Coming from the Leh side of the Srinagar-Leh road, there are actually two routes to Lamayuru. One of the routes is a high altitude one. It is a longer route with numerous hairpin bends. Drivers fondly call this the “jelabi mode.” The newer route is shorter by a couple of hours. Problem is that the newer route is not fully ready. Blasting is still going on. They are making a second lane, someone claims. The bus I board near Alchi takes the lower route. We get stopped under the shadow of high cliffs while rocks on the road get cleared. We wait for nearly an hour. In that time, the road gets packed with a train of vehicles and apparently patient drivers. I take this chance and after a couple of requests I get a ride to Lamayuru in an empty tourist vehicle. I return to the bus for my backpack. Soon we are on our way.
The driver has agreed to drop me at Lamayuru for forty rupees. Going by the distance it is a reasonable price. He is from Jammu and it is a known fact that many folks of Jammu hate Kashmiris. Kashmiris in their turn hate the people of Jammu. As for Kargil, it straddles Islamic Kashmir and Buddhist Ladakh. I am told Kargil folks are not very supportive of Kashmiri separatist demands and therefore their relationship with Kashmiris is a little strained.
‘Do you think it’s safe to go to Srinagar? I have to get to Delhi and the Rohtang Pass route is just too long,’ I ask the driver.
‘Not safe at the moment,’ he answers. ‘These Kashmiri bastards…’ he launches into a long train of abuses and complaints.
‘You know Jammu has many beautiful places for tourists. Problem here is that whoever becomes Chief Minister, it is always a Muslim. They have not allowed Jammu to develop. Kashmir is crap. There is nothing there. It’s all publicity.’
‘Why are you going empty to Kargil?’ I ask him.
‘I have a ready booking for tourists at Kargil,’ he explains. ‘I dropped five tourists at Leh yesterday. In this business, money is good during the tourist season. Also, my carburetter is heating up. I want to test it with this drive. It’s not good to get stranded with tourists.’
‘How much do you earn?’ I ask him.
‘Two thousand a month,’ he says. That’s how much his boss pays him. It’s a small amount.
‘How do you manage?’
‘There are ways to make money on the side. You know it costs more than a thousand rupees to send my kid to school. If my boss were to pay me seven thousand a month, there is no need for me to be dishonest.’
We stop at someplace en route for tea. He buys a couple of eggs at a stall and walks next door to get it cooked at the restaurant. He is not happy with the eggs.
‘Rotten eggs,’ he complains and we are on our way to Lamayuru.
We get stuck once more at a roadblock, this time for forty-five minutes. These unscheduled breaks are truly an opportunity to slow things down and enjoy the landscape to the full. The sun is golden and is dipping behind rugged mountains in the west. River Indus is with us down below, snaking its way between cliffs. It is steady as ever, sticking to its course and sure of its goal. The evening light dazzles the eye. A few poplars stand clinging at the edge of an embankment. Their trembling leaves bathe in the light streaming from behind. Their tall shadows fall on the frothing currents of the river just a few feet below. Undulations on the towering slopes are sidelit into sharp relief. Another cliff is under dark shadows but its peaks are touched in golden brilliance. On another mountain face, brightly lit, a passing cloud throw its shadow in a thin shifting streak. The long shadow of a truck straddles the road stretching ahead of us. Drivers sit out in the shades, chatting, smoking or chewing tobacco. In time, we continue our spectacular journey.
We pass some spectacular hills. At a turning soon after, a wide viewpoint is playing host to bus loads of tourists. They are looking at a wide slope of sandy formations bathed completely in golden light. It is a unique landscape in the same spirit as loess seen in Spiti or Sarchu, except that here it covers an entire hillside from the high ridges to the lower bases. Lamayuru isn’t far from here and I get off by the first houses I see. An old woman is washing a couple of bowls by a water pipe. She smiles at me. I smile back. Then follows the expected exchange of customary “jhulays.” With gestures and orphaned English words, she makes me understand that she has rooms to let and would I want one?
She leads me on an uphill path to her house. A board announces this to be,
CHUKPO PA PAYING GUEST HOUSE
Accommodation Under Self Employment Scheme Leh
Of Tourism Department
She shows me a nice room for Rs. 300 but I want something cheaper. She then shows me another for Rs. 200. I try to bargain for Rs. 150 but everything is lost in language. Neither English nor Hindi works with her. The cot isn’t comfortable but there is mattress on the carpetted floor. That would do just as well for me. I take the room and hurry back to the viewpoint I had passed minutes earlier.
