Repost – A Day In Ladakh

As promised, I’m putting up an old post on India. This one I originally posted just over five years ago, so you might not have read it.

Wednesday 13th April 2005

This morning, there is a clear blue sky, with just a couple of clouds sitting on top of the Stok Mountain Range. It doesn’t seem quite as cold in the morning as it has been recently.

I go for breakfast at the Budoshah. I don’t really know why I eat here (I certainly don’t always), unless it’s because the morning sun warms the corner that I’m sitting in. I’m the only person here and when I walk in, the waiter always seems frightened to see customers. When I’m eventually given a menu (and everything is always ‘off’ – it’s a Kashmiri restaurant, so two thirds of their dishes are chicken or mutton. The day before yesterday, people were being told ‘no chicken no mutton’.), I ask for scrambled eggs on toast.

I’m told no, they can’t do it. Fried, boiled or omelette, yes. But the cook obviously can’t scramble them.

And black coffee.

‘Pot?’

How big is the pot? I ask.

‘Ah…I get one’. He disappears back into the kitchen, never to return. I sit back and contemplate the Ladakh Mountains in the sunshine, prayer flags waving lazily beside the temple. With luck, it will be another warm day. I think I’ll catch a bus to Thikse Gompa.

My coffee arrives. In a glass.

The toast arrives with heart-stopping chunks of Ladakhi butter – like everything here that calls for butter. I thought at first that it must be cheese. It seems to be the Ladakhi/Tibetan way. I made a mistake and had a cheese sandwich the other day – the cheese is just like butter, so you can imagine what it was like for my poor western tastebuds. I had to scrape most of it off.

leh street

It’s 12.45, and I’m sitting on a rock in hot sunshine at the foot of Thikse Gompa. The bus ride here was remarkable (and where else in India would you find that the driver would wait a few minutes whilst a passenger nipped off the bus to buy some bread?). All the way here, we passed through this wonderful desert scenery, with fairy-tale castles and palaces and the like clinging precariously to the tops of cliffs.

The Ladakhi buses are like all Indian buses, though. Today’s had plenty of pictures inside and on the windscreen (The Dalai Lama, Buddha, etc.), two vases of flowers and a fancy piece of wooden scrollwork on the dashboard, and several drawers incorporated into this.

At the moment I’m having my apricot and water lunch to the accompaniment of drumming in the background; a ritual going on somewhere. There are so many gompas here, and every private house performs their own pujas, that it could be coming from anywhere.

We passed through Shey on the way here. More of this tomorrow, I think. I intend to spend the day there.

I ‘strolled’ up to the gompa, and was shown around by a monk. We chatted in a mixture of Ladakhi, Hindi and English. He is a Ladakhi, in fact all of the monks here are. There are no Tibetans. In fact, despite the large Tibetan population here, he says that there are only two monasteries with Tibetan Lamas.

Untitled-TrueColor-01

We watched a group of young monks kicking around a football, a hundred metres or more below us.

Do families still send one son to be trained as a monk?

No, but there are still many coming.

I was first shown the giant statue of Maitreya Buddha, which is fairly modern, then the fourteenth century gompa, which is very dark and unlit, which made it difficult to properly see the wealth of thankas and statuary. I had to tell him about my family, job and anything else he could think of. That was quite hard going, and I don’t think we totally managed to get through. A pigeon flew into the gompa and started a discussion (not literally, you understand). In Ladakhi, pigeon is (I think) Po-ro, fairly onomatopoeic. In Arabic, I told him, it’s Bulbul, also onomatopoeic. Possibly it is the same in Hindi and Urdu.

Untitled-Scanned-01

Back for tea and a bucket shower.

Later, I’m walking around the market. How strange to go around market stalls and shops in India, not getting pressured and hassled at all. At times it seems almost unreal. You wonder whether suddenly it’s all going to crash around you and normal India will be resumed as soon as possible. The longer that you spend here, the more laid back you become. I don’t think you can help it! Everyone strolls around smiling and Julay-ing you and each other. I know that Ladakhis consider it the height of bad manners ever to lose one’s temper, but it really does seem unreal. I think it would be easy to just sink into the ambience of it all and find you’d suddenly missed your flight out and had overstayed by weeks, or months…

Andrew Harvey said, and I’ll have to paraphrase because I can’t remember the exact quote, ‘The wonder of Leh is that there is absolutely nothing to do. Nothing to do except slow down, switch off and just observe. Just be.’ I understand that, now. I realise that that is what I have been doing the last few days without realising it.

trees

I had Phung Sha and rice for supper at the Amdo -a Tibetan dish. It is a sort of thick vegetable stew, which I shall certainly have again.

