See glossary for meaning of terms marked in bold below.
How can a photographer assume rights to treat a human being like an inanimate exhibit? It is hard for me to conceive stepping right into someone’s personal space with a big mean digital SLR and shoot a few hundred images using a long lens poking up to the nose of the person being photographed. As if that is not bad enough, the photographer never spoke a word. No smile, not even a hello. Instead, he went on clicking as though he was shooting a sheep, or even worse, a museum piece. He took his time to take pictures from various angles and went satisfied only after every inch of his subject was photographed.
Yet, lama Sherap did not seem annoyed. He did not even blink at the photographer or showed the slightest discomfort. He simply continued at his work and once in a while looked up and smiled. He wasn’t perturbed even when the smile did not result in a reciprocation. After the mean photographer left without saying a ‘thank you,’ he looked at me and smiled as if telling me not to bother. I was sitting there talking with lama Sherap for a while and was very annoyed by the photographer’s behaviour. But the lama himself seemed to live up to what they learn – he was perfectly composed and simply resumed his work as though nothing happened.
Lama Sherap was taking care of the du-khang that day. He was alone in the prayer hall as his companions had gone to the village to perform some rituals. He was friendly, approachable and smiled gently every time he spoke. Sitting on the floor close to the entrance of the hall, he busied himself kneading chunks of tsampa (barley flour) and preparing torma. He explained me what torma is and helpfully added that it is for some special prayers being performed tomorrow.
As I sat and talked to with him, a Ladakhi woman walked in, greeted the lama with a smile and a ‘julley’, prostrated repeatedly towards the altar and and left as quickly as she came. Tourists kept coming in packs, took pictures and left within minutes, having ticked Thiksey off their list. After the nosy photographer completed his work, lama Sherap asked me how a digital camera works.
‘Today’s cameras don’t have film rolls and you can see the pictures at the back of them,’ he said, ‘where do the photos get recorded?’ I took out the CF card from my camera and showed him in answer. His next questions came immediately.
“How may photos get stored on them? They could get 36 in a roll of film. In which country do they make these things?”
After satisfying his curiosity, it was my turn to ask questions. Lama Sherap showed me a statue of Tson-ka-pa, helpfully identified it for me and explained that the monastery belongs to Gelugpa order. ‘There are about a hundred lamas,’ he said, ‘some are young lads and some are more than forty years old.’
As long as I was with him, he never saw his smile go away. When tourists misbehaved, sitting on the carpets that were meant only for lamas, he would wait to see if they would rise soon and then offer them another seat. There was not the slightest hint of irritation or anger despite repeated violation of regulations by visitors. Later at chon-kor, the room with a large idol of Buddha Maitreya, I saw a visitor stumble and drop a lamp on the floor and guiltily look at the monk taking care of the room, only to see him smiling. What could be an embarrassing moment was instantly dissolved in those smiles.
The chon-kor has an impressive 2-storey high statue of Buddha Maitreya. The tall Maitreya sits in padamasana (lotus position) and has a calm unblemished face. His lotus-like crown is embellished with images of reincarnations of Buddha. His large ornate ear rings complement the crown and stand out against the turquoise outfit.
The Maitreya statue is relatively new, inaugurated in 1980 by Dalai Lama. The monastery itself was founded in early 15th century. Walking up the crag where a group of haphazardly built buildings of the monastery are located, it is evident that the institution has grown and expanded over the years. I climb up the steps leading to the monastery past a latest addition – a newly built row of chortens.
Inside, the du-khang seems to be old enough to be one of the first buildings built. To each side of its entrance are the colourful murals of the deities of the four directions, while inside walls are painted with various forms of Buddha and Yab Yum. At the rear side of du-khang is a small chapel with metallic statues of Tson-ka-pa and Manjushri.
The paintings on the outer walls have a curious diversion from tradition. The samsara-chakra has figures wielding guns and wearing clothes more suited for British and Indian men of the plains a few hundred years ago.
The stairs next to the du-khang lead to the terrace from where I can see the barley fields spread along the valley, the river coiling through the fields and the mountains beyond. In the corner of the terrace is a small room – a library filled with ancient Tibetan scriptures. As I descend from the stairs and head out to the valley, it is the smiles of Lama Sherap and the calm face of Maitreya that stay in my memory, etched stronger than the photographs I clicked in the monastery.