The first time I saw a vulture up close was in India. It was not in the woods or near a carcass, but on the side of the Pathankot-Dharamsala road, casually perched on a stump in all its height, like a hitchhiker waiting for a ride. This vulture especially impressed my mother, who, when asked what she thought of India, would talk about its amazing birds, and go on to describe the vulture. Considering India has many much more colorful and nimble birds, and reading the expressions on the faces of our Indian interlocutors, I would invariably try to steer the conversation towards the flocks of parrots that populated our garden, or the Paradise flycatchers that gracefully trailed their long white tails.
In Tibet, I see vultures all the time, some quite close up, and have learned about their habits and the relationship with man. One of the Ritoma village sky burial grounds is not far from our house, actually on the next hill, and when we see a multitude of vultures circling high up in the sky, we know someone has died. From a distance, we see a monk or two a little off from the scene, specks of red, and people busying about with the vultures crowded in a circle around them, waiting for their treat. Tibetan vultures are used to being attended to, and will not feed unless their ‘food’ has been properly prepared; this means opening up the corpse and separating the flesh from bones. Vultures are there to perform a function. They are respected for it, and monks and relatives will scan the horizon, breathing a sign of relief at their approach. An offering not taken is seen as a bad sign.
Older nomads often complain of the younger generation’s laziness for leaving their dead animals unattended. In the old days, the carcass would be opened, inviting the vultures and ridding the area of the stench of rotten flesh. When they had finished, the owner would collect the animal’s skin and process it. Nothing was left to waste. Two years ago, when hundreds of sheep died in the spring, weakened by a harsh winter and the previous year’s foot and mouth disease, the hills were strewn with carcasses. Left untouched by their owners, they were shunned by the vultures.
This year, the vulture scene was right by our house. A sheep died on the hill and its owner invited the vultures. They were enormous. Ivy, the guesthouse dog, who had given birth to her litter in a nearby marmot hole, managed to drag part of the carcass inside as well as the sheepskin to keep her little family warm.
When I first came to Drepung in Mundgod in 1978 and settled into the monastery routine, I became accustomed to seeing the large flat bread that formed the core of the monk’s diet circulating the camp around 11 am each day, piled high on the head of child monks who took turns to collect it from the kitchen for their teachers. The monks would then settle on their verandas, sitting cross legged in a circle and tear off chunks of bread dipping it into a large enamel mug filled with Tibetan tea. They were still very attached to Tibetan tea, which the local doctors said was the worst possible combination for cholesterol and high blood pressure. The monks estimated they were lucky; in Tibet, the monastery did not provide regular meals, only tea and tsampa or noodles, but mostly tea at the morning assembly. Their families usually sent them bags of tsampa, but for those monks who came for far away Kham or Amdo, life was hard.
As I watched them eat bread and Tibetan tea, and an occasional thukpa, white flour doughy chunks in an oily broth with a few pieces of meat floating here and there, I asked them why they didn’t eat vegetables. The answer was always that vegetables were expensive, vegetables had no taste. They didn’t believe in vegetables. Diabetes and stomach cancer were rampant, and the children all had boils. It was true, they had no money to eat better, and if they had, meat and chili had precedence over vegetables. Fruits? That was for children, though the children’s teachers could only rarely provide it. Papayas grew everywhere, but the taste and textures evoked a grimace of disgust. The Tibetan settlers usually fed them to pigs.
Ten years later, the bread was still there, though spinach, turnips, carrots and even pineapples and grapes now accompanied it. Papayas were accepted and even appreciated by some.
When I returned to Drepung Loseling in 2016, the bread was still the main feature of the morning meal, but vegetables were well integrated into the diet and the evening thukpa was full of them. I visited the kitchen, serviced by the monks in rotation. Vegetables were bought in bulk and piled high on metal shelves and noodles came from the College’s own noodle machines. Diabetes was still rampant among the older monks, but I found all of them watching their diets with care and lauding the benefits of exercise. Boils and ringworm were a bad memory of the past.