I have always wanted to read Rumi, the thirteenth century Persian mystic and poet, and I picked up a copy today from the little bookshop. I am now wrapped up in my blanket reading it by the light of my candles.

Downstairs, my hostess is singing again. Last night, I tiptoed out to the landing to listen to her singing what I was told this morning were Ladakhi folksongs, and I creep out again to listen now.

This time it’s ‘Bob the Builder’.

A Little Village in Northern India…

Having bludgeoned all my readers with posts about Making Friends with the Crocodile recently, I thought it would be only fair to share a few pictures of villages in Northern India for the benefit of those who have not been there. It gives a flavour of the (fictitious) village I write about in the novel.

IMG_0022a

Village street

IMG_0021

Pigs foraging on waste ground

img_0027

Morning

img_0016

Farm

hindu-temples-panorama

Hindu Temple

dawn-panorama

Sunrise

img_0022

Village outskirts

IMG 2

Hi jinks during the festival of Holi

img_0026

Goats at rest

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal – 3

At Manang, we pitched our tents on the flat roofs of the buildings…

IMG_0028

…essentially, it is the only flat area in the village that doesn’t either have someone living on it or crops growing on it.

 

IMG_0029

A Buddhist temple in Manang. We took care to visit the priest and receive his blessing for the crossing of the pass in a few days time. The high pass- Thorung La – is at 5416m and  is the highest pass in the world, and who knows what the weather and fate might decide to throw at us.

 

IMG_0030

A view of Annapurna I (I think!) from Manang. Annapurna I is the tenth highest mountain in the world, but also one of the most dangerous. The reason for my uncertainty is that the route of the trek takes us around some twenty or so peaks, including Annapurnas I – IV, Gangapurna, Tara Kang and Khangsar Kang, all of which can be seen from the Manang part of the trail.

 

IMG_0031

Nomadic herders’ camp above Ledar, at about 4300m. Theirs is not an easy life.

 

IMG_0032

Bridge across the Khone Khola, near where we camped before crossing the pass. The bridge is covered to protect it from snowfall.

 

IMG_0033

The porters at Thorung Phedi, where we camped before crossing the pass.

 

IMG_0034

A couple of hours later…

 

IMG_0035

We were snowed in the next day (and you can get very bored stuck in a tent for a day), but the following day we set off at dawn to cross the pass (Note the small figures passing the first rock).

 

IMG_0036

Some of the rocky, icy, snowy, lumpy bits beside us as we crossed the pass.

 

IMG_0011

After several hours hard slog through the snow, and the pass crossed, we began descending the western side down towards the village of Muktinath.

Southern India (2)

trichy skyline 2

Another shot of the skyline of Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Trichy.

trichy temple door

Decorated door in the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple.The scorch marks at the foot of the door are from candles and incense sticks, which have been lit and offered to the god in pujas.

shore temple

Shore Temple, Mamallapuram. Mamallapuram is a short way South of Chennai (Madras) and is a large village which is home to hundreds of stone sculptors. The village itself has a wealth of old temples and sculptures in the form of friezes and ‘Rathas’ – literally chariots, carved out of solid rock. The Shore Temple shown here has been extensively weathered by wind and sea, but has a remarkable amount of detail still preserved.

5 rathas elephant

Carved Elephant at the 5 Rathas, Mamallapuram. An incredible complex of rock-cut temples from the Pallavan Period, 300m from the shore. They were buried under the sand until rediscovered and excavated by the British some 200 years ago.

side street

Sometimes it seems that there is a temple down every side-street. This one is in a village near the town of Dindigul, Tamil Nadu.

roof shrine

This roof shrine is nearby.

salt-workers

Salt workers pose for a photograph at the salt pans near Marakkanam, just north of Pondicherry (now renamed Puducherry, its original name before the French arrived). The sea is allowed to flow into ‘pans’ (not unlike paddy fields!) and then evaporates over several days under the hot sun, leaving behind a layer of salt which is gathered by hand. Salt has been gathered this way in India from time immemorial, but when the British in India imposed a salt tax, this eventually led to the ‘Salt March’ led by Gandhi, where he symbolically gathered salt at the coast after a 200km march, an action that contributed to the loosening of the hold that the British Raj held on India.

