India – Sham Valley

At the entrance of the Buddhist monastery, a handful of doves welcomes us with resounding cooing, guiding us directly to the prayer hall. No soul is visible in the open areas of the monastery. However, the colourful prayer hall distills a low, mumbling religious chant.

Inside the hall, the indistinct sound grows, punctuated sporadically with loud timpani strokes. Two senior monks are praying aloud, supported by a young novice. My heart beats rise, my hair bristles, my skin warms up despite the cold. This is a strong moment of religious fervour. 

The two monks in prayer mumble very rapidly indistinct words on a low, monotonous tonality. Both are seated and deeply concentrated. One of them recites prayers by heart, adopting meditative and ecstatic postures. The other one reads steadily from his prayer book. The prayer ends with terrific timbal and drum strokes.

This is where the young novice comes into play. Tremendously concentrated, the boy synchronises his beats with the prayer cadence, looking often at the monks to anticipate his part. The scene is fascinating to observe and to connect with. 

Upon my request, my guide and I stay there for a long time, before stepping out discretely. Snowflakes dance in the chilly winter wind. I love the rich and delicate architecture of the monastery. 

The monastery infrastructure is large and includes a primary school. As a matter of fact, it hosts only a dozen of senior monks nowadays. Life-long religious vocations are rare these days. Most of the young pupils placed by their families in monasteries’ Buddhist schools in Ladakh leave once they are in the age of marriage, eager to embrace a secular adult life. 

On our way from the monastery to a village, we spot an old woman living alone in a very remote location. From her top roof where she spends part of her days praying in the open air, she proudly explains that she does not wish to leave her home even in winter, as she is periodically visited and catered by relatives. 

We are in Sham Valley, hidden in a corner of Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas. Following my Chadar trek, I wished to visit rural people in their villages. This is how we set off for a five-day trek in Sham Valley. We stayed overnight in three local family homes located in three different villages, which provided distinct experiences and unique opportunities to approach local social life.

All three villages are connected to the Ladakhi road network. However, they are sporadically isolated in case of a snowfall, as it happened during our trek. A two-day power cut provoked by the strong snowfall only reinforced the sense of geographical isolation. 

There is little social life and even human presence outside the houses during winter. In-door family life is the key to spend the winter. In fact, families often split during the winter season, with some members moving to Leh to benefit from better services. 

Our first host was an old, kind and pious man, living at the time with one of his grandsons. In addition to spending long periods in a nearby monastery, he was pleased to take care of his grandson and us.

“Winters are no longer as snowy as they used to be!”, complained the old man. “Until a couple of years ago, we had long periods of heavy snow during winter. In recent years, we have had only little snow. Snow is important to us, as it provides us with the water that will be needed for farming later in the year”. The old man’s wish was very soon granted, as the landscape was snow-capped on the following morning. 

While the snow layer was high enough to block 4×4 vehicles, it did not prevent us from pursuing our trek. The fresh snow hindered our progression indeed, but added an otherworldly character to our outdoor experience.

Buddha is everywhere in Ladakh, including in remote areas. Chorten, prayers flags, sacred trees, and imposing religious statues recall the omnipresence and the importance of Buddhism in local life. 

Our second host was a retired militaryman and his spouse, very hospitable and caring. We spent beautiful social moments around the cooking oven, which is commonly the only functional in-house heating system in winter. Sleeping rooms are not heated, even if they are equipped with heating oven. 

On our way to the last village of our itinerary, we came across a yak herd progressing quietly but surely across snow-capped fields. What a well-prepared animal for the Himalayas! Yet, local people raise fewer yaks compared to the past, as their heavy-duty portering and farming tasks have diminished in volume in recent decades. Smaller-sized cattle are often preferred those days. 

In contrast, the size of local houses has grown significantly in recent times. The traditional houses were quite small, low and dark. Today, villages often count quite large and richly-decorated houses, who are mostly owned by (former) Indian governmental officials. 

Our third home stay took place in a large house owned by a serviceman, absent during our visit. His wife attended us with utmost care, in addition to her daily domestic tasks. Their two children entertained us a lot as well.

Bred and tea are the two pillars of local diet. The food is traditionally vegetarian, including for the pets. In addition to vegetables, apples, mandarines and dried apricots are commonly available. One night, our host and her daughter prepared skew, a Ladakhi traditional dish, which created room for beautiful social exchanges. 

Which sweeter memory of our visit in Sham Valley than such beautiful connivence between a mother and her daughter? 


By Bertrand

Trotting the globe with vision, values and humour