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Gonpas in Wilderness

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2006/01/22; January 22, 2006.]

Gonpas perched on hilltops, lamas in brick-coloured robes, monastic festivals with masked dances give Ladakh a unique lure, discovers Madhavi S Mahadevan.

Deccan Herld
January 22, 2006

Here's a tip if you're travelling by air to Leh: Ask for a left window seat. By the time breakfast is served, you would have left the plains and the foothills behind and approached the main line of the Great Himalaya. Below reigns geological chaos on a gigantic scale.

Everywhere there are signs of the tectonic drift that carried the Indian subcontinent northward across the Tethys sea and slammed it into the Asian land mass. Though the event happened some 45 million years ago, rumpling of the earth's crust is obvious in the vast labyrinth of high barren desolate mountain chains, snowy peaks, and sequestered valleys.

It is hard to imagine that any human ever set foot in this wilderness.

And then, just to prove you wrong, the shining white form of a gonpa floats past you. There is a feeling of unreality, as if the gonpa were caught in a time warp. Where is the path leading to it? Is there a path at all? Who would choose to live in such complete solitude?

While you are still wondering about it, the aircraft enters the Indus valley and closes in on Leh. As you lose height, you glimpse gonpas aplenty but what lingers in the memory is that tantalising first vision. The gonpa in the middle of nowhere. It is a good introduction to the ancient religion that has left its gentle but indelible stamp on the land and its people.

The Land of Buddha

Buddhism first entered Ladakh from Kashmir, in first or second century AD, around the time of the Kushan empire under Kanishka. Under the patronage of the Kushans there was a phenomenal explosion of trade and commerce throughout Central Asia. Trade routes facilitated the flow of new ideas, and of one faith in particular. Carried out of India by the Kushan traders, the Dharma spread far and wide throughout Asia.

The great guru Padmasambhava, a practitioner of the mystical Vajrayana brand of Mahayana Buddhism, is largely credited with this early dissemination - known as the First Spreading - particularly in bordering Tibet. Though Buddhism had become the state religion of Tibet by the seventh century, it was not entirely accepted. In fact, one of the causes of the disintegration of the Tibetan empire around 842 AD was the clash between the older Bon religion and the newly established Dharma.

The climactic event was the murder of the Tibetan king Lang Darma (who reinstated Bon as the national religion) by a Buddhist lama. About a hundred years after the assassination, Nyima-Gon, a great grandson of the murdered king came to Ladakh with a few hundred noblemen and founded a dynasty. His successor built a palace at Shey and the dynasty did its best to establish Buddhism in the region, an effort that historians call the Second Spreading.

As time passed and Buddhism gradually lost its hold in India, Ladakhi Buddhists began to look towards Tibet for inspiration. Strong religious and cultural links developed between the two regions.

'Solitary Places'

'Gonpa' means 'solitary place'. However, every village has a gonpa, big or small. While there are 30 major gonpas in Ladakh, there are hundreds of smaller ones. Most gonpas are built on a hill top overlooking a village. The bigger ones are really a cluster of shrines.

The steps cut into the hillside are steep and rough, there is a maze of narrow alleys, opening into buildings that house a rabbit warren of poorly lit rooms. Each gonpa is headed by a kushok, believed to be the incarnation of some holy man of long ago, who was, more often than not, the founder of the gonpa. The next important man is the gelong, usually a lama with 20 years of scholarship behind him, who is the resident expert on the rites and rituals that number in hundreds.

The lamas, who are seen everywhere in their heavy brick-coloured robes, preach, teach and preside at all the lifecycle rituals - births, marriages, deaths, sowing, harvest - and religious festivals like Losar, the Ladakhi New Year which falls close to the winter solstice.

That religion permeates everyday life is clear at a glance round the landscape. At the approach to every village there are a number of wayside shrines called chortens, the Tibetan equivalent of stupas, the erection of which is an act of great piety. Chortens are constructed according to precise specifications laid down in Buddhist texts. Usually made of whitewashed stone and mud, they taper upward 20 feet to a spire. Those that are built near the gonpas often contain sacred objects such as bones of a revered lama, pages from scriptures, clay images, food grains, offerings of ritual cakes.

Another regular feature of the landscape are the long, straight sacred mane walls, that can run for as long as a kilometre, made of stones carrying an inscription in Tibetan script. Usually this is a tantric mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, meaning 'Hail the Jewel in the Lotus' and is associated with the Boddhisatva of Compassion, Avalokiteswara.

Times Are A-changing

Whatever solitude the gonpas once possessed is a thing of the past. Now, at least for five months every year they are flooded with tourists. Annual monastic festivals are a major attraction. For camera-happy tourists the colourful masked dances present a great photo opportunity. But to local people they are a dramatic portrayal of themes that are closely connected with their lives.

Annual festivals are also occasions when the monasteries display the thangkas, counted among their priceless treasures. These king-sized brightly coloured silk or cotton scrolls with brocade borders reflect the Ladakhis' love of colour. Religious episodes from the life of Buddha are a common thangka theme. The style is a unique blend of Chinese and Indian art. And while they are regarded as art by many, to the Ladakhi Buddhists the thangkas are sacred objects of worship and meditation.

Of the gonpas around Leh, those at Thikse and Hemis are the most famous. Both are among the largest gonpas in Ladakh, the former boasting of a grand roof-top view of the Indus valley, while the latter has become known for the two-day Hemis festival held in summer.

While festivals are restricted to specific days on the Tibetan calendar, most gonpas are open throughout the year to visitors. It is worthwhile to get up early and make a trip to either gonpa in time for the prayer service. These services are held every morning and evening in the du-khang, the main assembly room, where the lamas - old, young, and very young ones, too - sit cross-legged in a row under a roof stained from the soot of butter lamps.

The older lamas hold brass dorjis in the right hand and prayer bells in the left - the combination is symbolic of male and female. The gelong starts the ceremony with a signal from his bell. A conch shell is blown and the chanting begins. While the prayers themselves would not be understood, the overall effect is pleasing.

Though the ceremony itself is part of an unbroken chain of centuries-old belief and practice, if you look closely you can see bits of 21st century creeping in. Like the bright plastic flowers and the row of coloured fluorescent lights before the main image of the Buddha. Like the packs of Amul butter stored in a cabinet where votive offerings are kept. Like the English-speaking lama who shows you around the gonpa. Like the teenage monk who brushes past and bounds up a staircase two steps at a time, humming It's the time to disco.

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