‘I’ll be in for dinner around half seven,’ I tell the old woman as I walk past the kitchen. I don’t know if she understood that. Communication is certainly difficult with her and all the credit goes to her for learning a little English. But this astute lady has understood me. She asks if thukpa is fine. I nod. She walks with me to the courtyard and picks a few herbs from the vegetable gardens beside. They will go into my thukpa for dinner.
When I arrive at the viewpoint, the tourists are gone except for one American couple. Nearby are some makeshift tents used by road workers, the same guys I passed earlier this afternoon on the road to Lamayuru. The scene before me is stunning but it has its faults. I can’t get a single good picture of it. The sun falls directly on the hillside. The wonderful features of cones falling and dividing into smaller cones, spreading and joining into neighbouring cones, is lost in the bright light. Had they been lit from the side, the natural bas-reliefs of this hill would have stood out. When the sun dips, the hill gets covered in shadows of mountains around. Bands of bright light lingers on the ridges for many minutes of visual wonder. I stay here till beyond sunset. Later I learn that this place is popularly called Moonland. I find this an apt description. It is hard to believe such a place can even exist on earth. During my stay at ancient Lamayuru, I am sure to return to this viewpoint once more to admire this singular beauty.
Back in my room, I find that there is a bathroom but with no pipes, faucets or tiles. Upon request I get a pail of water. The toilet next door is a traditional high altitude drop zone. There is square opening in the mud floor and the drop is about fifteen feet. A few shovels stand leaning in one corner on small piles of sand. Once business is done down the hole, I throw down a shovel of sand. It is primitive but clean and environmentally friendly. No water is wasted in flushes and half flushes.
The lights come on at half seven. I head down the wooden stairs to the kitchen. I greet the old woman. A younger woman, her grand-daughter is cooking at the stove. Next to the stove a long wooden cylindrical container decorated with metal fittings is leaning against the wall. I have seen such devices before. They used for making butter tea. A third woman is sitting in the shadows in the opposite corner near the warm chimney. She is apparently blind. In her right hand she fingers a rosary but the beads are not really moving. She seems to have dozed of. I make a motion to sit next to her.
‘No, no,’ exclaims the old woman. ‘You sit here.’ She leads me to the special place close to the fireplace and chimney. It is the warmest place in the kitchen and is usually reserved for guests. Time and again I am amazed by the hospitality of people in these parts.
I make light conversation with the young woman preparing my dinner. She is studying pre-university in Leh. This is her vacation period and she has come down to her help grandmother. She sautes sliced cloves of garlic and shreds of onion in a wok. When they turn golden brown and release their combined aroma, she transfers them into a boiling broth of noodles and sliced vegetables.
Meanwhile the old woman is busy praying. In her right hand she rotates clockwise a prayer wheel. In her left hand she fingers a rosary while her lips faintly utter the universal mantra. The sound of the mantra, like echoes in repetition, replace outer silence with an inner one. After a few minutes of utmost concentration, she puts down the devices and picks up a key-driven prayer wheel. She winds the key and the wheel begins to unwind rapidly, sending out the mantra in all directions. Tibetan Buddhism is for the well-being of one and all. The more you recite “Om Mane Padme Hum,” the better it is for the world. Reciting this mantra is never a selfish pursuit.
Dinner is ready but cannot be served yet without approval. The old woman tastes a spoonful. She adds some condiments to make necessary corrections. Dinner is served. I love the thukpa and go for a generous second helping.
The others eat with me. Dinner in this small room is an intimate affair. There is no blaring music with item girls, Bollywood style soap operas or breaking news every other minute. There are no interrupting phone calls. There is no noise from traffic. My hosts rarely speak when they eat. There is a meditative silence. Under the shadow of Lamayuru’s ancient monastery, the very air seems sanctified. This santity comes more from the quiet awareness of my hosts than anything else. Every morsel is savoured to the full. In this kitchen in Lamayuru, there is thanksgiving for every little comfort that life can give.
When dinner is done, the old woman picks up a portable yarn-making device. With her left hand she deftly draws the wool. With her right hand she turns a spindle whose needle stands pivoted on a circular wooden platter. She is chatting with her grand-daughter but even without looking she is able to make woollen threads with perfect consistency. By the doorway hang balls of wool, obviously spun by her. Making the yarn is yet another meditation. Everything she does interests me. Her hair is worn in two long thin plaits joined in a knot at the back. She wears a woollen cap. Her long face is wrinkled. She wears the traditional Ladakhi cloak pulled together at the waist. Over that is a woollen waistcoat. The holy rosary is her necklace. There is little else to show off. She represents all that is simple and good about old world Ladakh.
