The House of the Builder

Extract from Lost in Shambhala: Chapter Three

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You could hear the soft boom of the drum and bells ringing in the old monastery, in the mornings. In Dankhar, one monk was appointed to do the daily practices alone, as there was no daily collective prayer ritual. So Lama Tipa, as he was known, chanted the scriptures alone in his residential cell at the top of a pile of old rooms and temples in the monastery. On the other side of the village in the new monastery, the other monks mumbled prayers around the kitchen as they prepared for the new day. 

Dankhar Monastery, Spiti Valley

My teacher, Sherab Dakpa, was short and stocky and he claimed to be a Khampa. I did not believe him. He wore pressed cords and starched shirts, he waxed his hair and polished his Ray Ban sunglasses with an immaculate handkerchief. He even used chapstick on his lips. Once, when we walked ten miles over the hills to the Lingti Valley to visit another monastery, he took a small suitcase with wheels. He looked like he was on his way to Heathrow, dragging his elegant luggage through the dust.  How could he be descended from the warriors of Eastern Tibet? He was afraid to get his trousers dirty, and tutted when the dust nuzzled into the cuffs of his shirt. 

Perhaps it was his neurosis that made him a good teacher— disciplined, competent and efficient. He had been trained in Dharamsala and took his first teaching post in Tabo Monastery five years ago, and had left recently under circumstances that were only later revealed to me. The Rinpoche had asked him to teach the monks English and Tibetan, so it seemed obvious that I would take lessons from him. He taught me from schoolbooks they used in the Tibetan Children’s Village Schools, full of stories of Green Dragons and Snow Lions and the universal Tortoise and the Hare. Sentence after sentence was drilled into me: 

Tabo Monastery, Spiti Valley, India

The Tsuglhagkhang is the biggest temple in Lhasa, Milarepa spent fourteen years in a cave, the rooms of the Potala Palace  are uncountable…

Tsering Chophel would appear every few days with his donkey, loaded with supplies of close-up toothpaste, Lux soap, matches, rice and vegetables for the monastery shop. I used to buy boiled sweets from him, and guzzled them down on the walk back to the monastery. We listened to the BBC World Service in the afternoons if the electricity was on. I would sit beside the stove, as Lama Dorje shaped the chapati between his palms and slapped them on the pan to cook, mumbling his prayers as he did. The kitchen was black with soot and so dark you could hardly see who was sitting in the corner. I could see the snow mountains through the window. The glass hung limply in the frame, secured by two thin nails. A gas-lamp lay propped up on the crooked sill and rosary beads hung from the window clasp. There was a piece of a broken mirror, which Sherab would grab in the mornings to groom himself with hair oil and smooth his face with My Fair Lady, an Indian face cream that claimed to bleach the skin. One day, the whole lot fell off the sill as the windows rattled and a crackling BBC voice that told us an earthquake had hit Iran. 

The monks in Dankhar all wore the same blue runners with the brand mark Warrior marked over a white star on the heel. When it was cold, they wore the same green army jackets with a golden star on the shoulder buckle. They had the same red flasks as the Rinpoche had, with a pink rose on the barrel. These were not cheap products that came from the plains, from over the Kunzum pass. These goods were from China, and they came through the Tibetan border over the Shipki  pass. Limited trade was allowed on the Indo-Tibetan border, forty years after the invasion of Tibet. Tibetans no longer came over the Parag pass with their woollen clothes and silk, yak and goats. Spitians no longer bought tea-bricks, turquoise, amber and coral from Lhasa. The cheap blue Warrior runners, the green Chinese army coats and the red tin flasks were all that came from behind the quiet mountains now. No lamas, no yaks, no goats, no visitors could drop in over the passes any more and nobody said too much about what lay over the mountains these days.  

Spiti Valley

The wind used to blow down the valley, rattling the pane-less windows of my room. The valley of the howling wind, they called it. The electric poles leaned away from it, and the lights would go out in the monastery. Down below, the glow of the village windows would be swallowed into the dark. Power cuts were a fact of life; every house kept a gas lamp on the sill. Someone told me that a woman had had trouble with the switches when electricity first came to the village. She was very hesitant to press it, and when the light came on in the bulb, she thought a man had to run across the field with a candle to make the light appear. When she was given a torch, she stroked it as if it were alive, because she believed a God of light lived inside it. 

Spiti Lady, Dankhar Village

On one of my first evenings in Dankhar, we went to the village to visit one of the families. It was the house of the builder, Tsering Dorje. There was a smell of grain and fresh goat shit and dried dung in the belly of the house where the animals were kept. We stumbled up the wooden stairs in the dark until we were met by a shadow at the end of the corridor, holding a gas lamp. A bottle of Sunny Whiskey was snatched off the shelf when we came in. Guests had arrived. Get the cups and pour it in. The bottle must have been sitting on the shelf for years, waiting for us. The label was peeling off and you could see the dust smudged off where Tsering Dorje had gripped it by the neck. 

