I’m late for work, traffic is terrible, and the weather is turning to… yak dung. A single strip of potholed, shoulder-less asphalt stretches out through barren emptiness towards giant icy peaks ahead of me. It’s a moonscape at 12,000 feet.
It’s one of the highest, coldest places on earth people live at. It’s virtually uninhabited, but today, everyone in a hundred square miles is on this road, headed to the festival, where I should have been two hours ago.
Smooth sailing in this photograph - but picture it clogged with traffic
Looking down the trail up the mountain
I’m producing and directing a film; my crew arrived on location a day ahead of me and is already in position and awaiting my instructions. I really feel I should hurry up; and yet, I’ve been in Ladakh for almost two months now, working with Buddhist monks and watching sacred rituals, and I kind of feel like hurrying up is somehow missing the point.
Finally the monastery – called a gompa – rises on a ridge high above. But traffic has become a gridlock. I ditch the vehicle and head out on foot, leaving my driver to fend for himself. It’s freezing out. A trail leads up the mountain, flooded by people; I dive in.
As I climb I look around, wowed by the peaks rising around me, the Indus River Valley spreading out below me. I want to stop, just sit, and take it in, but I am late, so I push on.
The village of Matho from the monastery path
The twenty-minute climb takes away my breath, but at least it warms me up. Around the monastery hawkers have spread out wares – textiles, trinkets, toys (plastic guns), dried apricots… the crowd is intense. A whole section of vendors stirs steaming pots. I struggle through the throng towards the upper courtyard, where the performance is being held.
It's incredible he isn't wearing a hat
On the stairs I meet a monk I know from the days I spent filming the dance practice. The gompa was deserted then, except the monks, and my team. I ask him if the festival is about to start.
He says yes.
I want to hurry up the stairs but he walks slowly and I keep his pace. We chat. A bitter wind blows. It’s freezing out. We enter the gompa and head for the courtyard.
But instead, the monk steers me down a back hall to the kitchen, where it’s warm, and thick with smoke and steam and rich odors. The cook plunges a pole into a huge cylinder filled with hot water and butter. He invites me to sit. Outside the open window snow swirls as the storm builds. In the courtyard somewhere beyond the walls a huge crowd has gathered. The festival is about to start.
“I need to find my crew,” I say. “I need to get set up, to be ready to shoot.”
“I know,” the monk says, and he smiles. “It’s cold out. Have a cup of tea first.”
Making butter tea with a gurgur - named for the sound it makes
all photos by Nathan Whitmont
The monastery is like a ghost town.
We have come here to see the dance practice but the place is abandoned. We wander the empty lanes, prayer flags flapping ominously.
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In the kitchen we find an old cook in a brocaded apron, stirring salty butter tea in a pot as big as a barrel. She pours us a thermos and tells us someone has died and most of the monks have gone to provide service. Only three monks stayed behind.
We find them in the tiny, ancient temple, where they play horns and beat drums and pray in anticipation of the coming festival, and its special guests, the oracles.
The monastery abbot - he granted us permission to film this prayer ceremony, called a puja
Each year two farmers are chosen to serve in this special role. In the kitchen we learned the oracles would come that very day for a visit. During the festival they come from high on the mountain, but on this day they will come up from the valley, through the trees. Sounds relaxing, we agree, so decide to wait. We sit in the temple for an hour, mesmerized by the chanting and rhythmic drums. We shoot a bit of film. Then we wander around the abandoned monastery. Flags flutter in the wind, and the occasional old person passes, mumbling mantras and spinning prayer wheels. Bleak hillsides rise above us.
In the courtyard, beneath the sun, less than a dozen villagers gather. The old men spin handheld mani wheels, symbolizing the endless turning of samsara, in which we are all forever trapped.
A few teenagers chatter on the wall. My friend has a bar of chocolate, which he shares around.
A horn player and two drummers enter and sit down. After a while they begin to play.
The courtyard where the dances will be held
Suddenly there is a scream and the oracles run in.
They pause only a moment, almost posing in their red silk jackets with gold brocade, then race into the temple, followed by a pack of men in dark robes. From inside come more screams.
Filming or photographing the oracles is strictly forbidden
The oracles appear again, holding swords and spears. They run up the stairs and appear high above on the edge of the temple roof, where they jump and dance along the very edge, completely crazed, their handlers struggling to hold them back from the drop. They swing their swords and chuck their spears, trailing colored silks, into the temple roof. One oracle draws his sword along his tongue before it is yanked from his hand. Then they run down the stairs and into the temple again. When they reemerge they wear tall red hats, and they run to the temple rooftop another time, where they continue to leap about, the frantic handlers trying to keep them from harm.
Finally they race down the stairs and out of the courtyard. The little orchestra jumps up and follows, still playing their pounding tune. The small audience falls in behind. We go also, then climb a small hill and sit beneath a big chorten in the sun, watching the procession cross the fields below, the oracles running to and fro, the handlers trying to contain them. One oracle suddenly veers left and sprints and three handlers race to catch him. At the far side of the valley is a tiny temple where the oracles will be locked away until festival day, when they will appear again, at that time coming down from the mountain, in the midst of the dances, when they will dance, make their annual predictions, and finally, with their ordeal done, become human again.
