“Follow that king!” I cried, with a wry grin, as I jumped into the car and pointed to the jeep in front. The king in question was Raja Jigmed W Namgyal, the 38th generational descendant of the Namgyal Royal Dynasty of Ladakh and the reason I was on this trip. Our destination was Matho Gompa to see the Matho Nagrang or Oracle Festival, a five centuries old ritual that is still very much the same as it always was; well, apart from the occasional tourists (namely me) with a camera. There are seven Oracles up and down the region, who accompanied Lama Dungpa Dorje Palzang to Ladakh, but the two who settled in Matho, with the Lama, are considered the most powerful.
Months before the festival, two monks are chosen, who, then go into ardent meditation and cleansing to prepare themselves to be ‘taken over’ by the spirits or forces of the originals. They are then able to perform incredible feats, can mutilate themselves with the ability to heal virtually immediately, and make predictions for the next 12 months (the main reason for the ”take over”).
Traditionally, they were also the protectors of the king, the reason Jigmed was on his way to the monastery as a privileged guest of the head monk and the reason I was on my way there, as a spoilt brat of the tourism industry and a privileged guest of Jigmed.
Jigmed also owns the Stok Palace, just outside of Leh. Built in 1820 this is the family home which has now opened up five rooms to the public, offering a true, authentic Ladakhi experience, which, given the way that tourism is destroying the region, is becoming increasingly rare.
I was a late comer to Ladakh, my first visit was just for three days in October 2015, two weeks after the season had officially closed and having, somehow persuaded Jigmed to let me stay in the palace which he had also already closed up for the winter. It turned out to be a fortuitous bout of persuasion. I soon discovered that Jigmed is a keen conservationist, has worked on several restoration projects in the Ladakh valley and has received the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage conservation three times. He has watched, over the years, what tourism is doing to the area and is keen to do what he had to preserve the culture and heritage that remains—a man after my own heart.
I arrived in Leh, had my day’s enforced acclimatisation, a necessary undertaking given that Leh is at 11,000 ft. Not feeling affected by the altitude, it was tough to look at the views surrounding me—cerulean skies, mountains with just a smattering of snow at their very tops, fields, villages and narrow valleys—I was itching to get out and explore. I amused myself with books on the region, took photographs from my room and ate wholesome, delicious, traditional meals whilst chatting with Jigmed and his wife about how detrimentally tourism is affecting the region, the changes that have taken place over the last 25 years, what (if anything) could be done to remedy the situation.
I am passionate about seeing the true destination and not just the monuments most people have on their checklist, created by uninformed and unimaginative travel agents; my personal tagline is ‘Monuments and landscapes provide the backdrop but people create the experiences,’ so we also discussed where most tourists visit and therefore where I wouldn’t go or go to instead. Three weeks wouldn’t be enough, never mind three days, but I would make a start.
It transpires that most (broadly generalising here) UK/European tourists visit a few monasteries, look at a couple of views, the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar and then depart. Indian tourists tend to visit the sights made famous by the film the Three Idiots and then depart. I was determined therefore to seek the more unusual with a view to seeing how Jigmed and I could work together on showcasing how much more the region has to offer than most people bother with.
My first trip therefore didn’t involve any monasteries, or lakes, though I did stop at the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar; you cannot miss it as you pretty much have to drive past it to get anywhere. But I did go to villages and met artisans, who were descendants of the Nepalis who were originally brought over to Ladakh to make gold jewellery, inlaid with precious stones for the royal family, now reduced to making trinkets and small copper bowls. The bellows used to ignite the smelting fire was still, literally, a goat skin.
I went up into a village and met some old ladies, who were as intrigued about me as I was about them. They were in traditional clothing, prayer beads in hand, gathered for their daily perambulations of the prayer wheel, and gossip. Some of them had not been out of the village ever since their arrival—50 years before. They sent a grandchild up a tree to pick fresh walnuts for me, gave me barley kernels to nibble on and made me chai. They were fascinated by my freckles and red hair, asking my guide where such a strange creature could have come from and couldn’t understand why I wanted to take their photographs when I was so much younger and prettier (their words not mine). But this is a generation who have lived a kind of existence which will no longer exist in maybe as little as 10 years from now and I wanted to learn as much as I could about them and capture what I could on film. Plus, they were fun!
