The quest for a lost horse at 14,000 feet

Well-worn travel notes on days in Ladakh, meeting women, children, dancing monks and a bodhisattva. One July, many moons ago.


July 7, Leh

It is the evening of day 3 in Ladakh and finally I want to write. The first day was dedicated to ‘high alti’ sickness as our kind waiter Babloo from Jammu put it. Day 2 was about slowly, stiffly shedding the insecurities and suspicions of city living.

Today was pure peace. Especially now as we saw the sun trail a slow goodbye over the hills and snow clad peaks of the Himalay. There is a brown hill behind the Shanti Stupa. Lit by the orange of the setting sun, it actually shone with brown, grey and green specks. I felt that the surface of the old hill echoes the hide of the elephant and the thick skin of the undersea whale.

Then, even in the death of the day when the mountains were their own colour again, the passing clouds danced, were lifted in swan song. Rolling ones reminescent of the flower-like clouds painted on thankas… one took the shape of an old man in a traditional Ladakhi hat, bending low as if in prayer. Little floating clouds orange in the still, clear blue sky, rose in shapes that changed by the second – from four wild ducks taking flight to a distant horserider from ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’.

Then the wintry breeze swept through my clothes, brushing aside all thoughts but one – to get back to the warm hotel room and grab pen and paper.

Now from my window I see that the sky is all grey, white and some pastel blue. As I write this, the clouds have turned to pouches of snow. In the mountains, summer ends with the day. The only light that remains over this Land of High Passes is the electric crescent moon. Only it is high enough and fortunate to still see the sun.

More interesting than the Shanti Stupa, painted bright for great effect, was the village of Yurdhong on the slopes leading up to the Stupa. There were crops of potato, mustard, cauliflower, carrot and medium-sized trees with foliage like clumps of corn on the cob casting a gentle shade. The stone-and-wood houses overlook lush green fields. Just above eye level, the rugged and rocky hills flank everything.

The Sankar Gompa is quaint and clean, the frescoes are indigo and maroon, woodwork rickety. We met a group of well-turned out older Italian tourists. One handsome man among them held forth on the spread of Buddhism in India, as they rested on the stone steps leading up to the gompa. The glorious evening light lit up the ornate roof and colourful prayer flags strung over the head Lama’s house. A little ahead, in the narrow winding alley that leads into and out of the gompa, in a pile of sand, was a small Ladakhi girl. Round brown curious eyes, bold in her fair, pink-cheeked face, she was drawing with two sticks in the sand.

The visits to gompas are punctuated with friendly old faces. Ladakhis all speak good, if accented Hindi, even the old ones. We visited the Stok Palace and Museum. When approaching this place you see the looming Stok glacier, popular with trekkers. The Museum is well-maintained by the King’s family. The whole thing is built as two stories around an open courtyard with a lovely view of the town of Stok. One room has stone-studded jewellery, ornate headgear and teapots of the kings and queens of the Namgyal dynasty. I most remember the huge pieces of turquoise and coral. Can’t say they were very attractive.

Two more rooms had prayer articles and thankas. Here the concept of the thanka was explained – how the artist, a Buddhist monk would choose a theme, and after prayer and blessings from the Lama, begin at an auspicious time… After the piece is complete, they pray that the spirit of the deity depicted enter the work. One of the rooms of the museum had just the Buddha with his hands in various mudras. Then the paintings of various Bodhisatvas, all placed in another room were amazing, if dimly lit.

There was a smiley old man wandering around opening and closing rooms and issuing tickets. Monks stared curiously and simply, like children.

On the lowermost floor, a door leading away showed a nicely wooded floor, a showcase with good crockery and a large old Alsation dog sleeping in a corner. We guessed that this is where the king’s family still lives. A clean, beautiful, simple dwelling for a king could be come upon only in these mountains that echo with Buddhist prayer. I haven’t seen such a palace anywhere. It is no wonder that photography is strictly forbidden.

We were headed to Mathoo monastry, when at the heart of 12 noon we saw a couple struggling up the barren road. We gave them a ride. He was Simon, an Israeli and she, Juliana an Australian.

