Friday, August 1, 2008

The Circle of Life: Chapter 5: Spiritual Growth (Leh Days 1 and 2)

It’s quite ironic that I’m listening to the song “Fragile” as I write this. But this was exactly the condition all of us were in that evening we landed in Leh. But we were hardened travelers by now and after a short break we decided to head off to the Shanti Stupa to catch the sunset from the highest point in the city.
As we wound our way through the small town, already beginning to fall in love with it, we found ourselves crossing various picturesque garden cafés with amazing food. One notable thing was that most of the tourists in Leh were not Indian. But the place simply exudes beauty. The buildings are beautiful, the mountains are beautiful, the clouds, the people, their faces and their hearts simply display beauty like its everyday!

Anyway, when we finally wound up at the bottom of flights of what seemed like a zillion steps leading to the stupa, we did give climbing them a second thought. The oxygen was still fairly hard to find, we’d just come off the back of a really hard journey, and most importantly, my three companions had varying levels of vertigo. Dhar dropped off halfway and decided to spend his time on the stairs, while the rest of us proceeded upward, huffing to a halt every ten steps. Adding insult to injury was this excited little local kid who was looking to race us to the top. Needless to say, we lost that undeclared race. After reaching the top in over half an hour, we got a great panoramic sunset view of Leh and the surrounding mountains and decided to hurtle down quickly, so that we could reach the bottom before it was dark. We also counted the stairs on the way down to land up at a figure of 624 which is still disputed with great zest amongst the four of us.

(Above: The Shanti Stupa, Leh and sunset from the Shanti Stupa)
In all, we’d had a great day, but bad news was right around the corner. At night when Manu spoke to his parents, they asked him to fly back to Delhi when we were done with Leh and there was no way they were going to let him enter Kashmir on their way back. It was dangerous, and they would have none of it. Quite obviously, this spelled disaster because it put us on waitlists for our respective families to call and do the same. The families had been spooked because we had stayed out of touch the one day we had got stranded at Kangla Jal. Wasn’t our fault, but they too had a point.
As the next day dawned, any disappointment we had from the previous night got washed away. Manu and I had what was called the “City View” room and was essentially a lone room on the terrace of the hotel. As I walked out onto the terrace early that morning, I could hear the Buddhist chant of “Om Mani Padme Hum” echoing from the city through a loudspeaker. This was just the relaxing start we needed after what we had been through. Having had such a great start to the day we did what had become a rare phenomenon, something civil society calls ‘Breakfast’. Today we’d go in and around Leh, to ancient monasteries and palaces. Somewhere along the way, we’d also have to think up ideas to circumvent what I had begun to call ‘Parental Evacuation’ and save our trip. It wouldn’t be the Circle of Life if it wasn’t a circle, and we’d cover the circle with whatever we had.

(Above: Mantra stones at Thiksey Monastery, Monks announcing prayer time at Thiksey, Buddha statue at Shey, Manu with his newly bought prayer wheel)

With these thoughts in mind we headed to the ancient Thiksey Monastery, where we discovered that today was a very auspicious day. The full moon of the sixth month of the year was when The Buddha was born and also attained enlightenment. Today was that day and today would be a day of celebration and prayer. We were extremely lucky to have witnessed this event, complete with the prayer Ricola’s announcing the beginning of the prayer, and the gathering of all monks in the same room, that was beginning to resonate with the mellow, rhythmic chanting of the ceremonial prayer. Following this we visited the Shey Monastery and the Stok Palace where all of us got a very inspirational lecture on the cycle of life and death from an old monk. Having returned to Leh in the afternoon, we sampled Kashmiri cuisine and headed to the Leh Palace, which was actually the first place on the whole trip that we couldn’t talk about for hours. After having dealt with the Leh Palace, I embarked on a solo foot trip around Leh town. It turns out that Leh is in fact one of those nice little towns one can walk across. On return, I found Stenzing waiting with the other three guys. Stenzing was an acquaintance of Manu’s mother’s and pretty much embodies everything that’s nice and lovely about the people of Leh. Stenzing volunteered to show us around town and took us to the Sindhu Ghat, the banks of the Indus, where the Sindhu Darshan Festival is held every year. The Sindhu Ghat gave us our second consecutive great sunset, this time across the windy and picturesque Indus valley. He then took us to his abode, where we were treated like kings and then on exit we realized what makes the people of any place great-mutual trust and respect. Stenzing had installed in his house, a bolt on the open door that could be opened from outside as well. Upon asking him what would happen if someone else would come and open his house and steal all that was inside, plop came the reply, “That doesn’t happen here sir. Delhi, you’d have your house emptied within minutes, but here, that sort of a thing doesn’t happen.” This is what makes a place great. And unfortunately there are very few such great places left.

(Above: Giant prayer flag at Stok, Leh skyline by evening, Dhar's moon silhouette, With Stenzing at Sindhu Ghat)
We were feeling great on one end, but on the other, Parental Evacuation was beginning to weigh on our minds. And some bad news came in at night. We were to pass through one of the camps of the Amarnath Yatra, which is sometimes marred by terrorist trouble. While were clear that this was probabilistic and we wanted to take our chances, atleast two sets of parents thought otherwise, the other two, being mine and Dhar’s had still not sent in a word. That night Gussu’s dad forbade him from coming back through Kashmir.
He had just received information from someone in the Border Security Force that it was extremely unsafe to go that way. Manu’s mother had just left the decision to him in a fit of exasperation, but it was clear that he’d have to fly back if Gussu flew back. Dhar’s parents were still considering things, and I hadn’t heard from mine. Things didn’t look good, but this was no time to sulk.
For tomorrow morning, we’d visit probably the best place we had ever visited in our short lives- The Pangong Tso.

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