What do you do when you’re in a car and suddenly four lorries are heading towards you? We were driving from Nakodar in Punjab, towards Mcleod Ganj in the foothills of the Himalayas. In the distance a very slow, overladen lorry was being overtaken gradually by another lorry on our side of the road. We were on a normal highway with one lane in each direction but at the sides of the road there was packed earth. As the two lorries got nearer to us, a third lorry getting impatient with the other two started to overtake on the earth at the other side of the road. Then a fourth lorry appeared, and started to overtake on the hard earth on our side of the road. So we were in a situation where all four lorries were heading towards us, and we had nowhere to go. Our driver pulled to the side and somehow, all four lorries passed us! I had been dozing in and out, but this incident kept me alert during the rest of the drive.
As a general rule the roads of India are potholed and narrow, with random speed humps along the way. As you travel further north into the foothills of the Himalayas the roads grow extremely narrow, winding up the mountainside around frequent hairpin curves, with roundabouts and potholes tossed in. But that’s not all. The rule in India is that you should honk your horn often: at traffic jams, every time you go around a curve, when you pass another vehicle on the road, when you pass a pedestrian or animal at the roadside, when you want the vehicle in front of you to go faster, when you see a friend. As I said, the rule is honk – a lot – which becomes increasingly irritating when you’re on a bumpy, hair-raising ride on hairpin curves for hours on end.
The drive felt like a ride on an ragged old roller coaster, except without any fresh air. I was doing my best to fight the rising urge to vomit everywhere. Thankfully we arrived at our destination after a prolonged eight hours.
Maybe it was the thin mountain air, but reality seemed slightly out of sync in McLeod ganj. If India lives in many centuries, this hill station crams in cultures, chronologies and characters with the insouciance of the mighty Dhauladhars themselves. They have seen them all: The British, who established a garrison town in the 1850s (the name comes from David McLeod, then lieutenant governor of Punjab), the Indians, who kept floating in and out but never made it home, emphasizing the separateness by calling it “Upper” Dharamsala and, then, the Tibetans, unerringly zeroing in on a centre of calm to heal their uprooted lives.
The area doesn't feel like part of India, but despite the 15,000 Tibetans who live here, and the fact that it has been home to the Central Tibetan Administration since 1960, it isn't quite Tibet, either. It's a place where tranquillity mixes with chaos, grit blends with beauty. On McLeod Ganj's main drags, white tourist taxis blare their horns incessantly and cows eat out of trash bins.
But there are also curving tile roofs and views of the Himalayas, which seem not quite of this earth. Kindness seems to pervade the town.
The Tibetan community has been in Mcleod Ganj for close to five decades now, but the nostalgia for home and country is evident on the faces of Tibetans I saw on the streets. Despite the trappings of modern life – cellphone, internet, fast food – that the community seems to have adopted, what stood out is the way they strive to preserve their traditional way of life.
On any quiet morning, the reverberations of “Om mani padme hum” seem to rise from the belly of the Himalayas, a chant as eternal as the mountains. They seep into the low-key bustle of locals setting up shop, roadside vendors releasing the steam from the day’s first batch of momos, groups of young monks marching in their deep yellow and maroon robes.
A sudden gust of icy wind lifts a robe, revealing a bright football jersey. His companion balances a prayer wheel in one hand with a cellphone in the other. In the distance, temple bells are ringing; closer by, the Internet parlour blares out hip-hop beats.
Thousands of other travellers come to McLeod Ganj annually because of the Dalai Lama. They flock here for the public teachings he holds several times a year, but also for the area's misty forests and stunning Himalayan views, for courses in Tibetan arts and culture, for meditation and yoga retreats—and simply to feel connected to the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan cause, just by being in his adopted hometown.
On our second day in Mcleod Ganj, we ventured down a narrow, winding alley lined with Tibetan vendors setting up their booths for the day. After about ten minutes we reached our destination, which surprised me since there was nothing special about the complex upon first glance.
