They came in minivans, lorries and motorbikes. Some piled into the back of pick-up trucks. Some crammed into Hyundais and Suzukis, clutching prayer beads or Tibetan prayer wheels. Some walked along the dusty road, dressed in traditional heavy woolen coats and dresses.
Vehicles packed the two lane road from Leh which snaked through expanses of sand under a brilliant cobalt blue sky that painted a backdrop for the mighty Himalayan mountains, some of which were still covered with deep snow.
There were babies in wool caps, young men in jeans and old women with deep lines etched into their weathered faces. All of them – along with us – were travelling this road at 7am on a Wednesday morning for a common purpose.
We’d heard the news about an hour after we checked into our hotel when we were chatting with the manager about our itinerary for the week. At first, he told us about a poojah (prayer meeting) that was happening at 6am at a local monastery that may be of interest for us to attend. Moments later, a staff member muttered a few words to him. The poojah was no longer happening. Instead, the Dalai Lama was giving a public prayer meeting.
Hardly able to believe our luck, we made arrangements to meet our driver early the following morning and joined the queue of thousands streaming toward the open air grounds where His Holiness was scheduled to speak.
On this warm August morning, we exited our car and walked the last 500 meters to the grounds, along with thousands of locals and a smattering of foreigners. Ladakhi, Hindi, Italian, German, English, Tibetan, French…we heard languages from around the world and walked with an assortment of people of all ages, shapes, sizes and faiths.
The prayers had begun when we arrived so we joined the throngs of people (I had to go in the women’s line) and walked onto the field. Uniformed soldiers with automatic weapons strapped across their backs patted down men and searched every bag as they kept a watchful eye on the crowd. Elderly men and women walked through the audience, pouring water from tin teapots for anyone needing refreshment.
In the far distance was a platform with a gold awning. There, on the platform was the Dalai Lama.
The ground was soggy and we waded across it looking for a spot to sit. Two Ladakhi women beckoned to us. They had a padded mat and there was room on it for more.
Thus began the day.
Skip and I sat shoulder to shoulder with two strangers, unable to speak the same language but brought together for the same purpose.
The field was packed. Most people sat with umbrellas, which became more plentiful as the sun rose higher in the sky. By 9am, there was a sea of purple, yellow, crimson and orange as a carpet of them covered the grounds. Kids played and laughed, slurping on ice cream cones since school was out for this festive occasion. And, despite the enormous crowds, there was little sound other than a subdued buzz.
The Dalai Lama spoke with a Ladakhi translator and the amplification of his speech was clearly audible across the field. His lilting, gentle voice, punctuated by an occasional giggle and variety of inflections, talked of peace, acceptance and love. No, we didn’t understand a word but we understood the meaning.
And as the sun rose higher above the Himalayas, we thanked the Universe or whatever power had conspired to bring us here today.