“Cho, cho.”  Drink, drink, they kept saying, standing in front of me with the bottle. I kept my hand over my cup. 

“La mey, la mey.” No thank you, no thank you. I could not take the scald of it. But they persisted.

“Cho, cho.” Dorje’s wife smiled at me from behind the stove, holding her palms up in a gesture of offering. The children stared at me, ensconced.

“Kon-chok, kon-chok.” I swear, I swear I don’t want any. This was the only thing that seemed to work. To say you swore, you swore by the three precious jewels of Buddha, his Teachings and his Disciples that you meant what you were saying.    


It was so dark in the corner I was sitting in, I could only see the outline of a man in a woollen hat facing me: it was Tsering Dorje’s father. He was seventy two, and he remembered when the border with Tibet was open. He told me stories about it, through the thick smoke that blew out the door of the little black stove. His grand-children gathered around him like little mice. 

I handed him three bars of chocolate I had bought in Kaza. He laughed, and gave them to his grandchildren, who ripped them open and sucked on squares, staring at me through the smoke, at this strange white-coloured woman who looked so pale she could have been a ghost. He took a square of chocolate himself and muttered to Tsering Dorje that it was the first time in his life he had tasted chocolate. Tsering Dorje nudged his wife and told her to fill his cup with whiskey. That was a thing to drink to, a man of seventy two who had never tasted chocolate. 

“Why?” I asked him.

“I never thought of it,” he told me.

Before 1962, there were no roads in Spiti, only  narrow paths carved by the hooves of animals, and the only way in was by horse. When the Queen of Spiti first arrived, she came from Lahaul by horse. From Spiti Valley, it took three months to get to Shimla, in the foothills. Rice was a valuable thing in Spiti those days, the old man told me. He remembered when the Nono was in Dankhar, living in the old fort. Men would lower their heads and avert their eyes in reverence. When Tibetan traders came into the valley with sheep and yak butter and goats, the best of these were offered to the Nono before anyone else had a choice. Tibetans also had great reverence for the king of the valley. But the Nonos had been wrathful once. 

The Queen Mother and the King (Nono) of Spiti Valley, taken in 2000 by Siofra O’Donovan

“I remember guilty thieves and murderers going to the dungeons of the fort. It was said that the fort had a cell in it without a door and a small opening at the top through which the  guilty one received his meal.” 

Ten years ago, the previous Rinpoche had asked the Nono if the fort could be used as a nunnery.  When that Rinpoche died, the nuns dispersed. Some married, some went back to their villages. The fort lay barren, still commanding the view over the village from the crumbling ridge. Nothing remained, but the Nono still had the key. Every year a monk is still sent to the fort to perform ritual prayers and villagers from Mani and Lhalung come to pay homage to the Nono, offering wheat and barley, which he offers back to the monastery. The Queen of Spiti offers a tin of oil for butter lamps that light the ceremony.  

Spiti Women

It was so dilapidated, it looked as if it could tumble down the hill, rocks and pillars and mud spilling into a pile of rubble in the village. Ravens circled around it sometimes, as if to guard it. Nono had a government job in Kinnaur where the military population outnumbered the local population. One day I would go there, to bring him War and Peace. He lived ten kilometres from Tibet, but nobody would be coming over that border. The Dalai Lama was no longer the God of Lhasa who waved a yak tail to bless the Spiti pilgrims; he was an exile who lived in Dharamsala. The old man told me that Spittian people still saw the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader. 

When the lights came back and the naked bulb glowed shyly in the kitchen, I saw that he  was wearing blue runners on his feet and an old Chinese Army coat over his shoulders. On the dresser, there were three flasks with pink roses on them. A row of blue and white China bowls were displayed on the second shelf.

“When I was younger,” he said, “I wanted to go to Lhasa to be blessed by His Holiness. But I grew ill, and I could not leave with the party I had wanted to leave with. By the time I got better, His Holiness had left Lhasa, to our horror. We are glad to have him in India, but it is very sad that the Tibetan people have lost their land.” 

The Buddhism of the Hill people in India might have given way to the almighty charisma of the Hindu gods if it had not been for the arrival of the Dalai Lama, which put a great buttress on their faith. There has been a flurry of monastery building since the Tibetans came into exile, recreating in India the great monastic institutions that had been destroyed in Tibet. 

The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso

Dorje Tsering’s father ate the last square of chocolate, and threw the wrapper into the open stove. From that day on, he would send his grandchildren to the monastery shop once a month, on a so jong , an auspicious lunar day, to buy chocolate. He would offer one bar in the temple, and the other he would eat with his grandchildren by the stove when the day was over.  

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Painting by Nicholas Roerich