Thin mats and blankets covered the floors of Tsuglagkhang temple, several bearing scraps of paper inscribed with an individual’s name — an ad hoc reservation system. A Buddhist monk with a foghorn voice chanted over a loudspeaker, calling all men, women and children to their places on the hard ground. Young robed men walked through the aisles pouring milky tea from large silver pots and placing discs of dense bread into open palms.
Seating was tough, a packed house. I found a small clearing among a pile of discarded shoes and settled in. From my vantage point, I could look over dozens of praying bodies and through a little window, where a round, bald head bobbed in and out of view. I focused all my energy on the elfin figure and repeated a private mantra: “Look over here, over here, over here.”
Of course, I didn’t know what I would do if my wish came true. Perhaps I would respectfully bow or flash a peace sign — both appropriate gestures for the temple’s main inhabitant, the Dalai Lama. In the end, however, I spontaneously stuck out my finger as the Buddhist leader walked by. He squeezed it, and my left index finger briefly gained celebrity status.
“Can I touch your finger?” a knotty-haired Englishman later asked me.
I held out my blessed body part like ET phoning home, and he dabbed off some of the magic.
The Dalai Lama is omnipresent in Dharamsala, his adopted home town in northern India and the “capital” of the Central Tibetan Administration, the exiled government. The head monk holds teachings at his temple that are open to the public, and visitors can often see him perched like an extraordinary bird in his elevated throne. Yet even when he is absent, his presence is still felt. Restaurants, hotels and cafes typically hang framed photos of the lama laughing or sipping tea. Stores install small shrines in discreet corners. Street vendors sell accoutrements and accessories — prayer beads, white scarves, incense holders, Buddha statues, om charms — that encapsulate his spiritual style.
In 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet after Chinese forces invaded and took over the bordering country. India granted the spiritual leader asylum, and he moved in, building his temple and private residence in McLeod Ganj, a well-touristed area in Upper Dharamsala in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The Tsuglagkhang complex rests in the cradle of the regal Himalayan mountains, a reminder of home as seen from the flip side.
The settlement has transformed the Indian region into a mini-Tibet. Of the nearly 100,000 refugees, about 14,000 exiles live in Dharamsala. Its nickname, Little Lhasa, is no breezy bumper sticker catchphrase. I saw more traditional Tibetan dresses than saris, and more Tibetan flags than Indian pennants. Of course, remembering where I was, in Mother India, I made room for both cultures on my plate: momos (steamed Tibetan dumplings) on one side, dal tadka (yellow lentils) on the other.
I heard Sonam Dorjee before I saw him.
The streets of McLeod Ganj are steep and narrow and jammed with a daily procession of cars, motorbikes, cows, dogs, monks, monkeys and the odd donkey spilling its load of rubble. While walking up a rocky trail from my hotel, I picked up the ubiquitous sound of feet hitting loose stones, a chattering noise that doubled as an alarm to move aside. But instead of buzzing by me, Dorjee stopped to talk. The main topic was Tibetans in India, an unsurprising subject considering his line of work.
“Cultural assimilation is bound to happen, but we have a Tibetan monastery, schools, nunneries and settlements,” said the elected settlement officer of Dharamsala’s Tibetan Settlement Office. “Tibetan roots are very strong here.”
The conversation shifted to the recent growth explosion in Dharamsala, which Dorjee didn’t fully embrace. More people meant more noise, trash, traffic, pollution. Construction on the mountainside led to erosion and landslides.
“We need more tourists with quality,” he said, “like backpackers.”
However, Dorjee projected a ray of optimism, mentioning ongoing beautification plans and road-maintenance projects — and, of course, the preservation of Tibetan ways.
A few days later, we gathered in the gallery-like lobby of Chonor House, a lodge run by the Norbulingka Institute, which promotes and protects Tibetan arts and traditions. We had an ambitious itinerary, with several sights squeezed into a few hours, but “rush” is not a stock word in Dharamsala. Dorjee sank back into his cushioned chair and ordered a ginger-lemon-honey tea. I followed his lead and asked the attendant to make it two, please.
We started the tour at the Tibetan Children’s Village, a school and orphanage high up in the hills. On the twisty drive to Lower Dharamsala, we passed slopes of pine trees and St. John in the Wilderness, an Anglican church tucked under heavy green boughs. In the adjoining cemetery, gravestones mark the victims of the 1905 Kangra earthquake, and a memorial honors Lord Elgin, a viceroy of India who died rope-swinging across the Chandra River. Alongside the road, a large, hairy creature sat with his legs splayed out front, as though he were stretching before his morning calisthenics. He turned his head toward us, revealing the black mask of a langur monkey.
