Travels to Ladakh

John Brzostoski
© 1976

"Ki ki so so Lha Galso!" "Let the Goddess be successful!" (in protecting us!) I muttered aloud. And I really hoped that she was, for the wheels of the vehicle were knocking pebbles over the edge of the precipice. The road seemed too narrow for the traffic. Looking out of our window we saw nothing but space. thousands of feet below could be seen the ancient river, the landscape tilting every which way. We had a strong sense of up and down, especially down.

The Kashmiri driver, who never wanted to really drive to Ladakh in the first place, continued to push the gears and the bus upward, following other machines of all sorts -- jeeps and trucks -- which the Indian army was allowing to progress forward in between convoys. There was not turning back, with hardly any room for thought except to wish the vehicle a steady hand at the wheel. The bus was a rattling pile of bolts, but the driver seemed to have overcome his red-eyed consumption of liquid courage and was completely in charge of the situation. Or so we hoped. We doubted that he could plunge over the edge out of mere annoyance with the mixed crew of Westerners who were using this bus to reach a place which he did not think worth visiting.

One of the passengers was a Swiss artist who was a walking happening in Asia. Awakening suddenly from a doze at this critical time, his eyes over the edge, he ran to the driver's seat in excitement. He wanted to steer the bus, assist, and advise. We were afraid interference would distract the progression of the well-ordered wheels. "Sit down! Sit down!" was called out in German, French, and English. "I just wanted him to drop back," he insisted. "How could he see in all the smoke from the vehicle in front of us?" "Yes, yes, thanks anyway." No accidents at this time. Later, one truck tumbled over for a few hundred feet, on a safer hairpin curve. But no one was killed.

The informal caravan was loaded with personal possessions, tents, cooking materials, and a certain quantity of food and fuel to stutter through the most awesome mountains in e world, the western Himalayas. The lush vale of Kashmir had been left far behind with its beautiful lakes full of houseboats. Climbing up from 4,000 feet above sea-level in stages, we came to the highlands of forested mountains at Sonamarg, a place which can still qualify as paradise. But we were headed for the other side of paradise.

The higher we went, the more desolate it became. On the higher passes the glaciers came to the edge of the road, and this was July. After the heights, we came down to 12,000 feet where the Ladakhis lived, herded and farmed. On the road we had a great deal of company. Army vehicles had the right of way, it being a military road. Colorful costumes, dust drab clothes, monks, nuns, and local people of all sorts seemed to be moving toward the mountainsÕ horizon. Many were going to visit the monastery at Hemis for its three-day annual festival which is full of pageantry and masked dancers linking the present to a primordial time when men faced demons and won.

The Muslims of green Kashmir had tried to talk us out of going, sincerely feeling that it was madness to go to Ladakh. Ladakh, a poetical name and a harsh reality a great plateau of mountains, a stone desert with little water, little food, and settlements few and far apart. Ladakh was also a land of the Mahayana Buddhist religion, and the lowlanders had little understanding of the people of that strange (to them) faith and of the environment within which they lived and survived.

That land, Ladakh, is in the northeast part of the northwestern India, west of Tibet. It is part of the state of Jammu-Kashmir, a three-part state made of distinctly separate parts: Kashmir, strongly Muslim; Jammu, a mixture of Hindus and Sikhs; and Ladakh, Buddhist. The government is centered in Kashmir half the year and in Jammu the other half. It never shifts to Ladakh.

For the longest time, it seemed that Ladakh, in its elevated remoteness, was forgotten by everyone. But difficulties in the northwest with Pakistan and in the east of Jammu-Kashmir with China taught a geography lesson to India. Despite its extreme other-worldliness and empty spaces, Ladakh belonged to India and had to be maintained. Occupied with these conflicts, India closed the area to foreigners and even to most Indians.