School in Tibet in the old days was, as described by my husband Kalsang who attended Lhasa’s Nyarongsha School in the 50’s, an institution that taught exclusively calligraphy, dispensed a wide array of punishments, and had painfully long hours. In short, it had all the elements for inducing extreme boredom tempered by fear. As Kalsang described it, returning to school after 15 days of glorious summer picnicking by the river was like going from heaven to hell.
These methods, which were the only ones known, provided the guidelines for education in the early times of the reestablished monasteries in South India. In Tibet, monks generally enrolled in the monasteries in their teens or twenties and already knew how to read and write. If they enrolled at a young age, it was their teacher’s responsibility to teach them the basics . In India, the Buxa monks, after moving from the former internment camp in Assam, their home for ten years, to the new settlements in the South, began to enroll new monks. These were inevitably very young, children of refugees and new settlers, many who sent over a son or two to lessen their burden. The monks had no choice but to set up a school of sorts to teach them collectively how to read and write, in the only way that they knew. Around fifteen, they would begin the monastic curriculum, which was highly complex and demanding, and they had to be ready.
Loseling School, which I visited in 1978, was a simple rectangular structure where boys between five and twelve sat cross legged on the mud floor, a large wooden tablet spread on their laps. As in Tibet, they practiced on an erasable surface, as paper was scarce and resources limited. They etched letters into the tablet, and brought the result for review to their teacher, who sat menacingly at the front of the class, an electric wire (not a live one) in hand, ready to strike at any emerging naughtiness. The atmosphere in the room was electrifying; the energy of forty feisty boys bottled up doing something very boring, constantly weighing the urge for a prank against the deterrent of the wire. The scene was beautiful, though and I never tired to walking by to photograph it.
In the years that followed, talk emerged of a better education for young monks, one that would introduce math and science, and even English. Elder monks were always afraid that the lure of the outside world would lead their young pupils astray, but in the mid 80’s monastery recruits began to pour out of Tibet, swelling the numbers. Sera Je in Bylakuppe settlement lead the way with a progressive school funded by an Italian monk, and the other Colleges followed. When I visited in 2016, all had modern style schools. Loseling still had the calligraphy class, but the teacher sat in a relaxed manner at the front of the class, reviewing his pupil’s tablets in a conciliatory and helpful manner. The room was calm; within an hour or so, the children knew they could play, jump and run outside in the school’s recess ground.
In other classrooms, English, science and math were being taught, even to older monks who had begun the monastery’s curriculum. Concepts that would have elicited suspicion and doubt thirty years back were the new normal.
Debate is in integral part of Tibetan Buddhist monastic education in many of the traditions that flourish in India and the Tibetan Plateau. Philosophical subjects are a core of monastic education and debate is designed to help assimilate the complexities they present. It is a form of mental gymnastics, to integrate concepts presented through texts and train the mind to delve deeper into their intricacies.
Debate is typically conducted on a daily basis, in a designated courtyard, tiled in flagstones and shaded by trees. The challenger, standing, throws a statement at his opponent, who is seated and is meant to refute it. A volley of exchange ensues, accompanied by clapping gestures on the part of the challengers, which can become extremely animated.
A good debater will look forward to the session like a football or basketball player to a match. He will thrive on the excitement, and other monks will watch the proceedings with great anticipation. My husband Kalsang, who was a Drepung monk for fifteen years, distinguished himself as an able debator. In the initial years in exile, which took place in the monk camp in Buxa, between 1959 and the time he left for Teacher’s Training in 1961, he thrived on the debate sessions that were recreated in the jungle of Assam, as part of the makeshift monasteries of Drepung, Sera, Ganden and Sakya. The excitement helped him forget the heat, malnutrition, rats and leeches, as well as the anxiety of being so far from home.
