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Oracles and Anxieties | A Month in Leh, Ladakh, India

September 21, 2019

By Louise Coghill

A heavy layer of smog hangs over the city. We can see it as we rise into the sky. We fly away from Faridabad, the second most polluted city in the world, and into the pristine mountains of Leh.

I stayed up until 2 am last night, researching what happens to a body when it flies into a high-altitude city. I ended up taking a Diamox tablet just to help with the nerves. The hour long flight is filled with sweaty palms as I wonder what’s going to happen when they depressurise the cabin. The internet told tales of people vomiting in the airport, the altitude got to them so quickly. Hospitalisation and oxygen tanks. People rushing in taxis to a lower town. Having hiked to 5600m, last time I was in the Himalayas, I know what it feels like to not have enough oxygen. Sleepless nights, exhaustion, headaches.

The plane shakes as it lands and I grip the arm of my seat. I never used to be scared of flying, but lately, I’m intensely aware of all the possible ways this life may end too soon. I’ve been taking fewer risks lately. I wonder if it’s just a natural part of getting older. I’m turning 28 next month. Or if there’s been a shift in the natural order of things. If the book I’m reading, Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath her Feet, is telling some sort of truth about parallel universes getting too close, and about rifts forming and threatening an end to things. It would explain why the world seems so on edge lately.

The airplane door opens and miraculously, the air isn’t sucked out of the cabin and out of my lungs but remains quite still. The air feels heavenly after Faridabad. I didn’t know air could feel clean. It shouldn’t really. It should feel like air, and we shouldn’t be able to compare clean to dirty. But in this universe, humans discovered fire, and started farming, and had the industrial revolution, and now that life-giving oxygen is sticky and heavy and deadly. And so, I breathe in and notice, as I shouldn’t, how rich the air is up here.

The day passes slowly. With each snowy peak my eyes drink in, my body feels worse. The air might be fresh and clean, but there’s no denying a human body needs more oxygen than this. My head is pounding and my fingers tingle and my nerves are short, as my body struggles to create haemoglobin. We walk around the city admiring the ancient buildings, and the historic faces until I’m in agony. As if he has something to do with the pain of acclimatization, I snap angrily at Chaim, my partner, that I need to lie down.

It takes three days to feel a semblance of normality again. It’s not really normal though. Everything is dry. My nose bleeds every morning. My lips crack and make it hurt to eat. I still get breathless every time I have to walk up that last hill into our little home. I wake up like clockwork at 3 am and can’t sleep again for three or four hours. A body needs oxygen to fall into a deep slumber. It becomes the new normal. The existential crises, which happen every day as a sleepless dawn lights up the world, are just part of who I am now. But even with existential dread haunting me, I know that this is an exceptional part of the earth, maybe because one has to earn the right to be here.

When normality returns, we find a new guesthouse, nestled deep inside a temple complex. One that isn’t surrounded by construction. Hotels upon hotels are springing up everywhere, these days, as the rest of the world learns about Leh. The day we arrived, they laid down a bitumen road, and our shoes were covered in it, and the smell filled up our room. We needed to get away to a quieter part of town.

Twenty white stupas line the path up to our new home. We can see mountains from the balcony. We can watch the sun go down and bathe the peaks in a soft pink light. We knew this place was special as soon as we found it. The family who own it are devout Buddhists. They have their own temple on the top floor, right next to our room, with candles burning day and night and a shrine dedicated to the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Almost every day, we hear them fervently praying, sometimes for two hours, chanting until they are literally breathless and gasping.

Their faces tell me they’ve lived in these mountains forever. They speak an archaic dialect of Tibetan, and the owner tells us they don’t think of themselves as Indian. They’re really a mini Tibet up here, he says, so I guess their family has been here since before the land was divided by imaginary borders defined by governments ruling in cities far away. It’s so peaceful up here, it’s easy to forget there’s a civil war going on in the province a few hundred kilometres from here.

