Alex Keefe wins £250 in this week’s travel writing competition for her account of a stimulating collision between ancient and modern at Dhankar Gompa Buddhist retreat.
I had no expectation of what visiting a monastery in northern India might be like. The whitewashed squares in the distance were stacked like an uneasy sandcastle, haphazardly perched on the mountainside. As I got closer, this hodgepodge of structures appeared both ancient and contemporary, the fresh, newly painted buildings propping up the aged and infirm.
Heavily adorned with colourful prayer flags, the familiar Himalayan archway stood tall and sure at the entrance to the complex. I removed my shoes and began climbing the steep stone steps that led into the oldest part of the monastery. On entering, I was immediately transported: the soft, well-trodden stone floor, the smooth, mud-packed walls and frayed oriental rugs reminiscent of a time long past.
Winding my way through the cold, pale interior, I found myself in the presence of a young, red-robed monk, perched on a simple wooden chair. Gently rolling a string of prayer beads the colour of burnt orange in his fingers, he was staring into the distance, peaceful and undisturbed in his expression. “Do you live here alone?” I asked. “Yes, but we monks take it in turns to stay here. I will be here for two years,’’ he replied.
“And then where will you go?” I was intrigued by this solitary existence. “I will go to another monastery, just up the hill,” he explained, adjusting the thin-framed glasses resting on his nose, “but I will never leave this area. I will stay here in Dhankar Gompa my entire life.” He began to hum a delicate Buddhist mantra as I was left to ponder; to live in such a remote part of the world was a testament to his pious and dutiful character.
Every turn in this white labyrinth breathed new possibility. In a dark corridor that burrowed deep into the building’s stone core, I found a small wooden door with “Prayer Cave” marked on a plaque above it. I ducked inside. The air was thick and heavy; I felt the weight of the past, the visceral smell of devotion.
Weaving back up the rabbit hole, I found a narrow opening that had been carved into the solid stone exterior wall 1,000 years before, presenting the deep blue sky. I clambered through the gap. From the small ledge, the valley burst open beneath my feet, revealing the colossal expanse and the snaking river far below.
The mountains rose high above me, encompassing the monastery and me like the sides of a vast, solid bathtub, cradling the world that lay within its rugged, reassuring walls. Bare feet pressed firmly on the cold, rough stone, I crept closer to the edge, my gaze engulfed by the spectacular view nature had provided me.
Suddenly, the thought of spending a lifetime beholding this view was not so hard to imagine.
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