Monday, April 29, 2013

Postcards from Ladakh by Ajay Jain

It won't quite suffice to say that Ajay Jain is a leading travel writer and photographer, 'coz he wears a few more hats - that of an author, a journalist, a blogger and the owner of Kunzum Cafe, located at the picturesque Hauz Khas Village, in Delhi.

So, besides having a lot of time to travel, click photographs and pen travelogues, Ajay also finds ample time to pen books, one of which is the pictorial delight: Postcards from Ladakh.

Ladakh means 'Land of high passes'. La means 'Pass' in Tibetan.

And Ladakh never ceases to fascinate, right? It can be an endless lifelong journey and a truly enriching one at that. It's an amazing land. It's a land of beautiful mountains and blue water lakes.

Postcards from Ladakh is a pictorial travelogue on Ladakh intended to give readers a flavour of what Ladakh truly is... based on Ajay's 10,000 km journey across the region (circa 2009).

10,000 km. Imagine !!

And though the blurb suggests that the book is neither a "guidebook nor encyclopedia", I would say that it is a bit of both, besides being a handy and colourful introduction to the people, life and terrain... in all its stark beauty. Ajay's writing style is unique, since he combines snippets of history, sights and sounds with culture, cuisine, lakes, wildlife, observations and anecdotes, and then tops it up with a whole bunch of high-quality colourful photographs. This he then serves with a dash of humour.

Result? I have already slow read Postcards from Ladakh twice... and will do so again, lingering over every photograph. 'Coz it kinda grows on you.

... Nourishing your romance with this beautiful and serene region, where a cup of tea, a hot meal and a room are always available for visitors. And where a bunch of happy little children spontaneously walk up to a complete stranger... wanting to share their bounty of freshly plucked peas, expecting nothing in return.

If that is not contentment, what is?!

And one comes across butter tea. Am curious to know what it is though.

'Tibet' is Sanskrit 'Tripishtaka' or 'Trivistaka', meaning the supposed land of the Devas to the north of the Himalayas. Deva does not mean god or even demi-god. These were an ancient clan of people that inhabited vast tracts of land along the Himalayan ranges. They had their own 'way of life'; they were Aryan or noble-natured and were ruled by the Devaraj Indra - very likely a title for the king or chief of the Deva people.

Yours truly first heard of Tibet when she was little... thanks to Tintin in Tibet.

This place is also the source of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers, which merge to become the Chandrabhaga and flow on as the Chenab. [Chenab was Chandrabhaga during the Vedic period.] And just as the River Ganga (Ganga Nadi) emerges from a mountain snout that is shaped like the mouth of a cow, the once-mighty River Indus/Sindhu Nad, it is said, originates from the mouth of a lion in Manasarovar, in Tibet. Thus it is also called Sengge Tsangpo or Lion River. (Sengge is nothing but a variant of Singha, meaning lion). This river is a common lifeline, and symbolically binds the people of more than one nation. Few rivers in the world flows through as stunning a landscape as the Sindhu Nad; it flows through plains, villages, hamlets and towns, as well as by valleys, gorges and peaks of countless hues before flowing into the Sindhu Sagar (which has - for some reason - come to be known as the A. Sea).

One comes across several monasteries and Gompas (possibly Ladakhi for Gufa, a place of solitude, of meditational retreats); the names are difficult to remember, tongue-twisting even. But the pictures of the smiling lamas (monks) - including the mischievous boy-lamas and nuns, accompanying the narrative - are enough to put a smile to your face.