We walk to our favourite little hole-in-the-wall for lunch. We have to go the back way. Life in India easily becomes a series of avoidances. Along the entire main street, every shopkeeper is desperate to pull us in with those familiar words, “You walk here every day. When will you come to my shop, my friend?” They know us by now, and we can’t bear to look at those disappointed faces, as we smile and say, “Not today.” The season is slow. Although it’s mid-June, the pass is still covered in snow this year, and the buses still can’t get into Leh. It’s unusual, say the locals. The town is usually buzzing by now. But this year, we are experiencing the full fury of the long-awaited tourist season when there are no other tourists around.

And so, we wind our way through the back streets instead. We walk past the Moravian graveyard, up the road from the Moravian church, until we reach our restaurant, which is next to the Moravian School.

I’m not a religious person, and yet, religion intertwines this entire trip. Over the last few months, we’ve travelled from an ancient city dedicated to Hinduism, up the sacred Ganges and into the mountains of Dharamshala, where we lived in a Buddhist monastery. We’ve awoken to the chanting of monks in the night, and to the Muslim call to prayer at the first light of dawn; and now, here we are in Leh, the land of stupas and 14th-century monasteries.

Even though my parents gave up our religion, I come from a family of missionaries. It’s so strange to see the impact of the Moravian church up here. My great-great-grandparents dedicated their lives to spreading the light of the Moravian Church to the Inuits in the far north of Canada. They put my great-grandmother on a ship, when she was seven, and sent her across an ocean back to England to get an education. She didn’t see her parents again for twenty years when they’d retired. One of her brothers, Walter, became a missionary himself. He rode horses across the Himalayas and interviewed the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama before he’d been exiled from Tibet. I wonder if Uncle Walter ever passed through Leh.

I don’t know much else about my roots. They were torn up and replanted many times. In comparison to the old-growth forest of Indian history, I feel like a sapling. My roots have been forgotten, hacked, hewn and transported to so many countries around the world. I’m the only one from my whole family born in Western Australia. I don’t have many stories of my creation. I don’t have ancestors around me, buried or burned. I’m not weighed down by my history, nor lifted up by it.

I come from a family of creators. My great-grandfather wanted to forget the war and so he moved countries. I wonder if my great grandmother felt the same disorienting weightlessness as me when she volunteered to come to Australia. My father grew up poor. He never graduated high school, but he became an engineer anyway. Night school and odd jobs with a young family waiting at home. He didn’t bother with history, he created his future. My mother was little Debbie Brunet, who grew up on a farm and helped her dad feed the cows and went mushroom picking in gumboots but eventually went and saw the world, from Australia to Zambia and everywhere in between. My parents cut the weights, and let us fly. And so, I fly from country to country and adventure to adventure and am still in the process of creating myself.

And yet that freedom, without being tied to anything, feels strange at times. Less like flying and more like floating. As a person’s history fades away, and religion loses its grip, the sense of ritual can’t help but disappear as well, along with rites of passage, which define our sense of place and identity.

And even as I wander exotic lands and listen to strange languages and make friends with yaks and high-altitude puppies, I think it would be nice sometimes to know how to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground and let my roots grow. But for now, I’ll finish the best kadai paneer I’ve eaten, and look out the window at the snow-dusted Himalayas, and laugh through the language barrier with the man who cooks our food.

The sun burns us quickly up here. I keep forgetting to put sunscreen on, lulled by the weeks I spent in Faridabad and Varanasi, veiled under the best man-made sun protection on the planet: pollution.

We’re planning to go trekking, but the season still hasn’t turned, and the passes are unusually heaped with snow. We wander through the city instead, past stupa upon stupa. This city seems to have hundreds, if not thousands, of them. Puffed constantly, we hike up to the 14th century Tibetan Monastery on top of a mountain, overlooking the expanding city. The dharma protectors are up here, the vicious statues dedicated to Mahakala, Vaishrana, and the other deities and demons, many-armed protectors as old as time, if not older.

These are remnants of the ancient shamanistic Bon religion, which was practised before Buddhism crept in. Chaim tells me that many religions, including Christianity, often took older pagan deities and demoted them into demons. Even Lucifer was once the bringer of light, rather than the devil looking over the hellish underworld. But as it encroached on the local religion, Buddhism chose a different path. The Bon spirits and demons, which once terrorised tribes and villages, and required many sacrifices, were turned into the protectors of Buddhism itself and were appeased by being given a crucial role as protectors of the dharma.

