My crew arrives at the temple before 5 am. The monks are already praying, chanting, playing trumpets, crashing cymbals and banging drums. This is the first morning of the dance festival called Dosmoche, held each February in a 1,000 year-old monastery deep in the Himalayas, to protect the world from evil. We sit in the corner; many of the monks glance in our direction, looking us over. A young monk brings a huge silver pot and pours us salty butter tea.
Monks of Likir monastery have been meditating for as long as a week leading up to this photo
We have been invited by the dance master to attend and film this sacred ritual, called a puja, during which the monks, who have meditated non-stop for a week, pray for the benefit of all sentient beings. Overwhelmed, we sit half an hour in amazement before touching a camera. Even then we take only a few shots, from the side of the room, before quickly returning to our seats. What occurs all around us is almost too profound to film.
At six the pros come in, dressed head to toe in Gor-tex outerwear, sporting an arsenal of top of the line camera gear. They pause in the doorway for less then a minute, scanning the lay out, before setting up shop. The monks ignore them. One of pros charges down the center aisle to set up a camera right in a praying monk’s face. Within minutes they have several tripods and cameras set up around the room, which the attendant monks, carrying incense and tea, must step around. At one point, to get his shot, one man leans his elbow and entire arm across the low table where the monk’s prayer tablets are kept. The monks continue to chant, eyes held dead ahead.
The pros are attended by three guides; my crew is assisted by a single monk who has volunteered to help us out of respect for our project. Konchok belongs to a different order, and the previous night he was incredibly excited to attend this unusual puja. The pros are not in the room five minutes before Konchok gets up and walks out.
Both of these guys were very friendly when we talked to them later, though the bald guy treated the festival itself even more disrespectfully than he did this puja
The cameramen move close enough for me to get a good look at their gear; all the best stuff. All my crew’s gear put together wouldn’t buy one of their tripods. I look at their incredible lenses, and I feel like I’m back in junior high, watching the high school varsity team work out. The only consolation I take is that my crew has been given tea in big glasses; the pros are given tea in little disposable plastic cups. After twenty minutes of non-stop shooting they snap their last pics, then pack up and vanish. They never even sat down for a minute.
Abbott (called Lopon) Thupstan Standin in his room the day before the puja.
Oddly, I feel empty and insignificant. I wander out and take a shot of a horn player, who looks right at me as I work. When I return to my seat the abbot passes, a humble old man in whose warm little room I spent over an hour the previous day, talking about the dances and his life, and the changes he’s seen and what he has felt. I bow my head in respect. He nods back and gives me a wide, warm smile.
Hours later I meet the horn player, who shakes my hand and, much to my surprise, apologizes. “Just as you took the photo,” he says. “I made a mistake with the notes.”
In Ladakh the days are just packed. I sit down to lunch with the director of the Himalayan Studies program at Aberdeen University in Scotland to talk about Vajrayana Buddhism and tantric practices and I barely get an hour of incredible non-stop information when the phone rings. A high level reincarnate (called a Rinpoche) wants me to visit his monastery for the evening; but he’s leaving in ten minutes. Just then my assistant rushes in to tell me the same thing. He has been combing the town searching me out (my phone had been turned off). So I sprint.
The Rinpoche travels in a convoy of four vehicles. All the cars have long silken katas tied to their side mirrors; colorful flags on short poles rise from the front bumpers. The Rinpoche’s vehicle has thick, colorful streamers strung across the hood. People in the streets bow as we pass.
The Rinpoche's vehicle - two more vehicles travel in front, and another behind
En route the Rinpoche and I talk about motorcycles and classic American cars – he loves old Mustangs – and about the recent floods which took over 2,000 thousand Ladakhi lives. We cross the Indus on an old bridge strewn with prayer flags and wind up a rough dirt road.
Shang Gompa (Monastery) in the Northwestern Himalayas
The monastery is deep in the mountains, in a small grove of trees, beside a frozen stream, surrounded by rocky peaks.
A small procession of people, many dressed in traditional wool clothing, waits with flowers and katas. The Rinpoche steps out and disappears into the crowd, which ushers him through the monastery gate.
My editor, Alex Hoelscher, and I wander into the monastery, across the open courtyard and up the steps to the temple.
Inside, three monks chant, illuminated by a lantern and the last of the daylight falling in the doorway.
The courtyard and temple of Shang Gompa (taken in the morning during a following trip)
We sit on cushions in the corner and an attendant brings tea. The chanting of the monks is hypnotizing. One of the monks stands and motions for us to follow. He leads us through an ancient door into a dark room to show us sacred paintings on the wall, though it is so dark now we can barely see.
Detail of a deity on horseback
In the corner, almost as though it were put up as an after thought, hangs an incredible, unpainted mask of Mahakala, which the monk tells us is 400 years old. That’s twice the age of our country, Alex tells the monk.
The paintings are intricate, colorful, and incredible, depicting deities wearing crowns bedecked in jewels and human skulls, holding swords, or lotus flowers, wearing silken robes or tiger skins, riding on horseback, or, in one case, in union with his consort.
Mahakala, a powerful protective deity, representing ultimate or absolute reality
We join the Rinpoche in his room, lit only by a lantern and the flickering light of the wood stove. We ask him questions about reincarnation and about his previous lives. He tells us he spent 12 years in a Chinese prison before being tossed into a desert and left to starve to death.
Rigyal Rinpoche in his chambers
In this life, even as a boy, he has always had a voracious appetite. When we first met, I noticed that at meals he cleans his plate completely, then pours water on it and drinks it – an old Ladakhi custom of wasting absolutely nothing, but he is the only person I’ve seen practice it.
An hour has passed and darkness has fallen. Outside the small window the valley walls tower above us. The world is utterly silent, save the crackling stove, the hiss of the lantern, and the Rinpoche’s voice. I almost float. I am time travelling. Leaving, I walk out along top of the wide monastery wall, surrounded by the valley walls, beneath the stars, utterly awed.
Alex and I drive home in the dark, in the back seat of a little hatchback, accompanied by a monk and his cousin, a high school senior named Sonam. We re-cross the Indus, and hit the pavement and Sonam rolls the window down (despite the cold) and the turns the club music up, and with no other traffic on the road we speed unimpeded through the Himalayan night, hoping to make it back in time for dinner. In Ladakh the days are just packed.
Photos by Nathan Whitmont