Saturday, March 7, 2015

Masked Dance

The Dosmoche festival came in the latter half of February, on the last day of the old moon and the first of the new. We went with the students down the Indus valley to Likhir, for the masked dances at the monastery there. An hour on the bus west along the highway, past the confluence of the Indus and Zaskar Rivers, and through the large town of Nimmu: army encampments and electrical wires ran by the road as we traveled, giving way at intervals to desert, rock formations like eroding sculptures, and the sheer walls of the river gorge.

At Likhir we left the main road and climbed up a side-valley, old and new construction thickly together in the lower lands. Whitewashed houses with yaks or small shiny cars in the front yard alternated with concrete ones, roof trim painted in pastel acrylics, and red metal Airtel shopfronts, closed and locked. Terraces of willows and apricots rose at an incredible pitch on the other bank of the valley stream as we ascended from the outskirts of the town. An old farmhouse sat on the water’s edge just below the monastery, worn, well-kept, with faded red window frames and hay piled neatly along the edge of the roof. It was a world— entire, as it seemed to me— with neat fences and terraces, stables on the lowest level, a shovel leaning near the gatepost. Sufficient.

A parking lot had been built below the main monastery building, a forty-foot retaining wall keeping it from sliding down the cliffs to the fields below. We left the busses and walked up, taking off our shoes to enter the first of a number of temples.

I remembered these things from the last time I came to Ladakh: dim space, clean with the smell of juniper incense; elaborate, beautiful murals of the fierce protectors and their consorts, the bodhisattvas, and narratives of humans or devas I could not recognize; golden or gilt statues draped with white silk scarves (kataks), small rupee notes piled on dishes for offerings in front of them; dark red-painted pillars holding up the ceiling, the floor a similar color, worn smooth by devotees making prostration and centuries of passing feet. I felt grateful to enter the space as one of a stream of sincere comers. A young father in a puffed down jacket walked with his son at one hand and a string of prayer beads in the other, chanting mantra; an old woman in a goncha made prostrations near the door. We circumambulated slowly, each person moving individually but also a as a part of an unbroken flow of bodies, and of prayer.

On, through another temple where Dorje Vajrabhairava, the bull-headed fierce protector sat behind glass in a rear gallery, his face covered by a scarf. He was pictured on the left-and wall as well, not as Yama holding the Wheel of Life, but with his consort Vetali in embrace. A monk, agitated, spoke to me: “No ladies here!” He acknowledged my apology with a curt nod as I quickly left the gallery.

Outside enormous butter lamps in a glass case burned steadily, a pyramid of plastic bottles labelled refined soybean oil stacked outside (more half-full, inside among the lamps) from which they were continually filled. The offering of a butter lamp, I think, includes the morning milking, and the churning; in wintertime, the cutting and the drying of summer hay. I could not help but wonder about the fields (in the Punjab? In America?), the factory, and the landfill, all also present in the offering there.

Up—though it is difficult to speak clearly of above and below, the monastery a beautiful maze of stairs and narrow passageways connecting rooms and courts, ascending and descending in a complex tangle—to a broad roof, where a giant statue of Chamba (Maitreya) sat straight-backed in his chair. Recently I read something of him that has stayed with me: as the future Buddha, he is now one of the many beings wheeling in samsara. I had not thought of this before, Chamba’s image as a testament to the present, common possibility of enlightenment.

People circumambulated; a group of our students gathered for photographs (not with the statue, which felt at least a bit respectful) and we were pulled in. They were eating from large balls of firm dough made from sgampe, churpe, and chang (barley flour, yak cheese, and local beer); they offered more to us, pleased that we liked it.

Drums and horns began in the courtyard below and we went down for the dances. Standing first at the upper rail, we watched pairs of dancers come down the stairs from the monastery doors, every movement an act of full intention. They wore incredible robes, silk brocade with long triangular sleeves and silk banners down their backs from the crowns of their hats. The masks, too: fierce and fiercer horned monsters, antlered deer, others, many colors and expressions, teeth always bared. The smallest children would sometimes run out onto the court as the monks danced, risking being chased.

The oldest men and women lined the walls of the courtyard, cross-legged, respectable, wrapped in thick wool. Mani beads moved continuously through their hands, the motion breaking only, I think, for a grandchild to be pulled near. Closer to the dancers several rows of watchers sat on the flagstones, and we sat down next to three women in spectacular traditional dress. Each wore a goncha, and an up-curved, flat-topped Ladakhi hat (tibi) over two long grey braids bound together at the bottom. Two of the women had square shawls of sheepskin overlaid with silk over their backs, tied straight across their shoulders, as people carry baskets here. Lundup, in front of us, turned and told us that they were from Zanskar.

We managed a happy, broken conversation, learning where their villages were, speaking of wool. The woman nearest to me told me that she had three children, and asked me if I had any. We offered them some of our sweet dough; later, they gave us chapathis from the lunch that they had brought to share.

The dances climaxed in a stream of unmasked monks joining the spirits, spinning, circling, processing across to the cloister where the musicians sat. In one hand each held something that looked like an ornate iron knife. On the far side they received a set of cloths in each of the prayer flag colors before returning again, two by two.

The people dispersed quickly. On the road above the main temple men served rice and dal from giant pots, laughing, calling out for people to come.

After perhaps an hour the monks processed again, coming in a parade through the crowd, carrying a large plate of torma to which people added offerings of food or money. The oboe they played looked almost exactly like a European oboe, but decorated with flags; the smallest monks played the drums. The parade wound down to the terraced fields just below, where a pyre had been built. They placed the offerings inside the frame and set it alight, dancing again in a large circle while the fire burned quickly behind them.

The monastery sat not at the top of the village, but at the center. From where we stood I could see Likir continue up the valley, square whitewashed houses interspersed with the open spaces of fields and the grey haze of bare-armed Lombardy poplars. As the mountains drew in, the human dwelling seemed to grow more spacious, and gentler on the land. I find myself more eager all the time to be up a valley like this, somewhere.

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