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Nepal: Magic in a Monastery, 1976

June 12, 2010

Photos by Ken and Peg Herring

I headed to Nepal on the overland route, traveling by train through the great northern plains of the sub-continent.  The wintertime season was surprisingly cold.  Both the cities and the rural areas were desperately poor in this part of the country, and I lived in a state of self-imposed poverty, moving about India with only a small army surplus pack, an extra tee shirt, and a single pair of sandals.  I froze a lot, but like a pilgrim performing penitence, this was a necessary part of the journey.

One afternoon I walked around the northern city of Patna, looking for something to eat.  I had little money, and no equipment for camping, and so took my meals in the small, simple restaurants favored by the local populace.  Patna is a crowded town and it navigating its streets was a huge chore.  The town teemed with people twenty four hours a day.

The city has little to recommend it.  There are no famous temples to draws wealthy tourists, no significant archeological sites.  It is a large place where hundreds of thousands of ordinary residents carry on their daily struggle for existence.  At one period during the 1970s the town had a jail containing the members of a few religious cults that had incurred the wrath of Indira Gandhi’s government, but otherwise it offered little more for travelers than other random waypoints.  But from here one could catch trains north to the region of the Nepali border, and so quite a few young backpackers transited through the city.

Walking that day, trying to stay out of the way of a other million pedestrians, I had little notion of what lay ahead.   The leaden sky pressed on the city like a thick, depressing blanket, and the mood of the populace matched the weather.  I picked my way through the crowd, tired and hungry.

A face popped up in front of me, smiling.  I heard a voice.

“Hello, where are you going?  What is your purpose?”

A young man stood before me, with sharply Asiatic or Mongolian features and longish jet-black hair.  He was about my height.  He appeared to be walking backward, keeping pace with my stride.

Namaste,” I said.  He exuded an air of natural confidence.  “I’m trying to find a restaurant and have some lunch.”  I thought he must one of the legions of helpful Indians I had met already, wanting to practice his English and help a lost tourist.

“Yes, a restaurant.  That is good.  I know a nice one.”  We fell into step.

It turned out he was on his way to Nepal, a traveler.  He worked in a monastery outside of Kathmandu and was a Tibetan Buddhist refugee.  He called himself Timche.  We joined together for the remainder of the trip.

At first I thought of him as just another temporary companion, but he had a habit of disappearing and re-emerging at will. The last bus to the border crossing departed from the middle of an empty parking lot.  Timche told me to go ahead and board; he would be along shortly.  I got on, found a seat, and became upset when the driver started the bus before Timche turned up.  I left my seat, went to the front of the bus, and tried to explain to the driver that we couldn’t leave just yet, as there was another passenger on his way.

“No, no, I am terribly sorry,” the driver said.  “I have a schedule to keep. We must leave directly.”

This seemed implausible.  Indians were not famous for keeping to schedules.  “You don’t understand,” I said anxiously.  “My friend will be here any minute.”  I scanned the parking lot but Timche was nowhere in sight.

The driver put the bus into gear. I despaired.  Would this be the last I saw of my new friend?

Then, inexplicably, Timche materialized in the doorway of the bus. Just like that!  There was no conceivable way he could have run across the parking lot undetected, but poof! there he was, climbing the front steps.  I figured the anomaly was some kind of short term memory lapse.  I had no other possible explanation.

At the Nepali border Customs and Immigration formalities were easy enough for a Westerner, but Timche experienced rough interrogation from the Nepali guards. Despite his documented status as a refugee, they demanded a bribe to let him into the country. He had no choice except to pay.  I offered to help financially — he could ill-afford the money, $20 — but he refused with dignity.

We parted company in Kathmandu.  He set off to his monastery, and invited me to come see him on a regular basis.  I occasionally obliged.  He worked in the religious community’s kitchen and I would bicycle there from the city once or twice a week.  We would sit with the other workers and drink Tibetan tea.  None of them spoke English, so the visits were largely ones where communication was accomplished by silent smiling and nodding.

