Monday 2 March 2020
The carpenters below us started hammering away at 0600, clearly making the most of the day. They were still at it last night, right up to last light. This morning Kavitha watched the sun edge down from Nagthali and over Thuman. Those villages on the other side of the valley were in sun well before 0800. It’s 0915 before the first sunlight falls on us and starts to nudge up the temperature. It’s just on zero degrees so we are looking forward to the warmth it brings. The sparrows are certainly appreciating it and the families that live around here are chirping away as they hop around the garden beds and socialise under the corrugated iron eaves.
After breakfast we take a slow stroll route down through the village. The beaming chap who greeted us yesterday and clearly hoped we would stay at his lodge (but with no showers and no toilets) does not return our ‘namaste’ greeting this morning. Others are more welcoming as we wind our way along paths between houses. We take care not to intrude onto private property, not an easy task without Umsee who is alert to any potential trespass. We like the way he respects property lines, most of which are unseen. It probably reflects his rural antecedents. We unexpectedly pass a group who are attired in their traditional dress and who are effusive with their greetings. We pick up a small white dog at the same time which follows us up the path which now tracks between stone walls. Suddenly we realise the chatter of the group we have just passed is close behind so we pick up the pace and land at the site of the new monastery, chased along by the excited chatter close behind. The monastery is due to be ceremonially opened today but there are mantras and prayers, incense and offerings all under way when we arrive.
We are hard pressed to know what is really going on but we take a seat on a low stone wall and watch but locals quickly bring us plastic chairs and insist we make ourselves comfortable. The new monastery sits at the northern end of a small plaza terrace which is cut out of the side of the mountain. On the high side the plaza is bounded by old wooden buildings which curve around to the southern end where a wooden, slat walled shed serves as a kitchen. Between the temple and the buildings is a gateway which opens onto a road which come up from the valley below, bypassing the village proper. The track down to the village enters the plaza from the kitchen. On the low side of the hill the terrace is bounded by a low stone wall which serves as a handy seat on and off throughout the day.
The sun comes and goes. When it’s gone the wind is ice cold and we are glad of our down jackets. Milk tea (with cardamom) is regularly passed around as we wait for goodness knows what. We fall into conversation with various folk and watch as women and men adjust their traditional dress. After three hours of sipping tea and entertaining small talk we uncover the fact that everyone here is waiting for a travelling party which includes a ‘main’ Lama coming all the way from India. We continue to wait. And admire. We engage two elderly women who inform us they are both the same age, but one is more compis mentis than the other who is being gently guided about the open area in front of the temple. She tells us, using one hand that she is 80 by holding up four fingers each representing 20 years, and with a second hand she holds up four fingers representing single years. So 84 all up. A young priest butts in, protesting that she is only 74 but we are happy to go with the old girls claims – she does seem very proud of the number after all. A local lad made good joins us. He has come in from New York and we chat with him and his six year old son. Or rather, once thawed out the six year old regales us with long stories of his soccer team exploits and his family – repeatedly we heard he has two cousins, one six years old and one eight years old.
There have been any number of stirrings during the morning, the crowd dynamic suggesting proceedings were about to start. But the swelling murmur subsides and conversations settle back to normal. Umess gives up and returns to the guest house to have a shower and to cook lunch for himself. We hang about and suddenly those in traditional dress are adjusting jackets , hats, jewellery and trimmings. Everyone, men included is wearing gold but the women especially have earrings of solid gold and bracelets and bangles also. Most also have precious stones and semi precious stones inlaid in their bracelets. One group of men and women are attired in extra gorgeous layers and colours and it turns out this is the choir and dance troupe. Choir or spectator, all the women seemed to sport the same necklace of semi precious stones.
The dance troupe gathers at the gateway and the two horn players pipe up their discordant sound. Soon the group move away from the gate and into the plaza leading the Lama who has just arrived, taking him in a noisy procession around the new monastery thrice and then taking up VIP seats. Speeches start. They go on and on but no one seems to mind. Or to pay attention . People chat away , drink tea, scold toddlers or laugh at the same. Prayer shawls are draped over everyone, ourselves included. As the speeches drone on we decided we have seen enough and that perhaps we had outworn our welcome anyway. It’s been going on 4 hours now. But we are dissuaded by Neema who spots us moving through the crowd, aiming for the track that takes us back down into the village. Naturally we can’t blend in but we do try and stay out of the way of proceedings and remain, lingering near the kitchen.
Without warning two women approach us and press us to sit with the VIPs. We can’t really say no so we do as we are bid, hoping we won’t be asked to do anything – we have no idea what is going on in any event. We are given a small cup of rice filled with dry fruit . Some, myself included eat it but it is probably mostly ceremonial since a lot of it is being thrown around rather than eaten. We are also given sweet tea to drink. After a few speeches Neema, our guest house hostess, but also something of the event organiser today, and related to the Lama , pulls us away. Its now nearly 3pm and she asks if we want lunch. Yes please.
So we follow her to the kitchen where we are served rice and chicken and dahl from huge steaming pots then invited to sit on a raised platform at the back of the shed, for that is what he kitchen really is. A shed with an earthen floor on which there are multiple fires. Walls which are loose slatted to allow the air in and the smoke mostly out. We gladly accept the raised platform offer, for people are coming and going and we need to get out of their way. Monks appear to managing the ceremony by shift and we sit with a handful of them as they take a break. It’s a fascinating place and we continue our people watching. Neema holds court in here as well, directing traffic, commanding which food is to be ladled and from which pot. And making sure we are well fed. She is in her element. We are content to sit still and soak it all in. Kids come and go – they always know where the pickings are! Sad and lonely looking town soaks come in for a feed and are cheerily obliged. Young mothers with toddlers are sent to the front of the line. Everything is served up by a team of rough hewn chaps who are alert to the fires, the pots and the commands of Neema all at once.
We figure we would return to our lodgings after lunch but as we step out of that smokey kitchen-community hub we step into a scene of dancing. We have to stay. Dancing of course is accompanied by ‘mountain tea’ and we are served up a healthy portion of the clear and potent liquid. As if an antidote we are also served milk tea and Kavitha has a shot at some butter tea but that is an acquired taste. It quickly vanished behind the stone wall on which we were sitting. As with all such events everything ends with group photos. It’s bit of a happy shambles but the Lama spots me and calls me over. I expect the gentle head butt greeting but he asks if we can exchange contact details – he would like photos from me. I am of course happy to oblige. The camera can be an effective form of diplomacy.
It turns out that our invitation to the VIP seating was instigated by the Lama. He spotted us and requested we join him. He has a soft spot for foreigners who have largely been behind the funding of this new monastery. He happily made our presence there representative, declaring to the crowd that we represented all the foreign help which had been directed to this community. The ‘first’ monastery burned down recently and its replacement was destroyed by the 2015 earthquake. This, two years in the making, has been a project he has led, but especially the fundraising. Today we are the beneficiaries of the largesse of others.
We finally leave at 1615 but not grudgingly. A hard day sitting about. We walk back through the village, startling a troop of monkeys which have been raising someone’s garden while they were up the hill at the monastery.
Rain, light but steady sets in on sunset creating great and grand atmospherics. I duck back to the monastery to swap those contact details with the Lama but the place is now vacant. Everyone left in order to supervise stock into pens and to cook dinner. And to chase off monkeys I guess. I arrive back at the guest house to discover our hostess Neema is related to the Lama in some way and she has his business card. Problem solved.
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