Watching the oracles go
all photos by Nathan Whitmont
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
Getting interviews with monastery leaders, dance masters, and top scholars has been surprisingly easy. Often I get to meet them inside the main temples, where we sit alone together (well, along with my crew and interpreter, and usually a monk or two) and I get to ask them any question I wish. It is truly one honor after another.
Lopon Kunchok Namgyal sits for an interview in the main temple at Phyang
The hard part has been finding a translator. Almost all my subjects speak in Ladakhi. As the weeks have passed and the interviews pile up, the greatest hitch to the production has become finding someone to translate all this material. I have been reaching one dead end after another.
Finally just two days ago my interpreter and I got a promising lead. Then yesterday morning we received a phone call from an old monk who had just returned from Delhi. He has translated several books, has even worked with a Rinpoche who is a friend of ours. We hurried up the hill to meet him.
Konchok Phanday is a wonderful old man, perhaps over 70. He lives in a small room that doubles as a kitchen, with south and west facing windows letting the little sunlight that shines in Ladakh these days seep in. He listened to us for thirty minutes, then told us to come back in the afternoon.
Khenpo Konchok Phanday in his home
That afternoon, as the sun sank into a haze, I sat with my interpreter, and worked out the details of the translations with this wonderful old man I had just met. (It turns out he is an expert on language and grammar and has even written papers on the techniques of translating scripture from one language to another. He is also friends with many of the people whose interviews he will be working on). Then we had tea. There was a long silence and I requested to ask the old scholar some questions.
For forty-five minutes we sat in that little room and discussed the emptiness of existence. You know how it is – you read about and become dazzled by the wisdom and magic of philosophy and scripture, but after a while you forget. You also know how it is that reading a book can be amazing, but to sit in a little room in the Himalaya, beside the stove as the sun sets, talking to a 70-year-old monk about the nature of the universe, can be absolute magic. And he explained again how the universe is emptiness, and from that emptiness form arises, but that form is ultimately only a mental construct, created by our actions and attachments, reinforced so many times over the millenniums that it has come to seem concrete.
It makes sense to me that all this external world, all this form, is emptiness. It’s something that somehow I can grasp, if only a little bit. But one thing that seems concrete to me is the tie between the special people in my life. I wonder often what it is in the spectrum, in the midst of this eternal circus, that exists between me and the people I am close to .
Walking out of that little house into the evening haze, surrounded by Himalayan peaks, I felt as though I floated just a little bit.
Evening in Leh
photos by Nathan Whitmont
It’s a grey day and beginning to snow, when there’s a knock at the door and Konchok Samphel, a 24-year-old Buddhist monk walks in. I haven’t seen in him in over a month, since we last met in lower India, in Dehradun. I’m delighted he has found me here in the mountains of Ladakh. We sit by the window and talk. He has come to attend the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, to complete the extensive higher education curriculum he began five years earlier in Varanasi.
I ask him if he intends to be a scholar.
We’ll see, he answers. It is not just for anybody, it depends on how much one learns.
Of course, I agree, but is a scholar what you want to be?
He shrugs the question off.
How about a Khenpo then, I ask, a teacher?
He says maybe.
Outside the snow is coming on strong.
You’ve studied for five years, I say, and you plan to study for five more. What is your goal? What is it you want to be?
Before the snow - Konchok Samphel in Dehradun
I want to be a good person, he says.
And there we sit, the Buddhist monk and the guy from the West, beside the window, watching it snow.
photo by Nathan Whitmont
Once a year, in a thousand-year-old monastery called Likir, built on a ridge at almost 12,000 feet, high up a Himalayan valley, surrounded by 20,000 foot peaks, Buddhist monks meditate for almost a month, then perform ceremonies for over a week – from well before dawn until late in the night –during which they invoke protective deities by making ritual offerings and repeating sacred sayings (called mantras) – and they chant and play drums and horns for hours on end, and pray for the liberation of all sentient beings.
Then they dance.
For two days, filled with love and compassion, visualizing themselves as the deities they’ve meditated on, and wearing centuries-old masks depicting wrathful god’s faces, designed to scare even the fiercest demons, the monks perform intricate dances to draw the evil and destructive energies from the minds of the audience (gathered from all across Ladakh) into an effigy made of barley, shaped like a human body.
This mask, brought to Ladakh from Tibet, is several hundred years old. It is designed to scare even the fiercest demons
All the while an orchestra plays – drums the size of tractor tires, trumpets longer than a human body. Alone and in groups the monks spin and twirl, carefully stepping, or wildly leaping, invoking deities to come to earth and help rid it of evil.
Then the skeletons come, taunting the crowd, offering candy then beating with sticks at any who try to take the sweets, stealing hats which they fling over the courtyard walls, belly-flopping into the crowd, and climbing up the flagpole.
Finally the dance master arrives, transformed from a man into the protective deity itself, wielding the sword of wisdom. He cuts open the dough body, releasing all the evil and negativity gathered within, which he draws into his own body, in order to show the evil the light of truth and peace, thus transforming it to inert, or even positive energy, and purifying the earth of ignorance, anger, ego, attachment, and jealousy.
The Dance Master arrives on scene - Lobzang Droje - Likir Gompa Chamspon (The Dance Master of Likir Monastery)
All Photos by Nathan Whitmont
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