It’s 6:00 AM. Sapana and I kick off our shoes and file into the monastery with the monks. As always, I try to inconspicuously refrain from the three prostrations before the Buddha statues which accompany any Buddhist’s entry into a monastery. While the older monks take their seats on the padded wooden benches around the perimeter of the room, Sapana and I take a seat on one of two parallel carpets that have been rolled out in the middle of the room. The younger boys line up and sit down with us, their prayer book in one hand and metal coffee mug in the other. From my seat in the very back of one line, I watch Ngatar, Tendi, Samten, Dawa, Chimi, Lakpa, Karma, and Pasang get situated, untying and unwrapping the cloth holding together their loose leaf prayer books.
We sit in a line, each person directly behind the person in front of them and so close that our knees touch the back of the one in front of us while our backs are up against the knees of the person behind us. Personal space isn’t really a concept here, but that’s okay because having grown up together everyone is a brother and even the two older, middle aged monks are called O’Tom Cho and O’Serpa, the “O” meaning “uncle.” The handwritten festival schedule posted outside the monastery accurately describes us as the “Pema Choling Monk Family at Thulo Gumela.”
It’s so cute how excited the boys are; though they practice puja every morning for an hour and a half, they never get to take part in the big monks’ puja. Their participation in the special Dumzi puja is both a privilege and a rite of passage.
My friend Pasang (the older Pasang – 22 years old) must be in charge of the ceremonial rituals because all morning he’s been arranging and rearranging things on the altar, lighting and spreading incense, swinging the smokey soul purification pot, and filling the silver offering stands – first with sprinkles of rice and then black tea.
I haven’t seen much of him for the past three days. He’s been like a hermit, camping upstairs in the tiny 5′ x 10′ room above the monastery, working tirelessly to create the most intricate of the thorma adornments. I’d go up periodically to check on him, and there he’d be, always sitting in exactly the same spot, in the same position – legs folded Indian-style, bent over an incredible little butter sculpture. Colin and Lakpa would be there too, sometimes accompanied by Dorjee or Kagi. They’d often laugh and joke, but more often worked in silence. Every so often Lakpa would hand his work over to Pasang, who seems to have the final say on the finished work. All of the older monks participate in making thorma, and the craftsmanship is generally good, but Pasang is exceptionally gifted. I’ve made him promise to let me take home his floating Buddha sculpture when Dumzi is finished. Otherwise it would just be disposed of, just as the alter offerings are later eaten by hungry monks and – in the case of the Nyune festival last month – Jenny and I, who were craving chocolate.
Turning my thoughts back to the ceremony taking place before me, I recall the schedule posted outside the monastery. Puja starts every morning at 6:00 or 7:00 AM, going until our 8:00 breakfast. When the chanting stops I file out of the monastery and into the dining hall with the monks. Breakfast is brought to us immediately by a handful of Sherpa women and kitchen hands who deliver steaming dishes of hot food and mugs of tea, juice, or Coke. The monks eat very quickly and I’m always the last one to finish. They walk right back into the monastery and resume puja until lunch at 12 noon. After breakfast I stay seated in the dining hall, watching a steady flow of thermoses full of tea being taken into the monastery and Pasang running in and out to fetch new offerings and carry out others.
The chanting stops again and monks eager to stretch their legs pour out of the curtain that hangs over the monastery entrance. They come in for lunch, a beautiful spread including a mountain of boiled rice, potato and cauliflower and chicken curry, lentil soup, a salad of fresh lettuce, tomato, red and green onion, and a sour yogurt drink to finish the meal and cleanse the palate. Eating quickly, we enjoy an hour break after lunch. Puja resumes at 1:30 PM. “Khaza” – an afternoon snack, also called “second lunch” – is served at 3:00. Yesterday was chow mein; today it’s delicious fried chapati – Tibetan round, thick, flat bread made of rice flour – topped with a potato curry. So good! We’re truly spoiled this week.
Back to puja at 3:30, and by 6:00 it’s finished. Dinner is ready right away: Thukpa! This is a wide, flat traditional Tibetan rice noodle in a clear broth topped with sauteed veggies and dried yak meat. The festival sponsor, Ngawang Dorje, tells me that he had these thukpa noodles specially ordered and made in Kathmandu just for Dumzi. I’m impressed.
After dinner we relax. The monks are exhausted and I am, too. I rejoined puja right after lunch, and five hours of sitting – my legs folded under me, in concentrated meditation and close observation of the sacred rituals unfolding before me – leave me mentally and physically worn out. We drink a thermos of milk tea and then head to our rooms. Our 5:00 AM wake up call will come before we know it!