Southern India (1)

Southern India differs from the north in several respects. The first difference that the visitor tends to notice, once they have got away from the typical Indian maelstrom of airport, traffic, city centre, etc, is that with the less densely concentrated population comes a somewhat more laid-back atmosphere and attitude than in the north. The hassles and pressures, the touts, are still there, but seem somehow less intense.

The second real difference is in the culture. Southern India was never really assimilated into the Mogul empire, and only ever partly conquered, so there is a huge wealth of Hindu architecture and a proportional lack of Islamic, with next to no Buddhist remains and no continuing tradition of Buddhism at all. At times, it seems as though the visitor has entered a different country, but India has a way of reasserting itself on the senses…

trichy stall

Stall outside Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tiruchirappalli (Trichy), Tamil Nadu State. All over India, amongst the heat, dust and drabness that pervades the majority of the population’s day to day life, one finds colour.

trichy garland seller

Garland seller outside Rock Fort Temple complex, Trichy. The garlands will be used to decorate statues of gods during pujas (ceremonies) conducted in the Temples.

rock fort temple

Rock Fort temple, Trichy.  A view of the main temple from the pathway that leads to the tiny temple at the top of the rock. Non Hindus are not allowed into the main temple, dedicated to Shiva, or the temple at the top dedicated to Ganesh…although for a small donation, the priest is willing to waive this rule…

From my journal:

‘The trip is not particularly uncomfortable. It is a typical five hour trip through India – dust, buffaloes, half a dozen schoolchildren stuffed into an autorickshaw, wait-till-the-other-guy-blinks over-taking, temples large, medium and small, huge dry river beds, The Cauvery full of water, trees, strange crops, broken down trucks, train lines stretching arrow-straight into the distance, rows and rows of stalls with neat piles of fruit and vegetables, rows of hanging water bottles from the roof, biscuits, samozas, cigarettes and crisps, a child squatting in the dirt, mum feeding the family beneath the tree, Tiffin Ready signs, smart petrol stations, mud huts, cement buildings, palm shacks, huge residences surrounded by high walls – all concrete, police traffic blocks (ignored), it all blurs into one.’

trichy temple 2

Part of Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple complex. This is the largest of all temple complexes in India, covering a staggering 60 hectares, and is dedicated to Vishnu. The Gopuram (tower) on the left is painted white, as a symbol of purity, and is one of the buildings that non-hindus are not permitted to enter.

white goporam trichy

The White gopuram, in all its glory.

trichy puja 2

Pillar in Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, liberally decorated with coloured powders and with offerings of incense, rice and flowers. Devotees of the god concerned will conduct their own personal pujas to ensure health and prosperity, or perhaps for some more specific purpose, such as to request the birth of a son or success in a particular undertaking. Although this temple is dedicated to Vishnu, other gods are represented there and prayed to.

trichy puja 1

Another, nearby, pillar in the same temple. Although in the same temple and close to the pillar in the previous picture, this shrine will be to another, different, god. Its use, however, will be the same.

Virtually at Everest – part 2

Part 2 of my virtual trek to Virtual Everest Base Camp, undertaken while my foot is all sympathy-inducing-poorly. Part 1 can be found here

It was interesting watching Bob haggle with our taxi driver, but annoying to have to spend so long finding another taxi. Still, we reached Swayambunath eventually, and began the long climb up the steps towards the temple complex. As usual, we were surrounded by monkeys hoping for tidbits and just generally getting in everyone’s way.

239a

‘Oh, aren’t they cute!’ exclaimed Bob, reaching out to stroke one.

‘I wouldn’t,’ I warned him.

‘Oh, why not?’

‘Well, possibly rabies, for a start.’

We were seated in a taxi heading back towards Thamel inside half a minute.

‘For the last time,’ I said, exasperated, if you just leave them alone they won’t be a problem.’

‘But you said they had rabies!’

‘I only said possibly. It’s fairly unlikely, actually. You just have to be…careful.’

‘Well, you said!’ He folded his arms and stared sulkily out of the window. ‘I don’t think I want to do any more sightseeing!’