Despite the starkness of the region, the prayers and the chanting, they rarely look austere. In fact, their antics - puckering their lips, sucking in their cheeks, widening their eyes, putting out their tongues, pulling each other's ears or indulging in friendly banter... makes it seem as though being a lama is the most un-sober thing in the world!! One still gets to meet lamas as young as four years. Young lamas have the option to leave the order, but most stay on for life. Not that they must renounce the world completely. They can visit their families, who treat them not as sons but as lamas. Lamas can listen to music, watch movies, own cell-phones and cameras; dine out - but always in their robes. It's all fine... as long as they do not obsess with worldly pleasures. What a simple solution! Literally: the Middle Way or the Middle Path. :)  The younger lamas even play cricket with a stick and pebbles! [Perhaps, a Ladakhi version of our ubiquitous gilli-danda, what?] An account of their practice session - as part of their preparations for their festival - was fun to read... 'coz most dancers possessed two left feet; they attempted to dance and twirl under the guidance of a 71-year-old lama. Their fun side is infectious, indeed.

There is the Hemis Gompa, now Ladakh's most revered and largest monastery... nestled amidst towering mountains, thus assuring its monks uninterrupted solitude. In the 13th century Buddhist sage Gyalwa Gotsangpa zeroed in on this lofty, secluded and secure location for Hemis Gompa. It is inspired by a Vulture's Nest. [Gotsangpa means vulture's nest; Got = 'vulture' and Tsang = 'nest'.]

Was Gyalwa Gotsangpa a modern-day descendent of the ancient Shakuna people who were a vulture (or perhaps a Bald Eagle)-worshipping/totem-bearing clan? Think of Jatayu and his brother Sampati - from the Ramayana. Think of Shakuntala - raised under the care of the Shakuna. The Shakuna were an offshoot of the Suparna - an eagle or falcon-worshiping clan, i.e. a clan with an eagle or falcon-totem - to which Shri Garuda belonged.

Well, what do you think?

Hemis - as seen today - was founded in the 1630s by Kushok Shambhu Nath (the first Stagsang Respa) under the patronage of King Sengye Namgyal (regarded as Ladakh's greatest king; Sengye is a variant of Singha, meaning: lion). After 1730, Stagsang's third incarnation, Gyalsey Rinpoche not only added shrines, stupas, scriptures and murals, but also founded the Hemis Festival (Hemis Tsechu) - to commemorate Guru Padmasambhava's birth. Hemis is the headquarters of Buddhism's Drupka lineage, which most Ladakhis follow. 

In the 9th century, the rise of Buddhism at the expense of the Bon religion provoked Langdarma, Tibet's Bon king, into persecuting Buddhists. Monks were disrobed, monasteries dismantled. Result? The powerful monk Palji Dorge came dancing to Lhasa dressed in a wide-brimmed black hat, high boots and brocade costume, and pierced the king's heart with an arrow. Hemis Festival opens with an act by 13 dancers dressed like Palji Dorge. Supposedly endowed with spiritual powers, they symbolically ward off any evil spirits that might hinder the festival. The dancers flourish sacred items like daggers, spears, bells, vajras (dorjes), skulls and damrus (small two-headed drums).

BTW, Shambhu Nath is one of the many names of Shiv (one of the many Shivs that people our ancient history or pracheen itihasa, that is). Skulls, damrus... the symbolism are unmistakable, is it not? But which of the Shambhu Naths is responsible for Shambhala - the fabulous Buddhist Pure Land or mythical kingdom hidden somewhere in Inner Asia? My guess is as good as yours. Shambhala (ruled over by Lord Maitreya) is mentioned in various ancient texts, including the Kalachakra Tantra + other texts that predate Tibetan Buddhism in western Tibet.

Is the Buddhist myth of Shambhala an adaptation from our ancient texts such as the Mahabharata and the Puranas? Is it an extension or adaptation of "sambhavami yuge yuge"?

... Well, my guess is as good as yours.

Was Ladakh's greatest King Sengye Namgyal a modern-day descendant of the ancient 'lion people': the Kimpurusha, the Kirata or the Kinnara (as depicted by the 4th 'avatar' of the "Dasavatar" - the Nrisingha or the Narasimha Avatar)?

