A Summer Tryst with Ladakh: Volunteering at a Buddhist Monastery (Part 2)


Ramya Vijayram takes you through the experience of Joshua Albin, who volunteered at a Buddhist nunnery at Leh last summer. Read on to indulge in the life at the monastery. You can view the first part of this article here.


He was all praises after that. On his insistence, I joined him and another chicken carrier for tea and conversation. Eventually reaching the topic of my stay, hearing the reason for it, the old driver says reverently ‘Yeh to nekh ka kaam hai bacche. Kabhi na kabhi bhala zaroor hoga iske karan.’

Soon we reach Lamarayu. I saw it standing tall, a black silhouette against the inky sky, one with the mountain. I knew Aayush and PJ didn’t stay at the monastery, but somewhere lower down; I didn’t know exactly where though. Thankfully I saw Aayush walking along the roadside, saving me unnecessary trip up to the monastery. I got down, offering Bismil chacha five hundred rupees for his service. He refuses, saying ‘Bachche, aap se agar meine ek paisa bji liya, to khuda mujhse sab kuch cheen lega. Aap nekh kam karte rehna, aur bas yahi mere liye kaafi hai.’ Finally, he accepts two packets of biscuits I had on me, the least I could do, and was off. To me, he was God-sent.

I then catch up to Aayush, who was thrilled but not particularly surprised to see me. PJ, however, was another story. He was sound asleep when I reached their house – the head Lama’s niece’s abode, a large but simple Ladakhi home. Clambering onto the thick blankets covering, him, PJ woke up, disoriented, mumbling ‘Aayush, utar na…’ I pulled off the blanket from his face, and the look of shock on PJ’s face gave way to a wide grin. It was so nice to be with my friends again.


13th June

I woke up at 7:00 am; and by 7:30, Aayush, PJ and I were sitting in the living room, sipping tea, with our hostess’s elder sister, a rather talkative and jocular young mother also visiting for the festival. Over the course of our visit, I see a merry camaraderie spring up between us three and her.

As I climb the road to the monastery, I realize the most exciting aspect of this trip, for me, is not the festival itself, but the prospect of meeting my elder students too. As soon as I entered the dome where the dances were to take place, I spot my students and Miss Kunzes, who wave enthusiastically. I later join them, and take several photos with them.

First however, I join the other volunteers at the stall set up by them. Kiera, a forty year old volunteer from Italy, who also stays at Lamarayu, was attempting to sell extremely overpriced bookmarks and diaries made by the monk-students, the proceeds of which were to go towards buying winter clothing for them. Though we argued about the price, she remained adamant, claiming that for foreign tourists, it was nothing more than two cups of cappuccino.

The performance was beautiful, a rhythmic dance by the monks in coloured garb and masks to the chant and beats of a gong. However, more than the performance, I found the unrestricted access and non-touristic ‘insider’s’ approach I had acquired fascinating – I acquired a feel of their life. It was, indeed, the differences between looking at a landscape through a window, and being a part of the landscape. My stay at the nunnery, following their routine, and the kinship I felt with my students, allowed me to feel a sense of belonging in the place; enough for me to resent the rather brash and intrusive incursion (in my eyes) of tourists.


Regarding that, an incident comes to mind; I was showing a few of my students around Lamarayu, when an Indian couple thrust a camera into my hand, and asked (rather, told) me to take a picture with the nuns. Confused by this sudden intrusion of strangers, the nuns looked ill at ease. Seeing this, I was angered. So, I asked them if they wanted to take the picture, stressing on the fact they had a choice. The younger ones, still a little lost, agreed; but the eldest nun, Youdon, softly said no, and stepped aside. In that moment, I was proud of her, and I took the picture for the couple, rather impatient at this point, as they hadn’t understood this exchange.

After a simple yet tasty lunch, I see off my students, who were piled into the back of a truck, and set off towards the house myself.

At around 5:30, Aayush and PJ return, and fill me in on the rest of the day’s happenings – Kiera’s frustration with the Russian tourists, unwilling to buy anything; a trek planned for the next weekend, whereby Aayush, PJ and another volunteer from a monastery near Saspol (she was from Netherlands) would travel en route Rizong, and finally, their meeting with a couple, Ved and Arrthy, who they met at the monastery. We met them for a dinner – a married couple based in London, both of them thirty-odd years old; simple unpretentious folk. Arrthy had previous experience volunteering, in Africa, and a certain other remote region, as an English teacher. At the end of the meal, they told us of their intentions to visit Rizong, which they did, the following day. It was a pleasant meal, and I was glad to make their acquaintance.

Exhausted after the meal, I returned to the house, and was asleep soon.


