Saturday, 3 August 2013

Men at work: days in Leh

It all started with a cat.

I'd been a couple of days in Leh, taking it gently as all the books tell you to when you travel from nearly sea level to 3,500 metres in a single hour; I was tired of the easy life, bored with the shops, their same-old same-old souvenirs (soapstone Buddhas, brass elephants, pashminas) and their soapy chatty smiley salesmen who never stopped accosting me; I wanted to get out.

I took a bus to Spitok. It's seven kilometres, I think; just a bit further than the airport - the monastery sits uncomfortably on a ridge of rock that cuts right across the end of the runway. At six or seven in the morning, planes roar into Leh and thunder away again.

There's a good road for a way, but then I found my way up to the Gonkhang lay across scrabbly scree, dipping down from one side of the ridge, and then scrambling up a steep, narrow corner of rock to the terrace of this improbably perched temple. (When I looked down from there, I could see the way I should have come, an easy stride up from the road to the main monastery, and wide steps up from there.) Horrid horned deities lurked in the damp temple, their faces covered by veils; from time to time worshippers appeared, prostrated themselves, hung scarves around the deities' necks, lit butter lamps in the soot-blackened lamp-house next door. An old thin-faced man took twenty or hundred rupee notes for the gods, administered puja. (Under the veils, the gods had too many arms, too many skulls round their necks; were they Buddhas or Kalis?) When I was alone with these statues I found myself feeling nervous, like walking down a narrow alley late at night; there's nothing there, you keep saying to yourself, till it becomes a mantra.

I took the stairs down. I found myself, eventually, outside the back of the monastery, in a small courtyard, with a door half-open to the interior; it looked unwelcoming, and I felt loath to venture in.

Then the cat appeared.

He was one of those confident cats you sometimes see who know the world revolves around them. He miaowed at me, gave me a hard stare, and walked, tail waving gracefully, to curve himself round the edge of the door and disappear into the dimness.

Well, what could I do but follow him?

He led me up a narrow staircase, to a landing, out eventually to a small courtyard on an upper level, where he promptly jumped up to a window ledge and on to the table inside, popping up again to stick his head out of the window and miaow at me. But every time I reached out a hand to scratch his head, he'd turn around and jump down the few inches to the table; and every time I pulled my hand back, he'd jump back to the windowsill. These were cat games; I was a cat toy, there solely for his amusement. It amused me, too.

When I heard a low chuckle I realised it amused someone else; an older lama who was coming across the courtyard. As he opened a small door, the cat narrowed its eyes, then leapt fluidly down from the window and ran across, looking up at the lama before disappearing inside. I smiled. The lama smiled, and then beckoned.

One side of the room was dark, the wall covered in glass fronted niches which hid twenty-one gilded Taras. The other was all glass, huge windows looking out over the Indus river, the low but sharp cliffs on the other side, the fields below. Here, in the rather grey light, the lama sat to work on his butter lamps, the cat lying lazily against his knee, and I sat cross-legged facing him, watching.

Brightly coloured lumps of buttery putty swam in a bowl of cool water in front of him. He had already half completed a plaque, laying the base colours, and now he was making the surrounds; long, thin sausages of putty, first balled up in his fingers, then pressed through a wooden bar with tapered holes in it to create long strings of putty, and then gently laid on the plaque and prodded into position. Then came flowers; built up, petal by petal, in his hands, with tiny balls of red or white rolled up in his fingertips and applied to the top as stamens. He'd just put the fifth one on when he must have seen something wrong; just as evenly, delicately and slowly as he'd laid them on, he pulled the whole assembly of flowers off, and started again. One of these little offerings to Buddha takes three or four hours to make; he'd already made four, which stood in front of a small altar to one side, and which he showed me so that I could take a picture of them.

I watched for about an hour, I think. Indian tourists came in, took a photo, left. The lama kept working and I kept watching, and from time to time we exchanged smiles, and the afternoon went by.

It was getting late when I left, about five, I think, and I was going to wander down through the village, huddled cubes of building on the slope that tumbles down to the Indus valley, and catch the bus back into Leh. As I came out on to the monastery roof, though, I heard singing, far away yet loud. I squinted into the sun; no sign of any singer, till far in the fields I caught sight of a plough team, two oxen yoked to the plough. It was the ploughman who was singing as he went.

