The puja of Lamayuru

8 August - I leave Kargil at 7 by the shared jeep to follow a valley gouged by a dry river. The mountains have become desert-like; the rocky higher ones, as well as the earthy lower ones, are furrowed by the marks of water that flowed, but remind of the dry wrinkled skin of the locals. The air is in fact so dry that this morning, in order to provide relief, I have bought some paraffin that really smells of petrol, to spread on the face and block dehydration.

The driver, a shortie, has a very nervous driving and performs overtakings on the rough margin of the road that is beaten by so many lorries. Given the dryness of the environment, dust is everywhere and is lifted by the heavy vehicles. These also leave a smelly waft of thick black exhaust fumes, which makes the highway a rather disagreeable environment and causes a sense of nausea.

We race up a pass, then we drive down, to go up again in several hairpin bends to the 4,100 m of the Fotu La. From here the view is incredibly ample on all the mountains. The nearer ones appear as if painted in strokes of ochre in infinite hues and tonalities. In the farthest ones on the background, prevails a bluish tinge again as a result of the atmosphere.

I got to Lamayuru at 11 and went directly to the monastery. The puja rite is in progress, and an excessive number of tourists breaks the spell. The monks don't seem to be annoyed, they even show benevolence to this intrusion of ours, including us in the distribution of a far too sweet orange juice. I can't conjure up that air of mystery that pervaded the deserted and semi obscure rooms I saw previously, but I endeavour to find concentration and participate in the celebration, which is nevertheless very suggestive, being conducted by a large number of monks in a chorus.

The rite is ever changing. Chanting melodies resound in unison or more often at different voices, a bit disorderly actually, all in very low sepulchral tonalities. From time to time the instruments that the monks have in front of them are sounded. They are horns, seashells, drums, cymbals and strongly mark the conclusion of a phase or a significant moment of the prayer. For sure this clang makes the children revive, whereas at other times they wriggle absent-mindedly or just endure filled with bore.

Now the choral sound turns into a series of uncoordinated mumbles, even as the instruments that are tuned in the orchestra before a concert, then start again in the form of a psalmody. I observe a shaved monk with thick bushy eyebrows and a somewhat ghostly gaze. His hands draw a sequence of movements in the air, tracing symbols, coupling his fingers gracefully in enchanting shapes and signs in continual evolution, just as is this prayer, as the mani wheels repeat to the wind when they are turned by a passer-by's hand.

A monk comes to pour a spout of water out of a shell into the joined hands of his brethren. Some children monks take advantage to sprinkle each other, play jokes or fidget with the plastic cups. A kid who comes to gather the used containers asks me the time. It's now nearly time to round up the ceremony and have lunch.
I find a lovely guesthouse with a garden in the village below the monastery. After lunch I clamber up a path drawn by goats that goes up the steep mountain side opposite the group of houses, but I don't deem it prudent to go on because the slope is too abrupt and I fear that I may slip down with the shoes I'm wearing. So I walk back to the monastery to stroll between its buildings. Some children literally drive me into the refectory where I'm offered a cup of such a rich butter tea that floating fat makes look greenish on its surface.

The stern-looking monk that occupied the raised bench at the entrance of the prayer room is feared by the children, even as a chastising father, but benevolent at the same time. In fact these monasteries are just like a family of only men.

Before dinner I go to a young man's house who invited me this afternoon when I was washing my clothes at the village fountain. His house is just beside it and is in Tibetan style like any other in the village. I walk into a dark entrance that leads to a yard that the rooms and the kitchen look out on. He introduces me into the kitchen that has an earth floor, two large windows and a low ceiling. A wall is occupied by a cupboard in which the sets of cups, beautiful polished pot-bellied metal cauldrons and piled plates are nicely placed. Decorated ladles hang from a shelf, giving an impression of order and care. A low Ladakhi metal stove stands nearly at the centre. Its shutters and walls are ornamented with friezes of applied metal. A series of cushions covered by stripes of a rough and dusty rug follow two sides of the room, that is now scarcely lit because the sun has already set.

I am offered a cup of tea, that I eagerly hope won't be with butter because I feel I've had enough for today. But luckily it's only with milk. I try to converse on general subjects with my host, but we can't go beyond a certain point because of language barriers.

His wife comes in, a girl with her head bound in a kerchief, and starts preparing the dinner on a gas cooker. She kneads tsampa flour with water in a metal pan placed on the ground. She makes a thick disk of it that she lays on a plate raised on a stem, and cuts it in stripes. With her hands she tapers them in the shape of long cylinders, and subsequently cuts them in round sections that she presses between her fingers to obtain noodles for the soup.
Meanwhile her husband has brought a plastic jug, half filled with barley grains. He says it's local beer, the so-called chang, made of fermented corn. He adds water until it's full, then stirs and dilutes it, and eventually fills two glasses. As soon as I empty mine, even partially, he fills it with more liquid. He says he can make three jugs of beer from that amount of corn and in fact we profit by all the juice to quench our thirst with a drink that at first has a strong taste of fermented must, but I later grow used to it and it becomes nicer.

9 August - This morning I want to go to the puja from its beginning, at 6. I run up to the monastery in a hurry because the alarm clock was slow. In the room I realise with pleasure that I'm the only stranger. This privilege lasts for over a half hour, when some other foreigners arrive, but I must admit that it's people who have come to participate in the rite with concentration, rather than take it as a folkloric show. The phases are the same as I saw yesterday, because the prayer lasts half the morning. I stay two hours without getting tired.