Returning to Nepal has given me the opportunity to understand the individuals I have met over a trajectory. When I first started my work with the Langtang Valley community, it was just five months after the April 25, 2015 earthquakes in Nepal. During my recent trip to Langtang, the two-year anniversary of the earthquake was commemorated by a community-led Puja. Each individual I have met has a story, many stories, that come alive over time. One of these individuals is 26-year-old Gyalpo Lama from Langtang Village.
I met Gyalpo for the first time in November of 2015 in Boudhanath, Kathmandu. At this time, I could not quite grasp Gyalpo’s story. I thought perhaps he was disinterested in the project. I reconnected with Gyalpo a few weeks ago while in Langtang and I quickly learned I had been mistaken about his interest in the project. He became a vital connection to the community for me, offering assistance in translation and cultural understanding. Gyalpo speaks five languages fluently—formal Tibetan, the local Langtangpa language, Nepali, Hindi, and English. At the age of seven, his parents sent him to Swayambhunath in Kathmandu to become a monk. It is common in the Himalayan region of Nepal for families to send one of their sons to be trained and live as a monk.
After his time in Swayambhunath, he relocated to Pharping Monastery just outside of Kathmandu. When he was 16, he again relocated to a monastery in Varanasi, India. This is also where he acquired his Bachelor’s Degree in Buddhist Philosophy. Gyalpo told me that he had planned to get his PhD, hoping to become the first person from Langtang to acquire such an advanced degree. However, his plans and his life course changed drastically after the earthquake.
“On April 25th when the earthquake hit, I was in India, Varanasi, studying over there. I think it was around 12 afternoon . . . In the evening, I came to know by news that Nepal was badly hit by the earthquake. I was very tense by knowing that, so I tried to contact my family in Nepal, but all the phone lines were either busy or dead. I couldn’t contact them and social networks, they were also not working well. The next day I came to Nepal. When I reached here, I came to know that our village was totally destroyed by the avalanche and lots of people were killed. In that avalanche, I also lost my dear mom, dad, my brothers, lots of relatives, and our house.”
Gyalpo, like so many others, was faced with difficult decisions in the aftermath of the earthquake. Gyalpo’s story is one voice in a larger collection of stories that emerged from the circumstances of this tragedy, representations of the difficult decisions one faces in a post-disaster context. Family systems are disrupted, children must take the responsibility of those who were lost, landscapes are shifted, life-altering decisions must be made.
When asked about the decisions he was faced with, Gyalpo explains, “I thought practically because my brother is alone. I thought he needed support, so then I came to Langtang to rebuild.”
Gyalpo’s decision had important implications for his life. He had been a monk for nearly 20 years, living a strictly disciplined life in a monastery. The lifestyle of a monk does not offer many breaks; he spent most of his time before the earthquake away from Langtang, visiting only occasionally when possible. Village life in the Himalayan Mountains is quite different than life in a monastery. Monks are subject to rules, dress codes, and daily rituals set by the monastery they reside in.
During my recent time in Langtang, Gyalpo and I went to visit one of the high lamas (‘holy men’) to learn about his life and role in the community. This meant that we had to walk through the avalanche site that once was Langtang Village—the village where Gyalpo was born, the village where Gyalpo’s family died. He stopped and pointed out a small piece of cement with blue paint on it. He told me this was where his family’s home had been. He said that whenever he walks through this area, he keeps his eyes forward, trying not to focus on the damage, the fate that his family had met. On that day, he had stopped, he looked around, and posed a question: “Sometimes I try to understand. These rocks are so big. How could they have fallen from that mountain? I just don’t understand.”
When we returned that night, we passed through the avalanche site once more. It had become dark and we used flashlights to find our way. We stopped at the Memory Stupa—a memorial site dedicated to the lives lost in the earthquake. Shining the light of my headlamp on the Stupa, Gyalpo scanned the names of the locals who had passed away. “This is my mom,” he pointed out. “Here is my dad, and here is my brother’s name.”
Gyalpo now lives mostly in Langtang. He and his brother are working to complete the rebuilding of his home and guesthouse before the monsoon seasons starts. His decision to cease being a monk, to leave India and to start a life in Langtang, has altered his life circumstances dramatically. A decision born from the post-earthquake context that still marks Nepal, a decision motivated by his relationship, his responsibility toward his younger brother and the legacy of his family. I am grateful to know Gyalpo, to learn from him, and to call him a friend.
Thank you for reading.