Friday, 16 August 2013

Celebrating the Dalai Lama's Birthday in Gangtok

Life's been busy, so I haven't gotten a chance to post as regularly as I used to... but here's a new one, and I hope you like it.

A little over a month ago (July 6th) was the Dalai Lama's birthday, and a Gelug monastery in Gangtok held a big celebration for it. I went as part of the Rumtek delegation, to watch and to perform.

(the tent they set up, filled with chairs. those posts are bamboo covered in cloth!)

(the stage)

(backstage, looking eerie) 

(me and one of the monks who came to dance)

There was a lot of down time for the performers, so the monks played around a lot with my guitar. The one in the first picture below totally caught the guitar bug, and I've been giving him (and two of his friends) guitar lessons for the last few weeks. 

(figuring out those first few chords)

The monks alls wore wigs for their performance, because traditional hair styles for Tibetan nomads involve long hair for men and women, and a lot of fun was had the with process of wearing and braiding. Some of these guys have been monks for half their lives, never having their own hair longer than an inch, and they got a big kick out of it.

During the downtime, the women (who are almost all teachers at the elementary school run by the monastery) practiced in our dressing room. 

And got their rather more intricate costumes prepared.

(isn't that headdress fantastic?)

(many men of the Himalayan region keep one or more fingernails quite long, often the pinky or ring finger nail. here's one of the monks killing time, painting his long pinky nail)

(the monastery was quite beautiful, though I wasn't able to explore much of it. here's a mural and the doors to the prayer hall)

(exhausted monks, post dance)

My guitar broke before I was able to go on, but another group of musicians (playing traditional Tibetan music on traditional Tibetan instruments) had brought along an old 12-string (a little broken, so only strung with 6) for some reason, and they were more than happy to let me borrow it. I also borrowed a vest from one of the monks, to fancy myself up a bit.

(me on stage)

The performers mostly had to stick to the back, so I wasn't able to capture other performances, but at the end we all hung around the front on our way out. The last group of the day performed a variety of pop music from the Himalayan region, the plains region, and the US. The songs from that last group included this gem, which I just had to capture.

After the celebration, the whole group of us headed into Gangtok for a little shopping and some food. All of the monks are on summer retreat, but got special permission to break retreat for the day, and they all took full advantage by eating dinner and running errands in town.

Hope you enjoyed this post, and never fear: there's a lot more to come. Just at this slower pace. Let me know what you think by leaving me a comment.

Friday, 19 July 2013

A Fine Day for Pictures and Silliness

My life has gotten a lot busier lately (I'm teaching more, acting as a Spanish-English interpreter for a private Buddhist philosophy class, and have finally gotten into a studying groove), so I haven't had much time to post. Apologies for that. But I have several more posts worth of pictures all ready, so do expect more updates to come. The pace will just be slower than it was in the beginning.

A few weeks ago, on one of our weekend Wednesdays, several monks who aren't taking part in summer retreat (for various reasons, mostly responsibilities which take them outside the monastery) and I went on a mini adventure. We rented a cab for the afternoon, which between the 9 of us cost less than a one-way share-taxi trip to Gangtok, and hit the road. 

(some of the gang, bouncily enthusiastic)

(Sherab, mustering some photo enthusiasm)

(Yunten failing to muster any, and the side of my face showing what enthusiasm really looks like)

The drive was beautiful, because Sikkim is gorgeous.

(prayer flags, and a monastery in the distance)

(a town on a hillside)

(terraced rice fields!)

For our first stop we went to a large Kagyu monastery and Institute, larger than Rumtek (though of less central importance to the sect).

(our faithful taxi, which fit us 9 plus our driver impressively)

(the approach to the monastery)

(the first of many group pictures. it was kind of the theme of the day)

(and the second! note the hand signs, which I believe Yunten instigated)

(walking into the monastery)

(the prayer hall, as seen from the courtyard)

Our main activities that day were silliness and picture taking, and the combination of the two.

(silliness at a mural)

(walking into the prayer hall)

(prayer wheel turning)

Before we left the monastery grounds, we stopped for cold drinks and momos at a cafe. Snacking was the other central activity of the day.

(the group recovering from the heat)

(I love this selection of pictures on the wall)

Then it was on to a local theme park, for some more silliness and picture taking.

