by Jane Whittle

Stepping out of the bus into the dusty square at Leh, after two days on the mountain road, my legs give way. This air is too thin to give us strength, the sun too hot to trust. I gaze up at the palace shuddering in a heat haze on the hill above the town and know I cannot climb up there today.
The house where I stay has a peaceful garden, sheltered from the bustling streets by high mud walls and watered by the leat which serves the town. Children adjust small clay dams so that each plot is irrigated for five minutes a day. Succulent green lettuces grow in tidy squares - every plant thrives in its own damp depression, linked to others by narrow water channels through the sandy soil. Clumps of pungent marigolds protect them all from slugs and caterpillars.

in the walled garden
"Om mane padme hum..."
songs of honey bees

Leaving the group to explore Leh I take a short bus ride to Tikse monastery and book a bed space in the lodge at the foot of the hill. Fine white buildings with red-painted windows rise like rock formations into a navy blue sky; prayer flags stream in the sharp air coming from the snows - yellow for earth, white for water, red for fire, green for air, blue for space.
I am nervous at first, climbing the steep stone steps up to the gompa. The other pilgrims carry prayer wheels and prostrate themselves. I follow them up four vertical ladders to a wooden platform where I come face to face with Meitreya - "The Buddha That is to Come" - a massive figure, four storeys high, made from rags and clay covered in gold leaf. The hooded eyes are over two feet apart - the monk who painted them was not allowed to look at both at once. Nor am I, but the face is gentle - feminine. Her head dress is encrusted with flowers and jewels, so are the wheel-sized rings dangling from her elongated ears.

Meitreya smiles
shimmering in borrowed light
facing the future

Below, in the courtyard beside the statue's huge feet, I sit all afternoon, listening to drums, bells, horns and the deep voices of chanting monks. Nobody bothers me. At dusk I descend to the village to eat a bowl of noodles and drink glasses of tea flavoured with salt and butter before lying down to sleep on the floor with other pilgrims, as well fed and watered as any lettuce.
I dream of a dead tree with gnarled branches leaning over the lettuce bed, then wake up to a wonderful sense of relief and freedom. I am no longer afraid - just an ordinary lettuce, well tended and growing. Maybe that lonely, withered tree was the person I used to think I ought to be.

cymbals clash with dawn
at the skyline glaciers crack
I am awake


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