Our next stop was the temple of Urgyan Tsemo, which, like the main monastery, is located on a rocky plateau with a precipitous projection of several hundred feet over the valley. From this location, the monastery’s buildings are on the opposite ravine, which is also the view point for visitors and there is a cafeteria to provide refreshments. The trek beyond this point is very scenic with the sound of the water fall breaking the silence. Along the trek route dotted with blue pine trees, we spotted prayer flags and kiosks selling paraphernalia for worship. But we faced a problem we hadn’t anticipated. The cafeteria was closed that day and we had to make the hard choice of either carrying on without food or going back with a more than half made sojourn haunting the back of our minds. Surprisingly, the children goaded us to move on, and when I look back, I almost cannot believe that we gave in to their rather impractical decision. But then, like I said, Bhutan has also made me half believe in karma and this was the beginning of a journey of faith for us.
Weary, blue, out-of- breath, we plodded on, and off and on, Serena would break off into a song and we would all stop to laugh and gather ourselves. We had sent the children on ponies to cover some distance and by the time we reached at the appointed destination, where the steps would start, we met a very young man from France, who had come here for a visit. He gauged me from top to toe, and then his eyes melted into a laugh, “Ah! so you are her mom!” he said pointing to my daughter. “Since the last ten minutes or so, ever since she saw me lighting a cigarette, she has given me a whole lesson on how I am killing myself and how my lungs are getting choked, and how I am contributing to global warming…madame, hats off to you!”…I blushed deep red and gave a hard look to Serena. But the two giggled and gave each other a high five. Pierre had decided to go back from here for he suffered shortness of breath.
It did need a lot of courage to reach the monastery with just a couple of biscuits in out tummies, but then, we were sure of the one thing that we wanted to be there. The monastery buildings consist of four main temples and out of the eight caves, four are comparatively easy to access. The cave where Lord Padmasmabhava first entered, riding the Tiger, is known as Tholu Phuk and the original cave where he resided and did meditation is known as the Pel Phuk. The monastery is so precariously perched that it is said: “it clings to the side of the mountain like a gecko.” The main cave is entered through a narrow passage. All the buildings are interconnected through about 700 steps and stairways made in rocks. Beneath the promontory of rock, and across the chasm from the monastery, the cliff drops a couple of thousand feet to the gorge below. Carved into the exposed cliff face are stone steps with absolutely no handrails. By the time we had reached the monastery we felt thinned out like air itself. And there was the climb all the way back.
And then the rain started…
With a little bird of fear fluttering wings in our hearts, we started with bated breath on our journey back, praying fervently that it did not build into a storm…but there was the ominous roar of thunder and the rain soon swelled into a storm. I looked at my bag sans any warm jackets and chanted prayers after prayers. The children were cold and hungry and I held Serena to myself, while we took shelter under a big boulder jutting out of a hill. The child was trembling like a leaf and the nearest shelter was a couple of steps away. A tiny shack was there in the sight, but my heart sank as I saw a thick padlock secured with a chain on its gate. We moved some steps, almost ran in frenzy, me clinging Serena to my bosom. The rain fell in torrents, as did the tears from my eyes. I cursed the moment we took the decision to go on instead of returning back.
And then we saw the amber lights.
We rushed to this sanctuary that had magically materialized in the rain, and I almost ran inwards with the child. My husband followed with my son. A monk sat near a stove, reading a book of scriptures. It seemed to be a leaf out of one of those “encounter –with- the- divine” stories. He quickly stood up and almost dragged me by my arm into the inner chamber. And lo behold, there were at least a hundred butter lamps burning there, looking like a scene out of a surreal film. I took Serena’s tiny hands and rubbed some of the warmth from the flame into her hands. The child was literally revived from a stupor. I held her for what seemed like an eternity, the lamps throwing shadows on the walls, against the insistent pitter-patter of rain. Now that Serena felt better, she started to talk to the priest while I gauged the small room. I spotted a carton of Amul Taza milk and my eyes lit up. The priest asked if we wanted to have tea. We all immediately nodded and he pointed to jars of sugar, and tea leaves neatly stacked in a rack. In this single instant I realized the value of a precious cup of tea. I proceeded to quickly light the gas, wash the cups and then I made tea for everyone. By now Serena was her usual chirpy self and asked if she could serve everyone. Then I heard her voice, “could we have those with tea, please?’, she was pointing at something and my gaze now drifted to several packets of sugar crackers in sealed transparent, plastic bags. “Of course, beti…I should have offered myself,” the monk, our savior said almost apologetically.
I can never forget that miraculous evening of faith, as we all, sat and sipped our tea at an altitude of 800 feet or so, on the parapet of that little haven alit with butter lamps, listening to the rain falling in torrents on the awnings. We shared our stories and the monk told us he had lived here ever since he was a child. He was indoctrinated into Buddhism at a young age and he believed like all Bhutanese, he was an incarnation of a guru who used to live here a hundred years ago. We all found ourselves nodding readily in assent and believing it, too. The rain had stopped by now and even the sun yawned in its glory before it was time for it to move to the other part of the world. We heard a hornbill’s call and took it to be a sign to start back on our journey. We were still dazed as it seemed God Himself had come in the shape of that monk in a dark tenement to help us pass through this tough situation. The children had had crackers to their fill and our savior insisted we carry some packets back with us in case we needed them.
We made the journey back quicker than the ascent, and though the children were dead tired, they had a sparkle in their eye and a spring in their step. Almost near the end of our destination, I pointed the vehicle park area to the children and suddenly, they broke into a run. They had reached there a good fifteen minutes before we did and then we all collapsed in a heap on the ground, laughing and crying at the same time. Ten minutes into our drive, we spotted a small restaurant and descended on it like a bevy of hungry birds. As the kids slurped their Maggi, we asked, “So, will you ever trek again that far if given a chance?,” “Yes,” the answer came in an echoing crescendo.