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Looking for the Dalai Lama? Forget Dharamsala, he’s not there

Two hours away by bus, along a road running parallel to the snowclad peaks of the Dhauladhar mountains, was Dharamsala (which they pronounce Dharamshala). This large town, on the floor of a wide valley, is associated in Western minds with the Dalai Lama.

But that is not where he lives. His residence, and the home of the Tibetan government in exile, is in the village of Mcleodganj, which clings to the steep hillside over a thousand feet above the town.

One Saturday I set off to spend a weekend there, accompanied by Annika and Wenke, two ‘grown-up’ Scandinavian volunteers. In the village streets of Mcleodganj, Buddhist monks and nuns in deep rust-red robes mingled with other Tibetans and Western tourists. Most of the few Indians around were shopkeepers or hotel employees. We had no chance of seeing the Dalai Lama himself as he was away on a tour of the United States and Europe. As we entered the precincts of the Tibetan museum and monasteries, a large board reminded us of the eleventh Panchen Lama, whose twenty-third birthday had been celebrated the week before. The board named him ‘The world’s youngest political prisoner’ and explained in English and Hindi that he had been taken away to China soon after he was recognised as the reincarnation of the Lama, in 1995 at the age of six, and had not been seen since.

Re-tyred book coverFrom the quiet and peaceful grounds of the monastery, shaded by trees, Wenke, Annika and I looked down on the town of Dharamsala far below. Beyond it, the plain stretched into the hazy blue distance, but to our right, on the steep slope, we glimpsed white houses with red roofs peeping out between trees. Beyond were forested hillsides with snow-clad peaks towering above them.

The yellow monastery buildings are on several levels, and we climbed up steps, spinning the gilded prayer wheels on our right as we approached the doors of a temple. Entering, I was confronted by a terrifying gilded statue with many arms and a demonic expression. This tantric deity, Kalachakra, seemed to me an anachronism in that peaceful place. But Tibetan Buddhism has transformed ancient gods into essences or archetypes, to be meditated upon and aspired to rather than appealed to for divine help. Kalachakra personifies cycles of time and represents the omniscience of the Buddha. Nearby was his consort Visvamata, also many-armed and horrifying in appearance. In contrast to these violent images, Buddhist monks in a far corner were silently and devotedly creating a mandala, scraping coloured stone onto tiny areas of the intricate design.
The great golden image of the Buddha above the altar looked down on bowls of purifying water and a row of butter lamps. Offerings had been left on all available surfaces – Cadbury’s chocolate bars, packets of biscuits and sweets, and little cartons of fruit juice. Outside, in a small room with windows on all sides, a monk was busy lighting hundreds of butter lamps.

That evening we attended a bizarre Tibetan music and dance event in a drab school hall, where we sat on wooden boards raised a few inches off the floor on bricks. The audience was very small – apart from ourselves there was only a young Western couple, but a Tibetan woman with three or four children sat at the back. The young Tibetan man, who turned out to be the sole performer, started by telling us about his escape from Tibet twelve years before:

“When I was a teenager my family and others from our village decided we must leave Tibet. We took only what we could carry, and set off, avoiding roads and keeping to mountain tracks. We only walked at night, and we dared not use a light because we were afraid of being stopped by the Chinese. In the dark we often tripped and fell, and were covered with scrapes and bruises. “Finally we reached the bridge between Tibet and Nepal and crossed it. We celebrated and were very happy, even though the Nepalese put us in prison. But India agreed to accept us as refugees, and so we were able to negotiate our release.

“India has been very good to us. It has provided me and other young Tibetans with a good education in Indian schools. This has given us the chance to live and work in India and elsewhere. Some have got jobs in the US, and others in Europe. My younger brother is studying in Delhi, but I decided to stay here to look after my mother. I studied Tibetan culture, and now I give performances of Tibetan song and dance.”

Re-tyred book coverThen he started to sing, and the Tibetan woman and children at the back of the room joined in. Dressed in a black kneelength robe with gold trimmings, and blue sneakers, he danced to music from a CD player on the floor behind him. The music was unfamiliar and, to my ears, monotonous. His dancing, in the flickering light of the candles he had lit, was hypnotic. He finished the first half of his programme by spinning round and round very fast for five minutes or more, but he showed no signs of dizziness.

After the interval the performance departed from strictly traditional Tibetan dance, and he invited audience participation. Each of us in turn was whirled about till we were breathless.

When it came to the turn of the young couple, he took one over each of his shoulders and spun them round and round. His solo finale was an angry devil dance, very strenuous and acrobatic. It ended with a fire dance, in which he lit strips of paper from the candles on the floor behind him and weaved flaming patterns in the air. At the end he thanked us all for coming and hugged each one of us.

Extracted from Sara McMurry’s thoughtful and fascinating book ‘Re-tyred’, her account of several teaching stints in rural India. Find out more here.

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