WHERE THE DALAI LAMA GOES, THOUSANDS FOLLOW
My final destination, before the Punjab, oozes peace& tranquillity. Dharamshala is a refuge for the exiled Tibetan government of China and HH Dalai Lama himself. Hindi for ‘sanctuary’, it is a safe- haven for Tibetans who arrived, armed with the dream of a new golden life and greener pastures. Reality, many have told me, isn’t so simple, with a dislike for Indian food, language barriers, and the warmer climate. Tibetans in the country can’t vote or get a passport but are free to work and own property. But they do live peacefully and freely here.
I arrive on Saturday afternoon, just in time to catch a weekly demonstration. Tibetans take to the city’s streets, in the hundreds, in a moving march. The world’s tourists join in, raising flags& holding candles to symbolise hope for Tibetans in China under Communist regime. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled here in 1959, attracting some 2-5 thousand Tibetan followers annually, to McleodGanj, a former colonial British summer picnic spot.
ACT OF DEFIANCE
The culmination of the evening is provided by a lone trumpeter surrounded by dozens of eyes; a ceremonial burning of the Chinese flag, in an organised ruckus.
It’s a clear signal to the Chinese Government for what the TIbetans feel they’ve endured. In the middle is a large flag engulfed in flames; to the left, the Tibetans who consider themselves escaped and freed; to the right, visiting Tibetans who know too well the struggle for freedom, overcome with emotion at arriving at HH Dalai Lama’s home. Their missions continue to court controversy but the peaceful surrounding of Dharamshala seems to pacify all anger &resentment, translating it into prayer& belief. Speaking to many, they reveal deep fears about being watched by Chinese spies, and the potential repercussions for their loved ones in China.
On my final morning, I take a lone dawn walk to the largest temple outside Tibet& ‘Tsuglagkhang’ monastery, where HH Dalai Lama resides, to observe prayers.
Early morning life is serene. There’s an air of peace; they say everyone walks around with a smile. I’ve a natural affinity to dewy mountain air; shopkeepers set up stall and Morning Prayer bells toll. I pass elderly mean and women, up at the first glimpse of dawn, making their way to the temple; devotees to a mission; rolling prayer beads in their fingers and reciting constant prayers. I remember reading somewhere that the action of rolling is beneficial for the health too, so much so I’m sure it can alleviate illness and disease. I follow some devotees in and watch as they join dozens of Buddhists engage in a rather physically-challenging prayer ritual, involving yoga-like movements from standing to lying down, over and over and over. No wonder they’re so fit and active, I think. Buddhism does go hand in hand with health and fitness. It’s inspiring to watch them in their constant movement, barely breaking a sweat. I’m hot in the rising humidity just watching.
PRAYER WHEELS OF FORTUNE
The temple is encircled by prayer wheels. They’re large cylindrical barrels, colourfully painted, and bearing the Sanskrit writing, ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’. The idea is to walk around the temple and spin each wheel. Each is thought to contain thousands of blessings and is equal to reciting the prayers. A Buddhist monk inside shows me ancient scriptures. He translates them to explain that prayer wheels are believed to bring wisdom and positive karma and dissolve negative thoughts. I circle the temple, pushing each with my wrist, and try to visualise peace and tranquillity.
One of the first Buddhist temples you would see in McLeodGanj is simply unmissable. It’s in the heart of the main bustling market street and is perhaps the most striking and colourful spectacle you’ll see. I make it just before it closes for the day. Inside, a little Tibetan lady smiles as she greets me, encourages me to walk around the prayer wheel barrel for blessings whilst she chants prayers for me on a wheel in her hand. It’s such a stunning temple I feel blessed ot have made it in time.
If history is your calling, you mustn’t miss Bhagsunath Temple. It’s an easy walk from McLeodGanj. The temple is centuries-old and boasts scriptures both inside and outside with English translations. It’s also a fun little temple. Inside, I spot a white man dancing in a tiny tree-top like room on the upper floor. Peering in, he spots me. He appears to be practising some form of chanting and seems quite hyper. Slightly anxious, I back away. But he follows me out of the temple, taps me on the shoulder and opens up his palm. Inside, is a tattoo of the Hindu religious ‘Om’ symbol. I assume that he is high on life and spirituality alone. But maybe not…
VAST VIEWS ACROSS DHARAMSHALA
Before heading back, I deviate onto a skinny dirt track up a steep incline through the heart of many local homes and hemmed in by tall buildings. The path leads to an extreme height from where panoramic views right across the valley, cricket ground and Dhauladhar mountain range are breathtaking (or perhaps that was the walk up). In the distance, it’s a misty and magical morning.
I spot some rickety metal steps onto a flat roof and climb up quickly to take some photographs. Suddenly, the home owner, comes up to greet me as she intends to nurture her rooftop plants. Taken by surprise, I quickly explain my motive. But she’s simply lovely. She recounts moving here from Holland after falling in love with Dharamshala during a visit. And she’s not alone. Though only a small town, it hosts people of all nationalities from all over the world.
The other aspect it has become renowned for in more recent times is backpackers. They stay here in their droves, volunteering with various non-profit charities and learning / practising yoga with spiritual leaders. Dharamshala also houses hundreds of stray dogs. It’ s thought that they are fed by the people of the town. But still, heartbreaking to see them squander cow muck for nourishment.
SIGHTS TO SEE IN DHARAMSHALA
Dal Lake is situated up an extremely narrow road, one which I’d feel nervous walking, let alone driving up. But we do. Holding my breath and peeking out from behind my hands, we approach a scenic man-made lake at the top of Upper McLeod Ganj.
Newly-weds wander around, holding hands, stealing a kiss under a blanket of trees. The entrance is home to a tiny temple called Durgeshwar; very cute and well worth seeing.
Further down is the Gompa Dip Tse-Chok Monastery. Inside, students are deeply focussed on their readings, reciting prayers. The monastery is a colourful spectacle, surrounded by greenery and spectacular mountains.
As much as I didn’t want to become another statistic, there truly is something about Dharamshala. The freedom, peace and spirituality seem to flow in the air. It has a positive energy and the people are enchanting. I hope to return to this Indian hill town of monks, backpackers and spirituality.
- Impressions of India; Portraits of a People (ani-shah.com)
- China ‘collecting Dalai Lama blood samples’ (telegraph.co.uk)
- Two More Tibetans Burn Themselves in China Protest (voanews.com)
- India Upgrades Dalai Lama’s Security Over Chinese ‘Plot’ (ibtimes.com)
- Dalai Lama fears Chinese poison plot (guardian.co.uk)
- Dalai Lama Taps Nicholas Vreeland, American Buddhist, To Bridge East And West At Rato Monastery In Southern India (evolutionarymystic.wordpress.com)
- Tibetan monks tackle science in the Indian hills (technology.inquirer.net)
- Dalai Lama and Hindi Classes (akjabroad2012.wordpress.com)