1) Kathmandu Valley

One day I went to the monastery but didn’t find him in the kitchen.  None of the Tibetans there knew where he’d gone. The entrance was located to one side of the monastery complex and as I was walking back to the road I saw a huge crowd of people milling near the main courtyard gate. Rural tribesmen with pigtails and leather boots, women adorned in long skirts and colorful aprons, all crowded into the yard.  I guessed that a ceremony was about to take place and hurriedly passed by, not wanting to interfere.

But several Tibetans beckoned me to enter.  Perplexed, I didn’t think it polite to refuse such an outpouring of good will, yet neither did I want to end up in the middle of a procedure or rite where I didn’t belong. Curiosity decided the issue.

A thousand or more tribespeople were seated in the courtyard, walled off from the outside by a high brick wall.  The main building of the monastery, an elaborate facade with balconies, windows, and ornately carved wooden facades, rose like the backdrop of a stage.  Fierce mountain men bedecked in fine silver and coral jewelry poked me in the ribs, laughing happily at my hesitation. The air smelled strongly of ghee and campfire smoke.

The crowd became more animated as the courtyard filled to capacity.  Clearly the people here were not from Kathmandu Valley, but were rather peasants who had walked for days or  weeks out of the hills.  Scanning the faces, I was quick to notice the absence of Western observers.  I remarked a couple of European-looking monks, dressed in robes and with shaved heads in the manner of Buddhist acolytes, but there was no sign of other backpackers.  This ceremony had not been advertised to the tourist world.

Doors opened from an upper floor of the monastery, and three musicians, playing long brass trumpets, strode onto a balcony.  The music was keening, otherworldly.  The notes, sounded with a kind of circular breathing through the instruments, were not musical in the accepted sense, but rather a form of expression related, I read later, to the cosmic spheres.

Now monks handed out red prayer strings and other gifts to the participants.  I received a string and a sprig of wheat.  Although reluctant to accept the offerings, having little idea what they signified, I was persuaded to do so by my anonymous neighbors in the crowd.  I held the items closely, waiting to see what else was in store.

An exalted personage stepped forward into the crowd.  People surged toward the front to gain advantage and get closer to the man, who was evidently a high priest.  The few Westerners I had noticed before were the most aggressive supplicants.  But the man stepped lightly through the gathered audience.  He ignored those who pushed the hardest to gain his attention.  He was dressed in long, flowing robes, with closely cropped hair, and was of indeterminate age, but exuded a lofty dignity.  At intervals he chose a member of the audience, who, kneeling on the ground in submission, would receive a touch to the forehead.

Barely had I begun to observe the events when the man approached me.  Leaning over slightly, he touched his hand to my forehead.  A jolt of blinding electricity passed through my body, rendering me dazed and temporarily speechless.

My memories of the rest of the day remain vague.  When the priest, whom I later discovered was the Tolshe Lama, one of three of the highest office holders in Tibetan Buddhism, returned into the monastery, the crowd broke up.  From all directions Tibetans came to touch me, hug me, and furiously shake my hand.  I was overcome with delight, confusion, and a glow of preternatural happiness.

Events lowered me back to Earth in due time.  A lama, or monk, who spoke good English sidled up.  “You know why you were chosen by the High Lama to be blessed, do you not?” he said bluntly, yet with compassion.

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” I answered truthfully.

A trace of a faint smile formed on his lips.  “You needed it.  There are many paths to enlightenment.  Do not mix them.”  And with that he turned away.

Later, I found out that that the day’s events, for the participants an affirmation of their Buddhist faith, were part of the monastery’s dedication ceremonies.  Many Tibetans arrived by car, dressed in fine clothing and jewelry and dignitaries converged from many countries to attend the special occasion.

I never saw Timche again.  He had no further role to play.

2) town square, Kathmandu Valley

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