I returned back to Rizong the next day, armed with fifty samosas and chocolates for my students, a treat for my father’s birthday, which I bought along the way; while it made the walk up to Rizong from the main road arduous, the happiness of my students when they received it made everything worth it.  From their thrilled expressions, one could see that they don’t get chocolate very often.

They wrote “Thank you sir for the samosa and chocolate. We pray for your father’s good health and long life.” I love them very much, and I can’t imagine a better class to teach.

Aayush and PJ visited, as promised, along with Meryl, the volunteer from Saspol. During this time, while PJ and Meryl travel ahead for their trek, Aayush and I embark on an exhausting trip to Leh. Unable to get a ride (Aayush bargained for too low a price with the one person who agreed, causing him to shut the door on us and leave) we shared one seat on a JKRTC bus. Further we walked a fair bit around the city, first to buy cakes from the German bakery for the nuns, and then to find a functional ATM (which there seemed to be a lack of). We finally meet Miss Kunzes for a ride back, who is touched by the gesture of buying cake for the students, but feels that she cannot accept it. However I tell her that she cannot refuse gifts for my sistes, at which she smiles and agrees. Aayush finds a Tempo to take him back to Lamarayu.

Coming to today, I was visited by the army, or rather, five ladies whose husbands were in the same- the eldest, aged fifty, another three a bit younger, around forty, and the last one younger still. On asking me for my qualification, I tell them I am a student at IIT-M, at which they looked at me with awe and admiration – a moment of immense pride for me. We had a rather one-sided conversation after – them preferring the role of the listener – and I philosophizing on variety of topics. As they left, shaking my hand and thanking me for my time, I realized that they were the wives of soldiers high up in the army, and was all the more respectful of their humble behavior and lack of airs.

My days here are running out. Following my evening walk, I wrote in my journal fill I could no more, and fell asleep.


24th June

On my last day here, I have two things to talk about – my visit to the main monastery and saying farewell to my students.

Talking about the former first, I accompanied Miss Kunzes to the monastery – an imposing, austere building, with a reserved demeanour ; indicative of the reputation it had of being conservative, rigid and extremely respectable. So much so that the Dalai Lama stayed in this monastery, the only one he stayed in besides his official monastery in Chaklaksar.

A clear disparity can be seen between the nunnery and monastery. To put it crudely, the monastery is rich. Solar panels, water heaters. The school looks like one of the better hotels in Leh.

Being with Miss Kunzes meant she opened a lot of doors for me (literally). The shrine room was the most important room in the monastery. Lit by chinks of light from windows near the roof, the room lies mostly in semidarkness. Gradually adjusting to the light, one looks around to see several statues of the Buddha, the largest and most important being Shakya Muni. There were two raised cubicles for the head Lama and the founder to sit. The monk titled the founder was believed to be the reincarnation of the original founder, while the post of the head Lama was held by the monk believed to be the reincarnation of the son of the original founder. Interestingly, though, he is much older than than current founder. Eighty seven years of age, he is believed to have attained the highest level of bodhi knowledge.

The other thing about which I wish to speak, is of my last day with my students. I write short letters to my students in class, which I give them, much to their surprise. Dinner was held in the new dining room that day, and was clearly to be a special affair. All the little nuns had made me cards as a parting gift; each one came and gave me her card. One representative of the elder classes came forward and placed a ‘khata’ around my neck. I receive the gifts, touched, and grateful, for I had wanted to take a token of this stay back with me. Next, Miss Kunzes gave me a gift on her behalf, a gift wrapped item she says is Ladakhi.

After this, the students sing some songs, accompanied by little impromptu dances of their own as they felt more at ease – Bollywood songs and some Ladakhi songs too.

As I walk to my room to turn in for the night, the nuns stand at the doorway of their rooms, wishing me good night, high fiving me and even running after me until I tell them not to, as it was very dark. They knew and understood, even the little ones, that they may never see me again. I was touched by their simple unadulterated affection and went to bed feeling peaceful and happy.


25th June

So far in my narrative, I have completely omitted my difficulties in booking tickets to go home. However, I shall suffice to say that I was to catch a flight to Delhi on this date; having stayed at Kelly’s place, a beautiful guest house where she had taken up permanent occupancy, the previous night.

She dropped me at the airport that morning, to catch my flight. I bid her farewell and honestly told her that I would love to come again. Having always in proficient in her praise of me, calling me one of her best volunteers and enthusiastically telling the story of my sudden plans to everyone, I couldn’t have wished for a better organizer.
My flight that day was cancelled; due to the heavy rains and dense fog at Leh. After some initial panic, I decided to stay at one of the two five star hotels in Ladakh, Zen. A hot shower and two elaborate meals later, I felt much better. The next day, to compensate for the cancelled flight, a special flight was arranged at 10:30 am to Mumbai via Delhi, which I took. Thus ended my month long stay at Ladakh.

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