Salvation made simple
Oct 31 2013
We spend a day at Phyang village in Ladakh where the lamas perform an annual prayer and dance ritual
For a closer look into the lives of locals, I had been trying to include a festival in my Ladakh itinerary. And that was how we landed up at Phyang, a village with around 500 houses but one tourist accommodation: the Hidden North Guest House run by Tashi Lonchey and his Italian wife, Cristina Martinelli.
It was the festival eve. Gang Ngonpo, the blue mountain, and the snow-covered Stok Kangri peak beyond it were being bathed in a soft twilight. The roughly 600-year-old monastery was perched on a hilltop. The village lay at its base with one and two-storeyed houses amid waves of green and yellow fields broken up by zigzagging knee-high borders made of rounded boulders. A nameless tokpo, or river, gurgled past the fields.
Phyang seemed an Eden in the rugged, ruthless terrain that defines most of Ladakh. But a conversation with Cristina revealed the fragility of this Eden. The tremendous cloudburst that hit Ladakh in 2010 had caused massive landslides in Phyang, too. Nature’s fury had torn through the original Hidden North Guest House building like it was a pack of cards. A devastated Cristina thought she would lose the fragile life pulsating in her womb. But her son survived, and is called Tashi Namgyal: Tashi, the lucky one, and Namgyal, the victorious one. The guest house was rebuilt, this time at a higher spot.
It is no wonder then, that people who face such hardship would place their faith in the gods for peace and happiness. So, as in other monasteries in Ladakh, the lamas of Phyang Monastery too perform an annual, week-long puja, and chaam (masked) dances.
When we walked into the sunny courtyard of the monastery the next morning, it was teeming with locals and foreign tourists. Senior lamas sat on the porch in traditional red and gold attire and headgear, playing drums and cymbals and chanting from scripts. A huge and beautiful thang ka, or a scroll depicting Skyabje Jigten Gombo, the founder of the Dringungpa monastic order, was unveiled with great religious fervour. This is exhibited once in three years: in the years of the pig, the snake and the monkey of the Tibetan calendar. Soon, lamas poured into the courtyard wearing multi-hued silk robes and green, brown, red, white, yellow and orange masks. Armed with little swords or a bow and an arrow, they slowly gyrated to the beat of the drums. It was a mystic, layered narrative, the significance of which seemed lost on most of the local and foreign audience.
So, between dances, we connected with Lama Namgyal, one of the monastery seniors, for enlightenment. “In Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, Mahakala and Mahakali are symbolic of the Yin and the Yang,” he said. “We represent Mahakala in the green or brown mask and Mahakali in red.” The white masked dancer symbolised a Dakini, once a female spirit, now considered a protecting deity, and the ones in orange and yellow masks were her assistants.
“After death,” Lama Namgyal said, “Gods may come to rescue our spirits from parlok, the other world. But if we are not sure of what they look like, we might run away in fright.” So, this annual dance-drama tradition where the village gets a two-day crash course to know the gods they would meet in the afterlife.
Salvation made simple or not, the rainbow-burst of twirling dancers sure was a photographer’s nirvana.