The monks dance in the monastery courtyard, and as they dip and spin, they scoop up snow to throw at each other. In a corner, the younger monks, waiting their turn to practice, have an all-out snowball war.
Chamspon (dance master) Nawang Tsering
I duck and cover my camera as an errant missile explodes into the post beside me. I am high in the Himalayas, at Matho monastery, filming the weeklong practice for the upcoming annual dance festival called Nagrang, famous for its two oracles, and it has just snowed five inches.
NawangTsering, the chamspon, or dance master, allows the snowballs to fly, but scolds the monks for missing steps. It is a deeply spiritual, profoundly meaningful, 1,300-year-old ritual the monks prepare for. But he doesn’t mind their antics. In fact he smiles as much as everyone else. The smiles are what I notice most each night when I review the footage I’ve shot; almost every photo shows a grin. These are the happiest monks I’ve ever met.
Nawang Tsering leads the dance the afternoon before the storm
At a different monastery, the monks were serious, and difficult to get to know. Here at Matho the monks want to talk. The teenagers approach us first, practicing their English. The youngest monks keep their distance, but grin as they dance past.
On the final day we interview the senior monk in his small room above the grove of tamarack trees. He tells us he is wary of western filmmakers. Several have come before us, and disrespected the sacred spaces. He mentions a sacred cave, which a group of filmmakers paid to film in, and then treated with disrespect.
After lunch I find a group of older monks, men my age, watching a hockey game on an iPhone. Their English is poor and my Ladakhi is atrocious, so we just stand together and watch the hockey.
The Nagrang festival is famous for its oracles. Two monks, chosen by lot, are locked into their room for two months, where they meditate continuously, up until the day of the festival. Some filmmakers, behind the senior monk’s back, once offered several thousand dollars to try and bribe their way into the oracle’s quarters. Their money was refused.
Lopon (monastery leader) Thupstan Sherap
Though it snows outside, and the senior monk’s window is shrouded in thick plastic, a strong, warm light shines in. In spite of these negative experiences, he says he will trust me, and will allow us to film, so long as we turn our cameras off before the oracles come. He says he respects our project and wishes us the best of luck.
Back in the courtyard the snowball fight still rages. Little monks run and slide on the packed ice. Some teenagers, out of breath from their practice, hurry over to chat. The older monk who likes hockey comes and stands beside me. He smiles and I bow in the traditional Ladakhi greeting. We can’t speak each other’s language, so we just stand together in silence and watch the dance.
All fun aside, the monks at Matho are very devoted to their practice
All photos by Nathan Whitmont
This is the first in a series of video diaries compiled by our editor, who is on location with us in Ladakh.http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Ze0uTTGBQao
The single bare bulb puts out maybe 15 watts of light; I can barely see the monk. Or maybe it’s the smoke; the wood stove is just a small barrel – to fuel it you remove the lid (or rather the monk does – he’s constantly messing with the fire) and smoke billows into the little room. We’re at almost 12,000 feet in the Himalayas, on a high ridge above a thousand-year-old monastery where a 70-foot-tall, golden Maitreya Buddha shines in the light of the moon, which is full.
Likir Gompa under a full moon
I’ve been here for several days with my interpreter, who is quickly becoming my friend.
Konchok in the morning, seeing clearly once the smoke has cleared
Konchok, who is 27, is a Buddhist monk raised in a village of only six houses, without electricity, almost on the Chinese border, as remote a place as there is India. He had never even heard of automobiles when he saw an army truck at age 9; he thought it was a moving house. To join the monastery he walked three days through the mountains, over an 18,000-foot pass, accompanying a train of yaks.
As a young adult he studied in India and got turned on by the world, by the quest for knowledge and deeper self-awareness. He began asking questions and found his elders didn’t have answers, that they followed the steps without question because it was tradition.
So he left his own monastery (with his elders’ approval) and now goes from one monastery to another, seeking answers; he goes to the villages to teach, to encourage the local people to look for deeper understandings of their faith. He cares deeply about tradition, but he has seen so much change happen so quickly (he carries an iPhone and has a laptop). He wants to understand for himself what the world, and being human, means.
Konchok at work for Abandoned Granary Productions
At the monastery outside our window the monks are practicing for seven days in preparation for their annual festival. After practice they will meditate for a week. Then they will don intricately carved masks and call upon deities to help redirect demons towards spiritual awakening, thereby protecting the earth, as they have for over 1,000 years.
Protecting the earth since 760
The smoke is too much for me and I step out onto the roof. Standing in the moonlight, high above the frozen valley, surrounded by towering peaks, my ideas about the traditional and modern worlds are being cracked apart by what my investigation here is revealing. One of the several reasons cham is threatened is because young people here are having an awakening, fueled by their contact with the outside, modern world, and are refusing to follow the traditional steps without knowing their meanings. This is a threat to cham, and even monastic life itself.
But a new kind of self-awareness is blossoming in the Himalayas. Intelligent, kind, and respectful people – Buddhist monks – are questioning systems and plans they don’t understand and yearning to find answers for themselves, which is just as the Buddha taught.
What could be more beautiful than that?
The Maitreya Buddha at Likir Gompa
Photos by Nathan Whitmont
“The fan works,” Dorje says. “But I have not installed the heater.”
The little car is freezing. Outside it’s snowing. The road is icy, there are no guardrails, or even a shoulder; the drop is 500 feet to the river.
The car’s engine is only 800 CCs (“India has made the world’s cheapest car!” Dorje says), and army trucks pass us, blinding us in choking clouds of diesel smoke. Lucky the drive is only an hour. Each way.
