Organizing October: Lessons in Nubra Valley on Impermanence

16 September // 16 November. The progression of our garden from blooming to buried as we’ve transitioned to winter.

Sometimes you have immediate and ready access to whatever you need — fresh fruits and vegetables, running water, luscious vistas for viewing, or blazing sun for soaking.  Other times, you have none of that.  You have to bury your garden’s produce in order to have store for the winter and spring time.  You stock up on dried goods and rice before whatever shops are left open hit scarcity in peak winter.  You drain your house of all water so it won’t freeze in the pipes and hope the kids up the hill don’t turn off their channel that keeps water flowing nonstop out a small tap in front of the house.  A thirty-gallon container is kept inside with numerous plastic jerry-cans ready for porting water from that small tap or the bore well out back.  Your eyes previously saturated with Leh’s raw colors, now ache with Moonland’s homely grey browns.*  Your skin cracks not from sunburn, but from dry, cold air.  This is Ladakh.  And this is a lesson on impermanence.**


14 – 16 October, Nubra Valley; 17 – 20 October, Rumbak, Hemis High Altitude National Park.  Our plans for the field were simple:  Align a trip to Nubra Valley with the annual Diskit Monastery Gustor Festival and then jump on support crew in Hemis for an upcoming snow leopard tracking, and meanwhile carry out our own Rumbak monastery observation.  With such a homecoming at Diskit, inevitably more monks would be in attendance, the nearby monasteries would be alive:  the energy and opportunity would be right for numerous interviews.  Finishing in Nubra, we would take the 150km road back through Khardung La, the world’s highest motor-able pass, stay overnight in Leh for picking up permits into the park, find a morning drop off into Hemis, intersect the tracking team at their camp, and then hike on to Rumbak for stay.  The conditional grammar is key to these plans.

Diskit is the capital town of the Nubra Valley; located at about 10,000ft it’s perfectly situated as a base point for a field worker hauling to the ancient monasteries plotted along the rivers or tucked away in the peaks nearby.  Diskit’s surrounding sand dunes displace you for a moment to the Thar Desert; however, it quickly becomes obvious this is no land of the Rajas, but that of Maitreya Buddha.  The market is sparse, households few, camels plenty, and all safely watched over by the augustly perched monastery and statue. 

The 70ft tall statue of Maitreya Buddha at Diskit Monastery, circumambulated by a 3ft tall novice monk. This particular boy didn’t find much interest in the wildlife survey my colleague was conducting, so he and I busied ourselves with merit- and merry-making by running and spinning around Maitreya.

Gustor festivals signal victory over evil.  They progressively rotate in host sites throughout Ladakh over the year, each with its own particular atmosphere and ceremonies depending on the site’s local protector deities.  Over the two day festivals, much chanting, ritual dancing, and devotional drama take place.  Generally, these events draw many monks from the region and during the tourist season offer an allure of activity and attractions at monasteries close to the host site.  We should have noted we’re way past tourist season.

We wanted to arrive a few days preceding the Diskit festival to check for any monks arriving early and in expectation that deity rooms would be opened for us to begin research on wall paintings, uncovered deities, and other displayed art.  I would hold interviews with monks about their understanding of the environment or conservation related to teachings in Buddhism; the history of conservation practices or education at the monastery; and the openness to having an NGO like Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust come host workshops about biodiversity and conservation.  My colleague, MH, studies wall paintings’ compositions for what fauna and flora are depicted, as well as their significance to the monastery demesnes; interviews about local deities and their impact on the environmental practices of the monks; and finally runs a survey testing recognition skills of wildlife, symbols, and other conservation concerns.  This is our fluid routine approaching the intersections of religion and conservation in Ladakh.

