It is with some amount of reluctance that I decided to postpone further study through an institutionalized program. This hesitation was further deepened by the puzzling looks of adults wondering what in the world it was that I wanted to do if my immediate alternative was not one of getting a job. It is hard to be an ardent supporter of ‘learning outside the classroom’ when a majority around you claim it with passionate finesse, but then crack down with questions when it comes to actually giving it a try. Criticism and questioning apart, the project that I pursued immediately after graduation was in Ladakh where my friend and I joined two designers in documenting traditional Ladakhi textiles. **
In retrospect, that month in Ladakh was as elevating as I could have desired, not only in terms of its romance but also as an introduction to some harsh cultural realities. Throughout the trip, I could not help but draw analogies to what I would have been doing in college at that time of the day at a typical time of the semester. While I understand that comparisons are odious, it was fascinating to draw parallels in my mind where I was an active part of the image. One particularly stark one was in Nubra Valley, where I compared my morning to a typical one in college- the hour long metro ride and the dreaded 8:40 class.
I did have a little trouble shaking myself out of bed at 5 am but the light rising behind the jagged hills made it worth it. Our aim was to make the Morning Prayer at Diskit Monastery (‘Gompa’ in Tibetan) perched atop Tara Mountain. While there was some fuss involved as it got progressively cloudier, the bike ride up till the Gompa was my personal magic carpet ride as the wind hit my face and the cumulus clouds seduced the snow-capped peaks in the distance. Whenever I stopped to catch my breath on the walk up to the main temple, I would glance at the Buddha statue and the moulding prayer wheels and shake my head to acknowledge what I was really seeing. We perched ourselves on the intricate yak wool carpets in the main temple room and waited. I inhaled the cold, musty air and the colourful thangka played tricks on my sleepy mind. The wooden window frames were silhouetted against the shadow play of the mountains. The monks entered one by one and I straightened my back, suddenly self-conscious. They, however, smiled and nodded at us and went about their regular prayer rituals. They sat on the slightly elevated mattresses in front of the wooden benches and the chanting began. There was something very affecting about the rumbling manner of their prayers, and the yellow headgear worn by the monk sitting at the head of the ritual.
I sat there in a kind of rapt veneration until a mobile phone rang. I was aghast, thinking it was one of us until I noticed that it was actually one of the monks who put it on silent without any qualms. No dirty looks were shared, and the proceedings were unaffected. I was even more surprised to notice that towards the end of the prayer one of the monks was actually on his phone and he waved graciously at us when we asked (very cautiously) if we could click some photographs. We were served butter tea along with the monks and I held back a giggle when they poured it for us in big plastic Coca Cola cups.
I did indeed feel a sense of calm as I walked out of the temple room, especially because of the relaxed manner in which the monks interacted with us. We saw them joking with each other and just standing and talking by the balcony. We were invited into the Gompa kitchen where I was greeted by an enthusiastic “Julley!” and saw galleons of butter being put into the traditional longitudinal jar. The kitchen was perhaps my favourite part of the Gompa, with creaking wooden floorboards and light coming in from a broad stone chimney. Here too, the monks were jovial and chatted with us in broken Hindi (and I tried a bit of my Ladakhi amidst much laughter).
When we were driving back, and the sun began to teasingly peak at us, I realized how fixed and archetypal notions can be. I had fantasized about such picturesque monasteries while in my classroom and had also studied in theory about Buddhism, and I found my idea seriously lacking. I had constructed completely fixed notions of monks, putting them in a uni-dimensional category. It is not novel to hear about the ‘corruption’ of the Monastic Order as well as general disdain for an ascetic life, and yet I realized how lacking I was in perspective about the diverse background of the monks. The harsh conditions and limited resources of Ladakh can have an adverse effect on much of the rural populace and traditionally the monastery provides an alternative space for the people who could then convert to the Order. This means that the stereotyped notion of a particular intellectual and spiritual pursuit is not necessarily the underlying incentive when one decides to join the monastery. I had studied the economic role of places of worship, and yet its members had existed in binaries as parasitic or entirely altruistic. It was this morning at the Gompa that made realize how easily we fall into a trap and this experience rattled my frameworks of thinking and seeing. It is not about propagation of any kind of behaviour, and analysis of this phenomena is another topic of conversation altogether. The emphasis here is on my own observations about my pre-conceived notions.
It is quite funny to think of how I might have otherwise been sitting at the back of my class-room and dreaming about my coffee and muffin at the Café. -Samira Bose
**Refer to Pakhi Sen’s article ‘Student Still’ for details about the project we pursued.