I wanted to go to Kibber in search of some wildlife especially birds. The region around Kibber and Chicham is known to hold a great diversity of birds. So I tagged along a group of 5 people who had come to build a mud solar cooker in Demul village. They were going to visit Kee and Kibber for the day. Kee was a welcome addition, I had thought to myself before we left Kaza.
It was good to come back to the monastery after my first visit in July’15. I was in no rush to take pictures, so while everyone else spread out exploring the complex and taking pictures, I sat down beside a monk(Lama) who had covered his head with his robes to avoid the heat. He looked like a boy of my age and was unusually quiet and paid no heed to either the tourists or his fellow monks who were busy debating upon some issue
I mustered some courage and asked “min la chi serta?”(what is your name?)
“Tenzin Rangdol” he replied. “aapko humari bhasha aati hai?” he added. (Do you know our language?)
“Yes, a little bit” I replied. “Khamzang yo tah?” I added, flaunting my broken Spitian.
“Too crowded isn’t it?”
“Yes, we have so many tourists coming in the summers---“
He was interrupted in the middle by a younger lama who had mischief written on his face.
“Iska naam Jaffer Singh hai!!!” The little lama declared and left with his food bowl in his hands.
“hahaha, aapka naam Jaffer singh kaise padd gya?”
Tenzin just laughed. We talked for some time before he left for lunch and I reluctantly joined the cooker group and proceeded towards Kibber.
Kibber with its neat white and red houses fitted with square windows looked beautiful as ever but it was also crowded as ever.
Jaffer Singh was still fresh in my mind and I wanted to meet him again and know why he was called Jaffer Singh. In Spiti, there’s a tradition that in every family, the second male child has to become a monk and t I had come by this fact very recently and every once in a while I wondered how the child would feel when suddenly, he would have to give up his normal life and adopt a life which was altogether different. I had become friends with this kid who was going to become a lama soon. This one kid who was so utterly free, his hands face and clothes all soiled with mud and an ever present smirk concealing his naughtiness. Someday he would have to give up the muddy clothes, wash his hands and face and shed all the naughtiness and adopt a disciplined life, forever. All at the tender age of 9 or 10? Was this tradition in some ways arbitrary or forceful? What if the boy wanted to become something else? I was told monks could stop being monks if they wanted, but was it that easy?
I wanted to go back to Kee gompa and maybe spend a day or two there talking to Tenzin Rangdol about anything and everything. I wanted to know him. So I shunned Kibber and returned to the Gompa. The Kee gompa offers basic accommodation and food to visitors who sought an insight into the monastic way of life at a nominal cost of 250rs/day(They even give a receipt!) So by the end that day, I found myself washing kitchen utensils with Jaffer Singh and 3 other lamas of his age. There were no visiting tourists except for the ones like me who had stayed back, so the gompa complex held an unusual silence. One could hear the faint reverberation of Spiti River flowing in the valley below.
Tenzin was pleasantly surprised to see me and after the dinner at 6pm, all of us had sat down washing the dishes and we got talking. ☺
He had been nicknamed Jaffer Singh by other monks because Wasim Jaffer is his favourite cricketer.Twenty one years old Tenzin who hails from the village of Losar became a lama when was only 9 and he’s been living in the gompa ever since only going back home during holidays and special occasions.
As a monk he wakes up at 6am every day. From 6 to 8am, he studies the teachings from the previous day. At about 7:30am every day, the breakfast conch is sounded, the monks then assemble together for the Morning Prayer and after the prayer, a simple breakfast of Tea and Sattu is served. From 9-10am, he attends a class on Buddhist philosophy. One of the most interesting features of the Buddhist academics at Kee gompa is debating, from 11-12 in the morning, they engage in fierce debates on issues and the principles they are taught and one can hear them taunt each other with ‘So che!’(What happened? Answer quickly) at every silence pause. Lunch is served at 12pm after which the he can relax for 2 hours before another session of debate from 2 to 3:30pm. The classes are resumed at 4 during which various languages like Tibetan and Bhoti and subjects like history and English grammar are taught. The dinner conch is sounded at 6pm after which it’s time for the evening prayer. Then he chills for some time and before going to bed at 10pm, he revises what all happened during the day. On Sundays, he gets to sleep until 10am and can even watch cricket and WWE on TV with other lamas.
“Do you like being a lama?” I ask as we take a stroll near the hostel quarters the next day at the sunrise.
“Of course. It’s a privilege that not everyone gets. People look up to the monks and monasteries and call us during festivals, poojas and even in times of distress. The reverence we get is heartwarming. Apart from that there is so much to learn and we are devoid of material tensions like marriage, kids, money job etc”
“How did it feel like when you became a lama at the tender age of 9?
“At first, it is always difficult coming to a new place, adopting a different life altogether but once you settle down into the routine, its okay. This life looks plain but it has a lot to offer. They are so many books and subjects I can learn about!”
