Deep in the heart of Zanskar, an empty patch on the map of India’s mountainous north, there lies a bewildering place, a rock-carved temple suspended deep below an airless blue sky and above a wild rumbling river.
Some two thousand years ago a man came down that same river with his followers, they tell me. In the cave that gapes high up above he found shelter and solitude in which to devote his life to meditation and dhamma.
With time, a thousand or so years later, the monks began building their monastery. A prayer hall was carved into the cave, with small dwellings and labyrinthine alleys below it clinging to the dizzyingly steep cliff face. Some sixty monks live here now, many coming to the monastery as children and staying here for their entire lives.
Modernity has no patience for the ponderous lives of Buddhist monks and Mother India is diligently leaving her mark in even the remotest of its corners, sending great ugly bulldozers up mountains to tame the passes and lay the concrete that will turn to rubble with the next rainy season.
But for now, for just another short moment, Phugtal Gompa remains an island outside of time that can only be reached on the third day of walking, after the crumbling trail has tired your feet and the highland sun has broiled your brain.
Arriving near midday, the little monklings are still in school, sitting in groups on the floor of the stone terrace with notebooks and chalkboards scattered around them. As soon as the gong strikes noon they abandon their studious play-acting and explode in a flurry of shrieks and laughter, as restless and cheeky as any other group of rowdy boys, regardless of the robes the wear. They clear the sunny terrace, turning it from a classroom into a dining room by bringing in low tables and arranging them in three long rows.
We are shown to our seats and given tin bowls, which are filled with rice and vegetables from large steaming cauldrons. The monks have grown accustomed to visitors – foreigners with pink sweaty faces and overly earnest smiles. We want to be a part of it, if only for an afternoon, solemnly gazing at the Himalayan views pretending we are anything but hurried, harried doing-machines.
When the meal is over Tibetan butter tea is poured into our empty bowls, a fatty salty drink that qualifies as tea only by name, and we are invited to stay for afternoon prayer and dinner. But we have no time for the ponderous lives of Buddhist monks either – we have to reach Purne by nightfall and the crumbling trail ahead, partly washed away by unseasonal rains, promises to be more than a little tricky.
When we leave the monklings are chasing each other up and down the countless stairs, their deep red robes trailing behind them, suspended deep below an airless blue sky and above a wild rumbling river.