The India Journal
Chapter Ten
... I decided to visit Thikse, a gompa (monastery) some twenty or so kilometers from Leh [the principal city in Ladakh], whose picture I had seen at the photo shop. I caught the local bus at two, and was told by the conductor where to get off, as the stop for the monastery came before the village. As usual, the bus was crowded.
I walked along the flat, where a small cluster of houses fringed the roadway which was lined with stupas, or votive monuments to some dead abbot or lama, known in Ladakh as chortens, until I came to the start of the hillside. A fairly substantial temple stood there with a long steep staircase leading up to the porch. No one was there, and the door was padlocked. Peering in through glass panes, I could see a shrine, very colorful, and tried taking flash photos through the glass, but felt disappointed that no one was there to let me in. My bus was not scheduled to return to Leh until five, so that left me two hours to wait. I contemplated climbing to the heights of the monastery community so far above me, which seemed to be a great cluster of semi-connected buildings, but saw no evidence of a temple above me, so decided against it, and settled down to read Shirley Maclaine, whose style and content are always absorbing.

Around twenty minutes past four, I looked up and saw a lama dressed in the traditional red over yellow coming down one of the paths that led up the mountain. He came over to me and asked if I had come to see the gompa. I said I had, but that it was locked, gesturing to the temple above me. "You come alone?" he asked. I said I had. "You must go up," he said, pointing to the top of the peak. "By what road?" I asked. "There," he said, pointing to the path he had just left. "Come, I show you." Turning, he led the way up the mountain, twisting and turning. I began puffing quite soon, as it was very steep, and he looked back at me halting. "I have trouble with the thin air," I said apologetically, patting my chest. He made a quieting gesture with one hand held down parallel to the ground, and I felt the power of his calming presence.

We continued to climb for a few more minutes, then he stopped, turned toward me, pointing to a ridged shoe print in the dust on the path between us. "Follow my foot marks," he said. "They will take you to gompa." With that, he began to walk back down. I thanked him, and he inclined his head graciously. It was a moving experience for me, in some way beyond its literal content very hard to put into words. The admonition of the "ghost of Christmas Present" in Dickens' Christmas Carol came into my mind: "Bear but a touch upon my robe and you will be borne up."
I followed the footsteps up and up, sometimes losing them, and then finding them again, as paths converged and separated, dipped and rose. I experienced a degree of vertigo as the way grew steeper and rockier with less leeway before the drop-off, but not enough to keep me from continuing to climb. At last I found a way around the front cluster of buildings, the path veering along cliff faces to the right and then between them to the left, and finally emerged up into the central courtyard of the main monastery, which had steep steps leading upward in three directions - the temple shrine on the right, the main meeting hall at the center facing me, and another building on the left of whose function I was ignorant.
A young boy who was helping with new house construction of a building to my left as I had come through the passage to the courtyard came running up the steps to where I was standing (the door to the shrine room being locked) and pointed to the central building, saying, "He will come," then jumped back down the steps, ran across the courtyard and up the central flight to the community building. In a few minutes, out came a tall young monk with glasses on, who descended and then came up to unlock the door for me. I removed my shoes, as did he, and we entered an enormously high-ceilinged room with windows on two sides and a railing on the left beyond which reposed an overwhelmingly powerful and equally enormous Buddha, whose torso could only be seen as far as his chest, the rest of him being below the level of the railing.
On the huge face was an expression of both nobility and calm which I found extremely moving. With no sense of formal conformity to mores but a profound sense of humility and gratitude combined, I walked to the central kneeling pad near the windows and prostrated myself thrice in the Buddhist manner before this presence so timeless and detached yet still filled with a sense of compassionate oversight to the human condition. The monk explained to me that this was the Maitreya, the future Boddhisattva, not just the one from the past. I had somehow felt this to be the case, in the sense of having experienced a kind of kinship in my inner response to the Rozabal in Srinagar and this place, so I didn't feel surprised.
To set the scale for this image:
the white railing at the bottom is waist high!
I would have liked to spend a much longer time there alone simply absorbing the feeling tone and the sense of being somehow welcome there, but I had only twenty minutes or so to make it back down to the road in time to catch the bus, so, after dropping five rupees into the donation box, and wandering around the greatBuddha on all sides, including looking down to see the lower part of him, which sat in the lotus position, the golden bare bottoms of his feet turned upward, the entire figure seated on a giant lotus - I thanked the monk and walked out and down the steps, feeling exalted.
Arriving at the roadway, I stopped at a little building open on two sides which housed a large prayer wheel, which was being turned by a monk and a group of children. I asked the monk, "Bus to Leh?" and held up five fingers. He shook his head and held up five fingers, then pointed to Thikse, then six and pointed to Leh. "Oh," I said, nodding, and held up my own six fingers to show him I understood. Then I pointed to myself and then to the prayer wheel, saying, "Mm?" interrogatively. He nodded, smiling, and I entered the little building and gave the wheel a few turns. Each time it came around, a stick which projected from the top hit a little bell and rang it so you could tell how many complete revolutions it was making. I went out and sat down on the steps to wait.
A wind was blowing, and it was already growing cold. The three or four children who had been turning the wheel, all girls, came and sat next to me, gazing expectantly up into my eyes. Ten or more, most of them boys, came running from across the road and squatted down in front of me, all staring, some giggling. I looked back at them all, each in turn. A few looked healthy, in spite of dirty or raggedy clothing, but many others looked wolfishly malnourished, with crusted or greenish snot on their nostrils and upper lip, and many had bad coughs. One boy seemed downright ill, and leaned against another boy. They were clearly expecting something from me, but didn't have the words so many town-bred children acquire, such as "One photo? One pen? One chocolate?"
An older boy, perhaps thirteen or so, now joined them and began making what were evidently insulting and probably obscene remarks about me. The children (most of the boys, one or two of the girls) laughed. He mimed looking under my (nonexistent) skirts, and two of the boys followed suit, rolling in the dust. The monk, who had been strolling up and down on the edge of the road, chided the children, I frowned and shook my head at the ringleader, and one of the girls chattered disapprovingly at him. He walked away. Soon most of the boys followed, resuming their play across the road, and then the girls drifted off. I read my book until six, then crossed the road to wait. At 6:10 or so, the bus appeared going toward Thikse, and it didn't reappear until 6:40, by which time I felt pretty chilled, but warmed up on the way home. ...

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