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The Hum Of Holy Breath

From Dharamshala to a Grammy: boy monks take the everyday rhythms of Tibetan monastic life beyond their pine groves

The Hum Of Holy Breath
Sanjoy Ghosh
The Hum Of Holy Breath
Years ago, an ailing monk braved high mountain passes and Chinese border guards to meet other Tibetan exiles in India. He was no ordinary monk fleeing Chinese-occupied Tibet. He carried with him a remarkable freight of Buddhist religious music handed down orally over centuries. His mission—to transfer it to a worthy disciple in India, who'd transmit the pristine art just as his predecessors had.

Today the mystic sonority of those chants has moved beyond the pine-forested environs of Sherab Ling (abode of wisdom) monastery in Himachal Pradesh, where he first unveiled their wonders to his disciple Kalzhang Yeshe.

Sacred Tibetan Chants by the monks of Sherab Ling Monastery has gone on to win one of the international music industry's biggest awards. At the 46th annual music awards in Los Angeles on Sunday, February 8, the monks won a Grammy for best traditional world music album.

This is no throwaway citation. Previous winners for world music are legends in their own right—Pt Ravi Shankar ('01), Brazil's current minister for culture Gilberto Gil ('98), Vishwa Mohan Bhatt ('93).

At Sherab Ling though, it's just another day. "Ah yes, I've heard of the award. But please, can you take the photographs quickly because today we are busy practising the lama's dance for the coming Losar (Tibetan New Year)," says an apologetic Kalzhang, the 37-year-old senior chanting master. Many of the other boy lamas in his group of 20, who performed for the award-winning recording, cannot see what the fuss is all about either, and are impatiently waiting for the dances to begin.

A wrinkled old lama hobbles over from his sunny corner to inquire about our presence. A San Franciscan devotee currently staying at the monastery steps in to explain. But the ancient lama just shakes his head in confusion. Someone else is more perceptive, though, and rushes to the nearby village to get some sweets. Soon 'laddoos' are being passed around.

The chants are performed routinely at the monastery every day and some, like the Invocation and Offering to Mahakala, three times a month. An award was the last thing on the chanting masters' minds, when one evening some time last year Tai Situpa Rimpoche, the presiding monk of the monastery, asked them to do the chants for a recording conducted in the monastery's sanctum sanctorum.

"I asked the Tai Situpa for time to practice, but he told me that wouldn't be necessary, as we do not chant for show but for the peace of all mankind. It took us an hour-and-a-half to complete the entire sequence from Mahamudra Lineage Prayer and Meditation to Receiving Blessings and Dedicating the Merit to World Peace and Harmony," recalls Kalzhang.

Buddhist monks and nuns of the Karma Kagyu sect have been performing these prayers for centuries. The day begins with the recitation of lineage prayers, which pay respect to the lineage of Kagyu meditation masters such as the scholar Naropa from the famed Nalanda University and the great Buddhist, Mahasiddha Tilopa.

The recording was actually done on a request from a Buddhist religious centre in New Zealand, which wanted to play the chants for the benefit of its followers. Naxos World, a US record company, produced the album and before the monks knew what had happened, it was nominated for a Grammy. Not quite comprehending the scale of this baptism to pophood, the monks decided to send monastery secretary Tenam Lama for the ceremony. Says Kalzhang, "If I had known, I might have gone. It's sad that my master Omaze Zopa who returned to Tibet after teaching me has passed away."

Tibetan chants are slow, sonorous renditions done to the accompaniment of traditional instruments. The ancient way of learning how to sing in the typically low-pitched, sepulchral style is to train near a fast-moving river or preferably a waterfall."The sound of the water drowns out our own voice; it enables us to sing with greater power and be one with the audible rhythms of the water," says Kalzhang.

He practices two hours a day at Sansal, a nearby stream, during the spring when it is heavy with water from snowmelt. His three main disciples—Norbu Gyaltsen, Tinley Gyurme and Namgyal—use the same technique. "Our vocal chords hurt and sometimes bleed during training, but we soon get used to it," adds Kalzhang.

The youngest in the group of chanters is 16-year-old Tempa Singye who also plays the massive temple drum, the nga chin. Phurpa Dorje and Tenpa Dawa play the gyaling, an oboe-like instrument played with a circular breathing technique: forcing the breath out with the cheeks while at the same time breathing in through the nose. There are also the radung, long (up to 10 feet) horns similar to alpenhorns. The sil-nyen and the rol-mo are flat and bulbous cymbals played mainly during prayer session intervals, building to a crescendo before the chanting resumes.

The Sherab Ling monastery is tucked into a thickly-wooded hillside at the foothills of the majestic Dhauladhar range, near Baijnath in Himachal. A narrow, winding ribbon of a road cutting through the forest is the only evidence of its existence here. Then, all at once, a riot of colourful Tibetan-style buildings with ornate decorations in blue, gold, green and orange on walls, pillars and roofs, breaks out from within the dark forest. Housing around 375 monks, the monastery has emerged as a major seat of the Karma Kagyu sect over the last 50 years.

The head of the sect is Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje, a boy lama who fled Tibet in '97 and took refuge in Dharamshala. Kagyu practitioners date back to the 7th century and the lineage can be traced to the current Karmapa. Sherab Ling takes its inspiration from the 350-year-old Palpung monastery in Eastern Tibet, virtually dysfunctional now after its inhabitants fled Tibet in the '50s, when Chinese forces occupied it. But much of its tradition of prayer ceremonies, music, dance, painting and tantric arts has been preserved and nurtured in India, with not a little help from visiting monks from Tibet.

Kalzhang himself is from Sikkim. Most of the young monks at Sherab Ling nowadays are Indian Buddhists from Kinnaur, Lahaul-Spiti, Sikkim and Arunachal. The Grammy is for Tibetan chants, but they're sung by Indian Buddhists, senior lamas point out. "So the award's as much for India, which has given us refuge and the freedom to practice our religion."

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