“What’s the one bad thing about this life?”
“Expectations. When I go out in Kaza and other places, people expect us to wear my robes everywhere all the time. For them, it’s not good for a lama to wear normal civilian clothes even during holidays. Sometimes these expectations seem too much” He remarks.
“How do you feel about the mammoth number of tourists coming to the gompa every time?”
“It’s nice. They get to see how we live and how our beautiful our home is. Most people who come here are good but sometimes some people come who are too conceited. They make noises and click pictures even inside the prayer room. They have no regard for the monastery and even the monks”
and then, I asked the question which I wanted to ask the most.
“What would you do if you get to leave this life today and go out in the world?”
He paused for a moment and then began..
“I think I would like to explore the world. Beyond the walls of this monastery, there are so many places with different languages, different histories, different food and different people. There is so much literature to read and understand. The monastery is like a world here and outside there is another world which I have never seen but I would never want to leave this life behind simply because it defines who I am, it gives me an identity...”
It was a spellbinding answer. So profound in its depth. I looked at him as he was mimicking a cricket stroke with his hands unaware of the Goosebumps he’d given me.
“I would like to take some pictures of you, only if you are comfortable with it!” I said.
“Why not? You are my friend” He said.
(Meet Tenzin Rangdol a.k.a Jaffer Singh; The explorer. ☺)
He told me that it was a special day. A contingent of monks was going up to the highland village of Gette to perform a small pooja and replace the old prayers flags on the chortens with new ones and I could join them if they had a seat. “You’ll find a lot of birds up there” Tenzin had added.
I didn’t get a seat in the sumo going up, so I decided to walk up the trail behind the gompa which lead to the village. Later in the day, I came across three new species of birds, two of which had been my target when I had thought of going to Kibber. On the way back, I took a short break when I spotted my favorite bird! The Golden Eagle! Jaffer Singh’s golden words echoed in my mind. ‘You’ll find a lot of birds up there’ and I couldn’t help reminiscing his answer to the last question. It was the kind of answer which resonated with something that is inside all of us and was reflected in the very spirit of travelling if one looked at it closely. The longing to know what lies beyond.
(“In this place where time stands still, it seems everything is moving. Including me.”- Heinrich Harrer, Seven years in Tibet)
I remembered my last visit to Kee in July’15 when I had merely ‘done’ it like they generally ‘do’ Kee and Kibber together.
Step 1: Stop at the Kee village and click a picture of the gompa with its fort-like structure towering above the village. ‘View of Kee monastery for Kee village’
(Step 2: Enter the monasteries and be stupefied the uniformity of the maroon robes adorned by the monks of all ages. Take pictures of cute little monks with their sun burnt cheeks and curious gaze. (I once saw a group of 5 photographers clicking pictures of a same little monk from every possible angle, while all that the kid wanted to do was to rush for the dinner)
No pictures are allowed in the prayer hall. Sad. So we move on to the next step.
Step 3: Step onto the roof of the gompa for ‘View from the roof of Key Monastery pictures’
Anyone can do that right? There will be people who will take better pictures than you too.
But..When you go there, sit down and talk to the 350 lamas who call the monastery their home, when their stories come flowing in like butterflies in flower fields and you talk to them about anything and everything; from marriage to climate change, you make memories which can be never photographed yet can never be forgotten because they are discretely yours. I still remember the moment when Tenzin had said “You are my friend” and my heart warms up inexplicably. Photographs freeze moments but these memories can never been frozen, they always stay alive. You always remember the little details. And you don’t need to spend a day to experience the magic, you just have to be a human and say ‘Julley!’
Moments like these shoo the morning chill away in a moment. These little lamas while on their way to the dinner hall spotted a newly emerged colony of ants on the stairs. For some time they stood their heads craned into the movements of the ants, then one lama did something amazing, he started collecting small rocks lying nearby. The other lamas followed suit. I knew what they were going to do. The brought the rocks and placed them around the ant colony in a conspicuous manner and climbed up. All life is precious. ☺
(Little lamas chanting the Morning Prayer in collective symphony before the breakfast. Yes, their dining hall humbly sits in the lap of mother nature ☺ )
If you go there and ask a random monk for a picture, he will not refuse. You will get a cute picture, but will it be a genuine memory for you?
DSLRs are scary things and they generally scare people when they are uninitiated. Photo enthusiasts often believe that better cameras yield better pictures, technically yes, they do but until and unless you make a real connection with the person ahead of camera, a photo can never become memorable. The camera is only a tool. The eyes do the job.
Tenzin Rangdol looked into my eyes when I clicked his picture.
Story by Purvash Jha. Purvash volunteered with Ecosphere in June 2016.
Believe me Purvash, each and every experience of yours narrated here is a delight to read. Magic.