So instead of taking the bus, I took the path out to the fields, where the brown silt is fertile and the river isn't far away, and I found three plough teams all working the same field, round and round - as fields here aren't square, but rounded, and ploughed from the outside in, all the teams following each other and turning in unison.

The song isn't just sung for joy; it's sung for coordination. "Go straight! To the right! Go slow!" I was told, when I asked what the words meant; as the leading driver yells the refrain, "A-oh," he turns his oxen and swings his plough around, the song warning the other drivers to do the same. Everyone sings, antiphonally, a question and answer, a call and response.

Round and round the field they go, and as they go, the women (almost always: one man, who'd tired himself out ploughing, joined them later) throw the seed on to the ground, to be ploughed under, and trodden in. Three families were ploughing that day; Ladakhi agriculture is a hurried, fraught business, packing the whole process from sowing to harvest into the few snow-free months from May to September, and everyone in the village helps with everyone else's work. The youngest baby had come along, clambering into so many women's laps that I soon gave up trying to guess who the mother was, and running away every time I pointed a camera at him; two grandmothers vied for my attention, and posed theatrically for portraits; two women poured me buttery tea ("proper Ladakhi tea, no India tea here") and pushed chapattis at me, and the Rayban-wearing ploughman who represented the youngest generation working here turned out to have excellent English, and translated. Tea break, of course, is a big Ladakhi tradition; here, it happened as soon as one field was ploughed; big thermoses were pulled out of baskets, and tea towels unfolded to get at the bread, and everyone sat on a grassy bank in the sun till it was time to get on with the next field. I've rarely felt so happy.

And all the time, a young dzo was watching. (A cross of cow and yak, the dzo lives at lower altitudes than the yak, and works hard for his living.) Was he a spare, I wondered?

"He doesn't work," Raybans said. "This year, two year old, he watches. This year he sees, he learns, next year he works."


Back in Leh, I found that the disappointingly cosmopolitan tourist shops of the main bazaar were not all the city had to offer. If instead of going right from my guesthouse to the bazaar, I turned left down Nowshara Market, I'd find shops with Ladakhi traditional costume, not pashminas, and proper shirts, not rainbow-patterned hippie gear.

About half way down was a small shop with a window full of Taras and Buddhas; nothing else. No elephants, no pencil boxes, no Kama Sutra carved in fake ivory, no handbags or silly hats. Just Buddhas, Taras, a solitary Guru Rinpoche.

Intrigued, I went in. At the back of the shop, a man was sitting painting the eyes on to Taras. Twenty-one Taras, he told me, for a monastery which had commissioned them for its shrine room.

"I finish them today, they come tomorrow to pick them up," he said. The brush licked delicately at the iris of another eye.

He was happy to talk about his work. He trained at the Norbulingka school in Dharamsala; he was shortly to go back there for a month (indeed, next time I passed he'd shuttered the shop, which is one reason I'll have to go back to Leh - I still want to buy one of his Taras). He showed me some of the lesser known saints; he explained their attributes - why Guru Rinpoche is always shown with the skull and trident; White Tara with a third eye in her forehead, and eyes in the palms of her hands. Manjushri with his sword, for truth and the ability to divide it from falsehood.

I asked what statue I should buy, if I bought one. Not the prettiest or the most exotic, but what would do me the most good.

"First you should have the Buddha, of course," he told me. Well, that's good, as I do already have a Buddha.

"Then you should have Tara, for luck," he said. "She brings long life. Every house needs Tara."

Every statue is first cast in bronze; he buys them in, ready for gilding and painting. Some are only partly painted, just the details picked out; others are almost gaudily covered in colour. (In the tourist shops and the Tibetan markets, mass-produced, poorly cast statues clustered in their dozens - but these were quite different. I always look at the hands first; a bad casting has cubist hands, all straight lines, or mittens with just a scratched line to divide the fingers. Look at a good statue, though, and you'll see each finger delicately carved, real life in the mudras, the sacred finger-talk.)

I stayed a little while, taking pictures, and watching the work. And even though I never managed to buy my own Tara, just watching patiently, I like to think, brought me some merit.

Stanzin Phuntsok's Traditional Gallery is in Nowshara Market, Leh

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