They lead austere lives. So we know.
Before the sun manages to peek from beyond the clouds and much before the mountains can bid adieu to the chill of the night, they awaken. With gratitude for a new day writ on their beings and peace in their hearts, they pray, chant, and have warm sips of tea from tumblers. I do not know if they have a schedule pasted on the walls of secret chambers of complex gompas that guides them to their chores each waking day or it’s mere habit and respect for their institution. But their days are chalked out to perfection, from meal timings, work hours, study time, to when they should shut their eyes.
This most naturally makes us believe that Tibetan monks or lamas lead a life that is devoid of deviations and distractions. That they are as much preoccupied with the divine as detached to mortal, human interactions. With a bagful of such notions, I travelled to the Tibetan monasteries of Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh. And as simply as a bubble disintegrates, so did my schooled-perceptions on the lives and living of lamas.
While traversing through monastery-country, we often come across monks who appear stern and reserved; monks who clasp prayer bells and chant incessantly, who curtly direct us to lose our footwear and cameras before we enter the shrine, who tread the steep steps of monasteries and perch stoic in nondescript corners, who reprimand curious steps as they try to snoop into the kitchen or living quarters.
But have you wondered what transpires when these stern disciplinarians invite you to the inner sanctums of their monasteries passaging to their hearts and lives? It is then that one gets to see walls being broken down and conversations flowing over cups of tea. Such conversations over tea marked a significant part of my travel through Spiti and forged roads of interactions that had seemed inconceivable till then. Albeit their garbs, knowledge, and sense of detachment, love, and contentment set them apart, Tibetan monks are just like us.
At the landmark Key Monastery, I was among the fortunate few allowed to enter the kitchen and photograph the monks. Timid at first, it took me by surprise when the ice was broken not by me but the smiling monk in front of me. His face illuminated by the burning wood behind him, he sat near the oven in a peaceful and happy gait, turning to each one of us and answering our incessant questions about his life in the monastery, seemingly oblivious of the camera clicks. In barely lighted monastery kitchens, monks (in charge of the kitchen) spend a considerable part of their day ensuring that everyone is well fed and on time. And in the midst of it all, they never refuse a bunch of enthusiastic travellers desirous of learning about them.
Standing in one corner of the kitchen, my eyes fell on a bucketful of what-seemed-like halwa and we were obliged. The sweet taste of the halwa (an offering to the gods and meant for monks) and the kind gesture of partaking what is not rightfully mine still lingers on my mind more than on my tongue.
So does the tea at the house of a monk. A few metres from the monastery, down mountain paths, I entered his home. By invitation. It had seemed to be an end of the conversation in the monastery kitchen, but gladly it wasn’t. With overwhelm and gratitude, and of course not knowing what to expect, I sighed as I took a step inside.
What really does one need to live in happiness? A working stove to make tea infinite number of times in a day perhaps, cosy mattresses spread around a room warmed by deep conversations, and a window that peers over the valley and looks up at the mountains treating both the sunrise and the sunset with equal empathy. My friends had already taken their places around the room and as I found a cosy corner for myself, our host, the ever-obliging lama, handed me a cup of steaming black tea.
I was soaked in a luxury I have never before experienced with biscuits, multiple savouries, and laughter ringing loud. It is not every day that one sits in the house of a monk, sharing tea and stories. He told us of his life as a monk, his travels and duties, and how it took him years to build a corner for himself close to the monastery. And how he is still setting up his home.
At Komic gompa, after another round of photographs and introductions, my heart leapt at the prospect of sharing yet another cup of tea with a monk, not at the monastery or his home this time, but at a tea stall. Monks visit tea stalls meant for petty folks like us? As we scampered inside the tea stall, tales of a monk’s childhood started pouring along with hot cups of tea.
It is not uncommon in Tibetan families to bequeath their children to the monastery. As our guide, Dorje ji, later explained that parents often offer their second male child to the order, the first child being the inheritor of family name and property. These children, often times very young, are perhaps too naïve to understand the shift in their life from a small child with a family to a young monk within an order.
As we sat there laughing at childhood incidents of naughtiness, getting caught, and being punished, my eyes peered at his face forming lumps in my throat at what must have transpired in the heart of a little kid, far away from home and being hauled up for deeds that are typical of his age. No one reprimands a child for stealing mangoes off abandoned trees, milking cows, playing an extra hour with friends, secretly jumping onto a bus to watch a movie. But the road that leads up to monkhood forbids them. His eyes twinkled reminiscing days gone by and how he doesn’t have any misgivings; instead, how he uses his experience to teach the present generation of young monks. And then, there are a few of us who regret growing up, having less than our neighbours and friends and find no peace in the lives that we have led or what is to come.
Every story in a distant land—stories of difficult lives, challenges overcome, and finding happiness and meaning—stirs potful of emotions within us. But spending candid time with Tibetan monks unearthed uncountable layers of consciousness in me. It taught me that none is bereft of human emotions and interactions. It is convenient to pass by doors than knock on them to know the people who dwell inside; but unless we knock, we will never know that behind those robes lie hidden memories of childhood games and mischief. Beyond closed eyes and chanting lips are tales that want to spill out and flow, lying in wait of obliging ears. Between stern looks and composed gait is the desire to mingle, share, play, and make friends; friendships that last beyond who we are and who we become.