Before reaching Diskit from Leh, many villages, and subsequently local monasteries, fall into view.  Of these monasteries, we could get to four in daylight:  Tirid, Charasa, Ensa, and Samstanling.  First, we came to Tirid.  Locked, shut, empty.  Second, Ensa.  Locked, shut, empty.  Third — just going for it, why not — Charasa.  Locked, shut, empty.  Here, while looking over the starkly blue and sandy Nubra river below, we just shared laughs at what irony and disappointment we had met.  What negative karma were we atoning for?  What upaya was this  — what were we being taught?  Calling to the village below, we finally located the key keeper and shortly after we were shoe-lessly stepping through the deity rooms’ thresholds in the monastery.  Perhaps curious about these two foreigners, the key keeper opened all the deity rooms for us — the stillness and piled dust of the last felt as though it hadn’t been disturbed for a hundred years.  At least a mildly productive stop for MH.  We finished our day at Samstanling, where our translator from Khardung has a cousin-brother there residing as a monk.  Perfect, and perfectly rewarding gurgur cha awaited in conclusion to our day of misadventures.  After touring through rooms of paintings, we were allowed generous time talking with one senior monk about environmental awareness and lessons he had held onto from the Dalai Lama.  In this interaction, we were able to assess a deep attention to environmental protection, but one that was quite uninformed of the particular types of efforts that make sense for the Sumoor village surrounding Samstanling.  Outside the Dalai Lama’s injunctions to planting trees and holding general concern for the environment, we weren’t told about any other types of learnings or specific directions from Buddhism pertaining to nature preservation.  My orientation on the place of SLC-IT interventions began to form.

That night, I couldn’t help but be hit by the day’s dilemmas.  Of four monasteries, we were able to get access into two.  Of these two, we conducted an interview at one.  One out of these four monasteries was populated with monks — places where training and residence are allegedly year round, were by no means small, nor terribly remote, nor abandoned.  What are the rest of the sites going to entail?  First moments of realizing serious blocks to field research.    

Turtuk, Jammu & Kashmir.

Given the previous day’s events, we decided to continue pushing our chances and visit the faraway, one-roomed, singular Buddhist site in Turtuk, at the Line of Control.  After handing in all of our Inner-line permit copies at the numerous security check points on the way, passing ever-amusing Boarder Road Organization rock paintings and progressively patriotic Indian Army signs, we were finally standing in front of that tiny, empty room.  Locked.  Again sharing laughs at our situation, yet this time imbibing the icy blues of the Shyok River, we marveled at the sheer rock faces and quiet that absorbed us and everything around.  Before long, our translator found the key —  carefully hidden on top of the doorframe’s seal —  and we entered into the dusty world of seated statues and few, peeling paintings.  As with Charasa, without people I can’t accomplish so much work, but all the same, each room brings new learning and questions for the next conversation I can find.  More moments of realizing serious blocks to field research.   

We took our energies into Diskit determined to fully utilize the Gustor and make up ground with interviews.  Part-already-expecting, part-anticipating-by-hearsay, part-desperately-hoping the monastery to be abuzz the next morning, we woke early and walked into a very quiet, very calm, very unopened Diskit.  It felt as though an antithetically charged sleep had fallen over Nubra and left us out of research.  After being greeted by one monk, we possibly woke up another to get keys for the first deity room.  For sure waking up a third monk for keys to the upper rooms, we savored the chance to view all we could and chat with whomever was close by.  Similar to Samstanling, a keen interest on the idea of conservation or environmentalism, but no solidly grounded understanding of appropriate measures for the surrounding area.  Thoughts on workshops and future interactions were really growing after this.   

The welcome to Nubra Valley, snow clouds rolling down the road with us from the over-18,000ft pass to this 14,000ft scene. Khardung Village can be seen in the distance on the right side of the image.

The rest of the field trip out of Nubra and into Hemis follows much the same pattern.  Like the monks we were seeking, that ghost of the mountain, the snow leopard, eluded us.  Undoubtedly, one or many watched us as we unwittingly waited and scanned the ridges for any movement.  Constantly staring upwards and sideways while trying somehow to manage my footing as we hiked up and down between our stay in Rumbak and the campsite for the tracking crew, I was repeatedly reminded of the ending to a poem I had recently come across in research reading:

If you overlook the Way right before your eyes,

how will you know the path beneath your feet?

