We’re in the village of Nimmu in Kashmir. I’m sitting in the shade of an almond tree in the orchard of a manor house built two hundred years ago by a cousin of the King of Ladakh. He was the local tax collector and the imposing scale of this whitewashed three story building with its great wooden beams, suggests he was a man of wealth and power.
Today Nimmu House is a small hotel with hammocks strung up between the trees and signs warning about the low wooden doorways. It’s a lovely peaceful place with irrigation channels burbling through the gardens and birds chattering. The owner’s sweet little daughter is scampering about singing “happy birdy doo you” and there’s a murmur of voices from other guests out here enjoying the sunshine. But there’s no traffic noise, no sirens, no dogs barking, nothing to break the tranquility.
It’s a great place to acclimatise to the altitude for a couple of days. We are at 3,171M (10,400 feet) and that’s the lowest point of this trip. We flew due north from Delhi to Leh and watched the Himalayas rising up to meet us.
Snowy peaks stretched off into the distance under a brilliant blue sky until we got into the monsoon shadow where the mountains get less snow and are brown and bulky with a buzz cut of white at the summit. We descended between them over a lush green river-valley, bouncing through the turbulent air all the way down to Leh airport.
From there it’s forty five minutes to Nimmu along a good road, threading its way cautiously through these mighty mountains. We met great trucks belching black smoke in the thin air, and passed army barracks warning “Trespassers will be shot to death”. Perky signage along the route warns that “Too Much Whisky – Driving Risky” and that this is an “Accident Prone Area!” I like the idea that it’s the area that is accident-prone. In some ways it is. Leh is just 280K from the Chinese border and 250K from Pakistan (or perhaps the other way round). Consequently this mountain kingdom has been fought over for centuries. Even though it has been part of India since 1947, and only open to outsiders since 1974 it still feels very much like its own place. In its architecture, people and dominant religion (Buddhism) it is much more like Tibet than India proper. And some say it is really the last remnant of old Tibet, free to celebrate its culture in a way that Tibet no longer is.
When we got here yesterday we were welcomed with mint tea and apricot juice. There was a buzz of excitement about the fact that a senior Lama based nearby was going to pay a visit.
Some people from the village joined us; women and children mostly, with slim hawk-like noses, coppery skin and high cheekbones. An elderly lady with a soft, wrinkled face and bright eyes was clearly excited at the prospect of seeing the Lama who had apparently not been here before. There was lots of giggling and chatter and we lined up with yellow silk prayer scarves to greet him. When he arrived with a retinue of monks we all fell silent. He was a smiling man with a smooth face in his late thirties, wearing burgundy robes and fashionable sunglasses (an eye problem, he told us later). We held out our scarves and greeted him formally and he blessed the three of us, which felt auspicious.
A little later we were allowed to join him in a prayer session with a group of American Buddhists staying here.
There are a couple of small temples in the house and one is used as a yoga room. A central opening in the roof let in a thick shaft of sunlight which caught on the gold threads of the fabrics draped over a chair and tables for the Lama. Wooden lattices over some of the windows were painted some time ago and faded to soft greens and blues. With its dark carved beams and battered wooden doors the room has been little changed over the years.
We sat cross-legged on the mats as the monks made preparations for the Lama, constantly adjusting a white tablecloth over one of the tables, before replacing it completely with an orange one. On it, they placed a handbell, two slim metal jugs with brightly coloured tassels, wobbling towers of what looked like chocolate mousse, a plate of biscuits, saucers full of rice, various small statuettes and boxes and a cup of tea.
Everyone spoke in whispers and through the door we could see much anxious scurrying. Occasionally one of the monks would make minute adjustments to something one of the other monks had set out, or take it away and replace it with something different entirely. Another man with the Lama’s retinue would come in and tell us “He will be here within just a few minutes” before dashing out. Twenty minutes later we got a “Fifty seconds!” heads up. Not being one who spends a lot of time cross-legged, my hips and knees were at breaking point. As another fifteen minutes rolled by I was wondering about the etiquette of sticking my legs out, before I heard one of the American Buddhists warn a friend that it wasn’t done. And then the Lama was suddenly in the room, making himself comfortable on his chair. I envied him the chair.
Rigyal Rinpoche, the Head Lama of the Shang and Phyang monasteries began by taking questions and spoke softly but eloquently about his life. He said he was the seventh incarnation of an even more senior Lama and he spoke about how a previous incarnation had died of hunger, so “I am always hungry and always eat too much when there is food in front of me because of that memory”. He spoke of “when I was in-prisoned by the communists” early in the 1960s, and how as a child in his father’s restaurant he had recognised his religious teacher, before the teacher had been introduced to him.
Then the ceremony began. He unwrapped a green and yellow silk envelope containing letterbox-shaped papers with texts on both sides which he read very fast in a low monosyllable which occasionally leapt a few notes before dipping again. Some parts he read silently, his lips forming the words. Without stopping the reading he would ring a bell, or hold a talisman and make a complicated finger to thumb cat’s cradle shape with his hands. He poured from the jugs into his hands, licked a little of the liquid “to clarify my mouth” and put the rest on his head. But this, it turned out was just his own (half hour) preparation for the prayers to come. The ceremony of the “White Tara”, in which we were all to welcome a sacred female Buddhist being into our bodies, was an intensive meditation session involving all the religious items on his various tables, which his attendant monks would bring him at the appropriate times.
There were many, many parts to it involving all of us chanting after him at different times, rice being thrown, a swinging metal box of incense being brought in and taken out, the mousse tower being presented to us (and ultimately placed briefly on each of our heads), and the jugs being poured into all of our hands for a quick gulp and a massage into the scalp. It was refined butter apparently and had a taste of TCP about it. To any Buddhists reading this, I mean no disrespect. It was an extraordinary thing to be a part of and I regret not being able to give a more accurate description of the component parts of the ceremony.
After three hours we had lost all of the villagers except for the elderly lady who sat in the front row, rapt by everything unfolding in front of her with a positively beatific look on her face. The American Buddhists were still there, though by the end even some of them were clearly having difficulty staying cross-legged. By now, I had given up any hope of ever being able to stand again. Cramp surged confidently through my various leg muscles looking for a place to lock-up for good. I could feel my knees working through some sort of disconnection strategy, as I clearly was no longer looking out for their welfare. And then the Llama grinned at us and said “That’s it”. We grinned back.
Tom had somehow remained cross-legged throughout, but looked somewhat shell-shocked as he stood up. Philippa had nabbed a wooden pillar to lean against when one of the villagers left and rose gracefully with the air of someone who does yoga now and again. I staggered up like one of those new-born giraffes you see on nature documentaries, wondering how to make my legs work. It was though, one of those extraordinary, unexpected and once in a lifetime evenings that you can only ever find by accident. I’m so glad we did.