Our third road trip was to an area where we will return to start the second part of our trek. But we will be rushing then to get on the trail and we learned that there was a monastic festival earlier in the month, so we resolved to visit Lamayuru on a separate trip.
Along the road, many people were dressed in local clothing to pay their respect to a lama who was passing to his monastery. At one place, a woman was crossing the raging Indus river in a basket trolley. Local clothing is colorful, with women typically wearing a square-topped felt hat. Some women wear a heavy headdress covered with turquoise stones.
The setting of the Lamayuru monastery is striking. It lies in a high valley surrounded by the craggy peaks of the Zanskar Range. Some nearby eroded slopes are understandably called “moonland” by locals.
The two-day festival was in full swing when we arrived. Local sources had told us the dates were June 10-11, and we figured we'd arrive in the middle of the first day. The Tibetan calendar, however, is subject to reinterpretation based on lunar observations, and the monks had moved everything a day earlier at the last minute.
Fortunately, we were able to see the most interesting dances of the final afternoon. Much like the Tiji Festival in Lo Manthang, which we described at length earlier, these circle dances revolved around a ceremonial exorcism and killing of evil spirits in an effigy, this time made from tsampa (barley meal). I have needed to carefully select camera angles of the anatomically correct effigy to preserve the G rating of this blog. The locals seemed to find all this very amusing.
In the climactic dances, eight monks used a series of ceremonial weapons to neutralize and finally kill the demon. Finally, the lead dancer cut the effigy to bits with his sword. Jesters, a comic-relief fixture of Tibetan monk dances, then threw the bits of the demon into the crowd, delighting the kids much like at a baseball game. The monks then made their exit and returned their masks to the monastery, where they will hang until the next year.
An advantage of missing the first day was that we were free to leave early the next morning and visit other monasteries on the way back to Leh. Several, like Rizong and Likir, had striking hillside settings.
But our favorite was the ancient monastery at Alchi. Built in the 11th century by Kashmiri artisans on a secluded bend of the Indus, this monastery was different from any Tibetan Buddhist chapels we had ever seen. A tall, pagoda-like chapel housed three giant statues. Every bit of wall space and even the statues' clothing was covered by ancient paintings.