It’s been over two weeks since my last post and I was unplugged for nine of those days. I left the island of Koh Phangan in the morning after an early walk to Why Nam beach on the next bay…a strange haze was in the air. After checking out of Sanctuary, I took a taxi boat to the ferry to the island of Koh Samui, then a taxi to the airport for my flight to Bangkok. I had a day planned there with Toon and Par, Thai friends that I met years ago. But, after waiting almost four hours at the Koh Samui airport, all flights off the island were cancelled due to the haze. Crop burnings in Indonesia is an annual occurrence, creating toxic levels of pollution, and now flight cancellations for surrounding countries.
In order to make my international connection to Kathmandu the following morning, I had to then take a taxi to a ticket office for the overnight bus to Bangkok. From there I took a mini van to the VIP bus (reclining seats, blanket, and dinner), onto another ferry (bus and all) to the mainland. After arriving in Bangkok at five am the following morning, I took a taxi to the hotel for a shower, picked up my stored bag, then taxied to the airport. Needless to say, it was not my best twenty four hours of travel. It was, however, an adventure figuring it all out and surrendering to what needed to happen in order to make my flight to Nepal.
Getting through immigration at the Kathmandu airport is its own brand of confusion, with multiple lines to chose from. Knowing which ones to stand on, requires cooperation amongst travelers, a sense of humor and great patience. Once obtaining my visa I was picked up by my friend, Santosh Shah, and brought to Jamling and Lhakpa’s home in Boudhanath (Bouda). They’ve already left for Chiwong Monastery where I will be heading in a couple of days.
The Bouda stupa, the most revered in Tibetan Buddhism and a UNESCO World Heritage site, was severely damaged in the earthquake. Seeing the entire top of it missing with its famous Buddha eyes, and the stupa covered in piles of bricks, was more than disturbing. Nonetheless, life continues as Tibetans and tourists circumambulate. I spent a day and a half in Bouda, running into old friends, before flying up to the small village of Phaplu. Although so much has changed in seven years since my last trip here, it also feels as if I never left.
I hitched a ride to the Kathmandu airport with Namgyal, Jamling and Lhakpa’s son. A pilot for Yeti Airlines, the van picks him up at 5:45 am. The petrol shortage in Nepal due to the blockade at the Indian border has caused taxi prices to triple, quadruple or more depending on the driver. So I arrive early for my 9:00 am flight. After sometime waiting, I see Sang Sang Rinpoche, who will preside over the Mani Rimdu ceremonies with his attendants. Christopher Gierke and family, and an entourage of film crews are there as well. Decades ago Christopher produced a documentary about Mani Rimdu and remains a main supporter of not only the festival, but the entire community. Two eighteen seat flights to Phaplu will depart within minutes of the other.
The Phaplu airport is paved since my last visit. There’s also now a road from Kathmandu, and I will have my first ever jeep ride up to the Monastery. A region that has historically been a walking culture, is on the brink of change.
I arrived at the family home on the monastery grounds on Sunday, two days before the festival began. Taking advantage of the solitude and company of my Sherpa friends, I hear about the local goings on, watch the influx of humans and the rising of tent camps around the monastery grounds.
On Monday after breakfast, I’m invited to join the family in paying respects to Sang Sang Rinpoche. Chiwong is a small family monastery, founded by the great grandfather of Jamling and his seemingly limitless number of cousins. Years ago the Chiwong Monastery Trust was organized to restore, maintain, and improve the monastery, committed to preserving the family’s legacy for future generations. Mani Rimdu was brought to Chiwong by the late Kyabje Trulshig Rinpoche more than forty years ago… www.chiwongmonastery.com
Outside that afternoon basking in the midday sun, the mix of sounds are baffling. Men chatting in the kitchen, music blasting from the “disco” tent, temple horns blowing from the gompa (meditation hall) during preparatory rituals and the engine of a jeep climbing up the road. While there has always been late night dancing to an interesting mix of Indian, Nepali and Western Pop music, the lights and small disco balls are new, as are the vehicles. Lay people come from the surrounding regions for the ceremonies and a small tent village is set up with food and disco.
Later in the day, I walk up the hill to sit inside the gompa. The public festivities will begin the following afternoon in the courtyard. But, the two weeks of preparatory rituals occur inside the gompa where the monks have built a sand mandala, the ceremonial focal point of Mani Rimdu. I love arriving early for the intimacy of this, experiencing the sounds of the horns, cymbals, bells, conch, drum, prayers, and mantras, the smells of the herbs and barks, the light of the butter lamps, and vibrant colors of…everything…the robes, hats, banners, flags, offerings and paintings. Much has changed at the monastery as everywhere, but the ceremony remains exactly as it has been passed down through the generations. By evening there is more activity as people continue to arrive and my favorite, Sherpa stew, for dinner.
Tuesday morning I attend the final “inner” rituals. The public ceremony will begin after lunch with a long life blessing. The monastery courtyard is full. Wednesday is a full day of masked dancing and comedic skits.
By Thursday morning things wind down. Most everyone has left and only a few remain for the fire puja and dismantling of the sand mandala. Morning thunderstorms and rain continue and we gather in the kitchen waiting for the ceremony to begin. No internet, no forecast.
After the fire puja, the sand mandala is dismantled and the following morning a procession brings the sand to the river, where it is poured in after prayers. My porter, Mingma, meets me there to begin our six hour walk to Thupten Choling Monastery.
My time at Thupten Choling is no doubt the focal point, highlight, heart center of my journey. I will write about it my rich experiences there in my next post.