He brightened up when we got to the hotel and it was time to pay for the taxi. The driver had asked for 200 rupees when he picked us up, and I had just nodded at him, while Bob crammed himself into the back of the taxi, casting nervous looks outside all the time.

But now Bob decided it was time to haggle. I watched them for a moment, then went to get a drink in the garden. Bob joined me about ten minutes later.

‘What did you pay?’

‘Three hundred,’ he said, triumphantly.

I left him at the hotel and went off for a couple of hours, wandering around the backstreets taking a few photos, visiting shops and cafes, and generally building up my strength for an evening of Bob’s company.

But, in the event, he wasn’t too bad. He seemed to take a liking to the Nepalese beer, and was delighted to find he could get pizza in the hotel restaurant. We had quite a pleasant evening, and turned in early since the following day would be busy.

After breakfast, we walked out into Thamel. I had planned to indulge myself by taking the bus up to Jiri, a trip of one day, and then walking from there, which adds an extra week onto the trek, but is very much off the beaten track as far as regular trekkers go, but since I now had Bob with me, I supposed we’d have to fly into Lukla like everyone else, and leave the Jiri leg of it until another virtual time.

The first thing to do, though, was get him kitted up. Fearing the worst, I asked him what clothes he’d brought with him.

‘T-shirts, shorts, sandals.’

‘Is that it?’

‘Oh, I’ve also got a sunhat!’

‘Right, you’ll need quite a bit, then.’ There are scores of shops selling all sorts of outdoor clothing in Thamel, and I wasn’t worried about being able to find what we wanted. What did worry me slightly, was that Bob is quite tall, and he is also somewhat overweight. The average Nepali is neither, and my fears that the clothing could be a little on the small side for Bob were soon borne out. By lunchtime Bob was the proud owner of some very smart looking trekking trousers that came down no lower than his shins, and a couple of jackets that came down just to the top of his trousers, and the sleeves of which were a good six inches too short.

Still, he seemed happy enough.

‘How are the shoes, Bob?’

‘Well, a little tight, but they’ll do. It’ll only be for a few days, anyway. It was a good idea of yours to cut the holes in the toes.’

‘Um. Well, no one seemed to have anything your size, Bob. Think of them as a type of, er, mountain sandal. And…a few days? No, the trek takes a couple of weeks.’

‘Weeks? I need to get back for work!’

‘Oh, that’s okay. You needn’t come with me. You can stay here at the hotel and then get your flight home.’ He stared at me in a way that made me feel wretched. ‘Look, I’ll change your flight,’ I said at last.

‘Can you do that?’

‘Yes, it’s my virtual trip, this, so I suppose I can.’

I changed his flight, and then booked us both on a flight up to Lukla. The next morning, we were at the airport ready to fly up into the mountains.

‘Is that what we’re flying on?’

Personally, I love the little twin engine planes that do this journey, and hundreds like it all around the Himalaya, but Bob declared he’d only feel safe on a ‘proper aircraft’ – in other words a jet liner.

‘They can’t land in the tiny airfield where we’re going, Bob.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, it’s, as I said, tiny.’

‘Oh.’

110

He was airsick all the way.

Thank heavens it was virtual sick.

Kathmandu, Nepal

How on earth have I managed to blog for almost a year, now, and still not put up a single post on Nepal? I think I’d better put that right immediately.
I’m going to start with a selection of pictures from Kathmandu, capital of Nepal.
All of these pictures were taken before the dreadful earthquakes of last year, and I do know that some of the buildings in these pictures (especially in Durbar Square) were sadly destroyed.

015a.jpg

The entrance to Swayambunath. Swayambunath is the main Tibetan Buddhist site of Kathmandu. Sitting on top of a hill overlooking Kathmandu, it comprises temples, stupas and various other buildings, including a couple of Hindu shrines. Here, a Hindu holy man lurks in ambush, ready to dab a tikka mark on the forehead of (especially) western tourists and demand rupees for the privilege.

 

038.JPG

The sacred and the secular at Swayambunath. In Nepal, as in India, it is almost impossible to visit a religious site without Mammon getting a good look in. Here, in the main Buddhist site of Kathmandu, everything from yak bells to masks.

