Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Sleepover in a Tibetan Settlement

Tibetan prayer flags litter every building in the camps
Ever since I was a young child I have had an interest in Tibet, Tibetan monks and Buddhism. My inherent interest in this culture was only enhanced by my recent stay in Dharamsala, home to the Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama. Tibetan people seem to me to emanate a natural peace in spite of all of the social and political challenges that they have faced. When I landed in Nepal, the Tibetan theme continued as I realised that despite its relatively small size, this country is home to an estimated 30,000 Tibetan refugees and Tibet is everywhere - whether that be in the form of handicraft shops, the sound of the "Om mani padme hum" mantra echoing from shops, prayer flags fluttering overhead, even Lama schools - you can't help but see the Tibetan influence exerted on Nepali life. 

Washing hanging to dry inside the camp
The refugees began to arrive in the early 1950s but came in their droves after the Lhasa uprising in 1959. The Nepali government helpfully operated a fairly relaxed policy towards the entry of Tibetan people, partly feeling unable to stop it due to an inability to enforce tight border controls and seeing their provision of shelter as a good solution to a potential human crisis of great magnitude. With the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), temporary sites were set up in the 60s to house the refugees and support was provided by aid organisations and the US government. This arrangement was in place until 1986 when Nepal and China entered into agreements that Nepal would no longer accept Tibetan refugees and severely restricted the movements of existing Tibetans within the country. (ref 'Tibetan Refugees in Nepal' http://tinyurl.com/d3qlqfm

Houses within the settlement
I had heard that there were two settlements within driving distance of Pokhara so Kevin and I got on the scooter I had hired and drove out to stay for the night. We found the entrance to Tashi Palkhal settlement on a busy main high street - a large Tibetan gate behind the bustling market stalls out on the road to Baglong and pulled in. Inside was an ordered, if shabby settlement of concrete breeze block houses, punctuated with services buildings such as a health clinic, a nursery etc and of course, a large stupa (a mound-like construction containing relics and used in Buddhist worship) and a monastery. We immediately got picked up by a Tibetan man who seemed a bit slow but unsure of the protocol we allowed him to lead us. 

Tibetans going about their daily life in Tashi Palkal
He showed us into the monastery and we were flung unsolicited into the quarters of an extremely old and decript Lama who was lying there on a mat in filthy quarters. We prostrated in front of him (we weren't sure what else to do). He spoke no English and realising that we appeared inept, somewhat cantankerously showed us the door. So we wandered around exploring the rest of the monastery.  It was strange seeing the intimate lives of the monks - their scarlet habits drying out on the concrete floor. A number of young monks appeared to live there - one popped out from behind the curtain (having been disturbed by our unsubtle guide) revealing himself to be half naked in just a scarlet vest - nipple showing. But despite our blaitant voyeurism (and the "no outsiders allowed" sign in the centre of the camp) the inhabitants were all very friendly and warm. 

The couple who sold us handicrafts in their house
It wasn't long before we were hustled into a tiny (but very neat) house to buy some Tibetan handicrafts. We sat cross legged on a low divan whilst the gentleman showed us his bags of wares, meanwhile his podgy wife brought out the Tibetan butter tea. "She's done this before", I thought but apparently all guests receive this beverage which is an integral part of Tibetan culture. The tea is indeed made with butter and although sounds rather tempting, is pretty fattening and disgusting. Apparently nomads can drink up to 40 cups of butter tea per day and the calorific content lends itself to high altitude living plus prevents the chapping of lips. I don't really like the drink and am mindful of how cloying and unhealthy it is but the old lady kept refilling my cup after every sip. Apparently this is customary and the only way to avoid it is to leave the cup full until you want to beat a retreat then to down it in one! (Thank you wikipedia! http://tinyurl.com/b6p9a ).

