A higher calling

Every year, Buddhists gather in the Himalayan foothills to celebrate the birth of a special guru. Adrian Hamilton joins the throngs in Ladakh
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The Independent Travel

We arrived at Leh airport, flying high over the Himalayan and Zanskar mountain ranges and banking steeply into the Indus valley, to be greeted by the most exotic and relaxed reception committee I've ever seen: a double line of monks and villagers either side of a steep road. The monks were dressed in great red and yellow hats, with cymbals, conches and trumpets. The ladies had high top-hats wrapped in devotional white silk scarves and long headdresses studded with hundreds of turquoise stones.

We arrived at Leh airport, flying high over the Himalayan and Zanskar mountain ranges and banking steeply into the Indus valley, to be greeted by the most exotic and relaxed reception committee I've ever seen: a double line of monks and villagers either side of a steep road. The monks were dressed in great red and yellow hats, with cymbals, conches and trumpets. The ladies had high top-hats wrapped in devotional white silk scarves and long headdresses studded with hundreds of turquoise stones.

They were waiting for His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukchen Rinpoche, Supreme Spiritual head of the Drukpa Kargyud lineage of Tibetan Buddhists, who was following in a plane behind. He is head of the Hemis gompa, the biggest and most important monastery in the northern Indian district of Ladakh. Hearing the noise of the plane's engines, the monks started up a low moan from their conches, gathering pace as the cymbals and the huge, long horns joined in until, safely landed, a small white car appeared with a red light on top. Inside was a jovial-looking Lama in his late thirties, with round plastic-framed glasses, smiling at the pressing crowd.

"Where's he come from?" I asked an older monk. "Paris," he said. "He lives most of the time there and in Austria." Which helped to explain the motley gathering of around 600 Europeans, ranging from smart Parisians to intense Austrian matrons and a smattering of former pop stars and ex-hippies who followed on behind.

They made our group of half a dozen wide-eyed, snap-happy friends look rather small. But we were all here for the same occasion: the two-day festival of dance and display at Hemis monastery, and the following two-day "audience of the bone ornaments" at nearby Shey.

Hemis holds its festival every year to honour the birth of the saint who converted Tibet and Ladakh to Buddhism: Guru Padmasambhava. One of the few Ladakhi monasteries to hold its celebrations in summer rather than winter (although more are now switching dates to catch the crowds), its festivities are always a high spot in a tourist season that lasts only three or four months in this Himalayan region. But this year was special, as every 12 years, the date falls in the same Chinese year (of the monkey) as when the saint was born. Then, and only for a morning, the great thangka, a huge scroll depicting moments from the saint's life, is unfurled three storeys high on the monastery wall.

The two days of choreographed dances, illustrating the different manifestations of Padmasambhava and the demons he chased out of the region, are expressive enough, and are meant to awe and instruct the world beyond the monastery. The unveiling of the scroll, however, was something more reverential altogether. Buddhists of the Himalayas regard thangkas as blessed and imbued with sacred spirit, this brilliantly coloured giant version more than most. From the first hours of morning, the villagers come to pay homage, flinging silken scarves at the huge bejewelled picture as it comes down, and then, at midday, is pulled up again.

The last time it was unfurled, Ladakh was virtually unknown, a distant bit of India beyond, and administratively joined to, Kashmir, a Buddhist outpost known to a few intrepid tourists seeking an insight into its religion, and a scattering of hippies willing to take the arduous road trip over the mountains from Srinegar.

Now, with Tibet remorselessly crushed under Chinese rule, and an air route once again opened up, Ladakh is coming into its own. Its old position as a southern feeder of the great Silk Route across Central Asia (visit the excellent exhibition at the British Library in London to find out more) has been rudely interrupted by troubles that have closed its border with China, Tibet and Pakistan, and cut off much of the intercourse with trouble-ridden Kashmir and an increasingly violent Nepal.

But its position at the end of the road, and for a long time in a military zone, has preserved its monasteries, environment and way of life. Being astride three of the greatest mountain ranges on earth has given it some of the most majestic scenery in the Himalayan region. Being a Buddhist fastness, Tibetan in nature but open to the Muslim influence of Central Asia and Kashmir, has given it a unique cultural heritage.

"Ladakh," as a Tibetan refugee, who has just returned to her homeland for a short visit, sadly commented, "is what Tibet used to be 30 years ago." The same strand of tantric Buddhism, the same ethnic background, the same presence of the monastery in village life, but without the Communists sitting in on the religious administration and the resettlement forced by Beijing in an effort to integrate Tibet into the Chinese mainstream.

