Trance and Tradition in the Himalaya



To tell about Kungri Monastery one needs to talk about Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche first. The Rinpoche is Bhutanese, holds the title of a reincarnated lama, and is a high ranking spiritual authority in his country. He is also a successful author, film buff and – under the nom de plume Kyhentse Norbu – a director (one of his movies, The Cup, about a group of monks who use their wiles and smarts to try and get a satellite dish in order to watch the Soccer World Cup, has been widely praised) as well as a man with a vicious sense of humour; as a lama he has the duty to choose auspicious names for every newborn in a ceremony similar to Christian baptism – several of the children come out of this ceremony with the perhaps not so fortunate names of Rambo Norbu, Flash Gordon Chozom or Jamyang Raging Bull.

Like many influential lamas Dzongsar Kyhentse has taught abroad and has acquired a large European and American following. He is offering spiritual retreats to his followers, Western and Indian alike, and one of these retreats happened to be in Kungri Monastery.

Kungri, located in the scenic and remote Pin valley, is called the second oldest monastery in Spiti, after Tabo. Founded in about 1330 AD it is the only Nyingmapa monastery in the region. The Nyingma, the oldest Buddhist sect, follow Tantric teachings. They are not as strict in their rules of consuming alcohol and having sexual contacts as the other sects, but consider these activities part of the spiritual challenge of life. Their lamas may, under certain circumstances, even raise families and a few rituals they follow occasionally culminate in wild performances, often accompanied by the participants falling into trance-like states.

The monastery itself holds from fifty to three-hundred monks, depending on the season. It is a centre of learning and an important communal meeting place for the people of the outlying villages. Kungri used to be one stop on a trading route between Spiti, Manali and Lahaul, but a massive earthquake in the 1950s collapsed the established trading path and the valley has been a dead-end ever since. What used to be a monastery made prosperous by trade had to look for other sources of wealth. It may have been the contacts established by teachers like Dzongsar Khyentse that enabled Kungri to recently receive a sizeable international donation to restore their monastery.

It certainly was Dzongsar Khyentse who was responsible for the large number of Western visitors that flooded Kungri in June 2010. He was holding a two-month long spiritual retreat and empowerment that filled the small monastery with European, American, Japanese, Tibetan, Bhutanese and Indian disciples. We arrived during the end of the retreat. It was marked by a large festival that drew villagers from all around Spiti and Kinnaur. Large private cars filled the courtyard of the monastery and the lanes of the ten hut strong village surrounding it. Busses were filled to the brim with families pouring in to see the lama and receive spiritual rewards.
Traditionally it is believed that spiritual merit can be acquired by the right acts or by contact with people who have achieved a high spiritual standard, like leading lamas or sages. It is considered not unlike we consider our bank balance and monks often jokingly call a few thousand spins of the prayer wheels “acquiring interest”.

In the end there were well over thousand people filling the monastery. After a bit of delay in procuring the guest of honour, troupes of dancers started a traditional Kinnauri/Spiti dance. Men and women are both dressed in ritual clothes, the men wearing a topi – a round hat – a long brown dress with embroidered blue cuffs, and are carrying curved swords. In the pacifist Buddhist culture the people of Pin Valley are the only ones using swords to accompany their rituals. The women wear a bright green cloth wrapped around their shoulders. It is embroidered with colourful designs. Those designs as well as the colours used vary from village to village, but in Kungri every woman is wearing the same set.

Unlike the vigorous Shunto dance which is a dance popular in the regions of Spiti and Lahaul, the ritual dance is slow, almost soporific. Men and women line up opposite each other, then form a circle, at first the women to one side and the men to the other…soon, however, they mix, so that you see a woman next to a man next to a woman…All the time the dancers are accompanied by five musicians, playing drums and cymbals in a slow, steady rhythm.

According to Buddhist statures the dances are described as releasing negative energy and creating a positive and harmonic mood among participants and audience alike and of course to honour the Lord Buddha. However, I think there is more to it. The swords would reflect the old martial culture of the valley tribes, always ready to defend themselves against intruders from Ladakh or the Sikh emperors of Kullu who raided their valleys a number of times during their history. Several people have also told me that there is a matrimonial significance and that the best dancers are also considered to be the best possible matches for marriage, so the young women and men dance for their future fortunes and prosperity as well as for the honour of the Lord Buddha.