We’re trying to reach Likir Monastery, built in 1065, where a festival of ancient mystical dances, called Dosmoche, will soon be held. We want to meet the dance-master, called the chamspon, to interview him about the festival, and get permission to film the dancing. We carry a letter of introduction from the leader of one of Ladakh’s major Buddhist sects, the Drikung Kagyu. We have attained this letter thanks to the strings generously pulled for us by Core of Culture Dance Preservation, a cultural preservation organization which has worked for over a decade in the region.
We find the monastery nearly abandoned. Many monks now go south during the freezing winters. We find three monks in dark room, huddled around a wood stove, and learn the chamspon is in a weeklong meditation. One monk is the monastery manager; we present our letter. He is not impressed. But he serves us salty butter tea from a giant thermos, tells us dance practice begins in less than a week, and says we can film if we want, but we won’t get any special help. He barely looks at me, or my two assistants, as he talks to Dorje in Ladakhi.
The following day we head the opposite direction, to a monastery called Matho.
Matho Monastery on the horizon
Monasteries in Ladakh are built on cliff tops or rock outcrops. Climbing the winding ridge we follow a car even smaller than ours. At the top it stops and two monks get out. Dorje shows them our letter, and asks to meet the chamspon.
Presenting the letter. The monk on the right is Nawang Tsering, the chamspon
The taller monk smiles – he is the dance master. He looks at Dorje funny, but offers us a tour. Later he realizes that his sister is married to Dorje’s uncle. He invites us to the upcoming practice, during which he agrees he'll sit for an interview. I’m delighted.
The courtyard at Matho - where the dance will be held
By the time we leave it’s freezing, but it’s only a half an hour back to town. Dorje, however, knows a short cut, which will avoid the potholed, though paved, road we came in on.
Soon the road turns to muddy two-track. We drive on, with no end in sight, headed north, further and further from town. It’s getting late. The road gets so bad we offer to get out and walk to prevent the car bottoming out (and help us warm up). Dorje stays silent and inches the car onward.
Editor Alex Hoelscher ready to push
Bridge on the River Indus
Eventually we reach a road, which finally leads to a bridge across the Indus, covered by prayer flags – colored squares of cloth on which prayers are stamped; when the wind blows each flutter of the flag sends the prayers heavenward.
We reach town just before dark and get a hot meal. My editor orders a dosa almost bigger than his head. The hot food warms me up, almost as much as knowing the locations for the next two weeks of shooting are now set up.
The dosa that did Alex in
Photos by Nathan Whitmont
I need to thaw out my pen to write this. I sleep with the apples in my sleeping bag to keep them from freezing. Last night I left out the cheese, and now it’s a solid block.
This is morning in Leh Ladakh, temperature approximately zero degrees. Not so impressive to folks from Montana, except our room – separate from the main house – has no heat. It’s built to maximize passive solar – but the sun hasn’t been seen in a week.
We only have electricity for a few hours in the evenings.
In the main house it takes my laptop over an hour to warm up. I hold it up beside the wood stove. I wonder what Apple would think of that?
There is no plumbing; water is delivered twice a week to the cistern in the yard by a government truck. The bathroom is a mud-brick outhouse atop a wooden ladder.
Our friend Wangchuk breaks the ice to make tea
My editor is sick. Each day is greyer and colder than the last.
Tsemo gompa on an almost sunny day
Everyone we met in lower India told us we were nuts to go to Ladakh in winter. “Surely you will freeze,” they said.
Town is mostly shut down; there are almost no tourists, and many locals, and even many monks, go south for the winter. Town shuts down at dark.
The only night life in Leh
But winter is when the most authentic cham dances occur. Like Matho Nagrang, when two oracles are blindfolded, eyes are drawn on their torsos, and they run along the top of the monastery wall.
The LOWER monastery wall at Matho - the oracles run along a much higher one behind me
The same people that told us we were nuts to brave winter in Ladakh, smile when we tell them we will attend Matho Nagrang. “Yes,” they say. “Matho Nagrang is the best!”
One of the first things you see entering the Leh airport
A dozen children sit in a circle in the sun, several in wheelchairs, laughing and calling out; one is blindfolded. A girl on crutches, her legs terribly twisted, taps the blindfolded boy then hurries to here seat, smiling, excited.
Delek Wangmo, Head Teacher
“Now he must guess who it was,” says Delek Wangmo, Head Teacher at the Ngoenga School For Tibetan Children with Special Needs, located in the hills above Dehradun India.
The school’s 47 children, all between the ages of 7 and 18, have a a wide range of physical and mental disabilities. “They come from all over India,” Wangmo says. “It is open to any Tibetan child.”
The school is funded and run by the Central Tibet Administration, the governing body of the Tibetan people in exile. Students live on the campus 10 months per year, spending the other two with their families.
The campus - There is even a small outdoor physical therapy pool for use in summer
Orphans may stay at the school year-round.
There are 5 “houses” small dorms each with host parents.
40 staff also live on the campus.
Facilities include numerous classrooms, several skills labs for teaching sewing, candle making, and other work, a special dark room for children with visual impairments, and a small physical therapy room.
There is also an art room, which I am interested to see, but it is the weekend and most of the rooms are locked.
In India we see so much suffering; we have learned that social services are rare. It is amazing to see such a facility dedicated to a population with special needs. It reminds me yet again, and very powerfully, how incredibly lucky I am.
Cameraman Alex Pollini and Sound Recordist Alex Hoelscher with a Ngoenga student
photos by Nathan Whitmont