The Flaneur: Moto Journals 3 — Ladakhi Cham

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The third in a seven-part series. Catch up with Part 1 and Part 2.

As we climb the steep hill leading up to Lama Yuru monastery, music begins to fill the air.

It’s mostly drums: methodical, meditative drumbeats that steadily increase their tempo as we climb, a beat that vibrates the rib cage and seems to slow the pulse. It becomes louder and louder and above, and the gleaming white monastery grows larger and larger.

Then little monks begin to appear. With their shaved heads, maroon robes and tanned Himalayan faces, they seem almost indistinguishable from one another, like the shattered pieces of a single idea. They hurry around the hill in groups, none of them taller than four feet.

Climbing higher, the barren peaks of Ladakh begin to rise behind the monastery and the source of the music and frantic activity finally appears.

At the center of the monastery courtyard stands a monk in robes so thick and enormous that he looks like a giant. He wears a mask the size of a leatherback sea turtle, depicting a screaming red-faced deity with a goatee of fire and a crown of laughing human skulls. In one hand he grips a giant hooked sword; in the other, a skull fragment of a dead Lama. He is standing over a miniature red corpse on what looks like a sacrificial pillar.

Behind him, monks in tall red hats shaped like mohawks are blowing flatulent groans out of a seven-foot horn. Beyond them, the crowd: hundreds of Ladakhis looking down from the rooftops or sitting on the ground in their dusty chupas. Some swing mani wheels, some finger wooden malas and pray with their eyes closed, others watch, engrossed.

There are also about a dozen tourists in North Face jackets and sunglasses on the other side of the courtyard, their faces pale with sunscreen, each with an expensive new camera hanging from around their necks.

In a riot of cymbals and gong clangs the giant suddenly resumes his dance, twirling and stumbling to a choreographed rhythm, his meter-long sword gripped tightly in his hand as he dances around the alter.

More deities spin out from the curtains that hang over the monastery’s entrance, each with its own fierce individual expression.

Every minute or so the doors give birth to another, who spins into the courtyard and stumbles beautifully into rhythm with the drums, which tame and guide him around the yard until a circle is formed around the central, towering deity.

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The drums continue with urgency and doom as we make our way through the crowd, looking for an empty spot. We sit in the gray dirt at the edge of the courtyard, a few feet away from a monk wearing what looks like a black sombrero with white pentacles on the bill.

The monks dance by, covering us with their kicked-up dust. Some of them are now wearing horns or antlers, dancing as though drunk and about to fall, spinning one way and then the other, sometimes skipping forward with twisted, kick-out feet.

Behind us, a group of Ladakhi women are mumbling om mani padme hum, rocking back and forth with their eyes closed.

Lost in the dance, an hour or so goes by before I wake again to my surroundings.

Immediately I notice the foreigners on the other side of the courtyard. They are a different sort than the rugged travelers I usually encounter on the road in India. They are package tourists, uniformly isolated themselves from the crowd.

I watch one of them very closely. With his back to the dance, he crouches down feet away from a group of praying Ladakhis, scoots back and forth and left and right for composition, snaps a photo, scrutinizes it in the viewfinder and stands up to search for another subject.

The Ladakhis do their best to disregard the intrusion.

I wonder, however, if the man understands what he is doing.

He edges along the crowd until he spots a monk banging on a drum.

Immediately his camera lifts to his face. He approaches, snapping the shutter. The monk gives him a sidelong glance, seemingly annoyed, but continues drumming.

When the man is done checking the image he turns around to find me crouched a few feet away. I lift my camera, zoom in on his startled face and begin snapping. Bewildered, he assumes he’s in my way and looks around behind him only to realize that he is the subject. He tries to relax, to ignore me, but his discomfort is obvious. I move closer, my lens aimed at him like a spotlight, isolating him in the camera’s gaze.

He pretends to watch the dance, continually glancing my way to see if I’m still there.

Eventually I cap the lens and return to my seat beside M-, who now has a baby in her lap, a little Ladakhi infant with mascara on its eyes and a black tikka on its forehead.

The Cham dance, which began at sunrise, lasts until sunset, at which point the giant chops apart the body on the alter and tosses its mangled red clumps to the outstretched hands of the eager crowd.

After a circumambulation around the gompa, spinning prayer wheels along the way, we walk down the hill in the twilight to the highway where our motorcycles are parked and throw black tarps over them.

Tomorrow, we ride east again.

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