After a lengthy performance the monks brought out boxes full of chocolate and cookies. One can often see packs of chips and crackers and chocolate stacked up next to the deities and statues of incarnate lamas as ritual gifts, but this time the monks were offering the ingredients of those boxes to the gathered villagers as gifts. People started pushing each other and crowding the monks. Countless hands were reaching out for a desired packet of chips or Marie cookies, but the situation never became chaotic. Everyone seemed to leave satisfied, clutching a small or slightly larger bundle.

The monastery would now offer another ceremony to prove its prosperity. A new monastery would be founded, about two hundred metres uphill from the old one. Queues of people were trudging uphill to a spot where incense smoke was rising and the dignitaries had already arrived via a short-cut with their jeeps. Up here the Buchan or buzhen lamas were set to perform.

The Buchan are a local sect from the Pin Valley. They live in Mud, a tiny village, but spend their summers wandering the valleys. There is a buzz in the air up here. The people are excited about their performance.

The Buchan are a group of nine men of differing ages, but most of them in their thirties and forties. They are robust looking people with the memorable faces of actors. The best way to describe them would be Buddhist harlequins. They wear costumes bright with tassels, sashes and belts. Around their necks are bells, women’s jewelry and metal boxes containing sacred relics. Three of them have already changed for a performance.

It is a performance taken from an older age, a mockery of the establishment that reminded me a little bit of the German Fasching, when people dress up as caricatures and perform the pomp of the mighty in order to ridicule them. An effeminate, made up man was representing an aristocrat who ended up in a quarrel with a monk (bedecked with even more tassels, belts and bells) and a man who was meant to be a shopkeeper. I cannot offer a translation of their conversation, but from the reaction of the crowd it seemed to have hit the nail pretty much on the head. The people were giggling with laughter. When the Clown appeared their giggles turned into roars. The Clown was a man dressed in white furs and a white cap, his face painted white. He bore a whip an without an introduction he began beating the three men, chasing them around the stage and loudly cursing them and making rude jokes. The actor seemed to relish his role and wouldn’t leave even when the other Buchan appeared and gave the performance a more ceremonial note. He kept chasing a cymbal player and chewing the scenery for a while before he disappeared.

The final performance is one that is usually only shown during the ladarcha, a fair lasting several days that is played out around Kaza in July or August. It is called the powar dochak, literally the “breaking of the stone”.

The powar dochak begins with setting up an altar to Tangthon Gyalpo, commonly known as the “Great Builder” or, more poetically, as the madman of the empty land. He is a revered, semi-mythical lama who founded the Ache Lhamo, the Tibetan Opera and erected several iron suspension bridges in the Himalayans to ease travel through these inhospitable lands. In order to raise the money he founded a song and dance troupe. Today he is revered as the patron saint of drama and so of the Buchan. In front of this altar there is placed a stone.

Then a sword dance begins. One of the Buchan, called the Lochen, carries two swords and begins a wild, swaying dance with them, jumping and whirling through the air. His dance gets increasingly wilder until he enters a trance. At that point he begins taking the tip of the blade into his mouth and spins around, later he puts the sword hilts on the ground, tips facing upwards and puts his whole weight on his swords. In this case the performer was so entranced that two of his colleagues had to catch and stop him.

It continues with the eponymous stone. Placed in front of the altar this stone has now become refuge for an evil spirit and so it must be destroyed. An old man, ostensibly the leader of the troupe stands in front of the stone and begins to mumble and chant himself into a trance. Meanwhile another man lies down on the ground in front of the altar and the stone is placed on his chest. He is held down by several other men. Once the old man is ready, he picks up a large stone himself and – with a great flourish and a show of strength, he smashes the stone that harbours the evil spirit.

At this point madness broke out. The audience, gripped by the power of the performance, raced towards the stage, hands frantically reaching for pieces of the broken stone. The pieces of the stone are considered to possess significant magical qualities and usually they are used in the plinth of new houses. The largest pieces of the stone would serve as foundation stone of the new monastery. The Buchan, their performance done, were literally showered with rupee notes.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche used the opportunity to marry two of his Western devotees to each other – the couple had long planned this to be the beginning of their marriage – and posed for photographs with them. Soon after, however, the people dispersed and the endless silence of the Himalayan peaks descended over the place once more.