An old monk presides over the butter lamps 
There was a shrine to the Dalai Lama in the house (although little else) and candles and butter lamps were flickering in the gloom. Despite the ludicrous price I was quoted, I spent money on some bracelets and prayer beads as gifts for family and friends. I felt that if money were needed, it was here. After handing over the cash, we went for a wander and I asked if I could meditate in the monastery. The docile guide disturbed the young monks (again!) from behind their curtain and a very young lad was sent to unpin the silk prayer flag that covered the door, unlock it and open it by means of the giant and beautiful silk tassles that adorned the huge golden circular door handles of the temple. I sat in an easy meditate stance - physically the cross-legged position has improved so much for me since the early days of the ashram. Afterwards, we lit a butter lamp, paying the very old monk who presided over them 10 rupees for his troubles. 

Butter lamps 
Inside the temple

The Tibetan elders meditate together 

As we were about to leave, I noticed another building and asked the guide what it was. "A meditation centre for the elderly" he replied. Although I was with Kevin who wasn't that into the spiritual aspect, something inside me made me ask if we could go and look inside. I am so glad that I did. What followed was possibly one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. We rounded the corner to see a meditation hall, kind of shabby like an old church hall and inside were 12 or 13 Tibetan elders. All were sitting on cushions, twizzling prayer sticks in front of them. Some had cataracts, some had paunches, others were skinny and stick thin. All were ravaged by old age, ill health and the weariness of lives blighted by conflict, humiliation and expulsion. But they were at peace. 

Sheep & goats next to the monastery in the camp
Welcoming us in, we took our places on mats on the floor. Inexplicably - in their midst - also taking his place on a prayer mat was a donkey. Each elder was mid chant - as one voice rose, another fell - syncopated, in their own rhythm and tune but the effect of it was truly hypnotic and above all - totally peaceful. The energy was divine - not in a sweaty, orgasmic, Shiva kind of a way - but in the total quietitude of Buddhism. I tried to stop the tears that glistened in my eyes from rolling down my cheeks. I didn't want to alarm those gorgeous, beautiful, welcoming people. I could have stayed with them there all day but sensed that Kevin felt a little uncomfortable, so I forcibly pulled myself out of that most magical of moments. I am sure it will stay with me for eternity. 

Devi Falls in the underground caves
Thanking (and paying) our guide, Kevin and I scooted away back to the Tibetan settlement where we were staying. We had a quick lunch in the Tibetan Yak restaurant. I ordered veg but was presented with a watery bowl of thukpa with lumps of grey "buff" (beef) which I had to send back. Instead we ate plain chowmein - Tibetan food is really very austere. Then we made a visit to the Gupteswor Mahadev (Shiva) Cave and underground Devi waterfalls. The cave visit was a real highlight of the Nepal trip. As we descended into the subterranean world formed by natural rock there, at the mouth was the biggest, most incredible Shiva linga I have ever seen. I payed my respects, walking around the enormous thing and feeling the power from it. I wondered how many thousands of hands had touched it's tip. Concealed within a grotto was a stone statue of cow, from whose udders dripped real milk onto a linga below it. Insane. We descended through a network of tunnels and steps in the dripping dank and it was so cool! I had visions of the 80s cult film "The Goonies". I also fought a natural urge of claustrophobia that bubbled up. Being below the earth is a strange feeling that can incite a certain kind of terror. But, I got through it and as we reached the waterfall at the end - oh my! What a wonderful sight! Through shafts of light in the rock, jets of water plumed and fell into a natural pool below. I was mesmorised and at that moment, as we sat precariously on a damp rock, gazing out at the light, I was truly present. 

Hanging out on the scooter in the settlement
We went back to our room in the 'Tibetan guest house' which was really one spartan bedroom in an otherwise locked community hall where Tibetans stay when they visit other members of the settlement. Kevin and I lay there in the dark of the afternoon storm and the total silence of the rest of the Tibetan camp. It would have driven me mad before - being 'stuck' in a place with no diversions but vipassana as equipped me well for such occasions. Kevin dozed, I read and wrote and afterwards walked outside alone, breathing in the fresh evening air, restored and lush from the downpour. Later on we drove back into Pokhara to get some dahl baht to eat. The two little restaurants in the settlement were closed as apparently Tibetan people only eat at home during the evening. After dinner, Kevin drove us back - my rented scooter was without a headlight and I had to shine my torch to light the way over potholed roads - it was completely insufficient in the black of the power-cut-night. 

