A Summer Tryst with Ladakh: Volunteering at a Buddhist Monastery (Part 1)


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.

27th May

Alighting from the flight at Leh that morning, I think it was the thin cold air and the bleak beautiful landscape, so at variance with the hot humidity and the plentiful trees and buildings, which brought home to me exactly how far I’d come. The impulsive decision, which brought me here, to Ladakh, to teach at a monastery for the summer.

When my friend Pratamesh (a.k.a. PJ) asked me for a reference to this program, Volunteer Ladakh, I made the acquaintance of Kelly. After talking to her, I wanted to be a part of the program too. Although taken aback by the suddenness of this request, she acquiesced to it; and barely a week later, I boarded a flight to Delhi, surprising my friends PJ and Aayush (a senior) en route, also travelling with me for this, from who I kept my venture a secret; and eventually, two flights later, reached my destination: Leh.

(Left) PJ, Ane Kunzes, Aayush and Joshua
(Left) PJ, Ane Kunzes, Aayush and Joshua

Back to the present: exhausted by our long journey and a little bit of mountain sickness, we were driven to a nearby guesthouse, Atisha, a small but cozy establishment, where we feasted on a belated breakfast of momos and a soupy noodle prep called thenduk. Aayush and PJ fell asleep after that; I, however, felt wide awake and excited, the adrenaline rush countering my lack of sleep. Thus, I went out exploring for a bit, stopping briefly at a one of the simple street-side cafes that cater to tourists for a hearty lunch. Later on, PJ(who wasn’t taking to the change in climate very well), Aayush and I returned to a similar café for dinner, before turning in for the night.


29th May

We awoke in the early morning darkness, at 5:50 AM, and quickly got ready, in preparation to leave at 6, when Kelly was to come pick us up to leave for our respective monasteries. We’d met her the previous day, at a café, when we discussed the travelling arrangements.

We first set off for the monastery where Aayush and PJ would be working, Lamarayu. It was a bit further than my nunnery, but I wanted to take a look at it. Lamarayu is a famous tourist destination just off NH1.

The three hour drive to their monastery was beautiful. The changing bare landscape, varying streaked brown plains and small hills fading into blue mountains at the horizon, and yet was, somehow, at an underlying level, unchanging. The great wide open spaces, which, as so aptly described in a book I once read, cannot be captured within the confines of a photograph. The precipitous mountain road almost always ran parallel to a river or tributary in a valley. On the way, we came across Sangam, where the sparkling blue waters of Indus meets the murky silt carrying Zanskar , their exact boundary drawn by the contrasting shades of blue and brown. We also passed a point known as the magnetic mountain.

Along the road, you come across army cantonments; the vast military presence is undeniable. We finally reach Lamarayu. Built high into the mountainside, half rock and half man-made, above the general bustle of shops, guest houses and so on, it seems as unyielding as the mountain itself; a plain white and statuesque building, having stood the test of the centuries past.

As we enter, we see monks going about their business, pausing to give us a cheerful “Julley” to our more respectful “Chaksal”, both greetings meaning hi, bye and so on. The view from the monastery is breathtaking – a panoramic of the surrounding landscape. We are invited into a room, by one of the monks, who also teaches there. He offers us tea, a custom in all Buddhist households and institutions, the tea varying from regular tea, to green tea or butter tea. At this juncture, an elderly monk, in his fifties, with a sweet and gentle air about him, but one which commands respect, enters the room and is introduced to us as the headmaster, Thachen. We jump to our feet and greet him with “Chaksal” and a slight bow, in response to which he puts a length of white cloth around each of our necks, called the Katak, as a sign of respect. We speak with them for a little while, after which Kelly and I take leave of them, heading onwards to my nunnery. Before doing so, we are invited for the Lamarayu festival, later on in our stay, which we happily accept.

The nunnery where I will be staying, is the Chulichan nunnery. ‘Chuli’ in Ladakhi means apricots; the nunnery is so named as it is surrounded by an orchard of apricot trees. Affiliated to the Rizong monastery, known to be the most respected and conservative in Ladakh. A centre to study Buddhism, for prayer and meditation, and nothing else, void of all distractions.

