The month of July saw me travelling to Ladakh for the first time. Located in northern India, this place has long since topped my bucket list, and I was eager to experience firsthand, the glorious beauty I’d only ever seen in photos. My first glimpse of the land did not disappoint and playing the part of snap-happy tourist was how I made my first impressions in this place.
My anticipation for exploring the streets of Leh and soaking up the atmosphere was not to be however, as a last-minute invitation had me repacking my bags for a 2-day sojourn to a Tibetan nomad camp in Samet. Among my travel companions; the Oracle of Nyenchen Tangla (Pachen). The purpose; to perform a day long shamanic puja that would bless the land for the coming year and clear the campground of negative spirits.
The drive to Samet took approx. 4 Hours and we had set off in the post-morning sun; our original plans of leaving at daybreak thwarted by a last-minute request for an exorcism performed by Pachen (a prelude to the type of experience this weekend was to be). My time on the road was spent witnessing endless breathtaking views and discovering that spiritual mastery does not exempt a car full of males from making jokes that only men seem to find hilarious and well… typical male shenanigans.
Pachen himself was born in a nomadic tribe in Tibet and for him this excursion hit close to home. One of the pit stops we had made was to White lake (called so because of the abundant salt deposits resembling sea foam). As Pachen knelt on the ground and dug his hands deep in the mud to pull out the salt treasures, we received an impromptu salt mining lesson that was laced with nostalgia as he recalled a life, long ago left behind.
Playing the part of pilgrims, we stopped by a restaurant to ‘beg’ for food as tradition dictates that charitable offerings received on a pilgrimage are considered good luck for the task ahead. It was here I tasted my first sample of Tsampa- a traditional Tibetan staple made with barley, butter and water. The ‘mix-your-own’ process providing much amusement as my bowl looked more like sludge than dough and ended with Pachen’s yogi assistant taking pity on me and assuming the task. It tastes like cookie dough! This was then washed down with Tibetan butter tea, which I will admit- I will never acquire the taste for.
The nomad camp itself was a juxtaposition of sprawling flatlands and rocky hills, every aspect of the landscape a kodak moment. Stepping into one of the tents was like stepping back in time. A young mother who couldn’t have been more than 18 years old, with her baby strapped to her back served us butter tea churned by hand from a traditional wooden churner. Yak hair blankets and sheepskin rugs lined the floor and an altar in honour of His Holiness taking pole position in the small space.
Learning about life in a nomad tribe was both awe inspiring and challenging. There is a complex balance between the duality of societal structure and absolute freedom. Here in this tribe, daily life is self- governed yet there is also a tribal leader and organised community meetings to discuss the distribution of common goods. The women are married off at a young age and spend their days toiling in the mountains with the cattle, while nights are spent maintaining the general household. What seemingly appears as a lack of gender equality from an outsider’s perspective is also tempered by the deep respect the community holds for the role of the Feminine.
Nomadic tribes in Tibet and especially Ladakh are a dying breed and its desired continuance has often fallen short with the younger generation in favour of commercialism and technology. It’s for this reason I consider myself so fortunate to be able to witness even a small glimpse of the lifestyle of this community. Having a rare shamanic/pagan ritual performed by one of the big kahunas in the Buddhist community; the delicious icing on the cake.Tags: Tibet, nomad, Ladakh puja, shaman