Was ancient Tibet, Ladakh and surrounding areas the cradle of civilization? Did the ancient denizens of these areas have some links or ties with the ancient denizens of the Sarasvati Civilization? Did they together constitute the Sindhu-Sarasvati Sabhyata? 

Well, what do you think?

Is Padmasambhava a variant of Shri Vishnu who is also known as Padmanabha?

What say you?

The longest and most interesting dance at Hemis Festival depicts the eight forms of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, who (according to the author) established Buddhism as the core religion of Tibet and Ladakh in the 8th century. Eight masked lamas denote the eight forms of Padmasambhava.

[However, it was the renowned Buddhist teacher and Pandit - Dipankar Srigyan (Atiśa Dipankara, Shrijnana) - who set out from a village called Bajrajogini (in Bikram Pur) near Dhaka to spread Bhagavan Shri Gautam Buddh's message - in the whole of Tibet. ... And succeeded too. Atiśa was a revered figure in his homeland as well.]

Invaders plundered many monasteries in Ladakh over the centuries. However the one at Chemde, or Chemrey stayed safe. Here's a tale worth telling.

Apparently the Mongols laid siege on Chemde in the late 17th century. But being outnumbered didn't stop the head lama from outsmarting them. From afar, he shot the Mongol king's teacup with a rifle. Stunned, the king thought Goddess Kali ruled over the Gompa and made peace with the monks. A temple to Kali stands at the base of the hill on which Chemde nestles.

Stagsang Respa founded this impressive gompa, Hemis' most important branch.

There are several interesting anecdotes including about 'flying lamas', though folks have yet to meet any lama who's actually logged some miles in the air. The author is quite a raconteur, must say. [However, the stories about 'flying lamas' probably is a much-corrupted modern-day version of ancient vimanas or aircraft. This region and its surroundings is well known for having been the landing site of ancient vimanas.]

Postcards from Ladakh contains snippets about: the statues of Padmasambhava's eight manifestations, the famed oracles of Matho, marble statues of Avalokitesvara (Tibet's patron saint of compassion); Tibetan thangka paintings - illustrating Tibetan Buddhism and art, manis - large prayer wheels that one sees all over Ladakh; mask dances and Zanskar, rock engravings of the five Dhyani Buddhas, 8 m high statue of a seated Sakyamuni; a histrionically inclined tourist guide, the Ladakh Marathon, archery contest, healthiest looking vegetables; images and statues of the Maitreya (the future Buddha) and Manjushri, murals of Prajnaparamita ('Goddess of the Perfection of Wisdom'), Je Tsongkhapa - regarded by many as the second Buddha; alaks ('precious lamas'); Tso Moriri - an unending expanse of sheer azure, a tale about a devil that drank up all of the overflowing Tso Kar; the Changpas and their livestock - sheep, pashmina wool, yak; brown-headed gulls, the adorable Himalayan Marmots, bar-headed geese (this being the only breeding site for the bar-headed geese in India); black-necked cranes, the kiang (Tibetan wild ass), Tibetan argali, blue sheep, snow leopard, Tibetan wolf and lynx, besides 150 bird species. And much more.

[Is Prajnaparamita a variant of Devi Sarasvati - the deity/devi/goddess of wisdom, intelligence and knowledge? 'Coz modern Burma (also: Burmah, now Myanmar) was actually Brahma Desha or the 'Land of Brahma'. And Shri Brahma is associated with Devi Saraswati. Brhmaloka (very likely) was the abode of the most learned person of the time, referred to as Shri Brhma (also: Brahma). Perhaps: Brhmaloka and Brahma Desha were one and the same.

As for the bar-headed geese, Hamsa = a bird. Either the white swan or the bar-headed white goose. The white swan is called Raja-Hamsa, literally: the royal swan. The white swan is a 'vaahan' or 'vehicle' of Devi Sarasvati - the goddess (or symbol) of learning, knowledge and wisdom. It is also associated with Brahma - the creator god as well as the name of the cosmic force (or energy) that sustains and supports creation (and stands for Buddhi + the creative and discretionary energies in humans). The Hamsa, therefore, can be a reference to the white swan and/or the bar-headed white goose. There is a raaga as well, the very auspicious Raaga Hamsadhwani. 

