A pilgrimage to Phortse
Sheila Freake of Old Buckenham recently made an emotional trip back to Nepal and has kindly written this report of her visit.
When my husband Tony passed away last December, the news spread very quickly thanks to emails and within a matter of hours had reached Phortse, the village in the Himalayas that he had been helping for over 20 years. The villagers were devastated and held a Puja (prayers) in the village Buddhist monastery or Gompa as it is known locally. The building of this Gompa was one of the early projects supervised by Tony.
It was not long before the Phortse people had decided to build a Chorten (memorial) in memory of ‘Papa Tony’. Then we learnt of plans to build a statue. When I heard about this I felt the need to visit the village again.
My son, Andrew, and daughter, Julie, agreed to accompany me as well as a very good friend Margaret Taylor from Kendal. Margaret has been to Nepal many times as she and her husband George have led several groups to Nepal since Tony’s knees became a problem and prevented him from taking on long treks.
Arrangements were made and we set off for Kathmandu on Thursday 20 May. Having buried half of Tony’s ashes in the burial ground in Old Buckenham I took the remainder with me to leave in Nepal.
Getting to the village entails a 35 minute flight, over very hilly country, in a Twin Otter plane carrying about 15 people. The landing strip at Lukla is quite small with high mountains close behind. Cloud at Lukla caused a brief delay but we were soon on our way and landed safely at Lukla at 2,800m. The rest of the journey to the village is a three-day walk. We stayed two nights at Namche Bazaar (3,400m), the main village of the region, in order to acclimatise. From Namche to Phortse the path climbs to 4,000m, then drops down to the Dudh Kosi river and finally climbs to the village at 3,800m.
We were met by villagers who bedecked us with Khartas (silk scarves of welcome) and a doorway draped with the greeting ‘Welcome Mama Sheila and Family’. Phortse Guest House was our home for our three-night stay in the village. This is owned by PaNuru and Passang Diki, the couple who stayed with us in Old Buckenham in 2007. PaNuru has climbed Everest several times.
At the end of May the Buddha’s birthday is celebrated and several monks came over from Tengboche (the main monastery in the area) to stay in the village for a few days.
So came the day to unveil the statue of Tony and to place some of his ashes into the Chorten. The Gompa stands above the village and we made our way slowly uphill. We could hear the cymbals and horns played by the monks as we approached. There was another welcome banner at the gate and we entered the Dewang (courtyard) of the Gompa. I was invited to cut the red ribbon and then pull aside the curtain concealing the head and shoulder statue of Tony, with a plaque listing all the projects he had been involved with over 20 years. I was then asked to light three butter lamps - not easy as there was quite a strong breeze. After this I had just a few words for the villagers.
‘Papa Tony loved this village and the people who live here. He has given you a good start. Please build on it. This will be the best way to remember him.’
Then we proceeded together with the monks to outside the courtyard and gathered at the Chorten. A cavity had been made into which I placed a small container filled with some of Tony’s ashes. The monks chanted, we threw rice and then Andrew and I each read one of the passages we had used at Tony’s funeral service in Old Buckenham. The remaining ashes were to be put into small Chortens made by the monks and then placed into caves high above the village.
It was a fairly short ceremony but I think Tony would be very happy with the proceedings.
We stayed one more day in the village visiting the school, the library and the power house. Then it was over to Tengboche before making our way back to Namche, Lukla and Kathmandu.
The donations given in memory of Tony will be used to help three girls from the village complete their education in Kathmandu. Hopefully at least one will return to teach in the village school. Any remaining money will be used for the maintenance of the Gompa.