Homes in Clement Town are surrounded by cement walls with an iron-rod gate. Every home has one, and each family has their own special design. Today was the beginning of Losar and repainting the family gate remains a proud, town wide tradition of community identity.
Tsering's gate squeaked on its hinges as he pulled it open and chips of rust flaked off as Tashi brushed on a fresh coat of bright, pearl-esque silver paint. The town was coming alive as newly painted gates were being completed throughout the neighborhood and kids on scooters zoomed up and down the streets.
Erupting from the Great Stupa of Mindrolling, the chimes of bells ringing echoed through the town as hundreds of monks were performing purification ceremonies. The constant hum of prayer wheels spinning buzzed throughout the 2-acre garden adjacent to Mindrolling and prayer beads rustled together as elders chanted 'Om Mani Padme Hum' [mantra of the Buddha of Compassion]. Lines in the monks quarters grew long as we awaited an audience with the Rinpoches. Coming here, doing it all together provides an opportunity for the Tibetans to celebrate in a spiritual way with their family and pass on the tradition to a new generation. For the young novice monks of Tashi Kyil Monastery, Losar provides an opportunity to take a break from their studies. Just as the lay community repaints their homes and gates fresh for the new year, in the days prior to Losar the novice monks spend their time cleaning the the monasteries and ritual items to be used for ceremonies in the coming days. Losar is also a time for fun and games and the monastery grounds were a scene of chaos as the young monks chased each other, lit firecrackers and threw them in the air. Teenage monks swapped out their sandals for soccer cleats and sneeked out past the border walls to play games of soccer and cricket. Losar was in full swing.
Mise en Place
Across town in a small room on the furthest corner of the parade grounds, 79-year-old Khamtuk repeatedly slams large chunks of dough down on a wooden table. A master of his craft, he pulls the dough into long strands and kneads it by rolling his forearms back and forth vigorously for some time. A funny man with an infectious smile, Khamtuk lives in Rajpur and has been making the trip to Clement Town for 50 years to make this special steamed bread called Tingmo. Even at his age Khamtuk works long hours as he produces over 2000 tingmo per day during Losar.
In a series of tents outside, kitchens were being constructed and Agu Sherap, dressed in a green camo vest and tilly hat wearing gold aviator sunglasses, hunched over a giant steaming cauldron of boiling tea. Reaching for a large wooden thermos adorned with copper accents Sherap methodically churned the piping hot tea together with salt, butter, and milk resulting in, perhaps, the most essential dish in Tibetan cuisine, butter tea.
"TIBETANS IN EXILE MAKE IT A POINT TO SERVE TIBETAN BUTTER TEA TO REMINISCE ABOUT TIBET AND ITS RICH CULTURE AND TO KEEP THE TRADITION ALIVE"
-Tsering Sangmo, 70
The salty, caloric, and energizing po cha—or butter tea—is a daily ritual, and part of a stable diet in Tibet. It is consumed not just during Losar but throughout the year due to Tibet's cold weather. Tibetans will tell you that the fat from the butter and the milk is supposed to keep you warm and the salt supposedly kills any germs and bacteria that your body may carry.
"He is our chef"
Sherap, who sadly passed away in 2018 in his 60's, grew up in Clement Town. Celebrations and events happen year round in Tibetan communities and for the past 25 years Sherap served as the town chef, leading the operation and training younger generations on the unique history of Tibetan food culture.
Tibetan kitchens are traditionally run by women and sitting on the ground, three elderly women were peeling thousands of cloves of garlic while a group of younger women prepared hundreds of chilis, onions, and tomatoes. For the first three days of Losar most of the town refrains from cooking at home and later that evening the parade grounds will be overcrowded with people eating together and preparing for a night of excitement.
For the first three days of Losar, around 400 pounds of meat is prepared daily. Meat has a long history in Tibetan culture and is a staple in their cuisine. It's boiled in soups, stir fried, made into dumplings and meat pies.
Tibetan's are primarily Buddhists, but not necessarily all vegetarian. The Tibetans were around long before Buddhism found its way to Tibet and their food provides a unique look in a struggle between religion and region. Sitting at an elevation of 15,000 feet the Tibetan plateau is limited on what can be produced. High elevation, rocky soil, cold climates, and harsh winters certainly don't provide the best circumstances for successful agriculture. While many dedicated Buddhist practitioners and monks refrain from eating meat, dishes like tukpa [meat soup], sha momo [meat dumplings], tsampa [barley flour], and pocha [butter tea] define the limitations of the place and what was readily accessible to the Tibetan people. Alongside the traditional staples, today, a heavy influence of dishes like Indian dahl, curried vegetables, and Nepali dal bat [rice and lentals] have found their way into Tibetan food culture.
Children competed with the monks to see who could outscore each other in a game of bottle toss and others teamed up for a game of basketball. Lines to the snack stands grew and crowds gathered to cheer on their favorite teams. Leaving Kyitsel-Ling we met up with Tsukputh's friends and walked back to his home. Dressed in western clothes they gathered together in his room and pretended to sing into microphones made of water bottles and red bull cans. It was their last practice before their performance at the Annual Tibetan Cultural Talent Show later that night.