Some unfinished thoughts about change and tradition



I find myself wondering about vanishing traditions and disappearing cultures every so often…one of my larger scale projects, Terranigma, deals with exactly this. But one does not have to go very far to see old and used to things disappearing in favour of new, shiny, glossy and comfortless elements. I’m simply wondering about how unwilling we often are to integrate new traditions into established worldviews…on a microscopic as well as a macroscopic scale.

Tradition, time honoured traditions have something solid, something absolutely not worrisome. They have stood the test of time, they aren’t shakey…and we live in a time when pretty much everything seems to be on very shakey ground. Tradition appeals to the security seeker and if we speak about vanishing traditions or willfully set out to change traditions, we upset this sense of security.

Suddenly the I, lonely naked I becomes concerned about its own vulnerability. No security, no fallback plans? Burn those heretics of the new and change-y!

A muddled sense of nostalgia seems so much better. The old is not yet gone, we feel it slipping, but it’s still there if we reach out far enough…

But we need to integrate new elements, pretty much constantly. As a society and as individuals. I do believe that as longs as we look with nostalgia and sadness at everything that disappears and look for blame and cause, reason and rescue, we are not inside of time, but very much outside of it. Some elements of traditions disappear, some travel along, some get reintegrated and used in different forms and combinations.

We are constantly evolving, constantly engaged with both our past and future. This is unavoidable as long as we live and breathe and it is not at all dramatic. We all do it, constantly. To look for purity or one fixed point where everything was perfect is to try to hammer a nail into a rapidly spinning globe.

Ultimately, change is just time made visible and while each of us has a very personal point where our time ends, change and newly formed elements and traditions will be ongoing. Lonely, naked I does not have to wear old clothes for fear of standing naked in the future.

I Do Not Own You

The model of relationships that we in Europe – or more broadly, the Christian world – follow is relatively peculiar because I can see in it no advantage except from the point of view of commercial relationships.

  I think it was instituted in an old patriarchal society where you would marry into money (the girl’s family having the initial disadvantage of fielding all the cash) or use marriages increasingly as a means to do nothing but cement relationships between powerful and wealthy families. Why two individuals would decide on a marriage, that is an exclusive union that brings with it unnatural strains and few advantages except perhaps the illusion of permanence, is a puzzle to me.

  There is love, of course, and love binds, as people say. But I consider love to be better expressed in acceptance than in acquisitiveness. To allow someone to be who they want to be is a greater expression of love than saying I want to own you.

  So why enter into an agreement of mutual ownership? Business and tax reasons? Comfort? Laziness? Or actually Love? Puzzling, isn’t it?

  I’m not saying that it is an unnatural thing for two people to decide they want to spend their life with each other – this is a wonderfully beautiful thing – but to artificially limit this by inflexible borders is what I find unnatural. Perhaps it is my nature as a traveler, but I find borders to be woefully artificial things.

  I also wonder how much of a role egoism plays in creating relationships that consist of mutual contracts of ownership. I believe that it is true that I define myself through you, that is, through all the yous that I meet in my life. If you are an expansive and free-willed person, so will I be. If you are tied down by my own wishes and desires, what will you be?

  Also, there is a purely mathematical element involved here. If it is possible for two people to coexist and cohabit, it is possible for three people to coexist and cohabit. If it is possible for three people to coexist and cohabit, it is possible for four people and so on. The variables increase, but the essence remains the same.

  I do not simply mean a collection of sexual affairs – that is something that is possible within or without any framework of relationships and requires very little imagination (it helps if you’re moving around, though). I am thinking about alternative models of human and also sexual relationships.


  Of course that is complicated, requires a lot of investment and understanding and imagination. It also requires you to think differently about ideas of ownership, especially about the strange concept that you can own another person and make decisions for them. It requires you to water down your own ego quite a bit and accept the presence of other people in your mind and heart.

  I am simply ruminating here – when we are young we are implanted with these ideas of ideal relationships and unfortunately it is almost always the same model that causes lots of heartache, guilt and secrecy and suppression of desires while wanting nothing but exclusive happiness. But ideally, I think, the world is full of possibilities for relationships in all forms, shapes and colours. Some might be brief and highly sexual, others slow and deep, others friendly, light and puzzling.

  Permanence or something lasting might develop out of some, but not because we cast the image of permanence on top of them, but because we look back and forward and realize that there are trails in both directions.