Elders make handicrafts outside their homes
I gripped onto Kevin as he drove us (at first on the wrong side of the road - he is Swiss) through villages that were unrecognisable to me. At one point we neared towards a flashing light. Oh shit! The police! We had to explain that it wasn't our fault we were driving without a headlight but they seemed to understand that we had been jibbed by the rental man and let us off without so much as asking for a bribe. Kevin finally got us back to the camp. I was so thankful, at that moment, for his manly capabilities. As a relatively new driver and nervous in particular driving at night, even on well lit European roads, there is no way I could have found our way back through the Nepali countryside in the dark. 

Oxen in the street outside the settlement
The settlement we slept in

Morning prayers in the monastery
The next morning I awoke at 4.50am and made my way to the monastery. It was eerie and silent walking through the settlement in the grey of the dawning light. But there was life - people on their way to work and in the monastery itself. One of the small chamber rooms was open revealing a giant prayer wheel (perhaps 5 foot in height) and two very elderly ladies were walking in circles around it, turning the wheel as tradition dictates - it is said to have the same effect as orally reciting a prayer - and muttering their mantras. Other women rambled the grounds, circling the monastery over and over again as they prayed fervently, beads in hand. Every time the huge wheel completed a full circle a piece of wood that protruded from one if the sides sounded a bell. I stood and watched.  There is something so mesmeric about the ceaseless ritual of Tibetan Buddhism. 

Tibetan butter tea for breakfast
Elsewhere the monks were rousing from sleep. Emerging from tiny cells, they scratched their shaven heads, rubbed sleep from their eyes, washed their faces and brushed their teeth. I followed them up into the prayer room, intending to stand outside as they began their chanting - sitting cross legged and facing one another on two opposite sides of a narrow room containing cushions and benches, as well as books, manuscripts and a Buddha shrine. Imagine my surprise when one of the monks beckoned me to come in and join them. I quietly sat down next to a very young monk who was playing the traditional instruments and closed my eyes to absorb their guttural chanting as the sun rose. I don't know if any of you have ever listened to Buddhist monks chanting - at first it can be disconcerting - you imagine it to be a peaceful, soothing noise. In fact, often the voices of the monks are very low - unbelievably so and it can almost sound a little scary at first. They chant out of sync, starting verses as others finish, breathing out the syllables in an almost vibratory fashion, reminiscent of bubble-blowing. As they do so, they read the Sanskrit prayers from beautiful calligraphy on rectangular shaped pieces of paper, plucked from colourful boxes that sit in front of them.

The monks awake for morning prayers
I was taking in the scene when suddenly the monk at the front directed a few others to leave the room. I was just wondering what could be so important as to interrupt their prayers when the monks came back in carrying a giant barrel of toast. I then realised that the monks had stashed their knives, plates and mugs on the prayer benches, ready to receive their morning breakfast. Whilst they chanted and prayed continuously, pieces of white bread toast were handed around - as was a jar of jam and peanut butter which each monk applied conservatively and mindfully to his piece of toast.  I also noticed a couple of young monks had some packets of supplementary digestive biscuits to accompany their meal! I don't know what I was expecting Tibetan monks to eat for breakfast but it certainly wasn't jam and peanut butter on toast. 

Tibetan monks breakfast
Just as I was looking on (I confess, somewhat hungrily), the senior monk directed a young monk who hastily ran to me with a plate, a cup and a generous helping of bread. I waited my turn for the peanut butter and jam, feeling quite guilty that I was participating in their yummy breakfast and yet not in the gruelling schedule that no doubt charactises their monastic day. I walked back to the settlement to collect Kevin and saddle up the scooter, reflecting on the generosity and beauty of the Tibetan people and possibly the most unforgettable and spontaneously spiritual breakfast I had ever enjoyed in my life - jam on toast with the monks, amidst incence and prayer. 

My helping of toast and butter tea

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