Tsukputh led the first act of the night with a dance called 'Tashi Sholpa.' Performing with other students they adorned white-beard masks, depicting Thangton Gyalpo, and traditional costumes with strings tied to long pieces of fringe that hung off and flew about as they danced. Drums started beating and Tsukputh began to chant and sing. With the drums getting louder the whole group was now dancing, perfectly synchronized. Originally appearing in a dream of the Fifth Dalai Lama this dance is meant to portray Thangtong Gyalpo, a great Tibetan yogi; The Madman of the Empty Valley. Living to 140 years and the founder of Tibet's oldest opera company, Tashi Sholpa, Tangton Gyalpo's opera conveys the teaching of the Buddha in dance. Typically performed by monks during special monastic occasions, to bring good luck and good omens for the new year, the students of Tibetan Nehru Memorial Foundation School perform this dance on Losar to showcase their Tibetan culture and heritage.
With the stage lights focused on a group of children at the corner of the stage the strums of dramyins [Tibetan guitar],and gyumangs [dulcimer], were playing in perfect harmony. Dressed in fur hats with red, white, and blue embroidered chupas, they performed Tibetan music as another act took to the stage and began to sing and dance while their families cheered from the bleachers. Backstage, in a series of tents, kids were tuning instruments, making costume changes, and rehearsing their dances one last time while others watched and cheered their friends on. For them, this was the highlight of the night.
After dark, the fun began at the gambling tables. Cigarette smoke and laughter permeated the senses as the crowds grew to watch the large sums of money being gambled away. Never staying in one spot for long I had to work quick as I was now out past my legal curfew. I was on high alert. Fighting my nerves under the looming danger of potentially being ratted out I continued to make my way deeper into the gambling arena regardless of the legality of my presence. Happening only during Losar the monks play the part of the carnies, yelling out the names of winners, handing out game prizes, dealing cards which drew the highest bidders, and moderating arguments that erupted over bets. It was a bazarre juxtaposition to everyday life as a monk and yet a brilliantly planned exploitation of worldly affairs under the guise of fundraising. Everyone was having the time of their lives.
Life as a monk isn't simply a free ride to escape all worldly activities. It's a lifetime of intense study, early morning meditation, ceremonies, rituals, and helping provide for the lay community. Tibetan colonies have a unique system that's interwoven with the lay and monastic communities, they help each other out. The lay people help support the monasteries financially and the monks support the lay people in spiritual matters. Life as a monk is also expensive and Tibetan monasteries require a great amount of financial support to function. Mindrolling, for example, lodges over 300 monks, provides stupas and great prayer halls, colleges for higher Tibetan studies, retreat centers, and has to clothe and feed the monks and students. Though it might appear strange, for someone not familiar with Tibetan culture to see monks dealing games and having fun, everyone has a part to play, a way to contribute within the monasteries and Losar in Clement Town provides a unique opportunity for the three monasteries to set up games and raise funds from all who attend the fair.
With the show still going strong, Tsukputh and his friends were next to perform.
I worked my way over to the stage and found a quiet spot on the edges of the audience. Believing I was adequately hidden, despite the wandering looks of those watching, I continued to work. It was near the end of Tsukputh’s performance that I felt a tap on my shoulder and found myself being escorted behind stage by a friend whose anxious demeanor seemed troubling. His English broken and hurried, explained that people were questioning my presence as he insisted I leave [Clement Town] immediately. The gig was up. It was well past dark and I had overstayed my visa.
Sneaking through the labyrinth of tents backstage I reached a small opening at the far end of the parade grounds and quietly slipped into the shadows. The air was dusty as I made my way through dark alleys avoiding main roads and dodging the occasional headlights of scooters that passed by. I needed to get my gear I had left in the shrine room earlier that day. Close to the house now my phone rang. Ducking behind a wall I answered the call, listening intently to the voice on the phone, whose tone was frantic.
“THE POLICE ARE COMING [FOR YOU!] GET TO THE HOUSE, LOCK THE SHRINE ROOM DOOR, CLOSE THE CURTAINS, TURN OFF THE LIGHTS, AND WAIT FOR MY RETURN.”
Moving quickly through the last few blocks I safely entered the courtyard of the house, ran upstairs and locked myself in the dark, silent shrine room on the roof. Peeking through a slit in the curtains the neighboring houses glowed with flashing red and blue lights as a police car raced up the street towards my location. Trying not to panic, as I heard voices enter the house below, the seriousness of the consequences that could follow became all too real.
I had to move quick. I hid my hard drives around the room and gathered the memory cards from my cameras stashing them in my tube socks in preparation to escape town. Never did I believe my day would end like it began, however instead of watching monkeys jump from rooftop to rooftop it would be me. I was prepared for this. I had one shot.
Tonight was a night born out of Tibetan folklore. An important tradition of Losar, eating Guthuk and the rituals that follow signify the safe passage into the new year and symbolize the banishment of all evil and malevolent spirits from the year past. Guthuk is a special meat and noodle soup quite similar to many other common Tibetan dishes however, Guthuk is the first part in this tradition. The rituals started with the soup and adding some light-hearted fun a divination, written on a piece of paper, is put inside a dough ball and placed in each bowl of soup. Similar to Chinese fortune cookies, when read it provides a prediction for your personal characteristics. Pulling out the word 'cotton' from my dough ball represented a prediction of warm heartedness.
The night ended with a feeling of purification. Leaving Clement town, on my way back to Dehradun, relief from the last year’s negative obstacles and spirits brought joy and welcoming to the new year. As I've spent the last few days fearful of a possible escape, those same few days had been preparing me for the greatest escape of all; the freedom from years past.