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Posts from the ‘India’ Category

Heartwarming & Heartbreaking: Living With The Nuns of Ladakh.

On a sunny afternoon, I sit on the steps outside my room, gazing at the bare, brown mountains and their snow-clad peaks. I’m lost in thought when four kids, wearing maroon sweaters and warm stockings, their heads shaved off, come and sit next to me. Word has gotten around that I speak Hindi, and the curious ones have come to check for themselves. On first glance they look like young boys from the village, so I ask Aap sab bhai hain? (Are you brothers?). They solemnly nod no, point towards the nunnery, and tell me they are nuns.

Ladakh nuns, Ladakh people

With the young nuns.

I arrived that morning at the nunnery of Thiksey, set up eight years ago by a Dutch foundation to house nuns who had nowhere to pray and receive knowledge. The foundation also built a small guesthouse, where nuns host travellers and the income is used to financially sustain the nunnery (unlike the Buddhist monasteries in the region, the nunneries hardly receive any donations). I didn’t know then that instead of leaving in 2-3 days as planned, I would end up spending my entire Ladakh trip interacting, praying and introspecting with the nuns.

Ladakh nuns, Ladakh nunnery, Nyerma nunnery

The nunnery at Nyerma village.

My conversations with the young nuns are awkward at first; I’m trying to tread the thin line between curiosity and appropriateness, and they are meeting a Hindi-speaking traveller for the first time. I slowly gather that these five young nuns, of which the youngest is 6 and the rest 11-12 years old, arrived at the nunnery last winter from Zanskar. As expected, the decision to become nuns wasn’t theirs; in some cases, an aunt proposed it to the family, and in others, the parents couldn’t afford to feed and educate their many kids. Either way, the nuns seem to have embraced their destiny with poise, something that my rebellious self still finds difficult to accept.

We break the ice gradually. They are always eager to use my camera and iPhone and impress me with how quickly they learn to use these gadgets despite their isolated lives (See: From the Lens of Ladakhi Nuns). They ask me to help them study Hindi, a language that wasn’t given much emphasis in their old school in Zanskar. We play games they learnt back home and some that I recall from my childhood.

Ladakh nunnery, Ladakh culture

Playing a Dutch game with the Ladakhi nuns and Dutch travellers.

There is a clear leader in their troop of five, and when she lets her guard down, the others quickly follow. Like one evening, when my phone catches the rare signal and a friend calls me, they teasingly ask me whose the boy calling! On another occasion, they tell me about an 8th grader in school who always teases one of them, maybe because he likes her. In such moments, I forget that they are nuns, and observe that when the elder nuns aren’t around, they like to forget for a little while too.

My image of their lives was never perfect, especially when I learnt their age. However, I found consolation in knowing that thanks to the Dutch foundation and the nunnery, they will atleast have regular access to school and food here, something they wouldn’t be assured of back home. But that consolation wasn’t enough. Truth is, their lives are harsh and rigorous. They wake up early for prayers, spend the day at school, work in the vegetable garden in the afternoon, study and do homework in the evenings, help with cooking at night, and must pray and study before they can sleep. At an age where even a child given much love by her family finds life difficult, these young nuns have only the elder nuns to see them through, and a teacher-student relationship is hardly a substitute for a parent-child relationship. A few years later, if they decide they don’t want to be nuns any more, I don’t know if the community will support their choice. Even so, there is innocence in their laughter, as though assuring me that they’ll be just fine.

Ladakh people, Ladakh nuns, Ladakh culture

Hope the innocence in those eyes never goes away.

On a Sunday, while returning home from an outing, I take them to the village shop to buy them chocolates. They shyly refuse at first, then the troop leader steps up and confesses to me their love for Wai Wai, instant noodles that can be mixed with spicy seasoning and eaten raw. Each one is delighted to devour her own packet, but every time we spot people on our walk through the village, they hide the packets in their robes. Can you imagine maroon-robed nuns relishing Wai Wai?, they joke.

When I ask what they miss most about their homes in Zanskar, they giggle. When I insist, they break out in Ladakhi, shutting me out of their lives, like a stranger trying to peek too far in.

I notice that they are terribly scared of the nunnery’s head nun. Her appearance makes them leave conversations, games, even Wai Wai (!) mid way. At one such instance, when we are midway through Science homework, they make me promise to come see them after dinner at their room in the nunnery. A little scared of the head nun myself, I tip-toe in, to their dorm-like room with five floor mattresses, bare walls, and a window overlooking the vegetable garden and the mountains beyond. They are no longer in the mood to study, so we talk about our dream houses, parts of India that they might never have a chance to visit, and the sameness of life in the nunnery.

Late at night, I say goodnight and step out into the darkness. The whistling wind gives me the chills. A million stars shine above. I stand speechless, when the young nuns begin chanting their night prayers. The innocence of their voices stirs something in my soul.

