We Traveled Seven Hours To A Sacred Lake To Walk In Circles?

Emily Strasser
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“What are we going to do now?” I asked Bhutti.

“Just walking around,” she answered, matter-of-factly.

After a harrowing seven hours in crowded Indian buses, we had checked into our room at the monastery guesthouse. We were in the Indian Himalayas, in a small town called Rewalsar, which surrounds a sacred lake. All day long, pilgrims from Tibet and Indian Himalayan regions circumambulate the lake, counting off mantras on their prayer beads, spinning prayer wheels, or making slow progress with full-body prostrations.

“When are we going to see the caves?” I asked. In the mountains above the lake are sacred caves, and I was anxious to visit them.

Bhutti shrugged. “Maybe tomorrow. Or next tomorrow.”

And so we commenced with walking around. For the last month, I had been attending Sarah College and participating in a Tibetan Studies program in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. Bhutti, a Tibetan Buddhist from Ladakh, was my roommate and had invited me along for the weekend. I wasn’t clear on what we would be doing for the next two days—besides, of course, walking around.

Bhutti works circumambulating into her life so seamlessly that it’s easy to miss it. Whenever there is a stupa, temple, or pile of prayer stones, she will go out of her way to walk around it. It took me weeks to figure out why we always entered the female dorm at Sarah College in a funny, round-about way—we were circumambulating the temple clockwise!

Bhutti began to mutter mantras, and I walked along in silence, not wanting to break her meditative concentration. Then she stopped, linked my arm, and we started humming Bollywood songs.

As the sun set, we continued to circle the lake. More pilgrims started to crowd the path, and the sweet scent of incense mingled with the stench of dog poop. Monkeys scampered along the railing circling the lake, grasping stolen bread. On a dusty hill, women were squatting over fires making chapatti. As they saw me pass, the children from the camp called to one another and ran over to pull at my sleeves and beg a rupee.

I dug in my purse for some cookies to give them, and the kids ran off, satisfied. “You know,” said Bhutti. “I am remembering. When I child, we went in groups to the foreigners, saying, ‘Hello, one photo.’” She laughed at the memory of her childhood self.

 “Sometime we say ‘bon bon.’ What does it mean, bon bon?"

“Candy.”

“Yes, sometimes they give us one candy… so funny… to remember.” I squeezed her hand, overcome with affection.

“Bhutti,” I asked. “Did you ever think you would live with an American?”

“No!” she laughed, “I never think so.” I, too, was amazed to be there with Bhutti, sharing this special place. Funny to think, if I had visited her as a child in her village, I would have been the exotic foreigner, accosted by her and other children.

“Who would you rather marry, Bhutti,” I asked, “A Tibetan or a Ladakhi?” Ladakh is a Himalayan region in India, located in the state of Kashmir. While it shares a similar language, culture, and religion with Tibet, Ladakhis assert a distinct identity.

“Ladakhi!” she answered decisively.

“Indian or Tibetan?”

“Indian.”

“Really, why?”

“Closer to home.”

 “Okay, Indian or American?”

She thought for a moment. “American. He rich, everywhere close.” I laughed at her logic, knowing that while I have promised Bhutti I will come back to visit her again, I don’t expect she will ever be able to afford a trip to the United States.

We stopped for tea. Then we circled the lake a couple more times.

While taking silly pictures and watching sappy Bollywood movies, I can easily forget Bhutti’s personal devotion to the dharma. Yet every morning at Sarah, she arises at dawn to attend puja, or prayer. When she returns, she pours water into seven silver bowls as an offering. At night just before bed, she reads prayers. Praying, walking, and prostrating—these daily acts of devotion add structure to Bhutti’s life in a way that mine lacks.

She may walk in circles all day, but Bhutti pretty much knows where she’s going. After one more year at Sarah, she will return to her village in Ladakh to become a teacher. If she marries, she will marry a Ladakhi, and if she does not, she will live with her brother’s family.

Bhutti is accumulating merit and cultivating compassion, setting out on the long and slow path toward enlightenment. I may have lists and goals, yet I don’t know where I’m going, or what I believe. I am an English major who somehow found herself in India, and after I graduate next year, I have no idea where I’ll be.

Perhaps there is something to this walking in circles.

On our second morning at the lake, Bhutti rose early to make a few rounds before breakfast. “Imy, you coming?” she asked me. I groaned and rolled over in bed. Yet after a few minutes of lying there, I thought, why not? It can’t hurt.

In the gray morning light, it was mostly old grandmothers and grandfathers who were out. I watched wrinkled old women and men make their slow and tentative way around the lake, turning prayer wheels, waving incense. The lake was still. Monks were sitting in silent meditation on the shore. A circle of women in the grass were singing, their voices high and raspy.

I relaxed into the rhythm of this place, into the peace that comes of walking in circles, rather than toward a particular destination. Bhutti and I linked arms. “How many times have you been around?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t count.”

Comments

Posted on 7/24/2009 by

Natasha Bauman

Natasha  Bauman

Thanks for a lovely story.

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