Under increasing climate pressures in Northeast India, monks and monasteries safeguard local lakes and forests.
A singular, seventeenth-century thangka painting adorns the central hall of Ganden Namgyal Lhatse, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India. The painting depicts a haggish figure with pendulous breasts, flaming eyebrows, and red hair standing on end. Palden Lhamo, the fearsome protector deity in the painting, commands supreme reverence in Tibetan Buddhism. As the protector deity of the lineage of Dalai Lamas, Palden Lhamo is known to assist senior monks in the identification of the next Dalai Lama through a series of visions on the bank of the sacred Lhamo La-tso — “Oracle Lake” — in a remote location southeast of Lhasa, Tibet.
Due to her association with Lhamo La-tso lake, followers of Tibetan Buddhism consider Palden Lhamo to be the goddess of the sacred lake and believe that she resides in a number of other lakes scattered in the Himalayan region.
Every year, Phuntsok Wangchuk, a monk in Ganden Namgyal Lhatse monastery, spends three months visiting these lakes, which are tucked amid snow-clad mountains a few miles from his monastery. The 39-year-old lama isn’t seeking visions or seclusion. Rather, he’s there to guide and care for the Buddhist pilgrims who visit the lakes, locally known as Bhagajang tso, and believed to be the abode of various other divinities.