We love the fantastic horror of these sculptures, the daggers and the scorpions, the wild faces screaming, the dead bodies, and the skulls. Buddhism is such a peaceful religion, and yet these protectors are so fiery and fearsome, for that’s what’s needed to protect the Dharma. What resonates the most with me about the Buddhism of this region is the understanding and acceptance of the brutality and suffering of life, which allows them to let go of it. We wander up and up, climbing rickety ladders through little manholes until we get to the very top of the monastery to watch the sunset, one of my only rituals. As the light fades, I click photo after photo of the snowy peaks. The snow is slowly disappearing. It’s almost time to trek.

I was blessed by The Oracle today. Early in the morning, we heard a faint knock on our door from the matriarch of the house, inviting us to see the Oracle. With sleep in our eyes and hungry stomachs, we wandered out in our pyjamas to the temple in the next room, with candles always burning and incense creating a mystical connection to another world. The family huddled around us as we watched a youthful, beautiful woman putting on the ceremonial garb of The Oracle. The tall pointed hat that’s been worn for centuries, the bronze circle the size of a dinner plate tied around her middle, and the complex robes securing the large pendant in place. The chanting began and rose in pitch and fervour as her body started convulsing. Her eyes rolled to the back of her head, as she held a trident and a knife in her hands and rocked to and fro. The family around us began crying, and I was pulled in by the energy, despite not understanding the words. As her chanting reached its peak, she turned to each person. With her eyes flickering, she spoke a truth which bought more tears and blessed each person in turn. Eventually, we were ushered in, and I felt her hand hit my back and release a great sense of calm. As her hand touched my head, the feeling deepened. Her breath blew on my neck, and my world felt lighter than it had since I’d arrived in India.

Later that day, in his own words, the guesthouse owner translated her blessing. “Money is not the thing that makes you happy. Having more things does not make you happy. Instead, it is the community and the people around you. A misunderstanding of what’s important in life has created this never-ending greed, and this greed has created all the problems we are currently facing, the dying environment and the changing climate and the extreme poverty. And it is only by coming together as a community that we can help heal these issues we are all facing.”

He told us that, here in Ladakh, they haven’t really felt the effects of climate change yet, but they knew it was already making itself painfully known in the rest of India.

As if his words angered Mother Earth, the rain began that afternoon. Followed by the hail. And the fog and more snow in the mountains. Later, Chaim told me that he was reading an article saying that climate change was, in fact, starting to affect this region. The roofs and buildings are crumbling because they weren’t made for all this rain, and even the ancient paintings in the temples are decaying because the years are getting wetter and wetter in a desert that only used to see 15mm of rain a year.

As dawn creeps through the mountains and the Muslim call to prayer marks the start of a new day, I lie awake. Stuck in the kind of existential crises that only seems to exist at 4:30 am. It’s been raining every day since the Oracle blessed me. I have been incessantly looking up the weather, wondering if it’s going to warm up enough to safely do this trek, but the snows are still here.

It’s driving me crazy that I can’t trek. My weightless life is led by adventure. That is my true rite of passage. I don’t know how to travel slowly and quietly. To patiently read my kindle and wait several weeks for the snow to let up. To simply take in the world around me as it is. I do know how to jump on planes and buses and to move as fast as I can through the world, hoping to soak up enough adventure to finally be satisfied.

The 4:30 am commentary keeps running through my head, and I can’t shut it up, berating myself with all the ways I should be living my life. There’s a little button somewhere, deep inside all of us, which the advertising industry is constantly trying to press. Making us nervous with pictures of that eternally elusive well-lived-life that looks so good on Instagram. Telling us that we could be doing life better. As I lie awake, unable to switch off the noise in my head, I realize they’re doing a pretty good job of pressing it. I am overwhelmed with the feeling that I should be doing more, climbing higher, being a better traveller. That I should go trekking, even though the locals say its potentially quite dangerous.