The Dalai Lama established the school in 1960 for the refugee children who arrived battered and often orphaned after the harrowing journey from Tibet. The student body has grown from 51 to about 1,200 youngsters, including a boy from New York whose Tibetan parents sent him to India to learn about his heritage.
“The goal is that one day we will go back to Tibet, and that Tibet will own Tibet,” said Ngodup Wangdu, the school director, who escaped in 1963. “We hope the day will come when these children can go see their own country.”
Despite the uncertain future, the young residents seemed quite content being, well, regular kids. We observed a math class in which they took turns singing their multiplication tables and watched a soccer game on a field below. During tea time, the children cut loose, racing around the basketball court as they clutched hunks of homemade bread in their hands.
Wangdu stopped the New York lad and wrapped his bearlike arms around him. The boy said a few words in English, then switched to Tibetan.
“When he arrived here,” the director said, “he didn’t speak any Tibetan.”
For a lesson on the artistic traditions of Tibet, we journeyed to Norbulingka Institute, a bucolic venue with gardens, a Buddhist temple and a honeycomb of studios. At the woodcarving station, artists pressed sharp tools into pine and teak wood, bringing to life lotus flowers, leaping fish and scaly dragons. Many of the pieces will end up in private homes, as tables or keepsake boxes, or in the institute’s gift shop (and eventually your house).
To enter the Thangka painting workshop, we had to remove our shoes, a fitting act considering the sanctity of the medium. Most of the Life of Buddha and mandala pieces are destined for temples and the collections of practitioners. Once finished, they undergo a consecration ceremony, a blessing of the deity captured in the canvas. Oh, and that gold paint: Don’t drip any because it’s the real stuff.
In Norbulingka’s Seat of Happiness Temple, Thangka paintings as colorful as peacocks coat the walls fresco-style. A 14-foot-tall gilded copper statue of Buddha with tight blue curls presses against the back wall. A photograph of a much-younger Dalai Lama sits near Buddha’s knees.
I asked the guide why the Dalai Lama’s compound was so plain by comparison, especially with such talent in the valley. He explained that the spiritual leader preferred to use funds for more charitable causes, such as education, than for interior design. However, large copper statues of Padmasambhava, the scholar who brought Buddhist teachings to Tibet, and Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva, do brighten up the altar where he holds his teachings. A future Norbulingka master created both pieces.
On our way out, the guide told me that some famous people came here to pray. Wild guess: Richard Gere? No. Jet Li, the Chinese martial arts expert and actor.
By early afternoon, Dorjee had covered education, arts and food — specifically, tingmo (steamed bread) and thukpa (vegetable noodle soup) at Yangzom Restaurant. We had one category remaining: a medical practice that predates HMOs by thousands of years.
The 13th Dalai Lama founded Men-Tsee-Khang, the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute, in 1916. Forty-five years later, the 14th lama reestablished the center in India, with two outposts in Dharamsala, plus more than 50 elsewhere in the country and Nepal.
A one-room medical-specimen museum displays small vials filled with the natural remedies (stones, plants, metals, minerals, etc.) and descriptions of the afflictions that they purportedly cure. Suffering from insanity, dumbness or a weapon in the heart? Take agar 8. Cracked a bone or accumulating fluid? Down some aurum. Find yourself possessed by demonic spirits? Beat them back with agate.
The school offers astrology consultations based on your name and birth date and time. The $32 session takes 45 minutes to an hour, and the astrologer will send your results in seven to eight months, not ideal for those with an impending existential crisis. The pharmacy, however, sells quicker fixes: teas, powders and lotions with salutary powers.
I scanned the boxes, which promised to help remedy such ailments as respiratory problems, arthritis and wrinkles. I finally settled on Bae Kan Tea, which would counter a poor diet (I was subsisting on momos), and Tobkay-Menja, a veritable Fountain of Youth with a shot of Botox and a drizzle of Clairol Nice ’n Easy. The tonic tea claimed to prolong life, repel illness, increase strength, reduce premature wrinkles, stave off gray hair and enhance my complexion. All I had to do was add hot water and optional sweetener, and sip away the years.
Surinder Kumar is a compact man with a tidy mustache, glossy Ken-doll hair and a green mock-turtleneck sweater. He spoke in a soft voice, so I was completely unprepared when he opened his mouth and released a long, sonorous “Ommmmmmmmmm.” The air in his yoga studio vibrated; a dog outside yelped.