On my last day, one of the young nuns asks me if I would write her letters when I’m gone. I nod. She makes me promise that I’ll write to all five of them, not just her. I take solace in knowing that no matter what, they will have each other. Or so I hope.

On a cold and lifeless morning, I take my cold and lifeless heart, and board my flight into a cold and lifeless world far far away.

Ladakh photos, Ladakh sunset, Ladakh buddhism

The last sunset.

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The Joy of Slow Travel.

I’m sitting on a window sill as I write this, feeling the cool breeze on my face and watching the incessant rains spring new life into the wilderness that surrounds my (temporary) home in Goa. The joy of driving, walking and just being in the monsoons is not mine alone. The village folk are out in their carpet-like rice paddies, tilling the land in their colorful ponchos, humming along cheerful tunes at the late monsoon arrival. It took me a few days of being here to slip into the susagade mode of Goa, feeling content with life, appreciating the little things like hot tea and freshly-baked Goan poi on rainy evenings, happy to gaze out at the wild beauty that surrounds me. Read more

The World From the Lens of Ladakhi Nuns.

When I went to live at a nunnery in the high Himalayas of Ladakh, I didn’t imagine that I would be interacting with nuns as young as six years! Living with these Ladakhi nuns for a fortnight was beautiful, insightful, heartbreaking and introspective, in that order. But that’s a story for another post. Today, I want to show you the world from their lens, in photos taken by them with my Sony Cybershot camera. Read more

Jullay from Leh!

I groggily board the flight to Leh at an unearthly hour. Waking up irritably to the flight attendant’s announcement, the view outside my window quickly changes my mood. We are flying precariously close to the snow-covered Himalayas, and would soon land in the cold mountain desert of Ladakh. Three years after my first solo trip to Spiti, I am back in the trans-Himalayas, still dreamy and wide-eyed, a little nervous, and hoping to find solitude in the mountains. It feels like life has come a full circle. Read more

Kinnaur: Of Mountain Legends, Unknown Trails and Wild Beauty.

For centuries, the valley remained cut off from the rest of India. Legend has it that when a road was finally built and the first car drove up, the locals weren’t sure what to feed it. The driver playfully declared that the car likes chicken and whisky. The locals innocently obliged, and the driver had a feast. They also say that when an elderly woman boarded a bus for the first time, she left her shoes on the road as a sign of respect to the bus. Getting off at her destination, she was shocked that her shoes were gone, no longer outside the bus where she had taken them off. Read more

6 Offbeat Experiences Near Hampi.

After my soulful sojourns in the North-eastern and Garhwal Himalayas, I descended to Mumbai for some personal work. Three weeks of sweltering heat has left me craving the rains, and made me nostalgic of my monsoon adventures last year, when I chased the rains from Rajasthan to Hampi.

Over two trips to Hampi, I’ve discovered experiences that go beyond the majestic ruins of the ancient Vijaynagara kingdom. Take my list, stay with the locals, meet the dwindling gypsy community, cycle amid dramatic landscapes, and indulge a little: Read more

Sikkim: The Lost Kingdom.

On a late evening, we sat on a steep cliff, drinking the local Sikkimese Beer. Sparse villages and farms lay scattered in the valley below. The River Teesta roared along intensely. The mountains echoed with hypnotic chants from a nearby monastery. We were lost in our thoughts, when the mist slowly rose, and revealed to us in all its snow-capped glory, the mighty Mount Kanchendzonga. Read more

In Photos: The Garhwal Himalayas a Year After The Uttarakhand Floods.

I’ve never travelled in my own backyard. Born and brought up in the valley of Dehradun, I’ve always wondered what lay beyond the mountains I could see from my terrace. And last month, I finally decided to find out. I made my way up to the villages beyond Uttarkashi, and down via Mussoorie, transfixed by the majesty of the Garhwal Himalayas, as much as by the conviction of the locals to move on after the devastating Uttarakhand floods of 2013. I’ll let these pictures tell you their stories. Read more

Eat, Pray, Love in Gangtok.

Some connections are just meant to be. Like Gangtok and me. At first glance, the city feels like any other hill station. But delve deeper and you get a wistful peek into an India that could have been. Flanked by the majestic Himalayas, the first thing that strikes you is the city’s cleanliness –  no litter, no noise and no pollution, rules that the locals strictly abide by. Traditional monasteries stand in perfect harmony with the city’s evolving cafe culture. And the laid-back vibe of the locals slowly rubs off on you. Read more

In Photos: Hiking from Darjeeling to Sikkim!

Two weeks ago, I impulsively decided to venture into the remote north-eastern Himalayas of India.  Staying on an organic tea farm an hour’s ride from Darjeeling, I sipped the finest hand-rolled tea, drank the local thomba brewed from fermented millets on chilly nights, got a first hand perspective on the separatist Gorkhaland movement, and reminisced with the hill folk about the times gone by. Then I hiked in the mountains, through dense forests, past charming hill villages, along tea estates that dotted the landscape, and barefoot across the Rangeet River, to Sikkim. Read more

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