In the Himalayas: A Vast Village

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While residing in the quaint Zanskari village of Zangla (read more here), we had the privilege to visit the nearby monastery of Stongdey for its annual festival in the company of the nuns. Perched on a mountaintop, as they are habitually built, the day commenced with a steep uphill climb as we tackled switchbacks leading to the monastery, swiftly overtaken by locals whose calves seemed immune to the burning we felt.

The rest of the day was an intoxicating affair, with spectators scrambling to the highest vantage points they could find, jostling each other atop the roofs of the crumbling structure for a better view.

Older monks wore their masks and danced, retelling stories of yore, whilst young ones adorned the masks of cheeky trouble-makers, using katak, or silk scarves, to capture spectators and demand a token in exchange for their release. In a dramatic crescendo, a dog, a goat and a young yak were put into trance with a heady mixture of incense and chanting.

In the midst of the bustle, an elderly man caught my eye. He sat down in a corner by the monks’ quarters, quietly in meditation as his fingers nimbly rubbed over his prayer beads. I took a picture, showcased here, to capture the moment.

While I have been meaning to return to Zanskar ever since, the journey is long from the closest airport in Ladakh, and it simply has not happened yet. Two years later, however, a curious coincidence brought me back to that long-forgotten pocket of time.

We were trekking across the Markha valley in Ladakh, a popular route that takes travellers across an otherwise inaccessible trail of picturesque villages, punctuated by high mountain passes and a medley of both inhospitable and cultivated terrain. In the village of Sara, we set-up camp at one of the homestays and settled in for a meal in the main house. A portrait caught my eye – it was the same elderly gentleman I had photographed several hundred kilometres away, a sheer number when the topography is considered, in a region that spreads out across 80,000 square kilometres.

The lady of the house explained it was her father, and that he had passed away the previous year. In a serendipitous turn of events, the moment captured on film was no longer one of a tourist’s incessant attempts to eternalise a travel experience, but a moment wrought in the flux of time, representing a man who had been a father and grandfather. Despite being a vast and seemingly inhospitable expanse of land, the Indian Himalayas felt a little like a village in that instance, bringing me so much closer to the region that I have grown to love.

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