It’s my second morning in Mcleod Ganj, and I am not yet used to not seeing Indians everywhere I turn. It is almost surreal! A wispy sort of late autumn breeze runs over my face and over my shoulders, making me feel stiff but cheerful. I climb down the steps of my hotel and make my way downtown, though I am not sure if I should be calling the rather small stretch of shops along the curving ridge downtown.
McLeod Ganj—in the upper reaches of Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh–is like a pretty little nest, overlooking steep valleys and hills that are thickly covered with pines and deodars. It is the home of the Tibetan government-in-exile. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama lives at the other end of downtown, behind the Kaalchakra Temple, the Tsuglag Khang Temple and the Nam Gyal Monastery. The rest of McLeod Ganj is all lanes and by-lanes, some dipping, some climbing, and filled with his people … his Tibetans.
The rest of the populace is made of tourists—mainly from Canada, U.S., England, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Australia, and New Zealand. So much so that McLeod Ganj simply has to be the only place in India where Indians are a distinct minority.
The tourists of McLeod Ganj are not the conventional, backpack-carrying, and sneaker-wearing types. They do not come in to leave by the next evening; they stay put for even several weeks. It is obvious in the casual and unhurried manner in which they carry their clothes to the laundry, buy freshly baked bread for supper, or check public notice boards in town for details of courses on Tibetan medicine, Tibetan cooking, Buddhist yoga, and interpretation of dreams.
The main object of attraction for them is an audience with His Holiness, which is not easy to come by. Given the threat to the Nobel Laureate’s life everyday the talk in Mcleod Ganj is of Chinese secret agents roaming around town, the administrative office of the Tibetan government-in-exile is strict about granting permission for an audience. And even if one is given, it is not before several months of scrutiny. The other object of attraction is Mcleod Ganj itself. Its Nam Gyal Monastery is a world-renowned repository of knowledge on Tibetan philosophy and Tibetan Buddhism. That coupled with a general interest in Tibetan culture, thanks to impassioned support for the Tibetan cause from celebrities like Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn, and films like Seven Years in Tibet, attracts tourists from all over the world.
There is yet another object of attraction–drugs, if cynics are to be believed. Though, those who are labelled as cynics vehemently protest that they are not, at least as far as their assertion about McLeod Ganj is concerned.
Whatever the reason for the alluring pull of Mcleod Ganj, there is no discounting the fact that the town is popular with tourists from the Americas, Europe, and Australia. And the Tibetan inhabitants are not complaining! They own almost all the hotels, restaurants, and shops in town. And they do good business throughout the year. The hotels are almost always full. They offer modern conveniences, including Internet kiosks. The restaurants, softly lit and quite cosy, serve hot and mildly spicy Thenthuk and momo, which are pleasing to the throat in the temperate climate. And the shops sell everything that a tourist with an abiding interest in Tibet would want—from Tibetan shawls to coats, from carpets to rugs, from prayer bells to trinkets, and from books on Tibetan Buddhism and on the Dalai Lama to postcards and pictures of Lhasa and of the famed Potala Palace.
Downtown McLeod Ganj is where most of the shops are, and naturally enough, it is the most crowded area in town. The gentle laughter and muted talk of tourists and shopkeepers are pleasing to the ears, and the colors are enlivening—with blue denim and different shades of t-shirts contrasting sharply with the tha-che (the regulation maroon and yellow robes) of the monks of Nam Gyal, out for a stroll. The Tibetan shopkeepers and the general Tibetan population are not dressed in anything distinctly Tibetan. Over the years, they have adapted themselves to life in India.
Most of them accompanied the Dalai Lama when he fled Tibet in 1959 and eventually settled in McLeod Ganj; some followed him later on; some still trickle in to settle down.
It was a grim struggle to earn a living in the initial days of settlement, but today, most have settled into businesses, medium and small. Their children, some who were toddlers at the time of fleeing Tibet and the rest who were born here and have never visited Tibet, today look after the household and run the family business.
They smile readily when I meet them in the streets and shops, the elderly as well as the young. But behind the smile are painfully etched memories of torture, separation and grief and, in quite a few cases, recent experiences of atrocities at the hands of Chinese authorities in Tibet. The young, particularly teenagers, brandish their national identity and political sympathy by wearing t-shirts printed with the outline of the map of Tibet or with simple messages like “Free Tibet” or “I Love Tibet.” But more often than not, it is difficult to get them to talk about their feelings and aspirations; the middle-aged and the elderly are equally reluctant to do so.
