The 33rd Kalachakra: The Greatest Buddhist Gathering, Ladakh

The 33rd Kalachakra: The Greatest Buddhist Gathering, Ladakh

Yesterday saw the first day of the 33rd annual Kalachakra in Ladakh, hosted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The largest annual gathering of Buddhist in the world, with over 150,000 pilgrims set to attend it promises to be quite the gathering. With a break of 38 years since the last Kalachakra was held in Ladakh it is most likely to be the His Holiness’s last in Ladakh as he is said to struggle with the altitude. Ever the professional, aside from the odd tickle in his throat, His Holiness did not show it. Sitting and reciting prayers and teachings on love and kindness he also spoke on the importance of respecting and understanding fellow human beings religions, whatever they may be.

14th-dalai-lama   His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The word Kalachakra itself means cycles of time. Generally the passage of time has a debilitating effect on human beings: as we age our sight, hearing and physical strength deteriorate. Buddhists believe that the practice of the Kalachakra helps individuals to exit this cycle and achieve enlightenment.

 IMG_3927   Solo monk

The 3rd – 6th July marks the ‘initiation’ period before the main Kalachakra begins. The primary aim of this is to learn from the Bodhisattva and Tantric vows: focusing on the path to enlightenment as well as being able to benefit all living creatures. Including several days of prayers it is a preparation stage before the period of ‘empowerment’.

Pilgrims from all corners of the world attended with real-time translations being broadcast on FM radio stations in 13 different languages. A practicing Buddhist himself, although not present on the opening day, Richard Gere will be attending in the upcoming days as one of the primary sponsors.

IMG_3926 Pilgrims arrived in bus loads from all over Ladakh, India and the world

IMG_3938 One lone pilgrim makes his way home by foot through the many ‘gullys’ that traverse the Ladakhi countryside

The crowd was something to behold with the traditional dress from around the state of Jammu and Kashmir proudly being displayed; including this Thiksey native sporting a tibi hat typical of Ladakh.

IMG_3924   A village elder (who turned out to be a great aunt of a friend of mine!) wearing her traditional attire

Whilst the left of the stage was reserved for press and foreigners, the front seats was a Red Sea of monks, all eagerly listening to His Holiness’ every word. In fact the entire Shey region was awash with the red and yellow garb of the monks.

IMG_3903   Awash with red and yellow: monks from all around the world came to attend the 33rd Kalachakra

The Kalachakra will take place until the 14th July with the Jiwetsal grounds gradually filling up with travellers and pilgrims alike. The pinnacle will be the creation of the physical representation of the Kalachakra, a mandala and meditational visual aid depicting the various stages of enlightenment. This physical mandala will then be destroyed after the end of the Kalachakra as a symbol of lack of detachment, principal to Buddhist teachings.

It’s My Birthday: I’ll Get High If I Want To!

It’s My Birthday: I’ll Get High If I Want To!

Lying in bed with a pounding headache, unremitting nausea, unable to leave my room save for some medicinal strength coffee is pretty much how I spend most of my birthdays. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Except that this year my incapacitation was not alcohol induced, this year it was because I got high – 10,500 feet high to be exact.

thiksey  View of Thiksey monastery – and some local wildlife!

Waking up with altitude sickness isn’t everyone’s idea of a Happy Birthday, but as I lay in bed, feeling as rough as the local terrain, with that view of the Thiksey monastery, the “hangover” was totally worth it. A self-proclaimed vagabond and unashamed indophile what better job could I ask for than working for a nomadic camp, traversing some of India’s roads less travelled.

988   My new Home Sweet Home

Consequent to its remoteness “only your best friends or worst enemies will visit you in Ladakh” or so the local adage goes. There is merit in this – Ladakh is not everyone’s cup of chai (in fact its local butter variant is one of the more disgusting things I have tasted). With overland routes closed due to heavy snowfall, for the majority of the year it is only accessible by air and even then, flights operate at the mercy of the weather. Assuming you’ve arrived in one piece you then have the altitude sickness to contend with: 24 hours bed rest, one Diamox tablet and a helping of sobriety for good measure. Like I said, Ladakh is not for everyone.

But for those of us who like their mountains high and their rivers wide it is a veritable Himalayan heaven. “The Land of High Passes” really is a perfect destination for the seasoned road-tripper, mountain trekker, river rafter and spiritual learner. Not to mention an excellent escape from the merciless Indian summer.

IMG_3937

One of those seasoned travellers I was talking about…

2014 saw Ladakh set the scene for the 33rd annual Kalachakra festival. The largest Buddhist gathering in the world it was hosted by the Dalai Lama – during which we wished him a very happy 79th birthday! As I sat crossed legged amongst a sea of red and yellow clad monks, wishing His Holiness many happy returns, I could not help but give myself a mental pat on the back. Swapping Delhi for Ladakh, knowing that I was going to spend the summer here, was a gift money could not buy.

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     Happy Birthday Your Holiness

Four months without a working phone (the Kashmiri government restricts use of all non-local prepaid simcards) and very limited access to internet sounds like your average city dwellers worst nightmare. Yet armed with a yoga mat, a stack of books almost myself in height, my DSLR camera and a new pair of walking shoes I cannot wait to see what the rest of summer brings.