As a frozen winter approaches, Mr. Tsewang Namgail invites us in and shows us how they made prayer flags centuries ago.
*Old brown Jacket. Fading grey pants. A very new hat left behind by a traveler.*
He stands in his garden, under shadows cast by an immortal wall of mountains standing godlike, at the edge of his town. Generations before him have birthed and departed in their presence. Powdery white snow adorns the shoulders of these giants. Only a few days ago, it was just the peaks that wore a sprinkling of white, and before that, they stood bare. But an observer need not peer up at the mountains to gauge how long it will be before snowfall creeps down and engulfs the entire town of Leh, Ladakh. One only needs to watch Tsewang Namgail work in his garden, or what is left of it.
Over the past month, he has been slowly, literally dismantling his garden.
What was once an explosion of colors and life was now a pale remnant of its past self. Flowers, fruits and vegetables of every kind grew beneath and sprung from his land. Numerous birds came to nest, together, composing symphonies from chirps.
‘Nothing grows when it’s cold. Everything is frozen. There is no life!’ Mr. Namgail says. ‘But don’t you assume that I am making the earth bare because my plants and trees will be of no use in the winter.’ He is quick to add.
All these plants you see will come back. Yes, the very same plants! Over the last few days, I have been carefully extracting the roots. These roots will rest for the winter in my living room. When the ice retreats, they will go back into the earth!’ He smiles, speaking of his plants as most will speak of their family.
‘You see, of the Ladakhi Winters, there is an old saying, ‘The winters are so harsh and the passes so high, only the best of friends and worst of enemies visit us.’
For long, we have learnt to survive the cold. We have learnt to sustain ourselves. So like my father and his father have done, I am making sure there is food for my family to last through the winter.’
*Potatoes. Onions. Fistful of Grains.*
‘Food enough to last the entire winter?’
‘Yes, come with me.’
We follow him into a room –
‘How many do you count?’
He leads us to a trench in the garden.
‘So many potatoes, I’m stowing them away in the mud. Two years ago, I supplied surplus to the army. Where you stand right now, 3 inches under your boots are carrots. Two steps left and you will be standing on radish.’
We’re in a dark shed with a tin roof.
‘Barley, rice, dal, wheat- all here in store!’
‘There is enough to last us through the 5-6 months of winter. Everything comes from my garden. This year has been good. I am grateful. Winter will not be a struggle. We will not have to buy much.’
‘Who taught me such preparation? My father did. Though he never really taught it. In the same way you and I learnt our mother tongues, I learnt the art just by being around when my father worked in his garden. I didn’t make any efforts to learn it, it just registered in my mind and ingrained itself.’
‘I learnt many things just by being around my elders. I learnt to make mud bricks and raise walls. I saw them making temporary networks of dams to divert water into our compound and learnt that too. I even made rooms that trap the heat of the sun to keep us warm during the winters. And yes, I grew up making prayer flags too.’
‘Prayer flags? Can we see you make them?’
‘Ah! You want to watch me make Tarchok? Something I haven’t done in decades. Sure, why not? I am nearly done with my work in the garden this year. Food is stocked… a good time to send a prayer in the wind. Let us begin!’
*Cloth. Color. Scissors and soot.*
‘First, we must buy colored cloth – Blue, white, red, green, and yellow. These 5 colors represent the 5 elements. When a child is born, a color is attributed to his or her nature. I don’t really remember what mine is.’
‘Now to size the cloth into equally sized squares!’
‘To make the Ink, we must scrape off the soot accumulated at the base of a kitchen utensil. Next, mix the powdery soot with water.’
‘This block of wood was given to me by my father. It has been passed down to the sons of the family through generations. Considered a treasure, my family has been making prayer flags on this block for 150 years, at least.’
‘Do you see the surface? These are holy engravings – the script that will be imprinted onto the cloth.’
‘The next step is to evenly spread ink over the engravings.’
‘Let us lay the cloth over the wooden block gently. Now, do you see the script conjuring up as I slowly run my hands across the cloth? It looks like a magic trick!’
‘The engravings have worn over time and that’s why the imprints on the cloth are not very defined, unlike the factory made flags. The wind though, will carry the prayers just the same. It does not care if the Tarchok is factory made or handmade.’
*Kindness. Prayers. A gust of wind.*
‘There, we are almost done! Now you only need to stitch the flags together. Pay a visit to the market and ask for help. Nobody will demand a fee for stitching up a Tarchok.’
And sure enough, at the market, strangers we asked came together to help stitch the flags. One man offered to stitch while another said we could use his sewing machine. He was an antique Tibetan goods shop owner who refused to take any money for using his ware.
Here is good Mr. Tsewang Namgail, displaying proudly, the prayer flags he made for us. ‘People don’t make them anymore, machines do. Even I stopped, because we didn’t have to make prayer flags by hand anymore,’ he says.
‘Take these flags and tie them where the wind blows in great gusts. Your prayers will mingle with the wind and whisper to the mountains.’
We leave him with a question, ‘What do you wish for yourself when you pray?’
He remains quiet at first and then says, ‘I don’t pray for myself. I pray for everybody. And I am one among everybody.’