An exception is Sonam Tashi, a monk at the Nam Gyal Monastery. Sonam, 29, has a smiling face, and sparkling eyes behind thin, round-framed spectacles that make him look rather owlish and studious. He is a rather new inhabitant of McLeod Ganj. He escaped from Tibet and came to India in 1997.
While in Tibet, Sonam suffered torture at the hands of Chinese authorities and somehow managed to break free. What followed was equally torturous–he had to walk in knee-deep snow and through mountains and forests for 24 days, taking care to ensure that he did not fall victim to frostbite and also to conceal himself from Chinese authorities. “It was frightening,” he says, describing his nerve-wracking time in the wild. “If the Chinese Army had caught me, they would have put me in jail.”
Sonam managed to safely reach Nepal and, then, crossed the border to India. On reaching McLeod Ganj, he joined the monastery, where he is a student of Tibetan grammar and Tibetan philosophy. On completing his education, he says, he wants to become a teacher and, thus, help preserve Tibetan culture.
When not attending lessons, Sonam spends his time praying for the good health of His Holiness and for the liberation of his homeland.
The places of worship, the Kaalchakra Temple and the Tsuglag Khang Temple, are within whispering distance of Sonam’s monastery. Inside the Kaalchakra Temple, I see several monks like Sonam, some reverentially bowing in front of the idol of Buddha in the main hall and some squatting on the floor and sonorously chanting sutras. Serenity rests easily on their faces.
The chanting of the sutras is not loud. There is a pleasant calmness about the temple, and even the once-in-a-while visitors respect the unofficial code that stipulates them to maintain silence.
For followers of Tibetan Buddhism, a visit to the temple is not complete without turning the numerous prayer wheels that line the outer wall of the main hall, and without lighting butter lamps as a sign of devotion.
In the vicinity of the main hall, some monks are at work, preparing numerous butter lamps. The lamps will be lit when darkness descends on McLeod Ganj.
Butter lamps are also lit in the Tibetan Museum, just a minute’s walk away from the temple. Called Demton Khang, the Tibetan word for museum, it symbolizes the feelings, sentiments and aspirations of a repressed people.
The museum was established with the aim of educating visitors about Tibet’s history and the vision of Tibetans. It fulfils its aim through a display of cut outs, texts, photographs and videos.
The main exhibition of the museum is called A Long Look Homeward. The theme is presented through two sections—one that describes the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the other that describes Tibet’s history and its institutions before the occupation.
The photographs and videos are particularly revealing of the hardships faced by Tibetans following the Chinese invasion of Tibet. More than a million people have died since the occupation. Many have suffered long periods of incarceration. The video film on display shows footage of brutality at the hands of Chinese police during the Lhasa Uprising of March 1988 and the Lhasa Uprising of March 1989. The video also flashes mug shots of political prisoners who somehow managed to escape into exile. They were interrogated, beaten, tortured and imprisoned for expressing allegiance to the Dalai Lama, for demonstrating against the Chinese occupation and for displaying the Tibetan flag. The video is accompanied by sound effects of people screaming and wailing—it drowns the visitor in melancholy.
But perhaps the most dramatic among the displays is a textual display of the chilling prophecy made in 1931 by the 13th Dalai Lama (1876-1933). In it, he says, “… Our political system, originated by the three ancient kings, will be reduced to an empty name; my officials, deprived of their patrimony and property, will be subjugated like slaves by the enemy; and my people, subjected to fear and miseries, will be unable to endure day or night. Such an era will certainly come!”
The museum also has a testimony section, where Tibetans can provide names of friends and relatives who have died since the occupation. The section reveals the Tibetans’ desire to heal the mental wounds.
The average Tibetan in McLeod Ganj knows that it will be a long time before the wounds heal. It will mean an effort to forgive the Chinese. It is not easy, particularly when the Chinese presence is still strong in the homeland. Sonam Tashi at the Nam Gyal Monastery admits that it is not easy for him to be compassionate towards the Chinese, though to be so, he says, is central to his religion. “If you meditate, though,” he says, “you can generate compassion. Day by day and year by year, you can get compassion. There are three types of compassion—small compassion, big compassion, and great compassion. At the moment, I have small compassion for the Chinese.”