Fifty monks sit cross-legged in long rows. Their prayer books, narrow strips of thick paper bound by string, sit open in front of them. They chant the Buddhist sutras to a hypnotic single drumbeat while occasional horn blasts pierce the air. A picture of the Dalai Lama sits front-centre in Thiksey Monastery’s prayer hall. Colourful wall murals and thangka paintings fill the room with Mahayana Buddhism’s extensive pantheon of deities. I sit at the back absorbing the trance-like ambiance as the rising sun slowly lights up the room.
Unlike most monasteries, Thiksey invites tourists to take part in their morning ritual. Tourists can even stay in their guesthouse located right on top of their piece of hilltop paradise in India’s northernmost region of Ladakh.
At the end of the ceremony, young monks attend to their puja duties. A couple of mini-monks speedily zip around the room sweeping the floor. A couple more walk around with steel pitchers serving a drink. Holy water of some sort or other I reckon. Or so I convince myself as I gingerly accept the cup. Looks like water with some spices added to it. I sip with hesitation, eventually drinking it all figuring that if it came from this holy place it can’t make me sick.
I shift my focus to a Bhavacakra painting at the entrance as I leave. The Wheel of Life symbolizes the cyclic nature of samsara—the continuous cycle of life and death. A pig, bird, and snake chase each other in the wheel’s nucleus, signifying ignorance, attachment, and aversion, the roots of all suffering according to Buddhists.
Like a bird, I flutter off in search of something else to look at in this expansive monastery. My desires land me smack in front of a 49-foot Maitreya Buddha statue, the future Buddha. I stand in awe, gazing at its sublime beauty. An intricately detailed headdress adorns the top of the Buddha’s head. His gold-painted face radiates peace. As one of Ladakh’s most photographed Buddha statues, the room is dotted with signs alerting visitors not to take a picture of oneself with the Buddha. Pictures of the Buddha alone are OK. Anyway, since the Maitreya Buddha represents the future Buddha within us all, when we take a picture of it, we’re symbolically taking a picture of ourselves.
I meander through the remaining meditation halls on the lower levels before finding my way to the roof. The 360-degree mountain view keeps me there for some time. And despite being midday, Ladakh’s 11,000-foot altitude and desert climate produces comfortably dry heat, even in the summer, making it an ideal getaway for the Indian traveler wanting to escape the choking heat and monsoon rains of lowland India. Snowy Stok range holds my gaze the longest. Like a formidable sentry, the wall of mountains forms the southern ridge to Indus valley, the main population belt in Ladakh.
Ladakh is as empty as Delhi is full. The whole region only has about 200,000 people and the “big” city of Leh has a mere 30,000, which along with the large tourist population is still enough to cause the busy streets, honking horns, and chest-constricting pollution common to Indian cities, making a side trip to Thiksey that much better. Just a short drive from Leh, it’s a getaway that provides the same kind of peace and solitude that the monks get to live in, but without having to climb deep into the Himalayas to get it.
I duck through a tiny doorway to have a look at the dark, little library that houses a number of thick volumes, including the Kangyur and Stangyur sacred texts, before heading to the stupa platform.
One of the monastery’s older monks slowly circumambulates the platform, prayer beads in hand, deep in meditation. Seven simple stupas—Buddhist shrines containing sacred relics—are lined up in a row like sentries overlooking the farmers’ fields below. Despite the grandeur of the monastery’s halls, it is this platform that attracts me most. This nature hall overlooking the deep green Indus valley, butted up against the barren, brown Himalayan rock is like a window to nature.
A farmer calls out commands to his zos, a yak-cow crossbreed, to plough his field. Slowly it chugs along. First one direction, then the other, and back again. For centuries these monks have been looking down at the movement of villagers below while walking in circles and chanting in repetition. The monastic presence seems to have some kind of effect on the villagers. The pace of village life is so slow. They are still living much like their ancestors did centuries ago.
The zos slowly continues along its circular path. The farmer keeps on shouting the same commands like a mantra. The “Om mani padme hum” chant cycles through my mind in repetition as I sit on the platform staring down at the village, entranced by peace.