Mismatching Monastic and Mundane Ways
Every winter a remote monastery in Nubra sub-division of Leh district celebrates Yargon Tungshak for emptying nonvirtuous deeds and purification. Tungshak is another name of Amoghasiddhi in Tibet. Tung translates as “to sin” and shak “to destroy” in Tibetan. The deity blesses staunch followers with lasting success and destroys sins. Tungshak (Ltung bshags) also implies a ritual of thirty-five confession buddhas. The monastery in Yarma stands on the west bank of the Siachen river. Warshi village (3,484m), almost opposite the monastery, sits on the east bank of the river.
Tiny monk population runs Yarma monastery, a part of the Hemis monastery. The festival rituals bore resemblance to that of the latter. Both the monasteries use common symbols denoting the same sect. For example, dragons on the gates of
The former prank is quite similar to brutal practice of smearing and throwing roasted barley flour on faces and heads of carefully chosen audience during Baiskhi celebrations in remote Lata village in Uttarakhand. However, there was a wide difference between Yarma and Lata versions: non-local visitors were exempted from the flour prank in the former venue unlike in the latter.
Yarma and Hemis monasteries represent Drukpa sect or Drugpa K’agud branch of Mahayana Buddhism that means all can achieve salvation.
The word yarma translates as “superior” in English. Some scholars claim that yarma is a successor of “lema” that means “wonderful.” Both the names complement the location of Yarma monastery in sparsely populated wide valley of the glacial Siachen and its tributaries bounded by magnificent Karakorum. In Tibetan, the word “yarma” also denotes: (1) a female yak that calved last year and the calf turned into yearling. (2) Upper (part of a region).
Yarma monastery stands near the cave where Gotsang pa, a siddha, saw various deities. Since he saw a major deity in mountains of Tsang-sa village during his Nubra valley trip, he spent a night in the cave. He also met Ishe having four hands and halo around him. The halo brightened the cave and highlighted some more Buddhist deities. The siddha built the monastery in the twelfththirteenth century. It is recognized that siddhas, senior monks with high ranks, can “see” secret holy statues of Buddha, Yum, and Yum Ikazati.
The Yarma monastery complex comprises of three (3) temples: Du-khang, Kangyurkhang, and Zimsung. Du-khang is the main prayer hall for daily prayers and sacred text reading. Kangyur-khang features kangur and stangyur pothis, sacred texts of Budhhism. Zimsung is a rest room for senior monks.
The du-khang houses a tall statue of Guru Duchit in action. It is believed that the statue “facing” the “enemy” countries, China and Pakistan, protects
against their onslaughts. More than ten village-monasteries of the sub-division function under Yarma monastery: Arunuk, Ayi, Dung-sa, Khemi, Kovet, Murgo, Nyung-sted, Sarsoma, Tangsa, Tong-sted, and Tsang-lung-ka.
High barren mountains and peaks (5000-6000 or even taller) of the Karakorum surround the simple big monastery compound. Some of these mountains carry permanent snow while many hold seasonal snow. The amount and location of snow accumulation depend on slope altitude, angle, and aspect. Tip of Mount Kailash (Kangri Shalma), a pilgrimage, is visible from the monastery on a clear day.
Kailash and Layogma glaciers lie to the west of the monastery; Warshi, Takkhung, and Momostong glaciers on the east. Kailash glacier is probably the nearest. Many glaciers, including Siachen and Rimo, are located in the north. Seasonal streams (nullahs) originate from Nyungstet, Kimi, and Sasoma glaciers in the south west. Streams originating from all these glaciers increase volume of the Siachen.
In February 2020, I attended the festival for ABHA. The low-key affair had an advantage: very small audience. Let’s check out the highlights of the festival dubbed as a pilgrimage:
A big alfresco view-point facing west features multiple ordinary metal alidades on a semicircular wall in northern part of the compound. The alidades help in visualizing “drawings” of various Buddhist deities on the rocks. I could
only visualize Gonbo, the principal deity of Yarma. I sought help from the locals assembled for pilgrimage in vain. None of them could point out the deities. In fact, my local driver advised me to hire a spiritual guide. An alidade means a straightedge or sighting rule appointed with an ordinary or a telescopic sight. The plane table survey instrument is employed for determining direction of objects and mapping. Mapping the deities was not only a time-consuming task but also impossible, especially, for a person unfamiliar with the deities.
