As the 2,500 CC toka (bull) roared underneath us for the last time, we turned the last corner at what seemed like the edge of the world. In complete darkness, the cubic silhouette of Lamga lhakhang came into view, splashed occasionally by the flashes of lightning in the distant mountain that warned us of the storm that was sprinting towards us. Guided by the headlight, we hopped out and made our way inside the temple that was under construction as I turned my cell phone torch on and looked at the faces of the statues to see if I could recognize any of them; I greeted Buddha who was at the centre as I had hoped but I couldn’t recognize the others. Nonetheless, I had a feeling that they were smiling as I walked back promising them that I would greet them individually by name, the next time I visit.
This was the day after Ajang (uncle) had texted me in his usual no-bullshit-straight-to-the-point style of talking: “See if you can take leave tomorrow and day after. You can come with me to Rukha” . Having read about Rukha on his blog and heard about in countless conversation over family dinner gatherings, it didn’t take me long to put up my leave from office and the next thing I knew, my cousin and I were loading the things on toka’s back and readying everything.
Joining us was Zeus, our pet dog with jet black silky fur who had been terrorizing small cars driving by ever since one of them had drove at highway speed in the residential area of Kawajangsa drunk one night, hitting his sister Lily, and paralyzing her on the lower half of her body. Recently, three different taxi drivers had threatened ani (aunt) that they would kill him for damages done to their bumpers.
So off we went, three and a half guys, away from the suffocation of civilization and the unceasing news of coronavirus, which were making even the cats meow and the dogs bark, “COVID! COVID!”. The topic of conversation in the cabin ranged from politics to life experiences, society to human psychology, religion to bureaucracy, inspiration to hypocrisy and topics that you reserve only for the most trusted ears as we drove past the biggest leech that grows fatter and sinks its teeth deeper by the year, the Punatsangchhu project. For some reason, I was thinking of a documentary on leeches that I had watched where the guy was explaining how leeches secrete an anesthetic when it sinks its teeth so that the victim isn’t even aware of its presence or the situation.
Anyway, we got to our lunch point, way past lunch time due to a forest fire above the road. “Danger of loose boulders rolling down la”, we were told by the police stationed at the road. I didn’t see how fires were related to boulders rolling down but ajang told us, as if he had read my mind, “The fire sucks up the moisture from the soil, making the soil dry and freeing up the boulders that would otherwise be held by it”. Who would have thought tiny droplets of liquid had the power to hold massive boulders in place?
The road to Samthang was a small diverted dirt road, tightly hugging the sides of the mountain and constantly reminded me of the impermanence of life more effectively than any lhakhang (temple) with pictures of ferocious dieties ever had. With my heart in my mouth, I remembered how Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche had talked about the wisdom of Buddhism being latent in the everyday-lived realities of life. If we paid attention.
The bumpy ride through the thick forest felt like the starting scene from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away where Chihiro gets tossed from one side of the car to the other. Hopefully, we weren’t going into the fantastical. Ajang on the other hand, was in his usual calm demeanor expertly turning the acute corners that I imagine comes from having made the journey on foot as well as cars multiple times ever since 2007. Toka roared underneath us with the sounds of satisfaction that comes from being able to showcase its full glory and prowess in its natural element off-road, conquering loose soil and jagged rocks. I imagined that’s how Zeus would feel in a couple of days as he swaps the walled compound of Kawajangsa for the endless valley of Lamga, the same gewog from where his mother, Erza came to us years ago.
We were greeted at Samthang by a short but sturdy man in an camo-print jacket who wore an ever-unfading smile on his face. “Have you just now arrived la Dasho?” he asked as ajang smiled and nodded. We climbed up the wooden staircase on the second floor of his house and sat down. I saw stacks of school textbooks that were piled next to the TV which warmed my heart immensely. Ajang had told us couple of hours ago, how both of those things, books and TVs were stuff of legend for them just a decade ago. My heart grew even warmer as the lady of the house brought us a retinue of delicacies with the kind of hospitality that reminded me of old times growing up in Paro.
I used to argue with Amchi (mother’s elder sister) why the best porcelain dish ware were locked under the most secured cabinets and the injustice of not even getting to smell the danish biscuits, let alone eat them. “It will come back to you”, she used to dismiss me so casually. As I was looking at the assortment of dishes at Samthang which you could immediately tell by looking that the host was serving us the best that they were able, I felt that it had indeed come back fifteen years later.
We finished our late lunch over conversations with ajang inquiring about the progress of ‘the chorten‘ (stupa) to which the man replied, “I’ve not been able to make much progress since the last time la”. The man also recollected the story of the time where a python refused to give way and kept cornering him so he killed it and left it on the footpath without its head. His cousin later took the same path, saw a snake without a head still moving and arrived home with his heart in his mouth; probably with deep lessons on impermanence I would imagine.
Before departing, ajang, gifted him a statue of Guru rinpoche which was commissioned to a tsampa Karma who comes from a family of statue builders in Tashiyangtse. “This is made from the most precious material, Ku Sa (Statue-Mud) with a monk performing and accumulating merits throughout, as another monk actually builds it. This is not made from bronze or some metal with the builders kicking it and putting their feet all over it that most people seem to treasure so much for their shine and lustre”.
As we departed later in the car, ajang told us that the gentle smiling man is actually a master hunter and fisherman. He pointed out how all the fields around didn’t have any fencing which we thought was odd being surrounded by thick forests on all sides. “The animals know better than to come near civilization there because they know that they won’t be leaving with their lives back”. We drove past a clearing that was at a bend in the dirt road which was where the chorten was to be built. “For the community?” I asked ajang. “No, I’m trying to get the man away from hunting and encouraging him to build this chorten while he still has the physical strength as an act of repentance for the lives that he has taken. Khyentse Rinpoche whispered in my mind, “Skillful means”.
By then, dark had set in and we drove some forty or so minutes as we finally reached Lamga with dark silhouettes of houses on either side of the dirt road. However we kept driving past the houses eventually pausing next to one of the houses. Ajang rolled down the windows and loudly called to the house, “WE WILL FIRST PAY A VISIT TO THE LHAKHANG!”, which is what brings me to the beginning of this blog post;
As the 2,500 CC toka (bull) roared underneath us for the last time, we turned the last corner at what seemed like the edge of the world
To be continued…