From Purne camping it is about 5 km to Phuktal Gompa, which is a fabulous monastery built into and in front of a huge cave with a spring in the back. Tim and I had planned to spend a night at the monastery, but Tim was coming down with another belly bug, so I ended up going alone.
On arriving at the gompa around 1:00pm, the monks were just beginning to gather on the patio, and a smiling old monk put out a blanket for me to sit on. Phuktal is also a teaching gompa, so there are children of all ages here, even two adorable boys maybe 5 or 6 years of age.
Today the monks are preparing for a special puja ceremony that is to be held the next day. This ceremony is held on full moon 3 or 4 times a year, and is joined by the villagers. It goes from 8 am to 2 pm. I had arrived just in time for the start of the preparations. Young students are washing their hands and then they begin carrying out different items. Wooden trays are set before the monks. A huge metal bowl of flour is brought out and water is mixed in. The dough is kneaded on large metal trays and brought in huge lumps to the monks, who then begin rolling it into small, conical shaped figures. Small dough bowls of melted butter are brought out and the figures are greased with this, then a dab of solid butter is applied to the top of each one. On one end of the patio a lone monk is making larger figures and decorating them with flowers shaped out of butter. Over the next two hours, 1000 of these dough figures are made. The smaller children stack them on trays and carry them into the monastery. The three monks sitting near me had made one figure about half the size of the rest, and when the young boy putting the figures on the tray saw it, he began laughing with glee as he held it up and looked at it. Other children were throwing dough balls at each other as they worked. The children seemed to have fun at the monastery. While they had their learning and their duties, the monks also allowed them to be children and were very patient with them and their sometimes short attention spans!
Wanting to see where the figures where being carted off to, I visited the main sanctuary, and then toured the kitchens and met the cook. The kitchen had fires burning under huge pots and was blackened with soot. The room was half mud brick, and half carved out of the rock behind it, with an incomplete meeting of the two, which allowed ventilation for smoke to go out the top.
After this, the monks had finally finished the 1000 dough figures and it was time for lunch. We sat in rows on the patio, myself seated next to several of the children. Mantras were sung and food was brought out with tea, followed by more singing. Next the monks disappeared into the sanctuary for puja. A puja ceremony is a way of making remembrance to the Buddha, and praise and offerings for god. Both Hindus and Buddhists perform them, although with a somewhat different purpose. While in theory it seems that Buddhists do not worship a god, in practice it seems like they do, which I found somewhat confusing in trying to understand the religion.
While the monks were doing puja, Willemien, a lady I had met earlier on the trek, showed up at the monastery, also intending to stay for the night. After the puja ceremony, a laughing mischievous young monk brought Willemien and I into the sanctuary and gave us a pot of hot butter and instructed us on how to make butter candles. He then oversaw while we poured and stacked candles on trays, laughing the whole time, probably at how he neatly got out of doing the work himself! Altogether, 1000 candles were made, of which we only made a tiny fraction. This monk then took us to the spring, through about 30 feet of tunnels and on a slightly different aspect of the mountain. From here we could hike a short trail to a chorten on top and look up the other end of the valley. It was sunset and we hurried back under darkening sky, to find several monks waiting for us. We went into the hotel and a young boy cooked dinner for us, rice with fresh greens and turnips brought in freshly picked from the garden by another monk. It was healthy and delicious, and shortly after we went to bed.
The next morning, the monks were up early and I woke up to the beautiful sound of their singing on the patio shortly after 4 am. I only listened for a short bit, though, being tired I put in earplugs and went back to sleep! About 6:30 Willemien and I both got up and while she went to the spring I walked in circles around the chorten learning mantras from three of the monks who were walking around with me. We had breakfast in the sanctuary, vegetable and cheese soup, and watched the beginning of the puja ceremony, while outside several women and children were lighting the 1000 candles and pouring water into about 100 tiny brass bowls. Several other tourists began arriving at this time, and they sat in on the puja ceremony, looked around a bit, and then left. Tim also came this morning and looked at the sanctuary, after which we said goodbye to the monks and took our leave. It had been a wonderful experience staying at the monastery for the night and being able to see how the monks passed the time, and getting to know these kind people a little better. I think that Willemiens and my experience staying the night was much different, perhaps more full, than the experience that Tim and most of the other tourists got from just visiting the monastery for a half hour or so, and I am glad to have been able to fit this into the trek.
The Monks have beautiful smiles
Making dough for the figures
A monk rolls a figure in his hands
The main sancuary is to the left
Looking down on the Gompa from above. You can see how it is steeply built into the cliff and cave.
Lighting trays of candles for the puja ceremony
The guest room with 3 beds