Monday, April 17, 2017

#StoriesfromSpiti: Lessons from the La

 (Tenzin Takpa offering his prayers before the pooja)

The atmosphere was electric. A chilling silence had spread across the dimensions of the balcony we were all sitting in. The ladies who were busy buzzing with each other moments earlier had become quiet. Even the cacophonous kids had cleaned up their act. Tenzin Takpa, the village coordinator sat ahead facing me across the Chokse table carved with intricate designs and creatures. He was wearing special robes, his eyes were shut in utmost concentration and his hands are placed firmly around a special vessel made of silver containing Arrack, the local alcohol.

And then suddenly, the air was adrift with the reverberation of the flute, cymbals and the drums. It had begun. Tenzin Takpa started shaking vigorously. His teeth were clattering, the eyes were twitching but were still shut and the hands were still fast around the vessel. Slowly, he raised the vessel and took a sip of Arrack from it and quickly hid behind a colourful veil offered to him. This music which was difficult to comprehend still played.

When he let the veil fall, his eyes were wide open but what looked out of them were only their whites. His irises were gone behind his head. Still trembling, He began murmuring steadily into the ear of the man sitting next to him. Everyone sat there holding their breath.

(Behind the veil.. as men sprinkle red barley grains as the devta descends into the body of the La..)

“What has happened to Tenzin Takpa?” I asked the man sitting next time. “The Devta has gotten into him, he’s not—“  our conversation was broken as the music came to an abrupt end. 

 (And the La comes to life..)

The Devta had begun talking to everyone now. Though it was visible that only a few people understood what he was saying, but it was clear that the Devta was not pleased. His voice was husky, but clear and loud and he was pointing fingers at the people around him while they bowed their heads down or clasped their hands together in submission. Every once in a while he stomped his hand on the Chokse table in visible anger and took a sip of Arrack from his vessel.  After about fifteen minutes of ranting, the Devta mellowed his voice down and began murmuring into the ears of the same man again.

And suddenly, the music was back in the air. The Devta had closed his eyes again; the silver vessel was back on chokse with his hands wound around it. He began shuddering again, the expression on his face changing with every note of music and then all of a sudden, he swished his hands into the air and opened his eyes. His irises were back. Tenzin Takpa was back. He looked around inquisitively, then got up, undid the robes and went outside as if nothing had happened. Everybody on the balcony began to relax. The ceremony was almost over. 

The man who was sitting next to the Tenzin Takpa through the ceremony got up and started talking to the people around. He looked like he was translating what the Devta had said moments before. The people most of whom were ladies listened to him attentively.  As he finished with his translation, one of the ladies got up and put forth an argument which was passionately scrutinized and debated upon. Finally, when everything was settled, tea was served and everyone got back to their chattering and kids resumed their cacophonies.  The Devta Pooja was over for the day. 

(The La expresses his dismay to the villagers..)

The fact that Demul Devta was upset with people was not hidden from anyone in Demul, not even from outsiders like me. I had come to know that every village in Spiti has its Devta(s); local deities who reside in the various Langs or temples in the village and they have resided in these temples even before the advent of Buddhism in the valley. It is believed that the Devtas watch over the villages and people. It’s the Devtas who bring good snow, rains, ensure good harvest and cure people who are ill or spiritually lost. The Devtas also guide people regarding how they should live their lives. It’s also believed that the Devtas are very temperamental and expect constant appeasement and devotion from their subjects; the village people. The Devta Pooja is held every month wherein, The Devtas descend into the village and manifest themselves in human form by possessing a chosen person who is called the La. Tenzin Takpa is Demul’s La and he will remain so until his death. The La when possessed starts speaking in a language in Bhoti, an ancient Tibetan language which he doesn’t know or understand otherwise. The person who sits next to him through the ceremony is well versed in Bhoti and thus acts an interpreter and translator for the Devta

The ceremony that had taken place that morning was actually supposed to take place in the evening before but at the last moment, it was declared that the Devta was upset.  One of the elder women told me that the Devta was upset because the villagers didn’t pay attention when he declared his arrival. Ignorance was a pretty serious offence in the eyes of the Devta. 

It is still not clear to me how the villagers appeased him for the ceremony next day but He didn’t shy away from expressing his dismay in front of the people. The reverence that He holds among the villagers was evident in their submission to His preaching which most of them didn’t even understand initially.  

I’ve never been a firm believer of these rituals. The supernatural had never appealed to me before that day. This half an hour ceremony changed everything. It didn’t turn me into a believer, but witnessing the whole thing left me enchanted and I learnt that there are many things beyond our personal and interpersonal understandings and one does not need to believe in things and ideas to respect them. The devotion and regret that the villagers displayed at the La’s sermon and his dismay had something very powerful about it and later on when I learnt the reason behind the Devta’s dismay left me spellbound. 

(Here’s the La is being felicitated by the interpreter/translator. The silver vessel containing Arrack, the smaller vessel containing Yak butter and the peacock feathers are the special offerings offered by the villagers)

The Devta is worshipped as the one who guides people when they lose their way and according to him, they had indeed lost their way when they allowed vices like jealously and ignorance seep into their lives. He reminded the people that it has been togetherness that has guided me through thick and thin in this land. He asked them how they could let jealously of material things like money and possessions threaten this togetherness. He also reminded them that no material possession can ever replace the bonds made and deepened over Arrack and Chaccha(Spitian butter tea).

(Arrack is an essential offering. :))

I confirmed it with two people in the village and immediately felt subtly humbled.

The monthly ceremony continued for the next three days and on the second day, even the Langza Devta arrived. Langza actually means Abode of gods, and the Langza Devta is worshipped as the supreme healer in the villages. I was there at almost all the poojas and also had my sins purified at one occasion. 

I still can’t say exactly if I believe in the La and this tradition. Sometimes when I remember those transient eyes emanating only the whites looking into my own, I feel that they could look right inside me and it still gives me chills when I think of those moments and sometimes I stupidly try scaling it with logical. But I know one thing for sure now and that is I deeply respect this ancient tradition and the belief that people have in this system. And if a system helps people contemplate, introspect and shed a poisonous malice like jealousy, I believe there can be nothing better for a society. :)

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