Poem in Two Voices - John Crook and James Crowden



A long walk to a remote monastery in Zangskar, Himalayas

James Crowden and John Crook c 1993


Early morning beneath Nun Kun

Old carvings of ibex

The sound of boys driving sheep and cattle.


Their voices echoing in the clear air

Willow trees beneath steep snow

First light hits the mountain


At Rangdom old dogs and chough's.

Monks chanting above the water's shingle

The sound of a silver horse bell.


Ice gapes and lurches forward

Into the river, the toe of the glacier

Careers through the mind.


Yak dung burning in the dusk

Frozen peaks

The unmistakeable echo of silence.


Blue flowers at the window

Our bus careers into Zangskar


Improbability juxtaposed

The would-be inner travellers.


Village grove, slight breeze


How silently the sunlight

Makes the sparrows chirp.


At Rangdom Gompa

I am glad to see

The monks still sustain

The revolutions of the Universe.


Since I was here,

Yeshe Monlam, fine monk, has died

For me, remembering him, they chant

The aspirations of the blessed

Dust keeps falling

From the Buddha's nose

At Chushigzhal ,

Tea with an old friend

Sonam Wangchuk,

The Karsha Lonpo

Surrounded by memories


Old paintings, the moon rising

The valley far below,

Two rivers meet

Such friendship, such friendship.



And in this foreign monastery

Hoping to bribe villagers

They think naive

Invading Christian zealots hand out

The powerful drugs

Of Western decadence.


Without thanks the pills

Are grabbed and stowed away.

Later, some of them are sewn into hats.


Next week,

The yogins' turn.




How hot the valley

Pounding in the head

Heat and dust

Road blasting

In front of Bardan monastery


Old chortens and dog roses

Mani walls so beautifully carved

Our path, just there

Hanging above the river

Like a silk thread


The drumming of Mahakala Puja

Getting faster and faster

Old masks come alive

To the smell of rancid butter

In the darkness of an earlier Tibet.


Over the valley

Black mountain peers

Am I menaced or protected

I am not sure

"Juno Dunlak"

Do not say this name

Something like darkness

Touches my mind


Khatags and incense

Offerings to the lha

Nobody knows

What precautions we took


Do not ask the Gods

For favours here

Evoking our own powers

Alone we tread this precipice

With no intentions

The river merely waits.

Have you got what it takes ?



Opposite Pibcha

Water swirling, turning, twisting

Gliding, pummelling its way down

Dividing the mountain

The valley's pulse, carving the rock

A thin ribbon of silted water

Lugnag, the "Black Breath"

Linking village with village

The glacier's melt, sharpening its wits

On the water's edge

Each bridge

Crossing the eye of the river.


Clouds of dust, as horses are gathered

Driven down the mountain -.

Again the smell of dung fires



Silently communing with Gods

Roar of water, clarity of space

Air cooled by tumbling rivers

Blesses the desert with emeralds.


Fire dances in a blinding sun

Space cuts out my mind

Only these feet move

Elemental reverie.


Closed tents,

The sick and weary rest.

Outside the spirits of the mountain



Above my sleeping bag

The slow churning stars.

Where the planets' rim turns down

Day begins.


Powered by farts

My morning stroll

In my guts

Disturbing immanence



At Purne in spate

Two more rivers join

The Lingti and the Tsarap Chu


Two more paths, one south one north

Footsteps from India.

Horses from Tibet.


At long last Phugtal ,

The jewel set in the cave

Hollowed out with lamas incantations


Prayer flags flutter

Emptiness through which choughs

Jive and plummet.


Beneath the juniper tree

The smile of offering

The spring of cold clear water


A small cell, home for the Gashes

Engraved on his memory

The flight from Tibet


The essential text

A photograph of His Holiness

The glance from Drepung



Water seeps from the cavern's floor

Refreshments for tired travellers

No witchcraft here

Sky drunk monks hide

In the deep recesses of the hills.


Old Gashes with fading mind

Probably, no longer

Remembers philosophy


Beyond his window

Choughs whirl and stall

In distant cells his brother monks

Intone their liturgies

With lowered eyelids

Over shining eyes.


For seventy six years

He's seen it move



In the evening down the valley

Songs and laughter of horsemen

From Kuru, Tablay and Kargiakh


At Purne, the wedding house

Waiting on the hill, the warm night

The valley of chang crowded with faces


The women crammed together

Like pilchards, leaning in their shawls

And finest jewellery, half drunk

Swaying this way and that

Ribald in the darkness, raucous laughter

Keeps pace with the drumming



From sperm to tsa-tsa

Momentary vision.

Let's hope they enjoyed it



Holds his hand to his ear

What does he hear ?

What does he hear?



Great Guru with blazing eyes

What does he see ?

What does he see ?


Sombre scholars with learned gaze

What does he know ?

What does he know ?


Touching the earth

The Buddha's hand

E-he - Whose fingers ?



Like a ship gliding through the mountains

Each caravan of horse and mules

Steady in its pace, the tide of trade

Rations for winter, sacks of atta

Lashed down onto wooden saddles

Sullen muleteers thinking of Manali.


And then the festival at Sani

In the shade of poplar trees

The monastic dance,

The music filtering through the courtyard

Monks clad in silk and black hats

Veiled beneath the mountain snow,

Stepping this way and that,

Chancing, glancing,

Backing and advancing

Twisting and gyrating,

The spirit's pulse transferred

The tantric colours, circling in a vortex

Hypnotic and shamanic

The exorcism,

The handling of unpredictable forces

The triangle of unwanted energy

Thrown out, thrown out

And the year's evil

Assuaged before harvest

The fear of famine reduced

The ritual stabbed and carried aloft,

The notion of sacrifice.

Sun fire blazes

Crackling figures circle

Surge like flames

Cymbals crash

Black hat wizardry

Kills the dark and evil thing

Pinioned beneath the tall flag

Bright night of the long knives

Before harvest, hearts are cleansed.


The blue glitter of perags

Ornate headdresses and white khatag's

The sense of relief. the sense of giving

Reaching far into the mountains

The rich pasture laden with horses

The freedom on the steppe


High above the swirling river

What do they see

One lammergeyer

And two eagles


Dry, dusty dry, fierce Central Asian Dry

Once more the wind pummels the valley


Pulling out, the old bus

Lumbers over ruts and rivulets

Tired strangers

Wave to smiling villagers.

"One pen -one pen- kaka -Julay"

What have they learned

These slumped and jerking figures

Dozing on the long way ?


Arid, the desert's pulse, the raven's beak

Think of the ibex and the snow leopard

The wolf trap and the conch shell.



James Crowden John Crook

Written in Ladakh 1993 some revision 1997

Given an airing. Bristol Sat 1st Nov 1997

Given another airing at Choglamsar July 2003