It’s early evening, as the fading daylight casts a golden cloth on the face of Ama Dablam. Against a Himalayan backdrop of serrated peaks piercing the cool spring night, a lone young monk, wrapped in saffron and crimson robes, leans out the window of the monastery and blows into a sacred conch shell to mark the evening prayers. Instantaneously, the chime of copper bells and the pounding of drums fill the main chamber with a symphony of organized chaos, to the Westerner, an incoherent chorus of sound, but to the monks, a ceremony steeped in tradition and symbolism.
Beneath a gilded statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, the young monks are orderly seated in rows facing each other, as the older lama, the head of the order, leads them in deep-throated chants, coordinating with drums, bells, and Tibetan horns. As the ceremony progresses, two older members of the monastery begin to encircle the room with metal balls of smoking incense, filling the chamber with a spicy aroma representing the five elements of the Tibetan universe: Earth, Fire, Water, Wind, and Space.
In Tibetan Buddhism, ceremonies such as these mark the beginning and end of each day, while others celebrate life, death, and reincarnation. While the ceremonies mark an essential part of Buddhist tradition, they are meant as a humble blessing to their mountain setting. One of the most well-known of these traditions, the puja, calls for the safe passage of climbers ascending Himalayan peaks. The iconic symbol of these mountains are the colored prayer flags, where the belief is that the wind carries prayers to the gods who reside on mountain-tops. The ceremony ends with the gift of a Khata, a traditional silk scarf representing the giver’s purity.
The instruments begin to fade and the monks continue chants with heads bowed. As they slowly file from the chamber, one of the members will remain to speak with the visiting westerners, offer specific prayers, and explain the symbolism of the ceremony. In the courtyard, a dog lies just outside the door, and as a joke, it’s believed that he is the reincarnation of an un-studious brother.
As the ceremony ends, the Himalayas are faintly visible in the darkness, cutting into the star filled sky above the dimly lit village. A gentle breeze from the mountains envelopes the valley, and its affirmed that prayers are carried to the gods.