(the park)

(group photo with fountain)

Sikkim is a state of many waters, and the theme park was full of fountains. Which were used liberally for sneak, monk-on-monk and monk-on-Colin water attacks. And a little sweet Colin-on-monk water revenge. Unfortunately none of this made it onto film, but just know that it happened. 

(I love this photobomb by Sherab)

The theme park had three houses decorated, and peopled, in the faux-traditional styles of the three main peoples of Sikkim: Lepcha, Bhutia, and Nepalese. What a great opportunity for more picture taking!

Not everyone in this group is a roller coaster person, and it was pretty late in the day by this point, so after more walking, picture taking, and general silliness, it was time for another snack. The theme park had a jungle themed restaurant inside a fake cave, so we went there...

for more pictures...

... and silliness.

After relaxing a bit at the restaurant, we headed out. Had a bit of a dance party on the way home.

(an exemplary dance party moment)

On the way back we stopped for more tea, momos, and some pakoras.

(those plates are made of leaves!)

And then the day was over. And a fine day it was.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Karmapa's Birthday: The Afternoon / The Tea Party

After the Cultural Exhibition finished, and the party broke up, everyone had several hours to kill before the evening's activities were set to commence. Some went and took naps, but I was still too pumped from the performances to sleep, so I wandered around a while.

Several Thai monks were visiting Rumtek, in their distinctive saffron colored robes, and some of them struck up a conversation with me and the monks I was hanging out with.

(the Thai monks)

One of the Thai monks gave a couple of us small sculptures he had made, out of what appears to be chalk, of the Maitreya Buddha (the foretold future Buddha). They are to be used during meditation as focus objects, to be held both in the hand and in the mind.

(the sculpture, only slightly less distinct than it is in person)

In birthday-unrelated news, as I was wandering around that afternoon, I stumbled across the room where all of the masks from the lama dance are stored. It was beautiful, though a little eerie, to see them stacked around an empty concrete room (especially considering how gruesome some of their imagery is, taken at face value).

While the light and the weather lasted, a few monks and I decided to take a walk down the hill. It was rather windy...

... and so included a few attempts at flight. And general, wind unrelated silliness. 

(silliness, between the rice paddies)

Then it was time to grab some dinner, at a hotel in town (becuase during the Summer Retreat, there is no dinner at the monastery or Institute). Dinner included one of the things that sometimes happens when you spend time around monks, which was the spontaneous chanting of some of Milarepa's songs (Milarepa was Tibet's most famous yogi, and an important link in the chain of the Kagyu lineage, who is also well known as the composer of many songs).

After dinner, with the sun now completely down, we went back up hill to find the Institute decked out in lights.

(not great pictures, but it was beautiful in person and I wanted to share some of that with you guys)

The evening activity was to be a Tea Party (their words, not mine), held in the same room where the VIPs had eaten lunch several hours previous. 

(all decked out, with the Karmapa in the place of honor)

(the roomful of monks)

(the MC for the evening's festivities, as smack-talking as the best of them)

The evening kicked off with the lighting of candles...

(the young Rinpoche lit the candles and cut the cake)

... and the distribution of treats, like any good birthday party. Most of the monks, being in Summer Retreat, were not able to partake in the cakes and cookies, but everyone was able to drink (though not drink, these are monks after all). Not tea, however, as the name of the party would suggest, but coffee. Seriously, the very first monastery event I've gone to where tea wasn't served was also the first one I've gone to with 'tea' in the name.

(the distribution of treats)

(the teachers)

And then it was time for the entertainment. Anyone who wished to could get up and perform, and quite a number of monks did so. The offerings included a fair bit of karaoke, though I'm not posting any video from that because the sound quality just isn't good enough to do anyone any justice.


(more karaoke!)

One monk did some decidedly modern dancing. During the dance, the abbot kept looking at me and gesturing a thumbs up / thumbs down question, apparently deciding that (as the representative westerner) I was the best authority to help him decide if this was quality or not.

And then more karaoke!

There was also a bit of singing without background support, which is always impressive because it takes a good bit more guts. I'm including this short clip of a monk singing in Chinese style, doing things with his voice that you'd never hear in American or European popular music.

My personal favorite of the night was the monk who performed a more than passable, and incredibly jubilant and enthusiastic, Gangnam Style. To general approval. And more questioning looks to me from the abbot.

(Gangnam Style!)

And with that, the Karmapa's birthday was finished. Though not my adventures, so make sure to check back later! And continue to let me know what you think, I love to hear from you all.