At 7.30 am I am at Gemur, a small settlement by the road and on the slopes above it. The earliest bus from Keylong to Gemur was fifteen minutes late in starting. This is the bus heading to Leh. There is only one bus per day. This means that although my next destination is Leh, I can’t get to it tonight. Perhaps, I will hitchhike. This is something to worry about later. First to the monastery here.
I have read that the monastery at Gemur is famous for an ancient dance ritual practised by the monks. It is a ritual that happens in July but I think I have just missed it by a couple of weeks. At least, I can get to some of the costumes and masks that are used for this dance.
I ask someone about getting to the monastery. I can see it high up on the slopes. The man knows no Hindi but he understands my signs to the monastery. He leads me to the start of a path by the road and leaves me there. I start climbing.
It is a pleasant day. I pass some trees. A little further up the view opens up. I can see the road below and further down the valley that snakes a great distance to my left. The real beauty is in the foreground. Thick plants and grasses reach hip high along the narrow path I walk. Alpine flowers dot the green slopes with their yellows, violets, whites and pinks. At this early hour, clouds catch the higher slopes and hide the higher peaks. The snaking river Bhaga seems to have stalled its flow in the distance. Nearer to me, islands of silt, gravel and sand are pausing the river into lilting ripples. A gentle breeze is ruffling through blades of grass and fresh petals. A couple of bees and butterflies are making the best of the day which is all set to get only better.
It is by no means a difficult or a long climb. I pass a prayer flag, its thin cloths of red and white frayed by the constant winds of the valley. Next to it stands a colourful chorten. Lion reliefs stand as if holding the stepped pyramid and bowl above. Tassels in relief hang in faded lines along the rising circular bowl. A cone rises in tapering tiers. It is finally crowned by a crescent moon holding the sun. The monastery comes to view after a while. By proportions, it looks rather small. I begin to wonder why I even heard of it. If not for the little story about monks dancing to ward off devils, I would not have come here. A couple of barking dogs announce my arrival.
‘Koi hai?’ I shout from the doorway into the inner quadrangle. The dogs are loose. Their barks are getting more persistent by the second and I hesitate to step into the quadrangle.
A man comes out to greet me. He may not have heard me but he surely has heard the dogs. He quietens them after some nice talking. I step into the quadrangle and find myself facing the steps leading to the main prayer hall and temple. A little stone Buddha stands facing out to the valley. A tall prayer flag stands at the center, somewhat like the dwajastambhas of traditional South Indian temples. The facade of the temple is in typical Buddhist style of the region – long red windows painted with a border of black and corbelled lintels in equally interesting colours.
‘Monk just left ten minutes ago,’ he says. ‘People usually don’t come here so early, not until ten.’
‘You mean there is only one monk.’
‘Yes. Others are away.’
‘You don’t have the key?’
‘I have come from a long way… Bangalore. Anyway I can see the place?’
The caretaker mulls on this for a moment. The dogs have disappeared by now. The stone Buddha is looking silently with a beatific smile on his lips. The fluttering of the prayer flag on the tall pole is the only sound I hear.
‘You can try to catch him at his house,’ tells me the caretaker.
This sounds like a good idea. I dump my backpack, cross the quadrangle and follow the caretaker to a little downhill path. He is certain that this path will lead me to the monk’s house. It is a tiny path completely overgrown with weeds and wild alpine flowers. It seems have to have been forgotten into disuse. I cut through the tangle of grass, flowers and weeds. My woolly sweater which is normally a dull unwashed black, acquires a great deal colour from the clinging flowers. I am enjoying this.
The path this way is steeper that the way I had walked up to the monastery. In no time, I am at the doorstep of the monk’s residence. I knock twice. No answer. I knock again. I hear creaking wood. I look up to see the monk’s head popping out of the first floor window. I explain to him my purpose.
‘I have to go to Keylong today,’ he says with regret. I can see clearly from his expression that he is genuinely more disappointed than I am.
‘When will you return?’
‘Quite late. I will be away most of the day.’
He apologizes and suggests that I visit the rooms on the higher floors of the monastery. I thank him and return to the road which is only a short climb down. I climb up to the monastery by the same path I had used earlier. This time, however, the dogs are not there to greet me.
The caretaker seems to have disappeared. I knock on his door twice but there is no response. I wait around in the quadrangle. At the far end are low reliefs of the Buddha made in stone slabs. Actually these are not even reliefs. They are merely line drawings incised into stone. Some of them are finely done. I take a few pictures. While I am at it, the caretaker appears out of his room. He seems to be hard of hearing. He puts some rice gruel in a bowl and calls to the dogs. They obediently take to their frugal meal.
The caretaker shows me a couple of rooms above. The prayer room is closed and so is that important room where the masks are kept. Too bad my visit has been in vain. I see the little he has to show – old Buddhist texts wrapped in cloth, metal idols, painted pillars and capitals, an old wooden cabinet beautifully painted. The idols worshipped in this room are of Guru Padmasambhava and the Buddha. I come out, take a final look at the valley from here, strap my backpack and start my climb down.