Published: December 2nd 2008October 14th 2008
An exiled Tibetan woman prays at the Kalachakra Temple at McLeod Gunj.
The Himachal Road Transport Corporation bus from McLeod Ganj has shed the bulk of its load before it reached the inter-state bus terminus in New Delhi. Most of our fellow-travellers had got down at the Tibetan Colony on the northern suburbs of the metropolis. Soon they will dissolve in the urban kettle. But the story of these refugees is the story of the Himachal town called McLeod Ganj, nicknamed ‘Little Llasa’ after the Tibetan capital they left behind five decades ago.
McLeod Ganj or Upper Dharamasala is in marked contrast with Lower Dharamasala, a typical north Indian town 9 kilometres ahead of the refugee town. Lower Dharamsala has most of the government offices, schools, hospitals and a bus stand that links to all Indian towns including Delhi, Chandigarh, Pathankot , Simla and Kullu-Manali. Not all the buses go up to McLeod Ganj. But for one-day travellers, McLeod Ganj is self-sufficient, complete with a State Bank of India ATM.
At Hotel Tibet, we decide to go beyond momos (fried/steamed dumplings containing minced chicken/vegetables) and pocha (salty butter tea). We randomly pick Then Thuk and Gyathuk (steaming soup-like dishes submerging hand-made noodles, beef slices, shards of carrot and cabbage and lots
The stolen child-leader of Tibet
Panchen Lama, the second-highest spiritual leader of the Tibetans, has been missing since May 17, 1995.
of green leaves.), but chose not to use chopsticks for obvious reasons. Otherwise, it was a perfect Tibetan brunch.
After the fill, I ask the waiter for direction to the lamasery. An old Tibetan tells me in Hindi that it’s just five minutes walk from the junction. He then turns to Delma and repeats the direction in Malayalam: “Anchu minute.” As Delma tries to decipher what language he was speaking in, comes another: “Malayalam ariyum.” The Tibetan diaspora has crossed the Himalayas and spread out to the entire subcontinent, up to the southern tip.
The town is distinctly Tibetan. Colourful festoons with Buddhist prayers written on it are everywhere - on pine trees, tin roofs, electricity posts and inside hotel lobbys. Tibetan handicrafts and Buddhist iconography line the roads. Laughing Buddhas, handpainted Thangkas, prayer wheels, blowers and cymbals, bangles and earrings…the esoteric bazaar is ready for the curious foreigner. The foreign-exchange-challenged can look elsewhere.
The town, frequented by students of Buddhist studies, also has countless gurus offering to teach Vipasana, Reiki, meditation and the many invented varieties of yoga. At any day, visiting Westerners would outnumber the residing monks on the streets of McLeod Ganj. Some of
them have turned monks at a point of time. A European nun in red robe is shopping for CDs with Tibetan chants. ‘Om Mani Padme Hum…’ is drowned by an Occidental note of a guitar. The guitarist walks along in oblivion, singing and strumming.
McLeod Ganj is named after David McLeod, a British lieutenant governor of Punjab. The colonial regime had plans to make Dharmasala the summer capital of India, in place of Simla. But a 7.8-Richter earthquake destroyed the town on April 4, 1905. Over 10,000 died.
Dharamasala owes its current significance to the Tibetans. The sleepy town was little known outside until Tenzin Gyatzo, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, fleeing his Chinese persecutors, was led to Swarg Ashram by the Indian government on April 30, 1960. He shifted his government-in-exile to Thekchen Choeling (Byrne Estate) in 1968. Over 100,000 refugees followed him to Dharamsala and other pockets in the country.
The modest monastery complex is far from esoteric. Prosaic buildings and a small security check with a metal detector tell you that this is the seat of a government. The head of the government is the Dalai Lama, the reincarnation of each of the previous thirteen
Om Mani Padme Hum
Every time you turn a prayer wheel you earn as much reward as reciting the number of Avalokiteswara chants inscribed in it.
Dalai Lamas, who in turn, are manifestations of Avalokiteshwara or Chenrezig, a contemporary of the Buddha.
He fled the Potala, the 1000-chambered winter palace of the Dalai Lamas in Llasa, in 1959, ten years after the Chinese occupation of Tibet began. The second-highest spiritual leader of the Tibetans, Panchen Lama, was not so lucky. The Tibetans allege that the Chinese kidnapped him on May 17, 1995, three days after the Dalai Lama recognized the six-year-old Gendhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama.
A board with the boy-monk’s picture on it seeks the international community’s support in securing the release of the Panchen Lama, the “youngest political prisoner in the world”. Another board has dozens of faces, bloodied and mutilated. Scores of Tibetans had been gone missing after the Chinese occupation of Llasa began sixty years ago. Every shop in the little town has a board saying, ‘We don’t sell Chinese goods’.
But the most powerful statements against the Chinese regime are seen in the Dalai Lama’s autobiographical book, Freedom in Exile. “…the Chinese leadership was not truly Marxist, dedicated to a better world for all, but really highly nationalistic. Actually, these people were nothing but Chinese chauvinists posing as Communists: a collection of narrow-minded fanatics”.
The Dalai Lama is recuperating after a gall bladder surgery in Delhi. “We regret that His Holiness the Dalai Lama no longer holds public audiences. In fact, on the advice of His Holiness' doctors as well as concerned people close to His Holiness, we are trying to reduce his overall engagement schedule, especially audiences and interviews,” a notice is put up near the gate to the Lama’s residence. Ignoring appeals for silence, tourists gaze at the pine-deodar forest sloping down the hill where the complex is situated.
Facing the holy house stands the Tsuglagkhang Complex, comprising the Kalachakra Temple and a meditation hall. Elders silently read scriptures near votive butter lams and prostrate before the altar. Pilgrims circumambulate the temple, powering prayer wheels into endless motion. Each wheel is inscribed with Avalokiteswara chants, a leitmotif of the town, in fact of every place where Tibetans have migrated to. Spinning the wheel once is equal to reciting as many ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ inscribed on it.
A sonorous chant echoes through the Kalachakra Temple, where a large colourful mandala is worshipped. The Kalachakra initiation, the most important of all the Tantric traditions, is famed for its special significance for world peace. The Dalai Lama, who received the Kalachakra initiation in 1953, has given far more initiations than any of his predecessors, across the globe. Everything in the temple is symmetrical, even the packs of biscuits and chocolates offered in front of the ferocious Avalokiteswara and Tara, who has an uncanny resemblance to the many-armed Kali.
When we reached Delhi on Wednesday morning, the Dalai Lama was preparing for his discharge from the hospital. Tomorrow he would visit the Tibetan Youth Hostel in the capital. Then he would return to McLeod Ganj, his capital in exile.