Death has arrived here in the village of Thiksey. The Mandala Ceremony has been temporarily put on hold, for more pressing engagements are required of the monks. For the next five days they will be performing special pujas, for the dead.
Walking alongside the ancient Indus River, we join a procession of red-robed monks and about fifty village people. All men, Charlotte quickly notices as she chooses to stay behind. With prayer beads in hand, I joined the other men to the cremation ground. Behind the monks, four men carry the body over their shoulders, in a colorfully adorned Tibetan-Ladakhi coffin.
As we arrive at the pre-arranged charnel ground, where the monks have set up for the puja ceremony, the body is placed on top a stone fixture, with an open center to receive the ashes. The villagers gather around, as the men walk up one by one and place burning incense offerings on top the coffin. The monks are seated in a crescent line around the body. Next to them is an array of offerings and puja accessories: grains, seeds, barley, beans, plant stocks, butter, and water are recognizable.
Ominous ochre-red mountains surround the desert funeral. Crisp blue skies and a harsh sun lurk overhead. A white cloud passes above blocking the fiery burning star in the sky, to provide a moment of cool. A sullen darkness falls. The head lama stands up, ringing the bell in his left hand, as he begins reciting the Tibetan prayers. The other monks hum along in their chanting echo mumbles. Money is given between the men in exchange for traditional white kata scarves. A small man approaches the center, standing near the lama with small wood animal sculptures in hand, apparently burnt by flame. Still chanting, the lama obtains a medium sized wooden stick with a white flag attached.
After a few minutes, the head lama conclusively shakes his bell, signaling the end of the prayer. Immediately, the small man runs off, the lama following close behind, almost chasing him, into the distance. I watch intently as the man throws the wooden animals into the desert. The lama tosses his stick, white flag flapping in the wind. Together the two slowly walk back to the group. The family members stand out from the crowd and begin the ritual kora, three clockwise circumnabulations around the body. One by one they each offer their white kata scarves and prostrate toward the deceased. And then, just like that, everyone began walking away…
I asked a young man why we were leaving so soon? He replied, ‘Only for the monks.’ The ritual burning was only for the monks, we were not to see.
I asked him, ‘Did you know the deceased?’
‘Yes. My Auntie,’ he replied.
‘What is her name?’