‘The Solitarian Guest House and the Father of Saboo’
Known locally as Abley, or ‘Father’, Nawang Tsering Shakspo is an Omalaya’s partner and the proprietor of the Solitarian Guest House in the village of Saboo ‒ one of the accommodations Omalaya uses on its Ladakh tours. Nawang worked for years with the Jammu and Kashmir government and is an expert on Ladakhi history and culture, as well as being a highly respected member of the community. Here, he talks to Matthew Singh Toor, Omalaya’s English-language editor, about his life, as well as providing an introduction to Saboo, which is located around 7km from Leh.
Matthew Singh Toor: Where were you born?
Nawang Tsering Shakspo: In upper Leh, in a village called Sankar. The monastery there used to be the residential palace of Bakula Rinpoche, who is considered the founder of modern Ladakh.
MST: Tell me about your education.
NTS: I was born in the year 1952 and in the year 1959 I was selected for one of the Government of India scholarships. Otherwise, I was to visit Tibet and become a lama. In the year 1959, China occupied Tibet. Prior to that, there was a tradition ‒ the young go to Tibet for education and to become lamas. So, I was to become a lama but, since that road was closed, around the same time, upon the request of Bakula Rinpoche, the Government of India’s Ministry of Culture sanctioned 16 scholarships for 16 Ladakhis. I was selected for one of them. At the time, I was only seven years old.
In those days, there wasn’t any road to Srinagar but Indian Airlines was operating a quota aircraft ‒ a small one. The scholarship was in Varanasi . The route to Varanasi goes via Srinagar. So we availed the chance to travel by air to Srinagar. Then from Srinagar to Jammu, Pathankot and Varanasi.
I remained in Varanasi almost continuously for four years. I couldn’t come to home because there wasn’t any road.
MST: What was the name of the institution?
NTS: The Maha Bodhi Society. This is one of the most prestigious Buddhist institutions even now in the country. We were given accommodation there. I remained there till the completion of my intermediate level education, after 15 years in Varanasi. Then I did my BA course, then one year postgraduate in journalism at Varanasi Hindu University. After that, I returned to Ladakh and, in the year 1974, I got a job first in the information department, then as a research officer in the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.
MST: What did the work entail?
NTS: I had challenging work at the beginning. I was to start an annual journal in Ladakhi for the academy, to promote Ladakhi language. Basically, Ladakhi and Tibetan are the same. At the time, my level of Tibetan and Ladakhi wasn’t very good but, since I had some journalistic experience, I was able to tackle the job. Then, in the year 1976, I compiled a journal called Annual Ladakhi . With that, I became quite active in the Tibetan field in Ladakh. I encouraged Ladakhi people to write in a modern way. Up until that time, Ladakhis were very traditional. There weren’t any newspapers or magazines published in Leh. So that annual book was a pioneering work for the promotion of the Tibetan language.
MST: When did you move to Saboo?
NTS: After my marriage in the year 1974. My wife is from Saboo.
MST: In Ladakh, is it usual for the husband to move to the wife’s village?
NTS: If there is no male issue, they import the son-in-law to take care of the property. I had six brothers and one sister. They are still based in Leh.
MST: Tell me about the history of Saboo.
NTS: It was once the capital of Ladakh. The first village capital of Ladakh was Shey, near Thikse, in the tenth century. Then, in the 13th century, the king moved to the Saboo area, where there are still ruins of two castles. Then the capital moved to Basgo village, then to Tingmosgang, then finally to Leh, in the 14th century.
MST: What kind of people live in Saboo these days?
NTS: The residents of Saboo are basically farmers. Everyone owns land. The land of Saboo is considered very fertile, so here we grow a lot of wheat, barley, potatoes, tomatoes ‒ almost everything except rice. We supply produce to the Indian Army. But we get only one crop because the season is very short.
MST: Which are the most interesting places in Saboo to visit?
NTS: There are two monasteries. In Tibetan Buddhism, we have four major sects. The oldest is called Nyingmapa. Then Sakyapa and Kagyupa. Gelugpa is the newest, reformed one. Here we have the temples of Gelugpa and Kagyupa. Then there are the old castle ruins and, at the end of the village, Digar Pass, which is similar in height to Khardung-la. These days, many trekkers come and cross Digar Pass into Nubra Valley.
MST: Tell me about the springs.
NTS: We have medicinal spring water at Chutsan [five minutes’ walk from the guest house]. ‘Chutsan’ means ‘hot water’, but it is not hot. People come here who have rheumatic and eye problems, headaches, etc.
MST: How big is your own land and how many buildings are there on it?
NTS: We measure our land in kanals. We still own around 20 kanals [around 2.5 acres]. In the 1980s, the land where the Solitarian Guest House stands was barren ‒ a stony area. The government granted permission to occupy it, provided one could develop it. The land was fertile already ‒ the main thing was to remove the stones and to level it. Next I developed the land with walls and trees and built the three buildings now known as ‘Solitarian Guest House’.
The guest house has twelve rooms with attached bathrooms and twelve rooms with common bathrooms.
MST: Tell me about the Centre for Research on Ladakh.
NTS: Because of my attending conferences in different parts of the world, I have collected books and journals from different scholars and also from buying in the market. So I thought, why not start a centre for students particularly interested in the study of Ladakh? Since the opening of the region for tourism, I have been assisting many European scholars in the completion of their theses. Europeans have been interested in Ladakhi traditional customs, shamanism and also festivals. There are many topics on which I have some kind of authority, being a local person and because of my work in the academy. I am happy to tell you that no less than ten PhD scholars have taken my advice.
MST: Do these scholars stay at the centre?
NTS: In the beginning some of them stayed, but now Ladakh is open ‒ it has become so touristic ‒ there are so many travel agents…
MST: So what do you use the centre for now?
NTS: It houses the biggest collection of books on Ladakh, which you won’t find anywhere else in one place. Also, I am developing a small museum. The idea came to me some years back. When my old house was demolished, I found many artifacts. This was my wife’s grandfather’s house. He worked for merchants and went to Tibet in the past. When returning from Tibet, he would bring books and things.
MST: What kinds of artifacts do you have in the museum?
NTS: We have religious objects, artifacts of social customs. Some of the religious books are handwritten. There is also some poetry, some coins, some of the kings’ decrees.
MST: Which kings?
NTS: The kings names are not visible but the decrees have the king’s seal.
MST: The Ladakhi king?
MST: Are there any festivals in Saboo?
NTS: Yes, we have the new year’s festival, Losar, which is celebrated in November/December usually. We celebrate two months in advance of Tibet. This tradition exists in many of the Himalayan kingdoms. In Sikkim, they celebrate Losar at the same time. Also in the Shigatse area of Tibet, the location of the Panchen Lama’s monastery. The Tibetan calendar has different systems for celebration of the new year ‒ tantric tradition and farmer’s tradition. By October/November, all the harvesting works are finished, so they have enough food to celebrate. By March, nothing is there! All is consumed.
MST: Are there any other festivals?
NTS: The procession of carrying all 108 volumes of the Buddha’s teachings ‒ the Kangyur. That happens when the harvest starts getting ready, in July/August.
MST: This is a public festival?
NTS: Yes, beginning from the Gelugpa temple ‒ the Yellow Hat temple. People make a round of the entire village, with lamas participating, playing music. There are different feasts in different localities. Saboo has four main localities. Then, of course, there are marriage celebrations.
MST: Nawang, thank you very much for talking to Omalaya.
Tags: Ladakh, India, Omalaya