Savouring a Monk’s Kitchen in Ladakh

Private access to Thiksey Monastery’s kitchen reveals the refreshing simplicity of local life and food.

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Thiksey Monastery is home to approximately 80 monks. Photo by: Naughtynut/Shutterstock

The prayer hall at Thiksey Monastery in Ladakh reverberates with a rhythmic chanting by monks. The mise-en-scène is meditative. A narrow pathway—flanked by monks aged between six and 80—leads straight to a Buddhist shrine with a life-size cut-out of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I’m among a handful of masked visitors seated at the entrance, watching the spectacle unfold before me on a July morning. Half-past six casts an unusually early start to my day, but not for the monastery’s residents—approximately 80 of them—some of whom rise even before the sun does, at 4 a.m.

I notice a senior monk engrossed in mandala making, which I learn from a local guide is part of a week-long religious affair. It is, however, the sight of a little monk battling his eyelids to stay awake that brings a smile to my face. He sinks lower in his seat and is on the verge of snoozing when a bell goes off. Almost on cue, the young one arms himself with a bucket and ladle, and saunters around the room offering its mysterious contents to everyone present. As he inches closer, I get a clear glimpse of the beige beverage that fills up bowl after bowl. “That’s butter tea,” the guide whispers. My curiosity for the local brew that the region relishes from dawn to dusk gets the better of me and leads me to the monastery’s kitchen and dining mess located at the other end of the 15th-century complex. While the latter is open to the public, access to the former is granted only on special request and luck. The odds are in my favour.

Savouring A Monk’s Kitchen In Ladakh

The monastery’s communal dining hall (Left) serves traditional Ladakhi nosh including the butter tea (Right). Photos by: Pooja Naik

Stinzin Shasrit, who has made Thiksey his home for the last 17 years and now helms its kitchen, is stirring a cauldron of vegetable thukpa laden with dried cow cheese and peas. The 38-year-old, clad in maroon attire, is visibly occupied, but makes time for hospitality and greets me with a warm “Julley!” A bounty of fresh produce harvested in the monastery’s garden is stacked on the countertop. Cooking for a large crowd is no mean feat, but it is routine for this culinary wizard who whips up the weekly menu with the help of two local cooks that hail from a nearby village.

Lunch and dinner consist of a humble spread: rice, dal, and sabzi feature frequently with traditional Ladakhi nosh. “Our food is simple to make and healthy to eat,” Shasrit states matter-of-factly. Festive celebrations, which drew up to 300 tourists daily in a pre-pandemic world, demand greater assistance on the logistics front. A copper vessel, reserved solely for special ceremonies, is not only used to make pulao but also doubles up as a heater to keep the area warm in winter. The monastery’s maintenance relies on the generosity of well-wishers and donors who also sponsor occasional meals. 

Savouring A Monk’s Kitchen In Ladakh

The sturdy structure of the monastery sits under the blue skies of this cold desert up in the Great Himalayas.

We’re joined by Lopzang Khenrip, a senior monk and decade-long resident of the monastery. He invites me for a cup of the revered butter tea in the adjacent dining hall, where a row of wooden pillars and empty tables slice through the centre of the room. I take a seat facing the window that overlooks a panoramic Leh. The view only rivals my refreshment, which arrives scalding hot with an accompaniment of biscuits. I pick Khenrip’s brain and quiz him about the tea until it cools. He obliges with patience only a monk can afford. In the process, I discover that the brew is made with milk, salt, butter, and sattu—a protein-rich flour of powdered chana or other pulses and cereals. At least a hundred cups are served every day. I run out of questions and take a swig of my drink. The salt and butter are overwhelming, at first. My notion of tea is distorted until it slowly grows on me with each sip. It’s humbling to embrace a tradition so different from my own. Perhaps, it is an acquired taste. Perhaps, savouring tea with a pinch of salt may not necessarily be an odd thing. I count my blessings either way.

 

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A D V E R T I S E M E N T

  • Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.

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