The area was fed originally by trails made for foot or horses. Few had any real desire to travel the 482 miles from Srinagar, in Kashmir, upward to reach Leh, the capital of Ladakh. There was no continuing into Tibet for trade any longer. The Tibetan border was long closed to such trade. Wars complicated things further. India remedied the inaccessibility by road and air-field construction. The borders between India and Chinese conquered Tibet are quiet now (and the restrictions preventing outsiders from observing the land and culture have been laid aside.

We entered by road, thus seeing more than a flight into Leh, the capital, would have revealed. Besides, landing at an altitude of 12,000 feet from sea level causes a bit of discomfort even for those who have been born to the heights of Ladakh.

I was in Ladakh to document ancient murals in the temples, observing Buddhist culture undiluted by New Delhi, London, or New York. I was also showing my 15-year old son, Adam, another glimpse of reality. Others we met along the way were a mixed batch: An Australian going anywhere except facing the fact of his own postponed maturity, a woman from New Zealand enjoying the sensuality of traveling alone in Asia, a young German couple awed by traditions centuries old; a Frenchman who became an instant expert about everything. Others were seeking "enlightenment"; two young men from Norway were determined to return home from Ladakh full of Wisdom. An aging German was pursuing esoteric knowledge. "Do you know about Buddhism?" he asked, when he heard that I taught. "Yes," I answered. "About the short path?" he continued. I laughed, "That is secret. I don't know, and if I did I'd be forbidden to tell. Lucky I don't know anything." "Too bad." "Yes."

In New Jersey I knew a monk who had come from Ladakh. He gave me a letter of introduction to a Lama who was a member of congress in India, and also was considered a saint in Ladakh. Over cokes in New Delhi, he assured me that I would have no trouble getting to whatever I wished in the monasteries. This was true.

Some in our loosely-connected group went because they had been steeped in stories of Tibet. Sadly, a great deal of Tibetan culture has been destroyed since the Chinese invaded in 1950. China only wants expensive tour groups to visit the few remaining temples while suppressing the Tibetans. However, Ladakh, once called Little Tibet, is another story. It is as close to being ancient Tibet as any place can now be. In fact Communist-dominated Tibet is probably less like its old self than Ladakh is now.

What this means is that Ladakh is mysterious and spectacular. It exudes, even for the unimaginative, the sense of time saturated with mysticism, magic and religious spirituality, the likes of which Western cultures lost centuries ago. The Tibetan form of Lamaistic Buddhism flourishes here with cliff-hanging monasteries filled with chanting monks in robes, striking cymbals and blowing horns to create nerve-manipulating music. When not so occupied, they could be in deep meditation in isolated monastic cells.

It is felt that this form of Buddhism entered Tibet through Ladakh, so Tibet really has a Ladakhian form of Buddhism, not the reverse. Here, the religion is still vigorously in existence throughout the high plateau, at the gompas (monasteries) like Spitok, Shey, Saspul and Alchi. These monasteries are strong and active, and not empty museums. They are treasure houses of thangkas (scroll paintings) hanging from the ceilings, large clay Buddhas dominating central chapels, and countless golden bronzes of other beings of their pantheon.

As a mountain-lover, I was dazed out of my wits. The mountains come upon you like the surf of some Pacific beach, crest after crest in the distance, green from copper, silvery ash, shadowed by wrestling convulsions of old volcanoes, enough to cause great leaps of imagination and flushes of satisfaction in seeing them follow each other, interrupted only by the glaciers and high meadows. Sometimes, in looking down thousands of feet to me comparative flatlands below, we could see travelers on the old pathways, with their tents and horses next to the tiny strips of water which came from the melting snows. Only in the vicinity of these rivers would anything grow. Everything else was bleached for hundreds of miles of dryness, thousands of feet of aridness.

