on the precipice
KILA GOMPA, WESTERN BHUTAN
“I got out of my car at this monastery and the air was pulsing. It was very silent. But really the silence wasn’t the absence of noise. It was almost a presence of these transparent walls that I think the monks have worked very very hard to make available to us in the world... and somehow, almost immediately, it was as if a huge heaviness fell away from me. And the lens cap came off my eyes.. Really almost instantaneously I felt I’ve stepped into a richer, deeper life - a real life - that I have forgotten had existed."
- Pico Iyer
To most people who have images of Bhutan in their minds, the vision would singularly be that of Tiger's Nest - a remote monastery precariously dangling off the side of a cliff. This sole image has captured the imagination of many travelers the world over (just read the latest 52 Places column in the New York Times published four days ago). It is overplayed in documentaries, postcards, guidebooks. And absolutely for good reason. Not only is it an architectural marvel - it is also a very holy place for the Bhutanese believed to be where the beloved venerated Guru Rinpoche landed while flying on a tigress and where he subsequently meditated for three years, three months, and three hours.
But truth be told, there are many holy sites and temples smattered all over this small country and most of them dangerously stand on the edge of a cliff or a rock face, like a frail diver on the edge of a board about to plunge into a deep dark pool tens of feet below. Kila Gompa in Western Bhutan, close to the highest drivable mountain pass of Chelela, is one of them and because this is the first one I have entered (or maybe because it's the only nunnery I've visited during this trip), this was especially a memorable one for me. This was the moment I truly felt I have arrived in Bhutan, not just in a physical sense, but in a deeper, if spiritual sense. Of course it helps that it was at a very high elevation in the mountains, which oddly enough is where I feel very at home. It was also not trafficked at all. We would pass three people the entire hike up to Chelala.
Driving from Paro was slow-going, even on a robust AWD SUV, in major part because we never reached 50 MPH on the speedometer. The road sliced through pine forests, visions of the Himalayan peak Mount Jomolhari taunted us as we got higher and closer to the crest. The road forked somewhere and before I know it, we were bouncing around inside the vehicle like little bobblehead dolls as we drive on a dusty dirt road.
My jaw drops to the ground, along with my heart, as I look around me and there is nothing but huge mountains and forests all over me, like I was swallowed by them. Is this the part where I bawl?
We turn prayer wheels and Sonam, my guide, orients me about where we are before we prod on to this sanctuary deep in the mountains. We are standing at about 11,400 feet and after a visit to the nunnery, we would hike uphill to the top of Chelala which is around 12,700 feet when all is said and done. There are a couple of nuns at work, cleaning windows when we arrived. As with all monasteries we've visited, there is a temple within which is open to anyone who wants to pay respect and meditate. Before entering a temple, one must remove shoes - photography is prohibited inside to keep the solemnity of this sacred place. I really like that.
A temple would usually have heavy and shiny wood plank flooring. There would be religious paintings on the walls covered by large piece of silk cloth to protect them from years of soot from incense and butter lamps. In the front of the room would be an altar with Buddha statues, sometimes also of Guru Rinpoche (considered in Bhutan as the reincarnation of Buddha) or Bhutan's unifier, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. There would be a throne situated in the temple as well, to represent the seat of the Guru or the Master, as well as a couple enlarged photos of the Master and/or the Monastic Body's head. Sonam would always do a prostrations - a small Ngultrum bill as an offering, a touch to the forehead, a touch to the lips, a touch to the heart - always in threes. If a temple keeper is around, he (or she as is the case in Kila Gompa) would bless you with some holy water poured out of a metal vase for purification, which you would receive with both hands cupped, one on top of each other, and proceed to sip. The rest of, you pour over the crown of your head.
This life of asceticism and reclusion holds so much appeal for me and I don't exactly understand why. My guide theorizes that I may have been a monk in my past life. It sounds farfetched, but deep within, it really seems plausible.