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.
Read the full feature in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India January-February 2022.
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.