India is the birthplace of yoga, and some historians stick the colored pin at the base of the Himalayas. Dharamsala, which draws pilgrims with spiritual and/or health-kick needs, is dense with yoga studios. Kumar said that in high season, more than 50 places offer classes. During slower times, such as late fall and winter, the number drops to three or four.
I discovered Himalayan Yoga Retreat while looking for Universal Yoga Center, which a Californian named Todd had recommended (he has lived here for 13 years, so he seemed like a credible source). I walked down crumbling stairs, following a sign’s arrow, but could not find it. I asked people along the route, who all told me to go down, down, down. They pointed to a door. I knocked and Kumar opened it, looking unfazed despite the interruption. I was 15 minutes late, and after consulting with the other students, he invited me inside.
For a little over an hour, I followed Kumar’s movements as he worked his way through the Yoga Book for Beginners (sun salutations, cobra, happy baby, tree). At one point, he turned on a small space heater. Outside, I heard construction workers demolishing the steps I’d shortly need to climb. The scent of raw sewage wafted in.
“There is no future, no past,” Kumar said in a deep, controlled voice. “Just now.”
I trained my mental powers on the present, this specific instant in Dharamsala. The beeps and barks and shouts fell silent. The stress melted away. Even the smell dissipated. I inhaled deeply.
After class, Kumar offered me some suggestions. He told me that my pressure points were blocked and that I needed an herbal bath and massage to unclog them. (No need to twist my chakra. Put me down for the four o’clock.) He also encouraged me to seek solitude in the outdoors.
“It’s good to be in nature for the meditation,” he said, “to go far from the world.”
I had heard (yes, Todd again) that some people hike deep into the mountains, find themselves an uninhabited cave and spend years emptying their heads of distractions. With only a free morning, I didn’t have time to search for a vacant grotto where I could dump my thoughts. So I gave my overstimulated mind an IOU and started hiking the 1
The route started from the main square, along an uphill road shared by women in ankle-length skirts carrying bags of supplies, men toting small children and extended families of macaque monkeys. The trail eventually flattened out into a transit hub where cabs picked up tired trekkers for the second leg. At the sole cafe, vintage Bollywood music spilled out of tinny speakers. The rest stop sold tea and lassi (yogurt-based drink), salty Indian snacks and sweet English biscuits.
I reached the temple in less an hour, hot from the physical exertion under a bare-bulb sky. I climbed the few steps to the Hindu temple and peered inside the small white structure filled with offerings to Shiva. I wandered around to the back and walked the short distance to the Sun and Moon Cafe.
I must have looked thirsty because, without any prompts, the owner recited the menu: “I have milk tea, masala tea, black tea, ginger-honey-lemon tea, black coffee, lemon tea, white coffee and ginger tea.”
But I had no time for beverages. My meditative journey was not yet complete.
I scrambled up another trail to a second simple Hindu monument. The Kangra Valley unfolded below, a deep bowl spilling over with pine trees. The chiseled Dhauladhar range kept the vegetative sprawl in check.
Nearing the final peak, I recognized the sound of fluttering and flapping fabric, like laundry blowing in the wind. I stood on the edge of a tangle of Tibetan prayer flags, a gnarled mess of colors and printed wishes. I poked my head through an opening and gazed at the landscape through the scrim of flags.
But I didn’t try to quiet my mind. Instead, I let it whoop with contentment all the way back to town.
Off Temple Road, McLeod Ganj
The hotel, run by the Norbulingka Institute, features themed rooms (wild animals, birds, mythical creatures, etc.) with art and furniture by the organization’s artists. Also on-site restaurant and gift store. Rates from $70.
Up the hill, between Temple and Jogiwara roads
Moon Peak Espresso Coffee Shop and Gallery
Cozy cafe serves Himachali dishes, tandoori, noodle soups and other Indian specialities, plus all-day breakfast items. From about $2.
Across from Norbulingka Institute (see below)
One-room restaurant serves traditional Tibetan cuisine, including tingmo (steamed bread), momo (dumplings) and thukpa (noodle soup). From less than $1.
In Sidhpur, about a half-hour drive from McLeod Ganj
The artists’ studios are open Monday through most Saturdays (except the second Saturday of the month and Tibetan holidays) 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The Losel Doll Museum (30 cents admission), cafe and shop are open daily.
The Dalai Lama’s temple includes the Tibet Museum (free), gift shop and book store, and prayer hall. Teachings are open to the public. Registration is required: Bring two passport-size photos, passport and 10 rupees (16 cents). Check the Web site for his schedule.
Himalyana Yoga Retreat
Green View House, after Yongling School
Surinder Kumar teaches yoga — often daily at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. About $5 per class. Also has reiki and ayurvedic massage.
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