The exterior of the Tsuglagkhang temple was unassuming, plain concrete and basic colours, in apparent disregard of the fact that it houses the Dalai Lama’s residence. On the first floor, though, the grandeur of Tibetan woodwork and love for bright colours assume larger than life proportions in the imposing statues of Padmasambhava (the Buddha) and Avalokiteswara (“the compassionate one”, of whom the present Dalai Lama is believed to be an incarnation). Whether you are a believer or not, the charged atmosphere is curiously moving, encouraging stillness and contemplation.
The monastery is beautiful, open and airy, as most monasteries I’ve visited before. I sat myself on a bench in the verandah, and watched the clouds play hide & seek with the Himalayas, as they gradually descended to greet us mortals and reveal to us a gorgeous sunset. No power, I assured myself, could rob the people of such natural beauty, and the conviction that comes with it.
Loud shouts from the temple grounds below caught my attention: “Answer me quickly!” followed by a quick clap. For young monks immersed in their evening studies, learning and sharing knowledge through the ancient art of rhetoric, it was only a sudden shower that sent them scurrying indoors— but there was no respite from their lessons till nightfall.
With their red robes swaying and huge smiles that can’t be mistaken for aggression, this daily monk training session echoes throughout the open courtyard and into the streets surrounding the complex.
According to Tom Salyer, “The debates follow a strict form, with the standing questioner challenging the thesis of the humbly sitting defender. As the questioner raises doubts, the exchange becomes increasingly animated, with exaggerated body language, lunging, hand slapping and loud shouting. The defender mostly sits quietly and looks away, occasionally making a counter point by waving his arm. It is said to expand the mind, increase mental sharpness, develop analytical skills and help gain mental clarity.”
Rigour informs life here in ways that make disciplined urban lifestyles look like soft options. As I watch, a frail old woman prostrates herself on the ground in the direction of the sanctum sanatorium, arms stretched in supplication, and rises to complete one circle of prayer. And she does this again and again and again, and she does this every day, evidence of a level of fitness that most of us can only dream of.
The Dalai Lama’s hectic schedule, posted on a notice board, stated that he was in town but busy with talks in local schools. I would have liked to sit down and have a chat with him, but meetings needed to be arranged weeks in advance. I’ll remember for the next time.
The compound also is home to the Central Tibetan Administration, which is a fully-functioning Tibetan Government in exile. Just outside, a somber memorial and museum inform visitors of the atrocities committed by the Chinese in Tibet. It’s quite appalling and frustrating to learn how little has changed since 1959.
The next morning we visited the nearby Bhagsu Nag Temple. The temple, located only two km from McLeod Ganj bazaar, is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva but also the serpent god (Nag). The village, temple and water fall are named after the king who discover the spring (king Bhagsu) and the serpent god who guarded the region (lord Nag). According to legend, 5000 years ago, the two were involved in a forceful battle as the king required the water for his drought hit lands.
The king had enrage the Serpent lord Nag after his sneaky approach to steeling the water and it was Nag who ultimately won the battle. Where the king submitted to the serpent waters miraculously sprung from the ground where he stood and these are the springs that the temple is constructed upon. The region is named after both the king and the serpent – Bhagsunag.
From the Bhagsunag Temple, we walked further to Bhagsu Waterfall, which is only one km away. While the scenery was stunning, I had an experience which reminded me how grateful I am to be alive. The path is tiled, but it's on the side of a mountain so there is a steep rise next to the path. We were walking past a kiosk cut into the side of the mountain path, and heard a slight rattling from above. A piece of slate came falling out of the sky, hit the top of the kiosk and landed a metre away from me. I stood in shock for a while, as it sunk in what would have happened if it had hit me in the head or even in the body. As it turns out, there were goats grazing on the mountain above the kiosk and one had nudged the slate loose. Life is a gift, don't let it slip away.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
– Reinhold Niebuhr