Buddhi = wisdom + knowledge. Buddha = an enlightened person. Prince Siddhartha, son of King Śuddhodana of the Śākya clan, is best known as: the 'Sage-Prince' Bhagavan Shri Gautam Buddh. He is also referred to as: Śākyamuni. (Muni = an enlightened person). He hailed from the Kshatriya Suryavanshi (Sun-worshiping/Sun-flag-bearing) Śākya clan, that would (very likely) come under the Puruvansh or the Puru clan.

As for manis or large prayer wheels, their name is derived from the Sanskrit word for "wheel" or "turning" - chakra. Chakras are centers of Prāṇa, life force, or vital energy. Chakras correspond to vital points in the physical body i.e. major plexuses of arteries, veins and nerves. The 7 Chakras are the energy centers in our body in which energy flows through.]

There's a bit about a wizened old man picking apricots, separating fresh fruit from spoilt - perfectly still but for his slow, precise hand movements. Who was he? The author notes his fair complexion and features, and then mentions he was a Brokpa (or Drokpa), member of a pure Aryan race, and that the original Brokpas came with the invading Greek armies of Alexander, then embraced Buddhism... but retained their socio-cultural values.

[However, 'Aryan' is not a race, Aryan means noble-natured. People who adhered to a noble set of principles or followed a noble 'way of life' were known as: 'Arya' or 'Aryan'. And this has nothing to do with language or physical characteristics. The Greeks were Yavana (somewhat civilized people who also indulged in un-Arya-like activities; meaning: despite possessing a high culture, these people also indulged in barbaric behaviour like: slave-taking and plundering, they misbehaved with the womenfolk, etc). The Greeks were clearly not Aryan. Therefore, the Brokpa (or Drokpa) are very much part of this land. Are they too modern-day descendants of the ancient 'lion people': the Kimpurusha, the Kirata or the Kinnara? My guess is as good as yours.]

There's Lamayuru Gompa that stands majestically amidst green fields, mud-houses and lofty peaks. Lamayuru's actual name is Yun- Drung ('swastika') - it is a gompa named after swastika-shaped barley plants.

There is mention of two great snakes, Nanda and Taksako at Likir Gompa. [Clearly much myth has seeped in and altered the narrative. Taksako probably is a reference to the great Nag King Takshak. Maybe, this too was a hereditary title assumed by one of the 8 great Nag kings. The Nag were a clan of people that worshipped the serpents and/or displayed a serpent totem.]

Apparently, some years ago, ancient Buddhist texts engraved in gold, silver and copper... could be found lying about uncared for. They were finally catalogued in 1997. However, by then nearly a quarter of the 108 volumes of Kangyur texts were lost and 2000 pages were missing from the rest. What a loss! A significant chunk of our history and culture obliterated - forever. Apparently, gold, silver, copper, turquoise and other gems were crushed and turned into ink to write the scriptures. Amazing, indeed.

There's a massive piece of rock engraved with images from ancient daily life - hunting men on the prowl, hunted beasts on the run; images of ibex hunters with bows and arrows and animals resembling wolves and the ibex, buffalo hunts and group dances. The perplexing bit is that except for this one rock, there is no other ancient rock art for miles around. Umm, why was this particular rock chosen then? Were there others too? Have the elements and/or the mists of time claimed them?

The answer is... we don't know. We can only speculate.

There's even a sanctuary for donkeys, where abandoned donkeys that cannot work any more due to old age or disability are well cared for; they now spend their time playing pranks on visitors! There's also the enigmatic Magnetic Hill - where you can turn off your car engine and leave it in neutral... (and lo!) your car starts moving on its own at 10-20 km per hour - uphill and downhill. What happens to the law of conservation of energy (?) - asks the author.

