James he says his name is. Just a kid really , about 23, spoke reasonable English, wearing the deep maroon of a fully fledged Buddhist monk. He has been asked by the trekking lodge owner to take us to the monastery in Gheling, in a muddy village about half way to Lo Manthang.
We’d arrived in Gheling after a fairly brutal 9 hours of slogging up one mountain and down the next all the while thinking we were closer than we were. It was day 3 of the trek and the late afternoon turned coldest with the wind howling and my thin gloves useless, my thick ones on top not much better. On top of the weather, there was an ongoing drama with the two Austrian ladies I was trekking with. Apparently they were given a different itinerary by the organizer than both the one I was given and the one in the permit (there’s an involved and expensive bureaucratic process to trek upper Mustang which states where you have to stay on each night). We had walked to the village on their itinerary (which I didn’t know then) and of course they wanted to stay. For some reason (perhaps to meet this monk I didn’t even know existed? ) I got on my (very? extremely?) high horse and insisted we keep going – it was only early afternoon, fine weather and of course, I’m such a stickler for paperwork. They were furious but I just marched off and they followed. It actually made sense to keep on going as I explained to them later, given the distances we had to travel to get to Lo Manthang, our ultimate destination, but for now they were quite upset. The guide wasn’t helpful either. He didn’t care where we stayed but when he pulled out his copy of the itinerary he showed something different from mine AND the Austrians. Turns out there were five different itineraries which caused problems for us later but that’s another story.
James, really Jamu, anglicized just for me, took us to the monastery perched on a hill overlooking the village. There were two halls, a lower, conventional Buddhist monastery, with the standard two rows of wooden meditation benches arranged perpendicular to the altar and seating mats behind the benches for visitors. Apart from some lovely and lively murals adorning the mud brick building it wasn’t terribly compelling.
The upper monastery couldn’t be visited by women – a Buddhist quirk I had previously encountered at temples and monasteries in Myanmar as well – I wonder what the grand old man would have thought of that? Probably the same horror as Jesus, Moses, Mohammed etc. would for their respectively hijacked dogmas. But I’m a man, so I was allowed to ascend the rickety wooden ladder to the anteroom, a rectangular chamber some 15x 20 filled with the miscellany of devotion. Mats, books, candles, a rice cooker, a few chairs, a cell phone charger, a solar panel and lights ( this village wasn’t on the grid at all, as much as there is a grid in Nepal) and a couple of folding tables. Religion at its most mundane. Another door was unlocked and we entered the almost pitch black space, except for a tiny oil lamp burning on the altar. Jamu turned on a solar light and the approximately 20 x 20 inner sanctum revealed itself. There was a mat and low counter off to one side for the Lama of this monastery, currently Jamu, whose story I will relate below. Ornate carved wood floor to ceiling consoles with paned glass cupboards above and locked cupboards below lined the other two sides.
The fourth wall had a small window inset in the thick mud brick wall which Jamu opened. In the increased light I could see the entire chamber was painted, but what paintings! I shone my phone flashlight on them and was awestruck.
Just a couple of examples! I could not do any better with the poor lighting. Jamu said they were painted about 30 years ago by the best monastery painter in India and Nepal. A roving Michelangelo to be sure as the work was exquisite.
Another masterpiece that will be seen by few in the flesh.
The entire room was filled with art and artifacts to amaze. On the alter there were intricately carved wooden and metal statues, maybe 18 inches tall, of figures from the Buddhist pantheon. Behind glass I could not photograph them unfortunately. They were definitely not your average laughing Buddha at the car wash. These saints, devils, princes of good and evil and spirit figurines were, according to Jamu, some two hundred years old and from Tibet. Along with the obligatory offering plate
(yes, I gave!) and the carved Buddha’s of stone, metal and wood, there were piles of silk scarves, amulets, bowls for holy water, plastic flowers, a Pringles chip canister, appropriated for use as an incense stick holder and a solar lamp.
The two pillars on either side of the altar had various item hanging from and strapped to, including a corkscrew shaped tree root about three feet long – at first I thought it was a metal industrial tool, swords and daggers, rifles from the rebels who fought the Chinese takeover of Tibet from Upper Mustang in the 60’s until the Nepali government put the kibosh on that (it is reasonably substantiated that the CIA was involved in arming and funding the rebels which is why Mustang was closed to the outside world until 1989) and a real mummified human hand.
Yes, I’m holding it, it is dead and it’s real!
The hand belonged to a thief a couple of hundred years ago who came to steal the monastery art and valuables for his master who was in some sort of conflict with Gheling (the story wasn’t that clear to me). The thief, apprehended in the act, had his hand cut off by the Abbot of the monastery (so much for love and peace).
The upper red building is the Lama’s private monastery.
The monastery was 483 years old and Jamu was the third son of a Gheling village farmer. It’s customary to send a third son off to religious school for the priesthood and Jamu was dutifully shipped to monastic school near Rishikesh in India where he learned his passable English and after his studies and life in different monasteries he was appointed to look after the Gheling monastery for a two year period. He has seven months left and then he’ll go where they send him to do his work.
Currently living with his family just down the lane from the monastery, he said it was fun to be home with his brother and sister. His daily routine of early morning meditation, births, marriages, deaths and fundraising and local volunteer work to keep the ancient buildings from falling apart kept him busy.
As he showed me more of the ancient, curious and unusual adornments of this tiny shrine, I commented on the pretty yellow and white silk scarves (like the one in the photo above). He said the villagers donate them on almost any occasion for a visit to the monastery and he had a cupboard full of them. He reached in and pulled out one of these offerings and gave it to me as a period gift. In a role reversal I wished him long life and the manifest blessings of the Buddha.