I wonder if existential crises are, by definition, first world problems. The overwhelming search for self-actualization. How stressful is that? Thanks to the self-help movement, so many of us, in the West, are burdened by the sacred duty of trying to reach our potential. But our infinite potential is, by definition, a bottomless pit.

As I lie awake in these restless thoughts, I wonder if I’ll stop with the existential crises when I leave this high-altitude city.
Probably not.

We go to the market every day. The Kashmiri man who gives us the best price knows us now and doesn’t even ask what we want anymore. We wander home, with our paper bags bursting.

The sun is finally shining, but the distant mountains have more snow than they did last week. Living at this altitude can be tiring, I tell Chaim, yawning. We shuffle home, drained, hardly speaking. We hear singing floating through the alleyway. In a field up ahead, we see a buzz of activity. Ten people and four yaks are tilling and toiling a field. There is only a short time of the year they can grow food up here, in between frost and frozen ground. As the men hold the harness of the yaks, they sing at the top of their voice with a rich baritone, guiding the animals and keeping everyone in time. It’s an ancient tune and they’re using ancient tools, and we’ve never seen anything like it. Chaim and I stop to watch a brief history of thousands of years of farming. My weariness vanishes, and we run home to get our cameras. To collect another memory.

When they see our cameras, they cheerily wave us into the field. The bustle stops, and everyone sits down in the freshly tilled soil, and they pass salty tea around in a circle, offering us a cup. They laugh at our cameras, as we excitedly snap the routine way they live their life. One of the men speaks very good English, and he points at one of the women and explains that it’s her field. They’ve all come together to help her. Everyone’s field will get ploughed this way. A real community, as the Oracle said.

After seven days of meditation, the Oracle comes back to finish the blessing. It is the end of the holy festival. It’s the full moon in the holiest month of the year, the month when Buddha reached enlightenment, according to our guesthouse owner. All-day long, from dawn till dusk, devout Buddhists are prostrating across town. All along the street, the army stands alert, protecting these peaceful pilgrims, holding their machine guns at the ready, guarding a sacred practice within a violent world. Back at our house, we watch the Oracle’s convulsions and listen in amazement to her throat-singing. She has learnt to separate her vocal cords and sing with two distinct voices. We watch the family receive their blessings. The stoic face of the grandma devolves into tears. The daughters clutch each other’s hands. Afterwards, they usher us into the crowded shrine, and make sure we’re comfortable, and make sure that we also receive our blessing. When it’s over, everyone talks and laughs and smiles at us, glad to have welcomed us into such a special moment.

Our flight is finally here. We missed our chance to trek. The one thing I’d wanted to do up here. But after my month in this city, I realise I never actually needed it. All the adventure happened right in front of me. I just needed to pause long enough to let them happen. And so, we board our flight. I grip the seat hard as we hit turbulence, and I almost pray to a God I don’t believe in. We spend 24 hours sleeping on tiled floors at Delhi airport, and then fly on to Kathmandu, back into the layer of smog that physically hangs over the mountainous city once known for its pristine air.

Louise stayed at Zeepata Guesthouse in Leh, which has hot showers and decent wifi accommodation. The vegetarian restaurant she mentions is nameless but located on Changspa Road, opposite the Moravian Mission school and above a motorbike repair shop. 

Louise Coghill is a self taught photographer based in Perth.

She is a storyteller, a world traveller and a general lover of all things beautiful. Her photography story began in 2005 when her father let her borrow his camera. Her first few photos were atrocious and she quickly put it aside and thought ‘I won’t be doing that again!’. Instead she chose to study Film and Television at Curtin Unversity, with the dream of becoming the next Quentin Tarantino and possibly meeting and marrying Johnny Depp. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts and a passion for visual storytelling, she slowly began to pick up cameras again and realised photography was fast becoming her number one passion. Now her only focus is photography although she still enjoys working in film, taking on set stills.

Studying film is what Louise believes shapes her style, she enjoys telling stories through her images, whether that be through a fine art portrait, or simply capturing a moment.

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