On reaching Chulichan, we are greeted by Ane Kunzes, who was in charge of the school at the time. She is relatively young, open and very friendly. She shows us around the school building, separate from the nunnery, and my room, located above the school. It is spacious, has one of the three bulbs the nunnery has the solar power to run, and contains a mattress on the floor and a table. This three-hundred year old nunnery had a soft, peaceful aura about, divorced from modern life.

Kelly soon took our leave, and after a simple lunch, Ane Kunzes asks me if I would like to start taking class that day itself, to which I give my firm assent. Thus I meet my eldest three students, Youdon, Yongzum and Sonam, the former two aged twenty-one, the latter aged fifteen. There are a total of thirty nuns, twenty six of which are students from ages five to twenty one. The little ones are adorable, and look extremely huggable, the elder ones rather beautiful, with clear complexions. Of my three elder students, Sonam was rather shy, but the other two were fairly talkative and knew basic English (part of my job here being to teach them English), and we all have a discussion; they seem more comfortable by the end of class.

Joshua's class
Joshua’s class of nuns

I then return to my room, where I am served butter tea, the customary vintage there, after which I go down for dinner, to special dining room. As a guest, I am seated next to Ane Kunzes; all of them sit on the floor, on cushions placed along the wall to sit on. The meal is prepared by two nuns daily, in rotation, and is served in bowls to be eaten with spoons. It is a simple affair of cabbage and carrot bhaji, sautéed in very little oil with salt and pepper. I enjoy the simple meal, eating it with my dadi’s pickle. Though many volunteers have a problem with the food, finding it bland and tasteless, I thankfully didn’t.

After the meal, I return to the room, and go to sleep, leaving the CFL on. It was pitch dark outside.


June 7th

My days here have fallen into a routine; I wake up early in the morning, at around 6:30, to the pleasant cold. Though in the last few days, it has evolved to a biting cold which you feel to your bones. I feel cold everywhere – in the classroom, in my bed at night, under the blanket. However, I digress. I am then served green tea in a traditional flask, a little smaller than a milkman’s can and later breakfast, by two of the little nuns. I then move to the library which also serves as a classroom, and take several classes, starting from grade one, of six of the toddlers, followed by grade two, grade five consisting of three students, and the class of the eldest students. Classes are typically from 9 am, with a brief lunch break, and classes resuming at 2. Classes were proceeding well, and I feel like I am making a genuine difference, as this is my first experience being a full time teacher. After class, I return to my room, where I am served dinner. I write in my book, read and have taken to internal monologues. The complete isolation of this nunnery, away from phone connections and internet, made this nunnery a difficult place to stay for many volunteers; I however find myself enjoying this time I spend with myself, introspection and thought. Off late, I have also taken to short evening walks, and some stretching exercises, to keep myself in shape.

The classroom in the monastery

This routine was brought about by necessity; after the first four kilometer walk to the town on the main road, left me exhausted. The only way to keep my family updated was to make a call from the local PCO in town, and so I began to frequent that path – running through the narrow valley, a little too close to the jagged face of the mountain for comfort. To wish my Dada, and Papa on their birthdays, to check up on Aayush and PJ (‘Hey sexy’, Aayush opens with; his irreverence is missed), and just to speak with my family.

Today I once again embark on the walk to the PCO (sadly not as fetching a title as one would hope for) accompanied by Nima and Chamba, two of the little monks, determined to see me off part of the way. They skip merrily by my side, burbling out Honey Singh songs ill-suited to their sweet voices. It made for a cheerful walk, and I took a video of them singing.

I reach the PCO and make a couple of calls, including one to my Dadi, who said she would courier some more of her pickle as it had been much loved here; Ane Kunzes even offered it to the important and distinguished guests of the nunnery – so high was the respect she accorded it with.

On returning to the monastery, I find a surprise waiting for me. Two visitors enter our dining room, and who should it be, but Aayush and PJ! I am so thrilled to see them that I envelope them in a large hug, before we all sat down to partake of the specially prepared pulao.