On February 27, 2020, I spoke to the head monk of the monastery to understand the festival rituals during rehearsal. I could gather very little fragmented information because of language barrier. He was not fluent in English or Hindi. Ladakhi and Tibetan are all Greek to me.
Here is the summary of what I understood:
• A chham denotes “to wipe out ignorance.” Total nine chhams would be performed during the oneday festival (February 28, 2020). Rigdus chham involves all chham dancers. Rigdi and rigdus imply “bring together different people.”
• Different deities wear different color masks representing facts and philosophies. For example, Mahakala with his black mask expresses his anger about wrong doings. White mask represents the ideal of equality. This interpretation fully aligns with color theory, white is the sum of all three primary colors- red, green, and blue. All masks might not have see-through holes, like chhakmen
mask did not have the holes.
• Yargon Tungshak means “a holy or prayer book.” During secondary resource search, the meaning matched with the related ritual, Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas, a bundle of prayers and mantras. He also said, although any one could join monkhood yet leaving the training was disrespectful.
A thangka of Mahakala was unfurled on the festival day. Mask of the Gonbo or Mahakala had a beak unlike that of Yuru Kabgyat celebrated in Lamayuru (Browse ABHA Volume 3, Issue 2 June 2018.).
Achraks in white-yellow dresses played pranks on audience to draw laughter: (1) Vigorously threw sattu on selected audience and (2) Forcefully installed themselves in the laps of the preferred audience. The former prank is quite similar to brutal practice of smearing and throwing roasted barley flour on faces and heads of carefully chosen audience during Baiskhi celebrations in remote Lata village in Uttarakhand. (Read ABHA Volume 4, Issue 1 June 2019.). However, there was a wide difference between Yarma and Lata versions: nonlocal visitors were exempted from the flour prank in the former venue unlike in the latter. Achraks wore white shoes with five flexible fingers.
Hatuks, young monks wearing masks, performed and collected donations from audience. They wrapped white silk scarves around the necks of the audience of their choice, a random selection, and sought donation. These activities also induced lots of laughter.
Selected chham dancers performed rituals in front of and around a dark orange color figure representing evils. Different dancers cut, hurt, poked, or slashed the figure with different objects in different styles. Black hat dancers and other monks ritualistically burnt stormas at the end. Frozen river and environs were not a deterrent. Everyone came in over-packed vehicles. Some stayed overnight in a big hall within the compound on February 27. Even leafless bushes and trees beside the frozen river had birds.
On the sidelines of the monastic festival, gambling was the only entertainment and recreation for all age groups. In fact, it was the fulcrum of the festival. The biggest bait was earning quick cash by doing nothing useful.
The aiming and gambling games with exponentially high cash prizes vis-à-vis the playing fee were not only surprising but also disturbing. The head monk even peeped at these games but did not react. Even primary-school kids anticipating big money within minutes participated.
Aiming games included archery and cans knock down. Rule for archery game was simple. Buy five arrows for ₹20 for five attempts. Hit the bull’s eye and get ₹50. The winning rate was abysmally low as the visitors instantly turned archers for the cash prize. The net earnings of the winner was ₹30 in less than five minutes (₹360/hour, very high vis-avis daily official wage rate for unskilled manual
labor; ₹190-309). The card-gambling stall owners called out “Das ka pachas, (Spend ten rupees and win fifty rupees.) Pacahs ka panchsau (Spend fifty and win five hundred)…”
My local driver told, a village was relocated from Yarma to near Arano on the advice of Yarma monastery (3,636m) because of a complete mismatch between mundane rural and monastic lifestyles. But a small village is still located within a walking distance of the monastery.
A lottery concluded the festival organized by dharm rakshaks (saviors of religion) in Yarma. Members of the local community and monasteries sold lottery tickets to raise funds for monastic use. Some bought multiple tickets to contribute more to the monastic fund. The driver said that winners mostly donate the prize to the monastery. The organizers manually rotated a cylindrical drum to shuffle the lottery tickets for giving all a fair chance to win. Even though the ticket sale did not start during the festival yet an almost month-old ticket sale was concluded on the last day of the festival. Local prominent personalities, including a monk, police officer, and priest, distributed the prizes.
Is concluding the festival organized for purification with gambling under the nose of dharm rakshaks not a mismatch?
Oh! I forgot, now-a-days, purification (process also) needs money!