 

034a
‘One day, my boy, all this will be yours’ – just as long as you have enough money and all the time in the world to bargain hard. More shops – seriously colourful, seriously prepared to sell you anything. And having said that, the hard sell is a world removed from India. It almost feels as though there is no pressure at all. In Nepal, you feel you can relax again, especially if you have just travelled there from India.
056.JPG

Nuns lighting butter lamps beneath a row of prayer wheels at Swayambunath.

030a

Hindu puja at Swayambunath. Probably a private ceremony at the request of the beneficiary, either for good luck in general or with a particular goal in mind (e.g. birth of a son, successful business venture.)

 

031b
Portrait of a Hindu lady.
057

Tourist shop in the Swayambunath complex.
100

Buildings in Durbar Square. Durbar (or ‘Palace’) Square is the heart of the old town and the area where the Kings used to live in the 18th and 19th centuries. In contrast to Swayambunath, this area is entirely Hindu, reflecting the vast majority of the lowland Nepali population.

102a

Side street in Thamel, Kathmandu. The lovely old buildings…beautiful wood carvings…collapsing brickwork…wiring all over the place…speed…calm…old and new…………the only things I can’t bring you are the sounds and smells…you must imagine them for yourselves. Coming soon, scratch and sniff websites!!!

 

098

Bicycle rickshaws awaiting customers in Durbar Square.

 

067b

Balloon seller and hopeful customer, Durbar Square.

 

070

Kala Bhairab – an image of Shiva in his most fearsome aspect. Wearing a garland of skulls, the six armed Kala Bhairab tramples a corpse, symbolic of ignorance. Carved originally from a single stone, it was set up by Pratap Malla, king in the 17th century. He was a pious Hindu, but interested in the arts and tolerant of other religions. He even restored much of Buddhist Swayambunath. It is said that telling a lie while standing before Kala Bhariab will bring instant death. It was once used as a form of trial by ordeal.

 

img
Pashupatinath, on the Eastern side of Kathmandu, is the holiest of the Hindu sites in the city. It is the temple of Shiva, on the Bagmati river and hence it includes the ghats, the most widely used place of cremation for Hindus in Kathmandu, indeed, in Nepal.

Kandy and Environs

A few pictures from Sri Lanka, today. I have only had the pleasure of one visit there so far, but it is another place that I should like an opportunity of returning to at some point. These ones are all from the time that we spent around Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city up in the hills of the Central Province, and which enjoys a much cooler climate than that down in Colombo.

106a

On the bus to Lankatilake. Like most of the rest of the Indian subcontinent, the cabs and interiors of buses, taxis and lorries in Sri Lanka tend to be dedicated to placating whichever deities preside over traffic accidents and mishaps. The majority in Sri lanka, like this one, are Buddhist.

082

Lankatilake Buddhist temple, some 10km SW of Kandy. The temple also has a Hindu shrine incorporated in it.

094

Inside the Buddhist shrine.

093

Bodhi tree at Lankatilake temple. Bodhi trees are to be found at all Buddhist temples, and are all descendants of the tree that the Buddha achieved enlightenment beneath, 2500 years ago at Bodhgaya, Northern India. Properly, they are Sal or Neem trees. Only the ones descended from the original Bodhi tree are called Bodhi trees.

098

Lotus flower in the tank at Lankatilake. As in India, ‘tank’ refers to any artificially created body of water, from temple pools all the way up to reservoirs.This tank is a small, circular construction, and can be seen on the left in the photo of Lankatilake above. With its roots in the mud, its stem growing through the water and its beautiful flower in the air, The lotus has special significance to Buddhists – it represents the true nature of beings, who rise through samsara (the suffering of this world) into the beauty and clarity of enlightenment.

096

Hindu temple entrance at Lankatilake.

095

Dagoba at Lankatilake. ‘Dagoba’ is the name used in Sri Lanka for the structures known elsewhere as pagodas. They are usually built around a holy relic of some sort.

063

Here in this shop in Kandy, you can get postcards and masks, false teeth and gramophone needles, shoes and Buddhas, elephants and exhortations to love Jesus. Something for everyone, really.

200a

The Departure Board at Kandy station. We were waiting for the 3pm train to Colombo, departing from platform 3.

 

119

Beautifully carved and painted ceilings in the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy.

123

Entrance to the shrine room, Temple of the Tooth.

134

Moonstone, Temple of the Tooth. A moonstone is a richly carved stone, frequently placed at the bottom of a flight of steps. It is semi-circular in shape.

127

Door, Temple of the Tooth.