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We visited Ladakh in June / July of 2008, which was tragically after the Chinese crackdown on Tibet. This was the year of the Chinese Summer Olympics, so there was more attention on China (and Tibet) and people tried to take advantage of this. Anyway, what does this have to do with Ladakh? Well, if Tibetans are suffering in Tibet, they are suffering everywhere – Tibetans in exile have a strong sense of solidarity for their country-people. Therefore, His Holiness’ birthday was commemorated in Ladakh but I would not say celebrated. There were no dancers and aside from long life prayers for the Dalai Lama, there was very little singing if at all. It was still an enjoyable experience however.
I went with Tamding and Chopha. They hailed a taxi, whose driver looked at me (white, obvious Westerner, probably a touch naive) and demanded more money. Therefore some negotiations arose, luckily it seemed that Tamding was up to the challenge and got his desired rate. It was a few miles to the east of Leh, passing through a couple of villages and near some military installments. I knew the place, having passed it on multiple occasions heading toward monasteries in that direction (Chemray, Stakna, Hemis, etc). When there is no Tibetan holiday occurring, it is just a large empty field, with multiple stupas (see my photos), an obvious temple and audience building (it has no walls in the front), and then a little beyond that, slightly hidden in the trees is His Holiness’ Ladakhi palace.
Wow – as I mentioned in an earlier post, going to His Holiness’ palace in Ladakh is almost like going to a monastery, and of course it makes sense that it is a definite pilgrimage site – although I don’t believe there is often public access to it. Therefore, if you are ever in Ladakh on July 6th, go and visit! You will not be disappointed. Unfortunately I did not take any photos of the palace… (duh! I think I was caught up in the rush of pilgrims and the novelty and privilege of entering one of the Dalai Lama’s palaces).
We were dropped off in front of the palace, having planned to arrive an hour or two early (which according to laid back “Tibetan time”, could be different!) before the speeches were set to start. There were already lines out the door, with children running around, people climbing trees to hang fresh prayer flags, with the majority of people seeming to be of Tibetan origin, however there were a few Westerners dotting the landscape. We joined the line of pilgrims entering the palace.
Incredible or breath-taking just barely come close to describing His Holiness’ northern palace (in Ladakh). I may have been slightly affected by the discernible devotion which was practically pouring out of every pilgrim’s pores, including my own, but it is a beautiful building. The palace has three floors with shrines on each. Downstairs is the Dalai Lama’s throne room or reception room. There is a shrine with many statues of Gelugpa masters. The stairs seemed a little narrow, however if there were not hundreds of pilgrims slowly meandering in line, up and down them, I’m sure they would do fine. I recall there being a separate 21 Taras shrine, a shrine with Shakyamuni Buddha as the prominent figure and then upstairs, ahhhh…. I still sigh. There is a gorgeous 1000-arm Chenrezig statue, which is about eight feet tall – life-like. I found it fitting that the statue of Chenrezig was featured and in a venerable location in the palace of Chenrezig’s emanation.
The building is made of glass and wood, which seemed imported. It was a lighter colored wood than I was used to seeing in Leh. All the glass allowed ample lighting into the rooms, which seemed to glitter with all the golden statues and exquisite thangkas (paintings). Oh – and if that weren’t enough, the line also proceeded up a few stairs to an elevated room that had a tiny bed – seriously, it was two feet by four feet or less, no way His Holiness did any comfortable sleeping. I was told this was the Dalai Lama’s “bedroom” but I am now even more convinced that His Holiness does not need to sleep. It had all glass walls, so attendants or anyone else on that top floor could see into it. Aside from the bed, it was very spartan in its furnishings. There was a small shrine against one wall and a chair, and that seemed to be it.
We wandered down the few hundred yards path, through the trees with fresh prayer flags flapping in the breeze, toward the plain I had seen earlier, which was now full of Tibetans. There were several large Tibetan tents set up, along with dozens of smaller ones. We also went through the second temple, which is near His Holiness’ audience area. This was very pleasant, if a little less well decorated than the palace. However, there were statues of Tsongkapa and a couple of large thangkas – I guess I was a little spoiled from visiting the palace first.
Then we sat in the grass, chatting with other Tibetans. There were about 60-plus monks present, and they chanted prayers for a long while – I asked and Tamding thought they were doing long life and aspiration prayers for His Holiness. Finally, early in the afternoon, some dark, official looking cars drove up. Senior monks and government officials got out and, after a bit of who-is-the-most-senior-monk-shuffling happened, they gave speeches. One was the Dalai Lama’s representative in Ladakh – he talked about the tragedy occurring in China and how the Tibetans were concerned for their country-people’s safety and well-being.
We wandered around for a little while longer and then I got antsy. I asked Tamding if we could go soon and it seemed he was also ready to leave. They got a good laugh out of me however, when I tasted some of the spiciest Tibetan corn noodles I have ever laid my hands on. Tamding ordered a bowl for me and for himself. There was a group of Tibetans around me watching my eating process, and after I put the first bite in my mouth I knew why. Oh my word! I think the spicy peppers must have been the 2nd most plentiful ingredient – more than the water in the broth I am sure 🙂 Tamding later told me the recipe – corn noodles, soy sause, kefir, saipan (spiciness) and sugar. Very simple and yet very potent. My taste buds were complaining for the rest of the day – wait, what taste buds?
I saw many beggars and people who appeared to be suffering at the Dalai Lama’s birthday commemoration. I had to develop a lot of compassion or ignore them. I suspect that they receive some form of charity at these events. We drove back to town without further incident.
The rest of the day was spent playing cards with Sonam – the small, 14 year old boy who acts as server, porter, cleaning person and gardener. He also sings some uplifting Ladakhi songs – high pitched voice but soothing nonetheless. Sonam calls Angchuk and Chorra his parents despite the fact that they are not. I wonder if he is adopted – I can easily see the Cinderella dynamic going on. Or he may just work in the big city during the tourist season and then head back to his village during the rest of the year.
I was doing a little bit of practice on these days off as it were. However, one distraction arose when I met the daughter of the house. Whoa.. I must say that in Ladakhi women you can find a mixture of several beautiful lineages – Persian, Baltistani, Indian and Tibetan – and the resulting blend is enigmatic and elusive, on top of enticing. But I digress. She speaks very clear English but it seemed that she did not want to say too much – not that she was shy, but rather it did not seem customary for her to speak with the guests. So that was that and I was able to go back to reading and resting. Altogether, a good day.