I first met them in 1978, the night we arrived in the Tibetan settlement of Mundgod, in Northern Karnataka. After bumping around on winding roads for several hours, driving past bullocks and buffalos with extravagant horns and through thick jungle, we arrived in the Tibetan settlement of Mundgod. It was dark by then, and we emerged from our white Ambassador to be greeted by a group of monks with white scarves, then ushered into an elongated mud brick house, proudly referred to as the just finished Nyare Khamtsen House, boasting an assembly hall, two guest rooms and the Khamtsen’s first ever bathroom, a cement cubicle with a single tap and with (what we call in France) a Turkish toilet. Smaller monks lurked behind their teachers, peeking at us through the door, taking turns to gawk, especially at me. Only then did I realized how close they were to Kalsang’s world, these monks with whom he had shared the few years he had spent at Drepung in Lhasa as Nyare Chunsel, the rank his parents had insisted he have, which afforded him the privilege accorded to lamas. After three years, he had escaped with them to Buthan, then India and settled for some years to life in Buxa, Assam, a former British internment camp where the monks pulled together a semblance of monastic life, a thousand monks from among the escapees of the three Monasteries of Drepung, Sera and Ganden. Kalsang thrived there, though many died of TB and others succumbed to madness when they realized they was no turning back.
For two months, that summer of 1978, I bathed in these monk’s warmth and hospitality. They were Kalsang’s only family, his parents having remained in Lhasa where they passed away about the time we made this first visit to Mundgod.
This year, I visited Loseling in Mundgod after a hiatus of twenty one years. The monastery’s environment had drastically changed; It had become like a small town, full of trees and flowering bushes, the monks were more health conscious, finally adapting their diet and lifestyle to the tropical climate of the Deccan Plateau. They also lived comfortably in better houses. Time had taken its toll, though, with six out of twenty five Nyare Buxa monks remaining, the others having been claimed by cancer, diabetes, or other casualties. The youngest was seventy nine, the oldest eighty five.
I made a point of photographing these old friends in a group photo, then in their monk quarters, in the transplanted universe of a Tibetan Monastery in South India.
Tibetan mastiffs, guardians of nomadic herds are large and fierce, and stand up to their reputation. One learns to stay clear of nomad camps when on foot and to watch out for dogs when riding a motorbike in the pasture near a yak of sheep herd. We used to take guests on nomadic visits on little motorbike convoys, and I once saw a dog trying to knock Yidam and Dechen, who were riding ahead of me, off their bike. The dog circled them menacingly, trying to destabilize the bike so it could attack. Yidam was a skilled driver, but it was an alarming sight. Norzin’s nanny, who is terrified of dogs except for her own, showed us a scar on her arm, from a childhood mastiff bite. Her niece was bitten in the face as a toddler and her mother had to carry her for hours to get to a hospital where they could save her from being scarred for life.
In Ritoma, every respectable household has a mastiff tied to a chain, to scare visitors. Before we had the Norlha guesthouse, we put up guests at our Production Manager Dunko’s house. Our Swiss guest was intrigued by the plate of dried bread left by his mother on a table near the kang, the heated platform where she slept. She was later told it was destined for the dog tied near the outhouse, to distract it an allow her to pass. The next day, she realized she should have kept some for the return, but fortunately, the dog was still chewing and let her by.
Mastiffs come in all forms and sizes, and ‘perfect’ ones can fetch an astronomical price. When Dechen and Yidam moved into their new house in 2009, Yidam’s parents gave them a puppy they named Thopdan. Dechen loves dogs, and wanted Thopdan to be free to roam at will. He enjoyed life as a puppy, wandering in the house, following her to the workshop and frolicking on the hills with other puppies, but when he reached adult size, she began to feel the pressure. He enjoyed frightening people and would send the workshop women in a frenzy with his ‘friendly’ leaps. In the end, the village ordered her to tie her dog before he caused anyone harm. He was scary, and though he knew our family, even allowing new members into his circle, he could also detect fear and acted upon it. One day, the nanny showed Dechen her arm and lectured her on respecting local customs and Dechen, heartbroken, had to comply.
As the years rolled by, we saw how the dogs behaved. Our accountant Serwo had a ‘nice’ mastiff, one that didn’t try to scare people, and he roamed around free. One day, a man riding through the village on his bike saw, on the plane in front of the village, a child walking towards a group of houses and a fast moving three dog pack running in a beeline towards him. The man redirected his bike to the child, and arrived just in time to interrupt the first dog’s attack. One of culprits was Serwo’s dog, spoiled by bad company; young dogs in a pack turn to being bullies and a lone child is an easy prey.
