Kastoori Rai Dewan

WHEN STARS SLIPPED AND CAME DOWN AS SNOWFLAKES

By KASTOORI RAI DEWAN

On my second day in the barren Spiti Valley I decided to scale further 500 metres and sleep at a 900 year old Key Monastery. I don’t know why I chose to spend the night at a monastery in the mountains with hundreds of monks on the other side of a flimsy wooden door. Perhaps it was to push my limits and see how I fared in unfamiliar settings. On my first solo trip the urgency to experience new things was intense.

Aimlessly roaming around the dusty town of Kaza, I asked a travel agent for a map of Spiti. He suggested I check out Key Monastery, an hour away from Kaza, and spend the night there. He couldn’t confirm whether women were allowed to stay at the monastery. But, I hopped on the last bus to this marooned mountaintop with only hopes and prayers to get me a lodging there.

Fortunately, I was taken in amidst a lot of excitement. In between a splitting altitude induced headache and nervousness of finding myself in a space so alien to me, I was shown to a small room with rows of empty beds illuminated by a single incandescent light bulb.

Stark opposite to this humble setting was the dramatic mountains outside. Unhindered and unapologetic the mountains surged around the monastery – silent, but watchful. The sky was at the burning end of the day, a brilliant red and orange, while the last of the plump day clouds cast irregular shadows across these naked mountains. It is impossible to feel anything but humbled to see such forces at play. Nature’s theatrics almost made me weep.
“Yes, I am here and seeing this,” I reminded myself. It took every ounce of courage for me to come so far off on my own and it was right there that I realised what I had done. I had travelled all the way from humid Pondicherry to the land of Gods and Goddesses and I did it all on my own, without a hair out of place. I was the only woman boarder in the monastery, but my gut said I was safe. Rest was unto the universe to take care of.

The head monks took a keen interest in me as they thought I was a journalist, and I was invited for a humble dinner of thick mountain rice in chickpea broth.

While they sat on a long bench and ate their share from small bowls while speaking about the affairs of the monastery, I took the scene around me. I was in a centuries old kitchen with soot sodden walls and pots and pans, there was only one small window in the room and a gentle fire was burning to keep the room cosy. The young monks ate outside on the terrace, broke all codes of monk-like silence, wolfed down their portions and lined up for seconds and thirds before I could work through half of my meal.

After dinner I was taken to the reading hall of the young monks, who were busy fighting and playing with each other than studying. “She is your new teacher,” an older monk announced pointing towards me, hoping to bring some order in the room. Immediately the fighters and players took to their books and started humming their lessons as if they were chanting their mantras. I still remember the sleepy faces of the young monks, some as young as five, looking curiously at me as they hummed in the dimly lit hall with moths dancing over their shaved heads.

Time passes ultra slow in such places. It was only 8:30 pm when I returned to my room. All noise had died down and the surrounding mountains under the night sky looked malicious. I shivered at the thought of seeing something I didn’t want to see, but the goal of the trip was to push my limits, remember? I bundled up all my courage and took the stairs down the open courtyard. What I saw stunned me.

I bet you have seen the night sky in the mountains. But have you seen it at an altitude of 4,166 meters above sea level? The sky is heavily blanketed with stars, big and small, and the Milky Way arcs across the globe. It’s not a top of the world feeling. It is a surreal sensation that you are at the edge of the world. Like you can take two giant leaps, and disappear into the sky. The city girl in me feared and craved it.

There was no human noise around me. The only sound was of my breath and the wind creeping up the monastery walls. The rocky mountains in front stood silently in dark shadows, and the thickly populated sky stretched above me. I went into a spiritual trance and felt as though I was one with the universe. All sorts of fears melted and a happy calm descended.

Back in the room sleep eluded me. The only flickering bulb was giving up. The wind angrily breathed up and down the door. As I cursed the altitude for ruining my sleep, I drew my legs close to my body. The silence was deafening. In the end when the light was finally switched off, I feverishly began counting imaginary little white sheep in a hopeful attempt of falling asleep.

Outside the stars slipped and came down as snowflakes.