Yak Pack Theatre Project
The Yak Pack News #8 - Dhankar
Updated: Jul 23, 2022
Where the Pin river and the Spiti river converge, a huge sandstone cliff towers over the valley, deeply furrowed by wind and rain. Perched right on top is Dhankar Monastery. Its more than 1000 years old, originally a defensive fort as well as a holy place. Its easy to see why it features on the UNESCOs list of 100 most endangered monuments, especially with our changing climate bringing more damaging rains to this region. Its incredible to imagine that humans have lived here in Spiti, in such a challenging and harsh environment, for millennia, and not just existing, but building holy monuments in fantastically difficult places.
Climbing up to the old monastery affords the most incredible views of the valley – including straight down around 1000 feet to the valley floor and the river below. A view unimpeded by any kind of railing or wall or anything else that might interfere with the overwhelming vertigo! There is a little prayer room right at the top, behind a low wooden door, where Penny and Ben went for their morning meditation.
Climbing up to the Monastery affords the most incredible views of the valley – including straight down around 1000 feet to the valley floor and the river below. A view unimpeded by any kind of railing or wall or anything else that might interfere with the overwhelming vertigo! There is a little prayer room right at the top, behind a low wooden door, where Penny and Ben went for their morning meditation.
We arrived in Dhankar on Friday night, driving here straight from our performance at Gulling School. The little hotel was dug into the side of the mountain, like most buildings in Dhankar, facing out into the valley. My room had a balcony which was just a flat slab of concrete jutting out over the abyss. We unloaded the van, all really looking forward to a day off on Saturday and time to explore this fascinating village.
The hotel manager was also a teacher at Dhankar government school. He’d been following our progress on facebook and was really excited to welcome us to Dhankar. As we chatted, we quickly realised that he was expecting us to do a performance at his school tomorrow for the last day of term, and they’d even cleaned up ready for us….
He was clearly disappointed that we were only in Dhankar for a rest day, and we felt awful. We could see the school from the hotel where we sat chatting. It has 17 students aged 4-11. There’s also a school at the monastery with around 35 young monks about 6-16yrs. We’re supposed to be performing in Tabo on Monday but its been difficult to arrange due to exams there and nothing has been planned as yet. Also, the school in Tabo is well resourced and through a connection with an Australian charity, does have input from the wider world. Whereas the children here in Dhankar have far far less. We do all really need a couple of rest days but it feels like a no-brainer to do a show here in Dhankhar, then have Sunday/Monday as our weekend instead, and not continue trying to make arrangements for a show in Tabo.
We told the teacher YES LET’S DO IT!
He was really delighted – and so were we.
It feels like exactly the right decision. Its going to be at 11am tomorrow (Saturday) morning.
The performance was at the new monastery, built to house the growing population of monks away from the crumbling cliffs. It shines a golden yellow in the landscape, standing out against the white houses, green pea fields and dark scree slopes. The school children walked up from their green-roofed school to join the monks in the large glass fronted foyer of the monastery. We set up the trees in front of huge wooden doors which open into the main shrine room.
The young monks arrived first, so whilst we waited for the school children, we taught them the dance and the drama parts for the show – they are excited to be in the show with us and dance enthusiastically, their sweet smiling faces are such a joy. Ollie had a challenge to get them clapping in time to songs during the show, but they clearly love joining in anyway!
We ended up with a motley audience of around 70 people – 50 or so children, some of the builders who were working at the monastery, teachers and monks, some passing tourists. The message of the show – don’t drop litter – is for everyone, so its great to have such a diverse audience.
Everyone jumped up to dance for the final scene, which was wonderful, our little monk dancers right at the front showing their peers the moves.
Afterwards we had a welcome cup of chai in the cosy monastery kitchen. We all feel so happy that we chose to do this unplanned performance, and delighted that it was so well received. Ollie and I have been feeling the altitude change from Gulling up to Dhankar (about 500m height gain), so we returned to the hotel to rest, along with Izzy.
Penny, Arjuna and Ben decided to head up the mountain to find Dhankar Lake, an uphill trek of about an hour. The trek was hard, as walking at 4000m above sea level always is, but they were rewarded by a beautiful peaceful lake nestling in the high mountains.
The lake has fish, but Spitians don’t catch them – Buddhists believe that fish are pure creatures who do no harm to others, so to kill them is a terrible sin. We liked the sign invoking the Wrath of the Gods on those who drop litter (among other bad things).
Late afternoon and we were in the minibus again, headed for Tabo and a couple of days rest. The first week of performances has gone so well. 470 people have seen the show, in 5 performances at government schools, and we’ve given out almost all of the 400 copies of ‘Little Red’ that we printed in Kaza.
The workshops have been great too, they enable us to really get to know some of the children, and they can experience the kind of art and drama workshops that our own kids take for granted back home. Although its tiring to be in school for a whole day because we end up being ‘on show’ the entire time, it ultimately leads to a more enriching experience for all of us.
[Photo - tea in the monastery kitchen]
It’s the last day of term for the government schools, so children and teachers now have 42 days holiday. Many will be focused on bringing in the pea harvest, the main cash crop of Spiti, and gathering dried forage for their animals in winter. No one really has a ‘holiday’ here in the summer months.
[Photo - looking at new Dhankar Monatery (large golden building) from our homestay, with the school below (green roof)]