I wake up late gazing at the wooden rafters that make the ceiling of my room. I am in no hurry to rush through Lamayuru. I have the whole day ahead and I am going to stay here another night. I am the only guest at this guest house.
Lamayuru is home to Ladakh’s oldest monastery. At least, that’s the claim. I walk past traditional houses, through paths laid out between green fields of crop, whitewashed chortens and stone walls. I take to an uphill path approaching the monastic buildings from the southern side. The buildings here are really the oldest parts of the monastery. Stone walls and mud plasters define these buildings. They stand on eroded cliffs of sedimentary composition, largely sandstone. To the right, derelict walls give way to loess standing in line as sentinels to a higher world.
Some monastic buildings are almost like ruins but they make picturesque ruins. They have not conquered the mountains. Rather, they form an inexplicable union with the cliffs on which they stand. Shutterless windows peep out into the open. Others are in different states of repair. Potted plants adding a touch of greenery line the top of ledges. A bright red prayer wheel sheltered in its own shed, catches partly the morning sun in its full glow. The town is spread about the valley down below. Mountains tower on both sides. The river gleaming as a thin silver ribbon makes it way between summer greens on one side and black eroded downhill flows on the other. I see a bright chorten high up but there is no obvious path to it. I walk down to town and find the proper path to the monastery.
I walk past three boy monks sitting and looking out across the valley to the far mountains. A man is rubbing and smoothening the wrinkles of a dry skin of a dead lamb. Winter is harsh here and anything to keep oneself warm is not wasted. The facade of the monastery is beautiful but I see nothing new to what I have already seen at other monasteries of the region. I am captivated by the chortens. They stand on high ground in front of the main monastery. I approach them by a flight of steps. Prayer wheels built around them are a magnet for old men and women. I see many of them making their rounds around the chortens, spinning each wheel as they pass. With the other hand, some do their rosaries while others turns a handheld prayer wheel. For old folks given to Buddhism, their thoughts are tuned to better next life.
Near one prayer wheel, sits a miniature chorten. It is so small that it can be held in the palm of one’s hand.
‘This is an offering for the dead,’ explains a passing guide. He is showing a group of tourists around. ‘It is made of crushed bones of the dead person.’
On the steps of the monastery, a few men and women sit expectedly with their whirling prayer wheels, wooden staffs, woollen caps, long cloaks and thick glasses. They are hoping I will take out my camera for a snap. No matter what one may think, they make quite a picture. They are perhaps the last of Ladakh’s old culture. When other tourists click their cameras, they make their entreaties.
‘Baksheesh,’ they exclaim and put out their arms with open palms.
A modern hotel has been built on the hill right next to the monastery. It is a fine building but it does not belong here. It completely destroys the mood of Lamayuru. For centuries, the monastery and the stone-mud buildings of town have built a certain world so different from our own. They have stood in harmony with Lamayuru’s timeless landscape. They have let nature retain her place. They have blended with the hills and mountains. All it has taken is one modern building to erase it to the ground. I feel sad when I look at this building for it portends a future I can hardly welcome.
I do wonder at times what Lamayuru must have been a century ago – before the roads came to town, before tourists started trickling in, before the comforts of modern living made its incursions. The monks built this monastery here precisely for its isolation that now lies threatened. Personally, I do wonder if my coming here is more important than the place itself. Perhaps the people want change. Perhaps they want modern day comforts. Thankfully in winter, the place will see less outsiders.
In the evening I head southwest towards a group of chortens. The path then drops down and turns right. I am standing at the head of a valley with mountains on both sides. I walk for an hour, crossing small streams or an isolated chorten surrounded by rocks carved with the universal mantra. To my right are spectacular cliffs of loess towering to great heights. I have never seen loess at such a close distance. Light from the west brings out the cones in golden colours and sharp shadows. The scrubs growing low on the ground sport little flowers of yellow, white or purple. Had I come into the valley this morning I might walked longer and climbed a couple of ridges around here. On the way back, I see the monastery perched high above town. Its white walls reflect brightly the last brightness of the day. It is a magical moment to witness this scene. The monastery glows like a jewel over Lamayuru town already in the shadows.
I walk back in near darkness to my room, the old woman and her grand-daughter. I am looking forward to yet another memorable dinner by the warm fireplace.