The mountains displayed traces of old erosions, petrified in place as if the rains had suddenly decided to go elsewhere. This was the rainy season, July, but there was no rain. In the distance were clouds and what appeared to be storms, raising hopes before our eyes. But if it fell, the water never struck the ground as the air was too dry and thirsty. WE could visibly see it fall as snow on the peaks. But none came below. The sunÕs warmth melted it and then it came down to the valleys. I am told that it rains three inches a year. If more fell, all the villages made of mud and unbaked clay bricks would melt. For all practical purposes, it had not rained in Ladakh for hundreds of years.

When the particle-carrying winds struck your face and lips, you could believe that it had not rained for a thousand years. One learns to spit in a new way, without moving chapped lips. The skill arrives quickly, since it is a dusty necessity.

We had been warned about the cold of Ladakh. In July and August it does not exist. The days especially sitting in the sun as in the Hemis courtyard watching the dances, could parboil your brains if you did not have headgear. Our simple sailor caps saved our brains in the evening, as in all mountains, it becomes cooler, but not cold here. We slept under the stars, sometimes on monastery rooftops, with no shivers, on p of sleeping bags, not in them. I found it necessary to position my body so the wind did not blow sand into my nostrils all night long. The wind did not shift for anyone.

The Ladakhis are poor but not living in abject poverty. They concentrate on essentials: water and hard work. They survive. Life seems enough, simplified to a level of a basic awareness of existence. Thoughts of the entire world dry like this region, due to ecological insanity, raced through the mind like the wild donkeys of the highlands, braying like mutants and awakening us in the night. How could these people manage this determination for life, the mental discipline to continue in the face of such difficulties? The answer comes: a concentration of mind, carried by a spiritual teaching. Perhaps through the Buddhist mantra (prayer) such as AUM MANI PADME HUM. (The Jewel is in the Lotus, the jewel-like mind, the wish-fulfilling mind is in the world, in your own hands, own body. You depend upon yourself.)

One of the marvels of Ladakh are the carvings found on the rocks everywhere. These are stones marked with AUM MANI PADME HUM piled up by the thousands, creating walls, sometimes as at Leh ten feet high, twenty feet thick and half a mile long. Passing these MANI walls, keeping them to your right, is meant to give you the blessings of those prayers as if you had said them all. The stones also act as markers, pointing the way from desolation to the place of people, water, and life.

A variation on this solidified prayer is a monument called a chorten, a large square mound topped by a stepped a large square mound topped by a stepped dome and point. It acts both as a reliquary for the ashes and relics of great persons of the past and as a three-dimensional version of the AUM MANI mantra. Chortens are everywhere in Ladakh. They are to be seen on the high passes, on the approaches to settlements and gompas, even acting as gateways through which one walks. Looking up inside this solidified mantra, one finds beautiful paintings (mandalas) of circles within squares showing hosts of Buddhas and teachers, angelic or fierce looking. Everywhere, someone reminds you of the presence of life concentrated on it s highest level: joyful. In the midst of a hard land, the Ladakhis have a stubborn joy.

It is another thing with the dogs, of which there are not many until you approach Leh. They must not know the correct mantras to chant. No one seems to own them thus no one feeds them. Their state of being seems to be the ultimate state for the representation of suffering in the cycle of rebirths. I saw one living skeleton eating stones. There is nothing more miserable than that, except getting rid of them, after having eaten. I had tried to feed the animal some biscuits I had been carrying with me. But the dog was insane and preferred the stones. "You are lucky, sir," said one of the Indian soldiers who had witnessed it. "Why?" I asked. "He may have bitten you instead," he answered, "and many of the dogs are rabid." A charity-cooling thought. The spectre of the rabid dog came to haunt the secret-knowledge-seeking German. In a brush with a frisky dog, the skin of his leg was almost broken by its teeth. He was advised to play it safe by the doctors at the clinic in Leh and take anti-rabies shots. They were long and involved and, once started, had to be completed without interruption, one set a day. HE was still taking them in Leh when we left. "Nothing to them," he told me. But his expression seemed to indicate that the truth was elsewhere. He had at last obtained a private esoteric knowledge, incommunicable to others who had not experienced it. It certainly was a short path to it. The young men from Norway were experiencing their own painful hungers. They had found the High Lama of Hemis polite, with advice on how to sit while meditating. They were disappointed that he had not poured out a millennium of accumulated lore at their first indication of interest. It had been a five minute interview.