Leh used to be closed off for winters, inaccessible due to the snow and people used to stock up from their summer crops and virtually hibernate for the winter but, now that tourism has descended, the old ways are dying out. Most people, having sold their land now have to rely on the food being flown in from Delhi, at vastly inflated prices. Now this does have its advantages, on my second visit to Leh, which was in February 2016, I was unable to stay in the palace as the pipes freeze during the winter months and so ensconced myself in the Grand Dragon, with its heated rooms with TVs and Wi-Fi (all things I usually try to avoid) but it transpired that it was a perfect place to acclimatise. As the flights are all at a godforsaken time in the morning, one checks in to the hotel in time for breakfast and I was amazed to see fresh oranges, kiwi fruit and jars of Nutella, it was surreal. I also spied such delicacies on the dinner menu as shepherd’s pie and tomato soup; was this really Ladakh? I usually denigrate such atrocities of conforming to foreign demands cast upon local sensibilities, but there were a surprising number of guests staying in the hotel, most of whom were either heading out on, or coming back from snow leopard or other such hard core treks, camping out for several nights in succession at -25C; who could deny them comfort food after that?
After acclimatising I was persuaded to visit two of the main monasteries, Thiksey and Alchi, and then I included Rizong, one not on the main drag. Due to snow on the road and a lack of snow tyres, we did not make it up to Rizong by car but took a short cut which involved clambering over rocks and snow for 40 minutes. I felt like complaining at the exertion, all to see a monastery, but then we came across several women who were prostrating themselves on the ground—regardless of the snow and rocks—pushing themselves back up, shuffling forward to where their foreheads had touched the ground and then repeating the process again.
It transpired that they had been doing this for seven days as an offering to the Gods to bring good fortune for the coming year. I quickly shut up. My guide explained to me that he encouraged people to do this walk to the monastery anyway, regardless of whether or not the road is passable. It was the old route before the road was built and on crossing the last corner, I could see why. The view of the monastery when it appears before you is spectacular. This was, by far, my favourite of the three monasteries and well worth the visit.
The following day was the festival and we arrived amidst crowds, escorted through them and then found ourselves in prime position—in a small room overlooking the central courtyard of the monastery where the main festival would take place. Several dances precede the arrival of the Oracles, all performed by the monks who spend weeks practising; they are accompanied by drums and dungchen (the long horns which are synonymous with monasteries in these parts). It was explained to me that they have 300 different melodies and the one which was playing on our arrival was the specific one for the king.
The dances go on for around four hours, which ordinarily might seem a bit long when one doesn’t fully understand what is happening. However, each tells a different story. Though the underlying theme of most is the victory of good over evil, the spectacle is captivating. Their costumes are made of vibrant silks and gold, brilliant colours, intricate designs and beautifully-crafted masks. Each dance lasts long enough to capture the attention and ends before it can wane, four hours passed in a blur of wonderful colour and performance. This all takes place in the most spectacular of settings, an ancient monastery, mountain backdrop, blue skies. Hordes of locals crowd the central courtyard and cling onto every ledge and surface, health and safety does not come into play. Then, after the last dance, which involved the slaying of the demons, it was the time for the oracles. They first appear clad from head to toe in robes and then reappear redressed in the traditional garb. Clutching swords, they partake in the dances, and accompanied by protectors, venture into different rooms of the monastery, making predictions and drinking from silver chalices of rum which are laid out for them. Emerging back into the outdoors they sprint along parapets, can jump from building to building, blindfolded, no cheating here, before finally, around two hours later, falling into a sleep and are carried off, held aloft by several monks.
I was left with a strangely contented feeling at the end of it. In today’s world of fiction and fantasy, Hollywood and Bollywood and special effects, it was almost like watching a theatrical production and yet, one reminds oneself that this is a festival not only dear to the hearts of the local inhabitants but one which has been going on, in the same way for hundreds of years.
This truly is living culture, not a performance for tourists. This is the kind of experience I look to seek out, one that leaves you mesmerised, marvelling at such extreme levels of devotion and reassured that such pockets of wonderful culture continue to exist despite the onslaught of the modern world and the invasion of western values.
I am leading an exclusive group to visit this festival in 2024, for further information email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or whatsapp +447966025330.