Updated: Mar 17, 2019
Travel adds dimension and knowledge in ways one cannot fathom - opening up magical facets of this world. It’s a privilege to watch the prepossessing prowess of this planet unravel and tantalize my senses, fueling my unending desire to constantly travel. Fueled by social media and the boon of internet, I had seen many videos and photographs of young buddhist monks of Ladakh - clad in saffron, reading scriptures in the somber and serious setting of monasteries -yet slipping seamlessly into their inner playful child. A gentle blend of inner innocence and an exterior of spirituality.
That their outlook invites inquisitiveness of many - about their life and lifestyle is no surprise.
I was at the Lamayaru, Hemis and Thiksey monastery photographing the landscape and the monasteries ,when I stumbled upon the schools for the novice buddhist monks . These young boys walking by me, laughing, giggling like the fresh Himalayan winds. That the schools of child monks existed within the monastery, and that I would spend my many days around them - I could have never imagined if it were not for my travels.
On my first day, I waited outside the school, observing these boys. They live in the monastery, spend much time studying in the well-equipped classrooms acquiring education in schools that are mostly located in the grounds of the monastery. Boys aged between 4–10, engaged in fun, playful banter, and camaraderie. This innocent , playful young buddhist monks of Ladakh are a big attraction for many.
Historically, the young buddhist monks of Ladakh have customarily been recruited at a very young age, so that they may become socialized early into the monastic lifestyle thus increasing the likelihood that they will remain a buddhist monk for the rest of their lives.
During the Namgyal Dynasty, it was decreed that every family with more than one son must send one – but not the eldest – to the monastery. This remains the normal pattern in Ladakh.
I got closer to the boys on day 2 and 3, interacting and walking along. Chatting with them during their breaks, taking a closer look inside classrooms and their student life and seldom asking them to pose which they willingly obliged. Their interaction with the camera is limited, and the novelty factor high – inviting curiosity that works wonderfully in favor of photography.
When a prospective monk is brought to the monastery, a lock of his hair from top of his head, called a ‘shaput’, is presented to the ‘Rimpoche’ as a sign that they are committed to becoming a monk at that monastery. Post a discussion with the family the monk’s head is shaved and the clothes of a layman are given up in exchange for the three-part maroon robes which he will wear for as long as he remains a monk. This three part robe in maroon is what gives these boys a spiritual outlook.
When the young boys enter the monastery for the first time, it is referred to as the first stage. At this stage these children are thought of as “novice” monks. In the past such monks would be housed with a senior monk, who would function as their tutor . In recent years this system has been replaced in Ladakh by monastic boarding schools. ‘Gesnyen’ or the ‘first stage’ monks, sometimes participate among the monastic community, but they are not yet part of it. They live at the school during most of the year and some may return to live with their family during the mid-winter break.
In most villages attached to a monastery, the ‘Rimpoche’ has a vast role to play. Often invited for important ceremonies, to bless or participate in big decisions. The child monks also participate in certain ceremonies. Each village is attached to the home monastery. The young boys are seldom shifted or promoted from the school that is attached to their village to another one. But this happens around stage 2, where the set of responsibilities are higher.
I walked along with a group of buddhist monks participating in a village procession lead by ‘novice’ monks . They had some small yet key job during the procession. Holding the drum, playing it along and sometimes holding a flag too. Interestingly, this ceremony was an appeal to residents to make the area a ‘ plastic free’ zone.
Typically Families, motivated by either the advantage of deflecting the financial burden of raising a child to the monastery, recruitment pressures from the monastery itself, and the meritorious act – of karmic benefit both to the child and the family – of sending a child off to live out such a highly valued Buddhist ideal, often opt for one of their sons to enter the monastic life.
Although things are fast changing and ‘ Mass Monasticism’ has reduced over the years with increased opportunities and a promising better quality of life outside. The monasteries now see a reduced number of the young buddhist monks.
During this rewarding travel and by about my day 4, The young buddhist monks of Ladakh, had grown very friendly around my camera and me. At one point, I started photographing a group of boys. Most were already comfortable – but their patience was on pins and needles. The group disbursed soon, except one. Engrossed in the camera, and his friendly disclosures for a while and then he realized he was late for a class, and ran .
This was his silhouette - boy , 'novice' monk, child.
As narrated by Navtej Singh