The British heritage in India survives in that English is even found in Ladakh, but is certainly is not universal. You and I know how people who speak the same language can manage not to understand each other due to a difference of positions. I spoke English and Ladakhis spoke Tibetan. When we spoke and listened intently, words were beside the point. We could understand each other very well. This happened to me with Buddhists often, and I am beginning to think it has something to do with the consequences of their religion. There is no explaining how it functions. It is beyond words, and verbal language seems superfluous. It develops into hand gestures, invention of facial expressions and a new sign language coming out of mutual effort to bridge the gap of understanding, in mercantile or philosophical discussion. The easiest occasions were, of course, when I presented to a monk one of the twelve Nam Tho Se (God of Good Fortune) masks which had been made in New York City and brought on this trip. Whatever he missed in my words he understood that I was wishing his temple good luck and that something was coming to Ladakh instead of being taken away from it. The monk in New Jersey had given me small presents to take to relatives and teachers (such as conch shells and pens). Arriving unannounced in a dusty village with a brooding ruin on a hill and searching for a nephew took time. There was not much time left for anything but direct "communication," especially when I knew my bus would not wait long. Later, seeing the monk's father and elder brother at twilight overlooking the Chortens of Leh tested the communications to the utmost since they did not know a single word of English. And darkness did not help. You could say hello in Tibetan only so many times. All the neighbors pouring into the room did not make language any clearer. On that occasion avoiding the offer of alcoholic chang and opting for tea was a success, considering the nature of the chang. The tea, however, fulfilled all of someone else's idea of Tibetan tea. I had drunk this salted and buttered drink before and liked it. But this time it was a smaller cup with easily a third of its butter, with huge lumps floating about in it. It is delicious, but still the quantity of butter presented a problem. Through completely polite non-verbal communications, he gathered that I needed a little help, and gave me some curled bits of Tibetan cake, to scoop up and eat the excess upon, like bread and butter. A lot of laughter in the tailor's little room, where he kept sewing as he entertained me.

At the Hemis festival, we saw Bakula Rinpoche again, but now he was the returning Saint-Congressman, with guards clearing the way and the devout trying to touch his robes, he looked right through us. Correctly so, his communication went, for in paying attention to us, he would give us too much status in that tumultuous scene, causing more inconvenience than service. The dancers were the best examples of "silent words." But it only went one way. We gained by watching the monks the first day in their normal robes dancing to the slow drums and horns, a footlifting, pivoting dance. One would suspect improvisation until the next day, when in heavy masks, in gorgeous regalia, it all came around gain, but now glistening with the sense of deity. Without a word they told us something: who they were, and what they were, very human beings, with strength and kindness, intelligence and humor. The deer-masked lama was an unbelievable dancer, one I watched for three days. He was the master of them all, not as the high lama, but as the invocation of an ancient teacher-saint-magician. In the scorching sun of Ladakh, under the eyes of the hundreds of visitors in the Hemis Gompa courtyard, turquoise weighing down their head dresses, under the watchful mountains, this dancer spoke the most.

After his last dance, I was waiting in the dimness of the main chapel, light filtering from the roof, past the images of Buddhas of the past, present and future. His assistants helped with the heavy robes, took away the deer-head mask, leaving him alone. He sat in the shadows, shining with perspiration and audible in his breathing. I sat before him and touched his hand, determined to let him know of my appreciation of the dance, the one passed down through generations of teachers, coming to us through him. "Hre mo," I said. ("Beautiful.") He was about to bless me when he saw that I was a westerner and he paused, smiling. "Hre mo," he said in return. Blessings come in many ways -- as rocks, sunlight, and water. Ladakh is full of them.


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