Tea and puja in Nako monastery

24 Jun

Travel agencies in Shimla had scoffed at the place, snubbed at its artificial lake, and advised us to continue on directly to Tabo. But, when we arrived in Nako, a small village with 270 degree views of snow-capped Himalayan peaks, we were smugly happy with having gone our own way. As expected, Nako was wonderful. And as guessed, few if any of its guesthouses offered commission to travel agencies. Yet, it appeared that the best was yet to come.

The following morning, we dragged each other out of bed at six to find the 11th century monastery in town where we had been told that monks hold open morning prayers. We did find the monastery and also its basement kitchen, where Tashi, a thirty-year old monk in a red hoodie and pink crocs, made us chai and served sugary biscuits.

But first things first, the prayer.

Nako is tiny, yet we needed a local’s help to find its monasteries; both hidden behind a thick and tall clay wall. The same courtyard leads to both, though the monasteries are almost a thousand years apart.

Directly in front as you enter is the new monastery, a modern building resembling an Indian school that was recently inaugurated by the Dalai Lama. But, the one you cross your fingers to have a closer look at, and hopefully be invited into for the puja, is the nondescript, white mud house to its left.

This morning, Tashi undid the padlock to the ancient monastery and pushed the door open. Stooped down, we entered and quickly realised that the tiny, orange door had been deceiving. Inside was a room three to four metres high, with Buddhist murals filling the walls.

Photography is strictly forbidden to avoid any flash to further deteriorate the 11th century Buddhist paintings. With the centuries, the images have faded into weak reds, greens and blacks. A few have even completely let go to the grey clay behind. The faded images and the morning light seeping in shyly through the door stood in stark contrast to the otherwise bright and cheery room.

On every pillar and from every corner of the room, the Dalai Lama and other high-ranking monks beamed from large, glass-framed colour photos lined with silk shawls. At the left of the altar stood a light installation with rows upon rows of light bulbs in the colours of the Tibetan prayer flags: blue, red, white, yellow and green. In front was an altar that could have been taken out of my granny’s kitchen; a massive dresser with glass-doors, normally containing plates and glasses, though here holding a number of statues and candles.

The monks’ morning prayer in Nako is normally held in the new and modern monastery. Both tourists and locals are invited to come and watch. However, this morning, Tashi, a small monk that barely reached me to my shoulder, was home alone in the monastery. And, as my boyfriend and I were the only ones that had gotten up at six in the morning to join him, he invited us into the old monastery.

“Where do you want us to sit?”, I asked.

“Anywhere!”, he replied with a big grin and pointed to a thick Tibetan rug on top of a bench.

“You sit. I begin puja!”

And, as Tashi started his prayer, we watched in complete silence, barely daring to move. A fly buzzed around one of the pillars, and the sound echoed in the little room.

In a surprisingly rhythmic and soft-spoken voice, Tashi read slowly through a stack of rectangular papers in front. Occasionally, he would lick his finger to lift the paper he had just read (or to skip a few) into a second stack. To accompany his prayer, he would from time to time reach for prayer beads, a golden bell or two large brazen cymbals, one of which had a long drum stick attached. Rubbing the cymbals together, the drumstick would hit a large drum above, creating a solemn, prolonged sound that somehow reminded me of an avalanche.

After about a good half an hour, we were still seated in silence, watching the chanting monk, trying to not think too much of the fact that pujas are known to last up to three hours. But, much to our delight, Tashi was also hiding yawns.

Perhaps it was the yawns or the occasional scratching of his bed hair, but I found it easy to imagine Tashi getting up that morning, rolling out of bed before pulling on his red hoodie over the red robes, slipping into his pinck crocs and then slowly tottering over across the courtyard to the monastery for the morning routine.

And, just then, Tashi looked up and sent us a sidelong grin. “Finish my puja!”

Prayer over, Tashi invited us to have a look at the new monastery. He told us they were normally two monks in Nako, and the elderly monk was the one who normally held the puja – in the new monastery. “But he normally does not wear this”, Tashi grinned and pulled in his red hoodie.

After a few rounds of thank you, we were about to leave. Tashi however, seemed keen to have company for a bit longer. As we waved to him on our way out of the courtyard, he shouted back: “You like tea?!”

“Yeah”, we nodded.


Tashi kicked off his pink crocks and led us excitedly past a bright red dog bed for his puppy and down into the new monastery basement. Apart from the gas stove kitchen and thick, red rugs on the floor, the room was bare. As Tashi pulled out his red cell phone, I realised this was a man seriously into colour coordination. I pointed out that all he had was red – from his socks, his puppy’s basket to his hoodie to his phone. He nodded in excitement. “Yes, I like red. All is red!”.

Sipping the tea, I asked him why he became a monk eight years ago, at the age of 22.

“Because there, my home very tiny. And work, work, work. I think, become monk; free mind, no tension.”

“And what is your daily routine?”

“I read certain puja, I eat, sometimes I enjoy a lot.”

Seeing our encouraging nods, Tashi went into more detail:

“I get up at four thirty, I read until five, five I wash, then after six puja, then I work two hours like cleaning, then one hour I read. Then lunch, then sleep one hour, then after three-four, one hour I go shopping and walk around, then five I pray the prayer, then after I go to anywhere, six, seven I come back and make dinner. Nine, dinner. Nine to ten, I read books. Ten thirty, I sleep.”

Tashi grinned widely at us.

“I am busy, morning to evening time!”.



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