Don't think he has received a response - yet.

And yes, one gets to read about the Druk Lotus School in Shey's Naropa Palace complex (where 50 nuns/chotoks or dharma sisters live in and manage the palace + conduct prayers. Lord Naropa was a great scholar and chancellor of Nalanda University). Established by the Drukpa lineage in 2001 this unique school teaches how to succeed in the modern world but not at the expense of one's traditions and rooting. It's a school where one learns to cherish one's environment, where teachers are still true to their calling.

We sure need more schools like this... and teachers too.

Ladakh has several cafes including Book Café that offers filter coffee, and Desert Rain that also offers sumptuous cakes and pancakes to go with it. Besides milkshakes, sandwiches, pizzas and the ubiquitous Meggi noodles (actually Maggi instant noodles). They screen films on Saturdays and offer a great collection of books to browse. No one asks you to leave. No one minds if you sit around or even sleep off for hours.

This surely is Heaven, no?

And imagine having Meggi noodles, honey butter cake and piping hot filter coffee when it is really cold.

That's three inches above Heaven, right!

Postcards from Ladakh also contain interesting tidbits like: Why not to get stranded on higher ground? Have you packed right? How to conduct yourself in a monastery? And what one can do to not disturb the ecosystem. Nothing requiring huffing and puffing though, just little things - that indeed go a long way. 'Just because someone gets away with doing something wrong shouldn't mean you do it too' - says the author. Agree.

Ajay also shares his little chitchat-cum-unexpected opportunity to interview His Holiness the Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa - the head of the 800-year-old Drukpa lineage. His Holiness' words are simple yet profound, and makes one to reflect. He says they (him and the author) were Karma-bound to connect.

Verdict: Grab this little book and read all you can, and while you are at it, don't forget to linger over the pics.

There are a few editing errors though, but what is a postcard or a bunch of postcards without a few errors? The author uses simple everyday language, which suits the book and the region. It feels "real". And it's something an average Indian traveler would connect with and be comfortable with.

The only thing that's missing is a glossary of terms... so that readers can understand the meaning of various Ladakhi names, terms and Buddhist references.

About Kunzum Café: In 2007, Ajay started, a travel Website, named after a pass in the Lahaul-Spiti valley in HP. It was here, at 15,000 feet, atop Kunzum La... that Ajay got his inspiration to become a travel writer.

"The site carries write-ups on destinations, photographs, book reviews, hotel listings, etc," says Jain. In fact, he publishes an online travel magazine by the same name. Besides his Web ventures, he kept honing his skills in photography. In early 2008, a series of his photographs was exhibited at the India Habitat Centre and received appreciation. This got Ajay thinking about the need for a permanent place to showcase his photographs and build a more complete brand that catered to all aspects of traveling.

And so, in October 2009, Kunzum Café was born. 

The café is a place where tourists can swap travel stories, inquire about the best places to stay, get sightseeing tips, and so on. And all this happens over a cup of coffee and cookies, for which guests can pay as much as they like!

Ladakh is calling. Julley!

Details of the book: Postcards from Ladakh/ Author: Ajay Jain/ Publisher: Kunzum, an imprint of TCP Media Pvt. Ltd./ Available at: Ajay Jain's Blog/ Binding: Paperback/ Publishing Date: 2009/ Genre: Travel/ ISBN-10: 978-81-906007-5-0/ ISBN-13: 9788190600750/ Pages: 184/ Price: INR 395, US $19.95, UK £11.95

Pictures: The book jacket cover of Postcards from Ladakh besides a few other pics (Lamas walking, moonrise over the River Indus, a pensive lama boy, Mask Dance at Hemis Festival, the adorable Himalayan marmots, the Apricot Man, ancient rock art, brown-headed gulls. Courtesy: link.

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