Advancing has nothing to do with near and far,

yet delusion creates obstacles high and wide.

Students of the mystery, I humbly urge you,

don’t waste a moment, night or day! [1]

Though concentrating on the play of the Buddhist Way — that of the daily, that of the bodhisattva, or that of the practical Middle — this poem’s ending concisely clarified the week’s past journey.  The Way, whether it be spiritual or otherwise-driven, will always encounter or perhaps induce distractions and challenges.  The point is to remain resolute in one’s actions and thoughts in order to not be overcome by the innumerable other ways that beckon us, or worse, lose direction altogether.  Likewise, it’s not for us to ignore the transiency of success or the fallibility of our function.  These interruptions and inspirations, alike, are impermanent.


After this already long read, I suspect the thread of Development, environmental conservation, and service may be hazy, and particularly unclear in their connections to this strange concept of impermanence.  Good, that’s the first step in recognition.  Questioning is always where we start before serious change or necessary reflection can happen.  In this world of the development sector, plans and expectations are the first things to change and be impacted by their subject of intervention. (In light of my three months in the environmentalist realm, I would argue this especially in conservation work).  With this, sometimes we simply just have to let go of what expectations we bring to our workTo my fellow aid workers and batch mates of the AIF Clinton Fellowship, with what ideas did you come in to your service that haven’t already needed adjustment, adaptation, or plain abandoning?  What pieces to your work can you actually control?  What is it that even keeps the idea of service and empowerment alive in a place like India, where there’s always always another issue to address?  Something is inevitably subtly shifting, constantly changing, but one thing does remain:  You.  People.  Bodies in place who believe in serving and have an opportunity to do so.  This conviction, this reality, we can harness.  I traveled into and stayed in a terribly cold, somewhat far region to barely make any significant research gains?  I’ll go back.  Anyways, whatever did surface is actually critical for my work moving forward.  I sat on a ridge with some of the best trackers in Ladakh (the whole Himalayas?) and couldn’t spot a snow leopard?  There’s a reason it’s called a ghost cat! 

Though all the pieces around, under, or ahead may change, being present and persistent can always remain.  This is what it means to not “waste a moment, night or day!”

Julley ~ drew


*    Moonland is a second name to Ladakh, in general, and extends to  Leh valley, particularly.

**  This description is intended merely as an observation of natural conditions.  It’s not a plea for anything personal or even a need to digest experience through written words.  In some dimension of necessary survival and struggle through the arguably extreme changes, I enjoy it — it’s life.  These conditions have for long been those of inhabitants in the Trans-Himalayas; and they’ve made it doable.  They’ll continue to make it doable.  They’re helping me make it doable.  Furthermore, there’s no place for this writer — who hungrily stepped into, stays in, and will live out this place — to offer any words other than those deeply dipped in appreciation.

[1]  Shih-T’ou.  “The Coincidence of Opposites.”  Kaza, Stephanie and Kenneth Kraft, eds.  Dharma Rain:  Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism.  Shambhala Publications:  Boston, 2000. 61-62.

Andrew is excited to join the Snow Leopard Conservancy - India Trust to work with the education program for monks and nuns as an AIF Clinton Fellow. He is a firm believer in the human ability and duty to serve our neighbors far and near. What is important to him is to always be engaged with people and collaboratively work for cooperation, empowerment, and sustainability. He has helped build houses in Trinidad and Tobago as well as Sri Lanka; researched nonlinear optics in France; taught tennis, 5th grade, and high school programs in the U.S.; and analyzed sanitation projects in India. He aspires to motivate these experiences into an informed and adaptive life mission of service. After spending ten months studying Urdu in Lucknow, he is grateful to continue living in India, engaging this perplexing place he calls home-away-from-home. Andrew holds a B.Sc. in Physics from Austin Peay State University, an M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago, and is always seeking to learn more.

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