On Top of the World
Dawn. Sun touches the highest peaks as I set out to climb the crag above the town of Leh, Ladakh. Every day a monk offers early morning prayers in two small gompas (monasteries) on this hill. The path has been washed away in recent rain and the scree slides beneath me. I thread my way up to the lowest monastery.
buildings blend with rock
strings of coloured flags flutter
against the sky
Usually a few tourists come to view the gompas at opening time but today I am the only one among a crowd of Ladakhis coming up the path from the other side. I ask a man if it is a special occasion.
“No”, he replies. “Once every month we put up new prayer flags. On a day that is good,” he adds.
On the summit, in the ruins of a third gompa, a fire is lit, fed with butter and herbs. Long poles are embedded in the edge of the precipice.
young men hang in air
with bundles of bright flags
new links cross the valley
Chanting begins. I hang back, fearing to intrude but a smiling woman takes my hand, draws me into the circle. We have no words in common; I sit beside her in silence as sound flows round us with smell of butter and fragrant smoke. Every now and then my neighbour throws rice into the air, stops for a chat or points out something in the town below, then turns the pages of her book to join the chants again. The script is in Tibetan but the page numbers are familiar. She is reading from page 24.
Sunshine moves over the plain. Below, the cramped town, a few fields, small patch on a desert landscape. Early morning chill; sun withdraws in a cloudy sky, the wind is sharp. The prayers reach page 43.
rise in space
surrounded by nameless snow peaks
The chanting ends, after 86 pages, with sudden joyful shouts. We all stand and tsampa (barley flour) is passed round. Throw up, someone says to me.
I throw the flour into the air to general laughter as it falls on the head of a nearby youth. He shakes it out of his hair. “Not yet. Watch me.”
Everyone begins to sing. We raise our fistfuls of flour three times. No longer a stranger, I am part of this hilltop communion as we cast our flour on the wind. It rises in a fine cloud.
flour blows where we
can’t go — towards mountains
that guard Tibet