After this, we discuss our stay so far, bringing each other up to speed on the happenings of the last few weeks. On comparison, we realize how different our experiences have been, and yet how lucky we all are to have been a part of this. I show them around the school building – the classroom, the library – and then my room. They fall in love with my little classroom, and are impressed by the running of the nunnery, which I stress is Miss Kunzes’ credit.

After this, they take my leave, having already extended their stay by an hour and a half. As I watch their gradually fading silhouettes in the gentle drizzle, turn the corner and disappear, I feel the overwhelming urge to run after them, catch up to them and walk with them to the main road. For once, I am grateful that I do not have a phone; speaking to anyone familiar is the sharpest reminder of the comfort I have left back home.

To take my mind off things, I write in my journal for almost four hours. I then enjoy a hearty dinner, even running after the nuns to ask for a second helping, much go their amusement (I had asked to be served only one helping, as the food once touched cannot be eaten by others – it is fed to the dog).

I then say a brief prayer, and, turning out the light, close my eyes.


12th June

I wake up to the knocking sound of the Himalayan magpie, trying to open my window. Perhaps it was trying to build a nest, as it had a rag in it’s mouth; knowing from experience that the window opens with a small push. And so, my day begins.

Classes are proving to be challenging, as there is no prescribed syllabus to follow – it is difficult to find something new to teach everyday. Also I am not entirely comfortable teaching English; any language requires training and practice, of which I have had neither off late. I would have been much more comfortable with science or math.

I am now teaching letter writing to the senior classes; a dying form of personal communication. Yet it is one which carries a lot of meaning – whether it will reach on time, the effort that goes into it’s writing and posting – knowing it will the only communication for a while to come. I too have written two letters after coming here, for the first time, to my father and Arth; it is sure to surprise both receivers.

During class today, I find out that the elder nuns and Miss Kunzes will be going for the Lamarayu festival the next day. Having been invited to the same, I initially plan on travelling with them, but later change my mind, deciding to leave earlier, in the evening today.

Acting on this spur of the moment decision, I start hastily throwing essentials into a small bag, and rush to inform  Miss Kunzes. The time is between 4:30 and 5 in the evening; I reach the main road at 5:30. I make a quick trip to my favourite PCO (the owner knows me pretty well now – regular business!), to call home. I am initially unsuccessful. I then spend half an hour attempting to flag down a vehicle to take me to Lamarayu, with just as much success.

I then make a second trip to the PCO, which turned out to be rather serendipitous – my mother had chosen that very moment to call back. She tells me to keep my spirits up, to pray, and to try to get a lift in the next half an hour, failing which I abandon the plan.

Bolstered by her words, I adopt my new motto, ‘Nil desperandum’, and return to the road, muttering a prayer. As you would have it, a chicken-carrier was coming my way. Taking a deep breath, I desperately thumb down this answer to prayer; it stops some forty feet away. I gratefully get in.

The truck driver, Bismil Ahmed, is a fifty-ish, white bearded Muslim Kashmir with clear features, from Srinagar. I have an enjoyable, rather varied conversation with him about his job, family and so on. When the conversation shifts to me, I tell him the reason for my stay, and see a newfound respect dawn in his eyes.

I am now ‘bacche’, and he is ‘chacha’. We discuss terrorism in Kashmir, which he said was not a problem for the locals and tourists. The main problem, he says, with the ‘ugalwadis’ stems from the police and government (he refers to it as ‘Zhalim’ and corrupt). He was surprised by my familiarity with names such as the NC and the PDP. ‘Ek dum shareef aur kareem-nawaz aadmi hai wo.’, he said forcefully, on the subject of Omar Abdullah.

Our conversation digressed afterwards. My rather dramatic reply to his questioning whether or not I eat non-vegetarian – ‘Humein tambaku ya daru ki nasha nahi hai, lekin acche khane ki bhukh hamesha rehti hai. Mujhe aaj bhi Mughal darbar ke Muslim Kashmiri vazhvan ki yaad aati hai.’

To be continued…

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