Mathoo Gompa is on a hill with a wonderful view. It has everything. The green fields and dwelling places of Mathoo village, flanked by brown hills and snow-capped peaks on one side. On the other, a vast brown desert and distant, continuous rolling hills in the direction of Leh. “Why do monastries always have the best view?” Simon asked. Perhaps they are perched as high as they comfortably can, to be close to their gods. Then again their gods and gurus are infused in the thankas blessed by the Lamas, created with great devotion by the ordained artists.

So we met a group of self-conscious monks at Mathoo. One young man sang Mumbai Se Aaya Mera Dost, to me in a Ladakhi lilt. They unscrolled a one-storey high thanka of Guru Padmasambhava and played their cymbals and trumpets, amidst some giggling. The older monks chanted seriously. We drove back to Leh, hot, dry and hungry. It was 1:30 pm and the heat and dust of the desert was upon us.

July 8

What can I say about the trip to Pangong Lake, except that the mountain journey was riotous with rocks of every hue. But most of all, the people of the mountains, the cowherd tribe… the simplicity of the women particularly touches the heart.

Our driver, Mr. Hussain, a big Balti man who never changed his shirt all the time that we were there, said that the cowherd tribe were fools. They were too undemanding of life, he said. They are nomadic, moving from one green artery to the next on the higher inclines in the heart of these harsh mountains. They live purely off their livestock. Maybe they could have a better life in the cities, but they are content.

We gave a ride to one shy woman and dropped her a couple of kilometers away. Smiling, she told our driver in Ladakhi that her horse was lost in the mountains. She was trying to find it, so she’d hitched a ride with us to the general location it had last been spotted.

The quest for a lost horse at 14,000 feet, spanning those sprawling, rocky, rugged mountains! Here, searching for a misplaced rubber band in the bathroom puts me in the worst of spirits.

Yesterday the hotel owner took us to see a traditional kitchen. There too there was the customary homemaker bustling quietly around, her kitchen garden lush, her kitchen clean and aromatic. Just a simple smile and ‘julay’ for us visitors.

The owner, Sonam Chespal, told us about his mother, just fifth standard pass and an active social worker. She helped to found the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh, was the Director for a while and is now heading the Ladakh Buddhist Association. She works on traditional handicraft skills, laying stress on preserving Ladakh’s indigenous traditions of language, dress, attitude. She goes from village to far-flung village.

July 10

Went for day two of the Hemis festival. It was more a parade of people from so many ethnic groups and cultures. Everyone was curious. Most were decidedly let down by the incomprehensible masked dancers. It was one big question mark.

But there is so much associated mythology, so many stories we don’t know. None among the maroon and yellow-clad monks explained. The ‘director’ of the show definitely showed his ire at the crowd, hitting a pesky photographing tourist with his staff every time the man ran into the dancers’ performance space. Then there was this bullying boy wearing a large mask who fell upon tourists with his red stole. It meant a blessing that they had to then pay for in currency notes. The foreigners were comic in their response – the older ones stiffly angered and the young ones prancing about with him, hugging him back, refusing merrily to pay. I glared at the mask’s eyes, daring him to come near. Years of dealing with beggars at Mumbai’s signals were showing!

Before the event started there was a crowd gathered around one spot. Mostly photographers, pushing each other, competitive like they were in a ration queue fighting for the last kilo of rice. I asked a few people what was going on. No one answered. Then we pushed forward and saw it was an old couple from a remote part of Ladakh. They were dressed in traditional costume, squatting against the wall in a corner. Posing or just sitting I could not say. They were the cynosure of the cameras with their sophisticated lenses. Old people with thick glasses, squinting short-sightedly about. It seemed not right somehow, crowding to capture in an instant, culture and a people centuries old.

Even as I write this, the colours of beautiful Thiksey are before my eyes. Mustard and maroon walls intricately painted with the icons of Buddhism – the dragons, the Buddhas, the Dorjes, the Bodhisattvas…

In one dark, low-roofed sanctum was a golden Maitreya Buddha, sitting in padmaasan. More striking, indeed unforgettable was the life-like Avalokiteshwara on his right. The statue was also gold, maybe 8 feet tall. It stood next to a small opening in the wall. A single shaft of light lit it dimly, it was mostly in shadow. Long faced, neither male nor female, slender-featured with a hypnotic gaze, was the Buddha of Compassion.

“Kaali?” One ill-informed foreigner asked me. I shook my head. I could not take my eyes off this Buddha. I also could not shake the feeling that the figure was alive and watching me back.