Laughing in Church

Sunrise is early in Ladakh, the tips of the mountains turn pink by 5.00am and the sky is nothing but pure blue an hour later.  At Thiksey monastery the day starts early too – standing on the flat roof, 3600 metres above sea level, are two monks in maroon robes each blowing long trumpets – drungchens - out into the thin mountain air.  The deep booming echoes around the Indus valley, bouncing off the slopes, reminding villages for miles around that morning prayers are about to start. 

The monks of Thiksey are from the Yellow Hat sect, founded by Je Tsongkhapa in the 14th century, so called because when Tsongkhapa came over the moutains without a hat he used his yellow bag to keep his head warm. There are about 60 in Thiksey, ages ranging from eighty six to three and a half, who live in mud brick buildings, painted white, that tumble off the slopes and have willow sticks stacked tightly above the doors to stop them collapsing in an earthquake. 

Some of the buildings are far from the main hall and as the sound of chanting begins to pour down the 107 steps, monks race up, their feet slapping on the stone.  Outside the ornately carved entrance are many pairs of shoes - crocs in bright pink and green, plastic flip flops - all kicked off in a hurry.  

It takes a moment or two to adjust to the dark and the cool of the inside, but by the time we're seated on rugs that are laid out for visitors and are leaning against the beautifully painted plaster walls, it's easy to see the line of monks sitting on raised benches – the eldest at the front, the youngest by the doors. 

At first the prayers seem very solemn, heads bowed over the text; the chanting is mesmeric and beguiling, even though it's relatively tuneless.  After several minutes individual voices strike out, high squeaky ones that spill over the low melliflous sounds nearer the front. Offerings of rice in round flat dishes are placed in intervals along the benches. 

A small boy wrapped tight in his maroon robes against the morning chill, leans over to his friend and whispers something into his ear. Without missing a beat, the friend, shoulders shaking with laughter, grabs a fistful of rice and chucks it at him.  They laugh so hard they lose their place in the text.  Behind them sits an older monk, completely bald, wearing dark sunglasses and  mustard coloured robes, swaying to the prayers like Stevie Wonder.  

Suddenly, with no warning, the room erupts with noise – conch shells, bells, trumpets, drungchens and drums – all together, an overwhelming sound, joyous and full of hope and life.  We feel it wash over and into us and soon it's almost impossible not to laugh out loud.  By the time the young monks come round offering us yak butter tea - and I'm not sure if it's the altitude, or the early morning, or the sheer joy of being here – whatever it is, we're weightless.

Posted by: Alex

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