The year was 1985.
I brought with me no more than a backpack and my enthusiasm at being here, on my own, in one of the most hidden and remote corners of the globe, confronting my ambitions and my fears. They were perfectly reflected in the magnificent mountain, silhouetted against the cobalt-blue sky of the Himalayas: Mount Nun. I was about to scale this colossal mass of rock and ice, over 7000 metres high, making the first ever solitary ascent up the north wall.
And yet, once I had overcome the euphoria of the peak, and metabolized the ambitious awareness of succeeding in surpassing an almost insuperable barrier in my emotions and in my knowledge of my own physical and mental limits, my greatest memory of that experience is of endless days, which turned into weeks and months, of wandering aimlessly amid the endless high-altitude landscapes of Zanskar.
Twenty-five years later, when I returned to this region with a group of “aspiring photo-journalists”, I rediscovered the subtle, magical atmospheres and impressions that had bewitched me once before. It took another two days of exhausting travel along impossible tracks, riding in clapped-out off-road vehicles, before we reached Padum, but the "future" had already begun there, in the form of a road dug between the rocks, which in a few years' time will link Zanskar to the Leh valley and to “civilisation” in a matter of hours.
That road, like too many others around the world, will not serve to bring “modernity” to this valley, but rather, it will serve the people who have lived there for thousands of years in perfect balance with the toughness of these lands, to move off towards “progress”...
In Leh, 3505 metres above sea level, our adventure begins, across the Ladakh, also known as Little Tibet, because following the Chinese "revolution", which devastated much of the Tibetan region, this is the only place where the traditions, cultures and spirituality of the great Himalayan country survive intact.
This territory is a high-altitude desert, stretching along the Indus Valley, surrounded by majestic and mysterious Himalayan peaks over 7000 metres tall.
In this mystical land, a courageous population of monks, shepherds and farmers, deeply rooted in their ancient Buddhist traditions, share a life of peace and tranquillity, despite the constant ambitions for expansion on the part of Pakistan and China, who have, however, yet to make inroads into this corner of the globe, considered the last Shangri-La, the legendary paradise of peace on earth.
It is the ancient monasteries, perched on the rocks or emerging amid rows of trees from the little oases in the valley bottom, that are the real, authentic, silent protagonists of this land: the gompa, the beating hearts of Vajrayana tantric Buddhism, an essentially initiatic and esoteric natural religion, dating back over 15,000 years.
Between their walls, the main dynasties and Buddhist schools have followed one upon the other, leaving us valuable examples of Tibetan art. They seem to challenge space and time, struggling against their own gradual depopulation, becoming as one with the rock to keep their spirituality safely anchored.
Throughout Ladakh, and especially close to monasteries, visitors will often come across man tang, the sacred prayer walls which can be as much as several hundred metres long, built of thousands of stones on which pilgrims have carved the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”, the sacred prayer recited endlessly in order to obtain release from suffering, and to achieve peace and illumination.
Devout Buddhists recite this powerful mantra repeatedly, while they walk, at work and at rest, because its constant reiteration is believed to facilitate the achievement of Nirvana. Each of the six syllables of the mantra has the power to transform and purify the six negative emotions that cause the six realms of Samsara, the cycle of rebirth.
Votive stupas, built in all sizes, are dotted all around the desolate landscapes of this region. They are another of the most commonly occurring Buddhist symbols in Himalayan devotion.
Also known as chorten, they are shaped like little temples. Inside are parchments with mantras, while outside they are decorated by anonymous pilgrims with prayer flags, which, as they flap in the wind, lift the prayers and supplications of men towards the sky.
Most are painted white with lime, but it is not unusual to come across clusters of three, painted in colours that have their own sacred significance, representing the central precepts of Tibetan Buddhism: yellow or red represents knowledge, white, compassion, and blue or black, power against the forces of evil.
The Zanskar valley is the remotest region of the Indian Himalayas; it remained isolated and hidden for centuries, accessible only by lengthy treks on foot. In recent years, a road suitable for vehicles gives access to the valley during the summer months, but for the rest of the year the area is still completely isolated to this day, except for those who, with brave daring, set off along the Chador Road, and up the frozen Zanskar river, which becomes the only real means of communication with the rest of the world.
This ancient, timeless world is inhabited by a few thousand people - some monks, some farmers - who share an extremely harsh existence: in winter the snow is always abundant, and temperatures can fall as low as 40 °C below zero. Only in spring, when the glaciers melt and the fields can be irrigated once more, does life flourish again, but it is nonetheless a tough existence, hard-earned day by day.
There is a profound Buddhist devoutness, sustained by an unfailing mystical faith rooted in this Himalayan kingdom down the centuries, shared by the men and women who live by their hard work, in a mystic tranquillity. Their days are punctuated by rituals and prayers, hands that work the soil then clasp their prayer beads, eyes that hide from the sun, protected by the majestic mountains, the realm of the ancestral forces of nature…
They are the soul of Zanskar, far from the clamour of the world, close only to the spirit of the mountains and the immensity of the sky, just a step away from the gods.
In this valley, Buddhist traditions are still deep-rooted in everyday village life, and the life of the people is closely tied to that of the monasteries, to the point that the local social and economic fabric sees monks and inhabitants inextricably interwoven reciprocally ensuring the subsistence of both. Villages are usually built close to the gompas, and each family sends its youngest child to study at the monastery and undertake a spiritual life. The monks receive barley and yak butter in exchange for rites of blessing.
Each year at many of the valley's monasteries, on precise dates that follow the Tibetan calendar, the monks come together for a cham, a religious festival in which ritual dances are performed with masks and costumes. We were lucky enough to be among the audience for the spectacular Karsha Gustor, at the Karsha Gompa, some twenty kilometres from Padum.
The monks spend a long time preparing for these events, with meditative practices, ceremonies and the consecration of various objects. The aim of these complex rituals is to invoke the help of Bodhisattva and other protective divinities, in order to purify the place and free the valley of all negativity, exorcising people, animals and crops from the influence of the powerful Himalayan demons.
The dances represent different themes, and are performed by monks dressed in colourful traditional costumes and masks portraying animals, demons and mountain yogis, chanting sacred mantras to the sound of cymbals, drums and brass trumpets.
For a fortnight we broke away from the patterns, rhythms and schedules of our usual, frenetic reality, and approached a parallel universe, different, unknown, alien even, albeit rooted in the same planet that we experience as chaotic and overwhelming in our daily lives.
Landscapes, scents, evocations, eyes and smiles filled all our sensory receptors with new stimuli, which were at the same time age-old repositories of an ancient wisdom.
We will always carry in our hearts the illusion that this world can remain as it is forever, but sadly we know that it is just that, an illusion, soon to be crushed by “progress”...
Michele Dalla Palma