Severe weather and buddhist chants

Leh, in the northmost state of India, is one of the highest airports (3500m; 11,000 ft) in the world. The only reason that a place this high up has an airport at all is beacause it is close enough to the Chinese border that the Indian military deems it necessary. You are not allowed to take pictures of the airport, but the military does let commercial airliners use the air field. And that is where I went last weekend.

You are warned that the approach to the airfield is purely visual, so imagine my apprehension as I saw these storm clouds over the Himalayas as we were nearing Leh. Luckily, it was clear in Leh, and we did land.

Leh is pretty much what you are led to expect -- a narrow valley of green that is watered by the Indus river amidst barren hills. It is gorgeous beyond belief, though. You have to see the area to understand how a place that is so dry and desolate can be so incredible.

Another thing about the altitude: you are advised to take a whole day of rest to get acclimatized to the very thin air. And I was light-headed soon after I landed.

However, I got talking to the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where I stayed in Leh (no, there is no Hilton there). He said that it was the one-year anniversary of the cloudburst and that there was going to be a big prayer in town. Buddhist chants associated with an extreme severe weather event ... how could I miss it? Altitude sickness or no, I went.

Seemingly, the entire local population had turned out for the prayer. It was at a school field and the entire field was filled with people. Volunteers went around pouring out tea for the attendees. Here is one of them:

I asked her permission before taking the picture above. She told me to wait and straightened out her beads, hat and cloak. And then she carefully looked away. Must me something about souls and pictures.

Even in my host's living room, all the pictures of the family featured the hostess looking away from the camera. Maybe it's just women who have souls.

All over Ladakh, Buddhism is strong. My host, for example, worshipped twice a day. And there were new prayer wheels being built all the time. Yet, the ancient religion was never too far below the surface. Even in the Buddhist gompas (monasteries), prominent place was given to Thanka paintings of the devils that Padmasambhava was supposed to have fought and won against.

I noticed that it was the devils who received much of the prayers at those monasteries.

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