Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Winter Break Part I: McLeod Ganj/Dharamsala

On Dec 27th, three friends and I hopped on an overnight bus to begin our month of traveling around India. We chose McLeod Ganj (Dharamsala) for our first destination. It is farther north of Mussoorie and at a similar elevation, so we thought it would be a good first stop to ease us into being nomads for the month. Sure enough, it was very similar to Mussoorie with beautiful views, winding bazaars, and cold temps. The main difference between the two is that McLeod Ganj (a few kilometers from the larger city of Dharamsala) is home primarily to Tibetan refugees. After the Tibetan Government was exiled from Tibet, they moved their headquarters to Mussoorie briefly and then relocated permanently to McLeod Ganj. Tibetan is the primary language spoken in the community (though there are still plenty of Hindi-speaking Indians) and the streets are filled with Tibetan monks in red robes. I've always enjoyed interacting with Tibetans and hearing their stories, and spending 5 days in McLeod Ganj confirmed that Tibetans are the kindest and most welcoming people I've ever met. We thoroughly enjoyed the calm and tranquility of the town, spending lots of time eating good food (fresh momos for Rs 10 on the street are truly a treat!) and walking on scenic roads to see Himalayas in the distance. We also enjoyed the Norbulingka Institute which was founded to preserve Tibetan culture, primarily in the arts. We got to tour around and see students learning traditional crafts. There was also a beautiful temple.

The highlight of the trip was seeing the Dalai Lama. He lives in McLeod Ganj but is often traveling around the world so is difficult to see if you are just passing through. We, luckily, were visiting during a memorial service for the 10th Panchen Lama who unexpectedly died 20 years ago (many people suspect it was not accidental, but rather the fault of the Chinese govt). The service began with a presentation of gifts to the Dalai Lama, followed by a long session of chanting and prayers. During this time the Dalai Lama, monks, and special visitors were up in the main temple while the rest of us sat down in the courtyard. We could see the procession of people walking up with gifts and could hear the chanting. After this, the feast began! Monks came down from upstairs with big tin pails of food. They started giving out fruit, bread, biscuits, cookies, and even donuts (!!!) to the huge crowd. The people in the crowd were astoundingly selfless and made sure everyone had equal shares to the food. Later came heaping piles of rice and more bread. After the feast, the Dalai Lama and his cohorts came down to address the crowd. About four men spoke before the Dalai Lama finally did. Everything was in Tibetan (there were very few foreigners in the crowd), so unfortunately we couldn't understand what they were saying. The non-verbal cues from the speakers and the crowd were very telling, however. The crowd had the utmost respect for the entire service and you could just see how eager they were to hear their leader speak. The Dalai Lama has one of the most calming and gentle presences I've ever seen in a public figure. He clearly is highly respected by his people and has a beautiful, jolly laugh that lightens the spirits of everyone in his presence. Though the experience was incredible, we left before it was finished and saw some other sights. For a overview of the memorial service, check out this website. Here are a few snapshots of McLeod Ganj and Dharamsala. Unfortunately, photos were prohibited while in the presence of the Dalai Lama and I also have no shots of the town of McLeod Ganj...oops!

The Dalai Lama's primary temple at the Tsuglagkahng Complex (the main monastary in McLeod Ganj).

Morning prayers at the Tsuglagkhang Complex.

View of the Himalayas from the Tsuglagkhang Complex.

View from Naddi (a few kilometers from McLeod Ganj). The number of man-powered ferris wheels in India continually astounds me.

Norbulingka Institute.

Taking a break in front of the main temple at Norbulingka.

Temple at Norbulingka.

A student of thangka painting.

Female monk stitching for an applique thangka.

Wood carving students at Norbulingka.

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