Saturday, September 20, 2014

Martha, Martha, Martha

I still struggle to believe that it is 2 years since Martha died. We had big plans for today and were hoping to be in Trashigang (her old stomping ground) with the wherewithal to do another makeover of the beautiful prayer flag area near the old chorten below Dungtse Middle Secondary School, where her school posted those majestic, tall, white flags that memorialize not just a single life but also the impermanence of life and the cycle of rebirth, but that was not to be…

Ever since our arrival back in the kingdom this has been on my agenda. In fact, my desire to honour this departed soul just as we had done last year, and head east to do it was one of the first conversations I had with my current principal. Nonetheless it was not meant to eventuate.

Ian’s health issues required that we stay in Thimphu and avail of the best possible intensive physiotherapy treatment, involving ultrasound, TENS and retrograde massage, so here we are in the capital.

However, I am not one to give up or give in so first thing this morning while Ian was receiving treatment I hot-footed it into town to buy a set of prayer flags, to attempt to have them blessed and find out the most auspicious day to fly them. Matt and Lucy had already agreed to participate in our amended ritual and I was hoping that today would be an auspicious day despite the weather. Or maybe that should be because of it. I often forget rain is a good omen here.

This was an ambitious plan even for me as I have always left the blessing of flags to those, who have more intimate knowledge of the procedures. On this occasion, however it wasn’t possible, as I do not know any Dzongkha Lopens in Thimphu. I therefore simply decided I could manage it myself and set about doing so.

Having always lived in much more remote districts and towns in Bhutan, it didn’t occur to me that the capital would still be locked up tight at 9am on a Saturday. Only the tardiest of traders would open after 7am in the rural areas. As soon as I spotted the roller door security screens going up, I dashed into a traditional shop on Norzin Lam: the main street in Thimphu. No sooner had I made my purchase than my phone rang and alerted me to the fact that Ian’s session was already over and he was waiting in our prearranged meeting place near the ‘lakhang’ I thought most likely to be able to perform the necessary blessings: Zangdo Pelri Lakhang.

Once again, I found myself staring at a locked door but the presence of devoted locals spinning the prayer wheels made me think that I would be able to accomplish my mission and that the main hall would indeed open. Whilst circumambulating the compound I asked anyone I came across if they spoke English and within a very short space of time a kindly monk materialized and assured me that it would be no problem to get the required blessing. I also asked him about auspicious days and although he was quick to point out that the Rinpoche would inform me, he ventured that in his own opinion Tuesday, which happens to be Blessed Rainy Day and a significant holiday in eastern Bhutan or Friday would probably be most appropriate. Since the holiday coincides with the day Martha was cremated I thought that it seemed appropriate although I was a little disappointed.

After waiting quietly inside the hall, which was especially unlocked for me, my new monk friend deposited the flags and my donation at the bench in front of the seat of the Rinpoche, disappeared and then returned with a cup of tea for me and the news that the Rinpoche was just finishing breakfast and would arrive shortly. He indicated where I could sit to wait and I did exactly that. I was somewhat surprised and I am not sure if it was the expression on my face when he mentioned breakfast at 10.15am, that then prompted him to say that 5 hours of morning prayers had preceded breakfast, but I was actually delighted that it was going to be possible to get the blessing.

In the next 10 minutes monks began to appear and position themselves at the long line of benches to the left of the platform where the Rinpoche would sit.  One of them turned out to be the brother-in-law of the warden from my school and he knew all about Ian’s injury and me much to my astonishment. Several of them had a little English and greeted me as they passed and finally without any real fanfare 2 clarinets, 2 long horns and a drum sounded and the blessing was underway.

The flags were unrolled and prayers were murmured while the Rinpoche himself blew puffs of breath into them. He also sprinkled the flags with rice and the perfumed water that is often poured into the hands of devotees in lakhangs. Much to my amusement the peacock feather that is used to deliver this ‘holy water’ was also tapped on the head of the monk closest to the Rinpoche when he seemed to be nodding off. I have always enjoyed the way that elaborate rituals and celebrations can be punctuated with mundane daily acts and what seems to be tomfoolery. On this occasion I imagined that Martha would have got a kick out of that and could almost hear her chortle.

Just as I was beginning to wonder if this might take all day, having no real idea of the correct protocol, Rinpoche rolled up the flags returned them to the carry bag I had delivered them in and I was quietly escorted out. When I was leaving the monk who had graciously organized all this on my behalf informed me that today was a very auspicious day according to Rinpoche. Perfect!  I had to do at least one complete lap of the compound turning all the prayer wheels in gratitude before departing and felt that flowers in bloom despite the wintery, rainy weather was another good omen for us.

The choice of places in which to fly the flags was a bit bewildering given that Thimphu seems like such an urban environment compared to places I would otherwise have chosen. My immediate thought was Dochula but the roadblocks and weather didn’t auger well for that choice. Next to come to mind was the covered bridge leading to the weekend market but it did seem very commercial. After consultation with the resident lama in Ambient CafĂ© and confirmation with Lucy it was off to the BBS Tower, we headed. An odd choice in my mind but the requisite windy conditions, sounds of flowing water and mountain backdrop are all present so why not.

In the cold and wet conditions it was Matt who did the clambering and climbing to get the flags in position as well as having driven us all there and I am very grateful for the assistance and company. Maybe later in the year we will still be able to visit the east and drop by Phongmey to pay our respects and remember an eccentric and much missed old friend.


  1. Very nice heartwarming feeling. Well done Well done.

  2. Thank you for honoring her. Love you both