Monday, July 21, 2008

Ladakh Trip: Day Ten. Pathar Sahib, Basgo, Likir, Ulley Topko

No hangover, barely a few hours in bed and I'm bright and fresh as a daisy. I seem to be needing less sleep up here.
The Leh-Srinagar highway is the best road I have seen in my life - perfectly flat, gently curving, matte-black with brand new dazzling white road lines, and trucks blasting down it at close to 100 kmph in the sheer exuberance of this road after the roughage of Manali-Leh.

Pathar Sahib. A gurudwara a short distance outside Leh, where you can see a rock with an interesting story.
When Guru Nanak was passing through the region, he was requested by the inhabitants of a village to intervene on their behalf; they begged for his help in defending themselves from a Rakshasa who was terrorizing the region. He agreed and sat at the foot of a hill to pray. The demon, in a bid to disrupt his concentration, and possibly kill him as well, threw a giant boulder from above upon him. The rock rolled down, gathering speed, and smashed into the saint. And stopped dead. Then the Guru emerged from in front - leaving behind an imprint of his body, pressed into the rock like soft butter. The outline is still visible, as you walk around the rock.
Wash our feet with icy water, burn our tongues with scalding tea, and back on the road again.

Basgo Monastery is a an ancient clay structure, standing tall in the middle of a fantastic giant-termite-mound-scape of wind-eroded rock. Lonely and deserted. It's like a movie set Harappan palace, Mackenna's Gold with the temperature and sunshine turned way down.
We wander around for a while - there's a large statue of the Maitreya, terracotta bricks and walls, rickety old ladders, parts of that have been closed off as they're too rickety and eroded for safe exploration... and it's lasted these centuries thanks to the dry Leh climate. One single Mumbai monsoon would flatten and wash away the region's entire history.

A few hours on, Likir Monastery. Dedicated to the Water Spirits. This one is different in having the Buddha statue outside the main structures rather than housed inside; A giant golden seated figure, on a base beautifully decorated in glowing primary-colored Buddhist religious symbols and friezes.
One of the points of etiquette in photography in the region, or any Buddhist center - when clicking photos of the Buddha, don't place yourself in the frame. Even an image of the Buddha is an object to be venerated; including yourself in it, is considered highly disrespectful.

The interiors of Likir are the most detailed yet, a riot of intricate, grand designs spread across the entire walls - huge, life-sized and larger-than-life-sized paintings in tremendous, fine detail. You could spend hours just standing in front of a single one and staring, at the characters, the events, the history and the associated myths and stories, the vivid blues and reds with gold inlays... everything.

Virudhaka, leader of the Kumbhanda, is a worldly guardian worshipped as a protector. He lives on the south side of the lower slopes of mount Meru in the Heaven of the Four Great Kings.

A representation of a dorje (a spiritual weapon / sceptre, the thunderbolt diamond)

Some of the implements / instruments used in Tibetan Buddhist prayer ceremonies - horns, drums, bumpa, tingsha, a monk's thick woolen robe, (so stiff it can stand by itself,) bundles of books...
Tibetan buddhism has a significant action-orientation in their worship. Any activity you do, any ritual - the elements involved have to be moving for them to work. Prayer flags, jaapmala, prayer wheels...

A long drive follows, broken by R suddenly doing a spontaneous, impromptu and totally unexpected request to stop the jeep and step out. We're wondering what she's up to - there's no rocks or bush for miles around to afford any kind of cover, and we're just getting ready to turn away / close eyes when she steps onto the road in front of the vehicle - and starts dancing. we watch flabbergasted until she finishes, and settles back, wreathed in smiles.

The rest of the journey, as we get cramped, cold, uncomfortable and numb-assed, is sometimes safar, sometimes suffer... (that's why they call it a jeep safari...) until we arrive at the Ulley Topko camp.
These are the most luxurious tents yet, with glass washbasins.
The rest of the afternoon is spent in peaceful discussion, planning next trips, debating the feasibility of retiring in the mountains - which, considering the accessibility issue, can be fraught with risk - "Haan ji, aap kal chaar baje aa jaiye, mujhe heart attack ho gaya hai..."

razor sharp slivers of shattered rock line the roadside

In the evening, we discover a small wooden bridge spanning the river, and spend some time there. Standing on the bridge is hypnotic; the water moves really, really fast, and the bridge trembles and shakes with the wind and footsteps - after a while, you find yourself dizzy and motion-sick, if you look too long.

At night, after dinner, we return to the bridge. There's a moon out, and the scene is transformed; the moon has risen, shining silver mixed with the darkness. The river is alive. Bright, dark, frozen, roiling, leaping, churning, swirling, twisting... beautiful, exuberant, yet savage. Watching it was like watching a wild animal - enthralling to look at, but get too close, and there won't be any mercy.

We come back after some time, as the chill begins to bite, and before turning in, renew our acquaintance with another version of an Old Monk - the kind that we've carried with us in bottles. Sitting on the steps of our tent, staring across the moonlit gorge, feeling the heat blossom within while your extremities go numb... this is the life.

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