For the moment, rising tourism, still on a pretty small scale by the standards of other Himalayan states, is coming up against limited facilities. There are a couple of good hotels in Leh, one in the Nubra Valley, and some tented villages, but otherwise accommodation is limited. Transportation is restricted, electricity intermittent, and access to hot water confined to a few hours a day, even at the most salubrious places.

At Hemis last month, the monastery had given out 600 tickets for 200 seats. But for all the chaos, and partly because of it, it was a great show, the monks donning the costumes of ever-more ferocious demons and saints in wrathful form, and dancing slow, deliberate steps to a sophisticated rhythm orchestrated by the masters of music from two monasteries. The ceremony of Naropa and his Six Bone Ornaments a few days later, at Shey, was an altogether more sober, and better organised, affair. The ornaments belonged to the great 11th-century siddha, Naropa, who handed on his adornments to the Drukpa lineage, where they are displayed by the Rinpoche every dozen years or so. Seated on a high dais in a pavilion built for the occasion, the Rinpoche chanted to a crowd of around 20,000, protected from the sun by a sea of colourful umbrellas. Along their ranks went women with bright cloaks serving yak-butter tea.

The tea was thick and rich. They use butter for lighting and for offering in the shrines, lending the monasteries a thick, acrid smoke that darkens the paintings and pains the lungs. "Drink it up," said my neighbour, who came from Nepal. "It's good for high altitudes." This was useful, considering that Leh lies at an altitude of over 3,500m and requires a couple of days' acclimatisation if you arrive by plane. He'd come with a Tibetan friend who had promised to make the trip with him one day. They had met in India and walked, taking nearly a month to get there.

Buddhism, founded and nurtured in India, has long been wiped out in most of the Indian mainland. But in Ladakh it flourishes, despite the Muslim conquests and Hindu nationalism to the south and west. It's not so much a question of belief as of daily practice. Every big village has its gompa, or monastery, which is so much part of the community as to be indivisible from it. Families send at least one of their children to be a monk, who in turn performs the rituals and prayers to help the whole community towards a better life and final enlightenment. If the succession of monasteries along the valley has become a tourist route, so too is it still a pilgrimage path for villagers, who come to prostrate themselves before the stucco images of the shrines and halls, and mutter their way around the prayer walls along the way.

Tantric Buddhism, the Tibetan form practiced in Ladakh, is not an easy religion for Westerners to understand. It features thousands of devotional images both peaceful and ferocious depending on the manifestation they represent in the pantheon of Buddha, Bodhisattvas (who are staying their release to nirvana to help others attain enlightenment), deities, demons, gurus and reincarnated saints. There are half a dozen Rinpoche heading the gompas of Ladakh, of which the Dalai Lama is but one, albeit widely accepted as the highest.

Understandably, the people of Ladakh don't feel part of Muslim Kashmir or Hindu Jamu, to which they are administratively attached. They don't even feel very Indian, though most are grateful for the military presence that keeps the Pakistanis and Chinese at bay. Politicians, and even the king, dream of a time when they could be part of a Himalayan confederacy. But few have any hopes for the survival of an indigenous nation in Tibet. Nepal is descending into chaos and they look to Pakistan with trepidation.

The astonishing beauty of the place won't change. Consisting of three river valleys heading from east to north-west between the Himalayan, Zanskar and Ladakh mountain ranges, it is a land of lush pasture with poplars set among mountains and arid river valleys. To cross the world's highest motorable pass to the Nubra valley is to encounter a Grand Canyon set on the roof of the world.

The land can absorb the trekkers and tourists, and the people seem at ease with the three-month foreign invasion. But the way of life and the monastic soul of Ladakh may need to protect itself if it is to hold its own.

SURVIVAL KIT

Adrian Hamilton travelled with Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111; www.greavesindia.com). A similar 12-night trip with flights, transfers, room-only accommodation in Delhi and full-board in Leh and Nubra costs from £1,595 per person from 1 October until 30 November 2004.

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights between the UK and Ladakh. Jet Airways (020-8970 1525; www.jetairways.com) flies from Delhi to Leh. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) and Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) fly from London Heathrow to Delhi for around £550.

STAYING THERE

Leh is a budget traveller's dream, with countless cheap, clean guesthouses Leh's first guesthouse, the Old Ladakh (00 91 1982 252951), located in the Old Town has doubles for around 500 rupees (£6) including breakfast. Hotel Omasila (00 91 1982 252119) in Changspa has doubles from 2,000 rupees (£24) including breakfast.

Sophie Lam

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