There is something I find very comforting and mesmerising about chanting monks. From a recording or the distance they sound almost like a drone but up close, their prayers, chants and murmurs can reverberate through your body leaving you feel almost completely at peace.
On our recent trip to Ladakh, we were very kindly invited to breakfast and the morning prayer session at Thikse, one of the larger functioning monasteries of Leh. It isn’t something that is a well known tourist activity. We felt honoured.
Arriving under the blush of a new day, we parked our car and meandered our way up the hill. A few monks were milling around, the early risers. We graciously greeted a senior monk walking towards the prayer hall with a young boy who was one of the youngest monks I’d seen in this part of the world. I’m not sure what the story was behind this little boy but there was something about him that I immediately fell in love with.
As he was the smallest, he was always racing to keep up, stay with the older boys and jump ahead of his time. During prayers he was the first to get clipped around the ears for doing the wrong thing like hiding his Tsampa under his prayer carpet or saying the wrong thing just at the wrong moment. I found myself silently laughing on the inside watching his antics during our trip to Thikse and needless to say, apart from the photograph above, his image is sprinkled through some of my favourite pictures from Thikse.
We finally climbed the stairs to the prayer hall at the top of the monastery. When we arrived, we found several young monks donning their yellow hats and trumpeting ornate horns to call the other resident monks to pray.
They then joined their little friends in actually heralding the start of prayer. This was the first time I’d ever heard monks singing instead of chanting in a monastery. Mesmerised I shot the video below with my phone.
The singing ended just as Mark and I were unlacing our hiking boots to enter the hall. Our friend Nawang ushered us quietly into the main prayer hall richly decorated with carpets and brocade.
And we sat. Occasionally we joined in the prayers but mostly our quiet spot on the guest carpets allowed us to simply and unobtrusively watch. Mornings are a time of reflection for monks and the early sun shining through the windows of Thikse made for wonderful photographs including the image below which is one of my favourites from the entire trip.
There were monks of all ages at Thikse but it was the younger ones like this boy below
who were charged with making Tsampa and tea for breakfast.
in between prayer sessions
Here is a brief clip of the monks chanting in morning prayer.
Thikse reminded me in so many ways of Tibet, except here the Dalai Lama is freely worshipped
under the watchful eyes of Ladakh’s largest Buddha, the 15m high statue of Maitreyi which was given to Ladakh as a gift to celebrate the visit of the Dalai Lama in the year I was born.
Thikse is a functioning monastery that is one of the largest of its kind in Ladakh. The foundations of the monastery were built in the mid 15th century and much of the mural artwork resembles the style in the monasteries we saw in far western Tibet during October 2013. There is a significant Ladakhi influence in the Buddhist symbols that we saw represented at Thikse.
Unlike true Tibetan art, the faces in these images are slightly more pointed and the language slightly different. As I visually scoured the walls trying to digest all of the transcriptions and imagery, I was trying to see if some of the rituals shown in Tibetan murals, the sky burials in particular, were present and I couldn’t find anything depicting that ceremony. When I asked Nawang, he didn’t know much about the concept of sky burials and said that he didn’t know if they had ever occurred in Ladakh. I plan to do some reading about the differences between Tibetan and Ladakhi Buddhist cultures. While so much of what we saw was very similar to Tibet, there were very subtle and uniquely Ladakhi differences in both the monasteries and in the villages. Both places share a wonderful tradition of art and colour in their buildings, costumery and arts – a fantastic response to their somewhat stark and monotone landscapes. The intricacy and colour of the artistry and buildings of Thikse was only rivalled by the exterior of the monastery with its stunning mountain views from its summit position. Climbing the steep stairs (with even steeper risers!) made me feel thankful that we are both tall and took each one in a stride. Reaching the roof of Thikse we were rewarded with this view.
When we finished in the prayer hall and doing our own independent exploration of the monastery taking pics, the monks had adjourned to the kitchen where they offered us warm yak butter tea after we descended from the roof. Based on previous experiences in Tibet, Mark politely declined the tea due to its taste but I tried some. Out of curiosity I wanted to see if it tasted any different from Tibet and it did. I was surprised to find it actually OK to drink! It seemed fresher and less rancid tasting than some yak butter tea that I’ve had in the past. It was lightly salted and creamy. As the vapour from our cups whispered into the cool mountain air, we watched life transpire from our tea drinking vantage point. A monk had already started to clean the morning’s dishes
and another had begun to sweep the public areas of the monastery.
When travelling Mark and I both relish our early morning starts. Perhaps it is because we are both plagued with a worry that we will miss the best time of the day. Before we met we were both the same. Many times in Africa, I would rise just before the sun just to walk and hear the early chorus of birds. So when the invitation came to venture up to Thikse, Mark and I both jumped in and accepted. We were the only tourists there and we communicated with the monks via Nawang, who acted as our interpreter. Luckily the monks blessed us with a virtually free run of Thikse to take photographs, a gesture which I hope to thank them with by sending them printed images that I shot there.
Thikse is a quiet, serene place that I honestly could have stayed in for hours but our day was progressing and as the sun rose higher in the sky, we drove slowly down the hill stopping to take shots of Thikse from various viewpoints on the road back to Leh.
I decided to write my first post on Ladakh about Thikse as I spent quite some time during my twenties reading about Buddhism and its teachings. While I don’t have a religion of my own, I have always been profoundly fascinated by the way that religion shapes cultures. If I ever chose to adhere to any religion I would probably choose Buddhism due to its nature of compassion towards all sentient beings. Visiting Thikse left us both imbued with that sense as we explored both Ladakh and the relationship of its people with their jagged, dramatic mountains. During our trip we were both interviewed by the BBC Natural History unit about how our experiences in Tibet with the conservation of its wildlife compared with our experiences in Ladakh. We both remain hopeful due to our inherent trust of the Buddhist philosophy to nurture all living things, feeding them with kindness and the idea that all beings are equal.
In his Nobel Prize speech in 1989, the Dalai Lama expressed the following wish for the Tibetan Plateau.
While the true wish of the Dalai Lama may never be realised, I encourage anyone visiting Ladakh to take a side trip to Thikse. It is a tiny bastion of peacefulness sequestered on a hillside outside the bustle of Leh. A place to take a moment, absorb life and be at one with some of the most warm, kind, hospitable and spiritual people in the Indus Valley.