June 27, 2009

SOME FOLKS KNOW THE VALUE OF A STATE BORDER RULE:

A world removed (Scott MacMillan, June 27. 2009, The National)

Standing on the rooftop of the monastery where he has lived since the age of 10, Jampa Norphel steps up to the dung-chen, a Tibetan horn longer than a man lying down.

From the height of the monastery’s crag, it lets out a bellow that soars over Norphel’s home village towards the distant Himalayan peaks, summoning his fellow monks to the second day of the annual Goyasamaja mandala ceremony.

It’s 6am, and Thiksey monastery in Ladakh, India, is beginning to stir. In the dim light of the temple, pre-teen novice monks and elderly lamas alike begin chanting, surrounded by statues of benevolent Buddhas and the fearsome protector deities of Vajrajana Buddhism.

The bass frequencies shake the timber of the sacred 15th-century space, the vibrations recalling countless puja offerings from the past.

Ladakh, a mountainous province in the far north of India, is one of the few places in the world where visitors can still experience Tibetan Buddhism in an original setting. Though Ladakhis are not Tibetan, they have long taken their religious cues from their neighbours to the east, and the similarities in language, dress and cuisine are unmistakable.

Under threat in Tibet proper, Tibetan Buddhist culture here is visible in both monastery and hamlet, with villagers and monks leading separate yet symbiotic lives as they have done for centuries.

As Norphel explains later, the Goyasamaja ritual usually lasts eight days, with monks painstakingly creating a sand painting, grain by coloured grain. When it’s finished, they destroy it, signifying the fleeting impermanence of all phenomena: all that arises will one day cease. Ladakh itself has survived as a sovereign kingdom for a millennium, and even the invaders of the present, the tourists and trekkers that flood the region during the summer, have failed to upset the basic pattern of life.

The region is still inaccessible by road for six months of the year, with the season’s first fresh produce arriving in late April when the snow melts enough to cut a pony trail through the mountains.

No surprise, then, that guidebooks have dubbed Ladakh “the last Shangri-La”, after the fabled hidden Himalayan utopia. From the mid-ninth century until its surrender to the Dogra rulers of Jammu in 1834, Ladakh retained its independence from Mughal emperors and Dalai Lamas alike.

Disputed ground in the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, Ladakh was closed to outsiders until 1974, when authorities in New Delhi decided to open it to tourists even while maintaining a heavy military presence. Today, it is a district with a population of about 270,000, part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 27, 2009 7:25 AM
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