Nearly eight years later, Thopdan is still tied up. Unhappy at first, he grew used to his fate. For two years, he was tied near the guesthouse, and made many friends there. His peaceful disposition towards other animals made him a favorite of little dogs or puppies who came by to share his food and seek his company. At home, he is tied near the front door, terrifying guests with his bark and threatening manner, but sheep are not afraid of him, and sneak around the house to get to his bowl while avoiding the front door. He never minds sharing his food.
This year, there was Lennie, the neighbor’s yellow mastiff puppy. Dechen decided that Lennie, with his hazel eyes and friendly manner, was cute, and Lennie set his mind on our family, adding himself to the little group trooping up and down to the workshop every day; Dechen, her poodle Norbu, Baby D, Norzin, the nanny Tsering Kyi, or accompanying Dechen and Norbu on their early evening walks. They became inseparable. Lennie, after checking out Thodan’s bowl, also liked to come in the house, to sample the trash bin, scattering around any bones or other interesting content. Countless times I would pick up Lennie, who was getting heavier by the day, and move him from the kitchen corner to the front door until one day, like any other, Lennie stood by the trash bin and growled at me, then barked. Seeing me hesitate, he stared straight at me with his yellow eyes, and moved one step further; he began to attack, biting at my long scarf, that hung loosely. He looked like a child who has discovered something new, and quite pleased about it. The cute puppy had turned into a snarling, dangerous creature that I decided I didn’t want to fight with. I called Dechen and said sarcastically that there was “a huge yellow rat” in the kitchen that was trying to attack me. She took it literally and sounded very puzzled until she figured it was Lennie. She laughed and no one took me seriously, Lennie’s days of freedom were counted anyway; let him enjoy them, said Dechen. The next day, Lennie was back, and life went on as usual. On my next visit, he had disappeared, having taken up his post at the neighbor’s on the end of a chain.
How did children play in my time, in the time of my parents? They played outside with other children, climbed trees, played hopscotch, marbles and jump rope on a dusty playground, invented situations like going to a party, borrowing their mother’s dresses and shoes and smearing on makeup or running a store or a kitchen using play cups, kitchen utensils flowers, leaves and mud which we smashed into suspicious looking brews that we tried to feed to adults. At home, they may have a few toys, dolls for girls, cars for boys, board games, a bicycle or a good set of marbles or a Lego.
I loved buying toys for my children, especially since there were none where we lived and they were part of the excitement of opening a suitcase full of treasures when returning from a trip from Europe, East Asia or the US. Over the years, I noticed that the excitement often stopped there; the toys were unpacked and marveled at, often ending up in a pile in their room, bits lost and scattered, often the prey to rats or puppies. Dolls, cars and logos kept them busy inside in the evenings, but real fun was outside, playing with their friends and pets the same way we played as children.
The same goes for my grandchildren. They have toys, all in piles in their room. They play outside with other children, running up and down the hills in Ritoma in little packs, taking over a stone pile and fighting with dung, or settling somewhere and setting up a house, store or kitchen, building a little fire, using stones and bits of toys they collect here for furnish the space or their imagination. Young dogs or a pet sheep will hand around for the company. A cardboard box becomes a house, the mud in the creek, leaves and flowers become food they eat or prepare. Norzin, with her innate sense of enterprise, collects pretty stones from the river and ‘sells’ them to visitors.
Inside, Baby D will pick from the toy pile, add objects gathered around the house and pack shopping bags that she will walk around with, then stash somewhere. If a piece of something goes missing, we know it is in Baby D’s stash. Norzin and her dress up sometimes very creatively and smear makeup on their faces, or dress up the kittens, or both. Toys are mere accessories to be added to all kinds of other objects collected in the house or pasture.
Some say that the way children played for hundreds of years is threatened by the world of television, phones, computer games and IPads and it is certain that these mark the new wave of entertainment for children. They may keep children indoors and ‘safer’ though their remoteness from the real world and nature bring on a different kind of danger, one still very much unkown. I am grateful that I can still see my grandchildren play the way I always knew how to play.