepping out of the plane, we could feel the freezing breeze and the warming sun-rays fighting against each other in a mix of sensations that immediately dried our skin. Also, we could feel our lungs rushing to take another breath. The lack of oxygen in the air made any effort seem twice as intense. The geography of this place is definitely a challenge for newcomers. We landed in Leh, the capital of Ladhak. This region is located on the East side of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, one of the most remote regions in the North of India. Hidden deep in the middle of the Himalayas, Leh has around 10.000 habitants and is situated at an impressive altitude of 3500 metres. This was a destination we couldn't miss for so many reasons. I was super keen in exploring this part of the world mainly for two reasons: it's deep Tibetan Buddhist culture and the stunning arid mountain nature and landscapes.
We arrived at the start of the low season as the cold winter was slowly settling down in the mountains. Temperatures were around 2ºC during the day and -11ºC through the night. This was a major shift in environment for us and the first thing we had to do was to buy appropriate clothing. Our first impression of natives was that people in this part of India were more Asian-like and that they acted more respectfully and peacefully compared to the majority of Indians we had been with.
This is the land of Tibetan buddhism, so we decided to spent most of our time on the road looking for the monasteries that were lost in time. We found many, always surrounded by little rural villages on top of hills. These were the quietest places I have ever been in my life where few interactions were seen. In this period of the year, Buddhist monks or lamas had flown to warmer parts of the world and the few courageous lamas left were getting ready for the hard winter. It was difficult to decipher what was going on. Our interactions with lama were limited and all we could do was use our intuition. The lamas were always in a sort of meditative state. Walking around their monastery and stupas (hemispherical structure containing relics from a lama that is used as a place of meditation) clockwise seemed to be their favourite activity, together with chanting sanskrit mantras and counting beads. They always carry with them a mala: their meditation neckless always made up of 108 seed beads, which they use for the counting of mantras during meditation. It was hard to understand why someone choses this kind of simple life. However, I could see in their eyes a life with fewer problems and concerns. I am sure their body, mind and soul feels lighter than mine and maybe that makes their life choice worthier.
The past year, I have become more and more interested in Buddhism and its thinking, so I thought this could be a good moment to share some of the ideas behind it. Buddhism is a religion born 2500 years ago with Buddha reaching enlightenment in Bodhgaya, India. It then started to spread in India and all around neighbour countries taking form into different practices of Buddhism (Tibetan, Zen, Nichiren, Pure Land, Theravada, etc.). This very peculiar religion is godless and instead focuses in a spiritual path towards self improvement and realisation. This path is based on different teachings that were shared for the first time by Buddha, the enlightened one. Their central teaching is known as “The Four Noble Truths”. This teaching outlines that the nature of all our experiences is conditioned by suffering (emotional, physical and mental). And that our spiritual potential and potential to be in peace (or if you prefer being happy) lies on our ability to understand the origins of that suffering so we can work towards its cessations. Understanding that conditioned existence is impermanent leads to understanding the origin of suffering. Human suffering derives from a lack of consciousness and an attachment to our self, our ego. The ego is our personal sense of identity created in our brain, through our emotions, ideas, perceptions and feelings. Too much attachment to our ego (illusion of self) leads to cravings which creates a conflict with the impermanence of our existence and therefore, suffering. Detachment from our ego or "emptiness of self" is the practice buddhists explore to develop spirituality and peace. This leads to their second major teaching “The Noble Eightfold Path” which are 8 states of being to be nurtured to reach “self” liberation. These are few of the buddhist foundations amonsgt others. It being considered a religion, you will also find supernatural concepts such as karma, rebirth and the six realms of life. Personally, I find the naturalistic buddhist thoughts interesting and helpful to understand myself and work towards self improvement.
Back in Ladhak, we found that time stopped in villages. As we were walking through the tiny old roads, climbing to the top of the monasteries, we could sense the same desire to stop and detach ourselves from the burden of time. The monasteries live sustainably from the crops they cultivate and the small amounts of money tourism draws in. Simplicity is the word that best describes the outside of the monasteries but once inside we can experience a marvellous decor of wisdom. Their sacred praying rooms emanate an incredible energy. Everything is so well preserved, old and coloured. The fact that they still use these places everyday for rituals is magic. We could notice that wooden floors became lumpy due to the adverse climate but were softly polished by lamas walking in their socks throughout hundreds of years. Every wall is covered in exotic and colourful paintings telling the story of Buddha and future Buddhas. Offerings are found everywhere: money, coins, photos, food, ribbons, yak butter statues, etc. Still all is very cosy and intentionally positioned. Hundred-year old sanskrit texts are also kept on the shelfs behind glass. This is the place for chantings and meditation. Jess and I were so pleased to discover these sacred places. It was difficult to understand the meaning behind all of the objects and rituals found in these rooms, but we could sense the positive energy and spirituality. It was amazing to ride from village to village and getting closer to experiencing the origins of Buddhism.
The adventure in Ladhak got to its peak when, on the road to Nubra Valley, Jess and I drove through the highest road in the world: Khardung L.A at 5359 meters of altitude. Views were amazing! We stopped at the top and I could barely walk due to altitude issues, but Jess was in heaven, mountains seems to be her natural habitat. I would walk around with small bottles of oxygen to alleviate my altitude sickness symptoms. Behind this dream location, gremlins of the altitudes would haunt during my sleep. Every night around 2 am, I would wake up with huge migraines. I never suffered so much from sleeping and wake ups were very unpleasant. Luckily, Jess was feeling fine so she would do some healing and my headache pains would diminish. On the way back through Khardung's highest road, we got a bit scared ridding the one-lane road sided by deep ravines, covered with snow and full of large army trucks while we were driving a taxi Tata mini van.
Car wasn't the only transport we used. Despite the cold, during the last 2 days we rented a Royal Enfield. This is a 500cc Indian motorbike weighing around 500 kgs. Due to my lack of motorbike skills, Jess took the wheel and I sat at the back. Damn! She was hot riding that bike! There we were, going to Thiksey to sleep a night at the monastery and attend their morning puja. Jess and I were expecting a more beautiful chanting ceremony during the puja but still it was great for once to get more involved with the lamas rituals. We also tried their butter tea with wheat flour that they take every morning during their praying to keep their body warm and feed themselves. We saw plenty of young kids during the puja. They are the next generation of lamas that will learn and pass on the secrets of Tibetan buddhism. Then, we finished our ride by visiting the Hemis monastery which was the biggest of them all. I also took the chance to practice my ridding skills on the empty roads. It was an amazing sensation to be in that place ridding such a beautiful engine for the first time. I was happy! Jess started to be cold so we decided to head back to Leh. It was our last evening in Leh and we went for some shopping. We didn’t resist to buy a beautiful 60 cm tall Buddha statue for our future meditation room. Great memory for a great place. Satisfied, we said goodbye to India and hello to Nepal!