I was standing in the reception area of the Gangtey Palace Hotel in Paro in Bhutan, battling with the international telephone system, trying to call my wife Diane back in England. Watching me with some amusement were four Bhutanese monks. We were due to fly early the next morning to Delhi and then on to England a couple of days later. The monks were coming to build a stupa, a Buddhist monument, in the grounds of my family’s home, Harewood House in Yorkshire. For all of us it was a step into the unknown. None of the Bhutanese had ever been on an airplane before or travelled outside the Himalayan region; they had never driven on a motorway or seen the ocean. Two of them, including Lama Sonam, a master builder of stupas who was to supervise the whole project, spoke no English. I had no idea how they would react to a wholly unfamiliar environment, both physical and cultural: the language barrier, the weather, the food, the Yorkshire sense of humour.
I finally got through to Diane and we discussed arrangements: when we would be flying, how we would get to Yorkshire from the airport, who would be there when we arrived, and so on.
‘How are you feeling?’ she asked.
I thought for a moment. I knew that having the opportunity to be involved in building a stupa was seen as something very special by Buddhists. But what kind of a Buddhist was I? Was I a Buddhist at all? How was it all actually going to work when the Bhutanese got to England? I had no idea. So it was a good question. How was I feeling?
‘David? Are you still there?’
‘Well’, I said, ‘I think this is either the best or the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life’.
The building work is well underway. A series of chambers have been built, filled with the appropriate offerings and then sealed. The characteristic shape of the Himalayan stupa is starting to emerge.
In the northwest corner of the Fourth Chamber was a little shrine to Tsogda, a deity of wealth and property specific to the area of eastern Bhutan that Lama Sonam was from, with a range of offerings quite different from any made so far: special tormas (butter sculptures), food, money, with a butter lamp placed on top of the image.
‘For this chamber we need to make a 99 fruit offering’, Lama Sonam told me, ‘Only dried fruit will do’.
I was taken aback. ‘Ninety-nine fruits!’ I said, ‘I doubt if there are ninety-nine different kinds of edible fruit in the world, let alone dried ones! How many would you find in the markets in Bhutan? About six – if you were lucky!’
Lama Sonam was adamant. That was what it said in the texts. That is what we needed to find.
‘You have chosen to make very difficult stupa,’ he said, chuckling.
‘No – you have chosen to make very difficult stupa,’ I replied, laughing too.
So the search for ninety-nine different kinds of dried fruit began. The first shopping expeditions - to Sainsbury’s, to a health food store in Harrogate and to an Indian Supermarket in Leeds - yielded better results than expected. A sweep of the spice shelf in my kitchen produced a few more. To my surprise, I found we had got up to forty-seven – pretty impressive I thought, but still less than halfway, still fifty-two short.
I told Lama Sonam the bad news. He shook his head in disappointment. Then he reached into the folds of his robe and produced a small plastic sachet containing some undefined grey substance. He held it up to me and gave it a little shake.
‘Ninety-nine fruit powder’, he said, ‘I suppose this will have to do’.