Thursday, December 29, 2011

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, day 1; my attempt to meet the Dalai Lama

December 29th, 2007

Somehow, I managed to sleep the entire 12 hour ride straight up from Delhi, and woke up at the bus stop in Dharamsala, just as the sun began to light the western arm of the Himalayas.

When planning my trip, Dharamsala was tops on my list of places to see. It was a dream of mine to listen to the Dalai Lama speak, and I'd been told he'd be giving a series of talks for the New Year. One of the important things I learned, though, is that the Tibetan community isn't actually in Dharamsala, but in McLeod Ganj, a suburb up on top of a ridge above Dharamsala. I stayed on the bus as we pulled out and bumped, thumped, zigged, and zagged up the hill.

I got off the bus, got my bag, and was greeted by the only two men in the place, who had been standing by one of the shops waiting.

"As-Salāmu `Alaykum," they said, "Our friend told us you were coming. We have a very nice guesthouse, come stay with us. We aren't in your book, but it's very nice."

I hesitated, and told them I'd already chosen a place, but they said they'd give a cheaper price than the one in the book and asked me to come look at their place. I wasn't expecting the first people I met here to be Muslims, but they were much kinder than their friend back in Dehli and I did have a warm feeling from them.

When we arrived at their guesthouse, it was a beautiful three story building half way down the northern edge of the ridge, looking out at the Dhauladhars range and its highest peak, the Hanuman ji Ka Tiba, or White Mountain. It was also next door to a Korean restaurant, another unexpected sight! I followed them up to their office on the roof, where I did all the usual paper work and had a cup of chai with them. I mentioned how I was looking forward to listening to the Dalai Lama speak, but they said I was too late, he finished his New Year teachings the day before and was heading off to a temple in Goa to give some teachings there. I felt devastated that I'd missed him by so little time. He had given his teachings for tibetan New Year, which I'd known nothing of. And of all the places, Goa! I had originally planned to come here straight after the Taj Mahal, which would have been perfect, but then decided to go with Carlos, Jasmine, and Kristine. I really loved the time I'd spent with them but it was difficult to think it had cost me seeing the Dalai Lama. They said he'd be leaving the next morning, so if I really wanted to see him, I could wait where the bus had dropped me off for his car to drive by. That's not what I'd come all this way for, though.

I dropped off my stuff in the cozy room, with a perfect view, framed by high-altitude pines, then headed out for a walk.

I wasn't sure where I was headed, but the heart of McLeod Ganj is pretty much two small parallel streets that meet at the ends of the long block, then loop around the ridge to the main temple and the Dalai Lama's resident.

I began by walking west, along the quite, wooded road, enjoying the view of the mountains across the gorge, then turned back and walked to the busy center by the bus stop. Along the way, I stopped in a bookstore, run by a young Tibetan woman and bought a book on the Four Noble Truths, transcribed from a talk by the Dalai Lama, and a small paperback edition of Birdsong, a collection of 53 short Rumi poems, translated by Coleman Barks. The other Rumi books I have are long and heady, but these are like little Chopin valses, sweet, romantic, but potent.

Very near the bus stop, there is a four story Tibetan Temple, with its roof and eaves painted gold, and painted much like a Korean temple, with nearly the same motifs and colors. I joined the others in turning the large red, prayer wheels that wrapped the temple, with "Om mani behme hum" painted in bright yellow Tibetan script. Half way down the side of the temple, there was a small room with a huge wheel that filled the room and was being turned, slowly. A wooden peg protruding from the top of the wheel would strike a bell with each rotation. After three rings, the person turning it continued down the line of prayer wheels outside.

Next I followed the road all the way past the craft shops cafes and guesthouses across the ridge to
Tsuglagkhang Temple, the main temple in McLeod Ganj where the Dalai Lama gives his teachings. Just a couples of days ago the entire square would have been full of people listening as he spoke seated in his wooden thrown-like chair.

I climbed the stairs up to the second level of the temple where there was another hall surrounded by copper prayer wheels. On the side was a small structure with iron scrolls decorating its large windows. I looked through the window to see a monk preparing butter lamps for the temple.

The temple had a few exceptional statues. One 14 foot gold Buddha behind the Dalai Lama's seat, and sitting beside each other, face Tibet are Padmasambhava, the Indian Yogi who introduced Budhism to Tibetm, and a silver, eleven faced Avalokiteśvara, with one thousand hands and one thousand eyes. Two of the faces were actually from the original Tibetan statue which the Chinese had tossed into a pile of trash during the cultural revolution. Someone spotted them looking out from the heap and they were passed from hand to hand until finally arriving in McLeod Ganj where they were set into the new sculpture.

After three rounds of turning the prayer wheels and exploring the different rooms, I walked back down the ground level and headed to the small office behind the temple. If you want to schedule a meeting with the Dalai Lama this is were you go to inquire. I knew there was no reason they would give me an audience with him, but I figured I might as well ask. He has a policy of meeting every Tibetan refugee who makes their way to the ridge, but as for Western tourists, well, I was told to go the another office on the opposite side of the map and ask there. 

I thought it was a bit strange they would send me there, because I knew this was the right office, but I walked back through the market, back to bus stop, and up another road that lead up into the hills. Not too far down was the office I'd been told to visit, so I walked in, greeted the man at the desk, and awkwardly told him I wanted to meet the Dalai Lama. 

"Not here, you have to go to the Tsuglagkhang Temple office and ask there."

"I was just there [well, sort of just there, it was a long walk] and they sent me here."

He just looked at me and bobbled his head for a moment. I had the feeling that I now understood exactly what the head bobble meant... I was more annoyed at being sent across town for this than I was disappointed. I mean, it didn't take a whole lot of humility to understand that the Dalai Lama and I apparently don't have a whole lot of Karmic affinity, or anything. We probably weren't even very chummy in any resent past lives anyway, though I've heard he was my mother once, and vise-versa...

With that same humility, I said thank you, went back outside, and dropped any thoughts of seeing the Dalai Lama, for this trip, anyway.

On the way between offices, I'd taken the time to go into the Tibet Museum. It housed, mostly, old manuscripts, crafts, and clothing, but I was more taken with the detailed description of the Dalai Lama's journey into India, fleeing Tibet. There were no photos allowed in the museum, but I risked being reprimanded to take a shot of a photo of the young Dalai Lama upon his arrival in India, exhausted form the journey, disguise in black robes.

I kept walking around McLeod Ganj until after dark, when my legs were exhausted and the Himalayan air began to chill my lungs. I returned to the guesthouse and walked up to the roof. The Milky Way shone brightly above and I was nearly stunned looking up at it. I hadn't seen the night sky so clearly since I'd left Nova Scotia, and it seemed all the more amazing knowing that the Himalayas were in the darkness below. The owner came out from his small office to chat, but all I could say at first was, "It's so beautiful."He offered me a cup of chai and we chatted a bit, before I finally made it to my bed and crashed for the night.

No comments:

Post a Comment