Dec 2, 2013

Julley! : Part 2

The blue moleskine is my smallest sketchbook till date. The size definitely helped, given the conditions that I was drawing in – extreme sun, or strong cold winds, drawing while doing interviews and making notes (was there on work, remember), or simply on the go. That said, when I was faced with the brown moleskine, it suddenly seemed...huge.

But the show must go on :P  I'd used up the last pages of blue book drawing gorgeous wrinkled women at a monastery, and when the performance that we were all there for started in a frenzied blur of brocade and colour, there was no time to hesitate on the first page of new book. Melodramatic I am, but who doesn't have that fear of new-book-first-page?

The Champs, a ritual dance, began slowly enough. The masked monks moved in tiny measured arcs, while continuing to move in a larger circle. Further away, other monks handled the instruments that backed up this dance; cymbals, drums and a loooong trumpet. The dance slowly picked up pace, until all we could watch was the brocade fabric whirling by and glimpses of the scary faces on the monks' aprons. The dance is traditionally performed by hundreds of monks (what we witnessed was a very scaled down version). The  performance brings alive to watchers, the sights of ghouls and demons and monsters, so that when they are encountered eventually, there is no fear.
While the Champs performance that we watched was at Chokhang monastery in Leh, the monks were from the monastery at Matho, one of the many villages and towns around Leh city. At the Matho monastery, we spent time with an amazing bunch of women from the Matho Museum Project. I've always known that restoration is exacting work, and here I was able to see exactly the different techniques and research that goes in to this kind of work.
While the women around us were involved in separate activities - one was touching up an old mask, another was fixing the gaps in the fabric of a thangka before she could start on restoring the actual painting, two other girls were literally counting threads on a piece of silk before cutting it to an exact specification - Nelly Rieuf, the project manager, showed us a folder that was their version of a pantone swatchbook, full of locally sourced silk and fabric samples in very very specific colours. She then showed us a box, with tiny vials of powders...actual pigments to restore paintings...malachite, lapiz, real gold. Mind was blown.

Below the monastery, we met some women and children sorting and tying up their harvest of barley. I behaved like the city-child that I am and picked up a couple of ears of barley while trying, in vain, to record a song that the women were singing while they worked. We were offered chai, and I realised it was salt tea only after my first sip. I was taken by surprise, but considering salt tea and yak spotting were two things on my Leh bucket list, I finished a full cup. It tasted a bit like salted caramel. 
Chang, the local brew, is made of barley. Tashi Dolma, the eldest of the women we met there, was a wee bit tipsy on chang and totally posed for pictures, and comparing her hat to C's.
Lama Tsering Angchuk sits outside the little passage that takes us to the Kali mandir, collecting offerings of plastic bottles of oil and little bottles of rum. How or why a shrine to Kali exists inside the monastery at Spituk is still beyond me; I will need to do much reading up about Buddhism to understand. The Kali statue in the shrine was huge, and covered completely by a cloth. All we could see was eleven huge arms - six and five - that rose on either side of the veiled Kali. The only thing separating us from the idol, were lines of thin rope with rupee notes hanging on them like a clothes line. More offerings.
Somehow being that close spooked me out a bit, despite the veil.
A traditional Ladakhi kitchen in the home of the first Sonam Dolma (the names begin to repeat after a while). The kitchen is the node of the Ladakhi home, where people spend most of their day getting warmth from the thap, the traditional Ladakhi stove, or simply sipping salt butter tea through the day.
The second Sonam Dolma, in a village three hours out of Leh, was like any aunt, fussing over whether we drank our tea or ate the salad that was put out for us. Thankfully I had a watch on my tea, I was spared the giant spoon of butter she sneaked in to another cup.
The boss and I spent quite a few days here until most of the carpets in the shop had been unravelled and examined. 
City-child behaviour part 2. I cannot explain how giggly I was to have eaten a carrot mere seconds after it was pulled out of the earth.
Back in the hotel kitchen at Tangtse, boss and I attempted making momos. "Attempted" being the operative word :P 
Pangong Tso. (tso is Ladakhi for lake). The most impossible blues I have seen since the Côte d'Azur. Sadly a frightening number of people seem to know it because of the Bollywood film 3 Idiots. (There's even a shack near the lake called Three Idiots Restaurant. Facepalm).
Along either side of the very lengthy lake, are what are termed villages, but in essence are clusters of 10 houses (or less). We headed up to Spangmik, one such village, where the number of tourists and campsites far outnumbers the local population. Spangmik is the last point that civilians with an Inner Line Permit are allowed until on this side. We're told stories of UFO sightings and even a Chinese pandubi (submarine) that crossed over the border - the two halves of Pangong Tso lie in India and China - and threw Chinese flags at the villages along the lake. 
Pebbles from Pangong Tso. They remind me of the mountains and the vastness of the lake.
Back at the hotel, we ended our last day of shoot and interviews with Godfather beer (For Sale in Jammu & Kashmir Only) while surrounded by an insane number of fake plastic flowers in every conceivable neon. The profoundness that is spilling over on the book isn't an after effect of Godfather. It is one of the many, many, many quotes on signs all over the roads built on this side of the world by a wing of the army called Border Roads Organisation, or simply BRO. I call these quotes the BRO Code. More of them here >>.
Last meal at our Leh lunch haunt.
The last evening at Leh also meant a final decision had to be made on carpet/kilim purchase. I used the boss as an excuse to happily accept an offer of kahwa, Kashmiri green tea made with cinnamon, cardamom and saffron. Heaven in a cup.
Unlike the day we flew in, I did not get a window seat on the flight out. I had to grab as much as I could of the rationed last glimpse of mountain tops.
Killing three hours in Delhi airport, wondering where the mountains went and if it was all a dream.
Religion is everywhere, the prayer flags are overwhelming, there are prayer wheels at and monasteries at regular intervals, and yet it was never imposing or infringing (like all the other extremist religion based politics). There is a certain sense of peace and tranquility that are acquired on entering Ladakh. I think it mostly has to do with living in the constant presence of humbling grandeur like the mountains. I came back in a state of zen that I have never been in, and quickly lapsed in to acute mountain withdrawal symptoms. Ok I just made that up, but after spending 10 days seeing mountains and riotous prayer flags in every direction I turned, it was quite depressing to return to traffic and Congress/BJP posters lining the roads.

One thing's for sure. I'm going back.


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