Phugtal) is a monastery (or gompa) of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, located deep in the Himalayas in the remote Zanskar valley of northern India, and accessible only by vertiginous paths carved by hand from the valley walls.
Many years ago I cycled through Ladakh (the Himalayan district which borders on Zanskar) to Leh. The Lonely Planet guidebook I used then had a photograph of Pukthal monastery on the cover. It acted as a constant temptation to me; photographs of Pukthal are the kind which always seem to excite amazement and wanderlust: the buildings attached to the cliff face like outsized crystals of salt, or an enormous Cubist sculpture improbably carved by Braque.
Himalaya, A Path to the Sky is a fascinating 65-minute documentary filmed at Pukthal by French filmmaker Marianne Chaud. The central figure is Kenrap, an eight-year-old monk-in-training, who was brought to the monastery at the age of five by his uncle, also a Buddhist monk (apparently uncle-to-nephew transmission of the monastic calling is standard, although Kenrap also believes that in a previous life he was an elderly monk at this same monastery). Kenrap is one of about twenty boys of different ages who spend their days with the older monks learning Buddhist philosophy, and praying for the good of all beings. They see this life, these activities, as their job, just as it is the job of nearby villagers to raise crops and tend herds.
By Western standards life in Pukthal is harsh. Each morning Kenrap and the other boys dress in their robes and stand shivering on the stone pathway outside their small cell, bent over a battered metal basin to wash their face with cold water. All of the cooking is done over fires fueled by twigs gathered from the surrounding hills and from the river banks far below the monastery. One monk points proudly to a small opening high up on the rock face which forms one wall of the smoky kitchen, indicating that it was, 2000 years ago, a fresh water spring.
If there is a dramatic highlight to this quiet film it is the expedition by a group of monks to a nearby village - the village where Kenrap was born - where they undertake four days of continual prayer to protect the villagers, their crops and herds.
What is fascinating, and ultimately moving, about this portrait, is that nobody in the monastery or in the village expresses any desire for the comforts or for the material things they do not have, things which most of us Westerners take for granted. The closest we come is when one woman mentions in passing that she would like to go abroad someday, having only seen pictures of "elsewhere". But there is no longing in her tone, just a simple curiosity to see more. For his part, Kenrap - trudging through the ankle-deep snow along the dangerous path linking his natal village to the monastery - is merely looking forward to the warmth and comfort of the monastery, now his home.
Fri, Oct 8th 2:50pm @ Empire Granville 7 Th 1 Thu, Oct 14th 9:15pm @ Empire Granville 7 Th 4