Dharamsala in India continues to hold its place on the world’s tourist maps. But there is more to it than the mountains or cafes, it is the beacon of peace. It’s early morning on a bright day. I walk out of the odd hundred – year – old run – down colonial cottage and hear drum beat at a distance, cymbals clanging and blowing of large horns that punctuate the silence of the hills. The air is crisp; the sunrise illuminates the Kangra valley below for miles with clear visibility. The special is on at the nearby Nechung monastery, home to the Nechung Oracle, the principle protector deity of the Tibetan government – in – exile and the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. I am not as astounded as I think I should be considering my scientific world view, even though it’s not an everyday affair. Dharamsala, home to thousands of exiled Tibetans and their spiritual leader the 14th Dalai Lama, is an odd place by any standards.
STRANGE AS IT GETS to Dharamsala in India
Dharamsala in a materialistic world where the spiritual fabric is tattered beyond imagination, it takes more than the impossible to catch our attention, to stop and truly wonder about life, universe and everything else mysterious in it. Extraordinary people we meet dharamsala, events we witness and places we visit seem more of a reality, on a larger than life screen so film or a flat – screen plasma, with heavy special effects and boomed – up and Dolbyed extravaganza, than our own surrounding bizarre reality. A hyper reality that is aimed at and is able to transport us into a ’suspension of disbelief’ mode and say – can you believe that? So if anyone told me, here’s man who can see the future and there’s another who is a reincarnation and has been born over again for over 600 years in different bodies and one could actually see them, would I buy it? And would I believe what I see, especially because they don’t perform strange tricks, black magic or levitate or come with special effects? However, millions do believe, and I can say I have been around for 600 years and another for around 900 years and an oracle in trance predicting the future! And they are across the globe to this remote town. Dharamsala looks the Nechung Oracle go into trance as he shook with his 30 – pound headgear, and could barely be kept under control with four sturdy holding him down while he swayed, making incomprehensible sounds responding to the questions he was being asked. To describe the event as the Dalai Lama puts it in his biography, “At this point, a huge helmet, which apparently weighs close to 30 pounds is paced on his head, his face transforms, becoming rather wild before puffing up to give him an altogether strange appearance, with bulging eyes and swollen cheeks. His breathing begins to shorten and he starts to hiss violently. The possession is now complete and the mortal frame of the medium expands visibly… The volcanic energy of the deity can barely be contained… who moves and gestures as if his body were made of rubber and driven by a coiled spring of enormous power.”
LITTLE LHASA in Dharamsala
The small North Indian, Himalayan town of Dharamsala provides its visitors many an opportunity to believe or disbelieve what they generally understand as reality. It is not simply the natural beauty of the hill town surrounded by pine, oak deodar and rhododendron forests tucked into the snow – capped Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas, which in tiself is enough to attract the visitors. Geographically speaking there are better spots the Himalayas have to offer if it’s for the natural beauty alone, but it’s the combination of tranquility, natural beauty and its key element: the inhabitants of this town and their culture, that bring thousands of believers and non – believers to re-examine life and its laws. Dharamsala today is the Buddhist spiritual epicentre, a place of pilgrimage for Tibetans (Over 1,00,000 refugees now live in India; and many others, still cross the treacherous high Himalayan passes every year risking their lives to reach here). Dharamsala is a place of interest for the thousands of Westerners who throng this colourful, vibrant town for more than a quick breeze – through. It is here that they can meditate the temples or monasteries, walk the mountain trails, or watch the sun go down over a cappuccino at one of the numerous cafes that dot the town. All of these factors are Dharamsala primarily due to one man, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, affectionately called His Holiness. In 1960, this quiet little town was offered to the Dalai Lama as a place of refuge when he was given political asylum by the government of India after fleeing Tibet. Since the ‘60s he has made McLeod Ganj, a tiny ridge off Dharamsala, his home in exile. Today, Buddhist chants echo up and down the valley in the pre – dawn hours, the sound of bellowing long horns emanates from the temple complex during the day, and quiet prayers amidst the warm glow of butter lamps are often held at twilight. In this small enclave, over a period of 50 years, the Tibetan way of life has been reborn, creating a Little Lhasa alongside the daily routine of Indian life. Dharamsala is a cultural mish – mash of sorts, but in the monasteries, institutes and cultural as it cannot possibly exist in Tibet today. In this small enclave, over a period of 50 years the Tibetan way of life has been reborn.
THE BODHISATTVA IN DHARAMSALA
It is by the efforts of the Dalai Lama, who could be technically considered around 600 years old, that such a culture and a way of the Dalai Lama, who would be technically considered around 600 years old, that such a culture and way of life survives in this tiny north Indian hill down. Tibetans and many Bhuddhista believe him to be first born in 1391 as Gedun Drupa to a nomadic family. To in his 14th reincarnation he is known as Tenzin Gyatso (the name means ‘ocean of wisdom’) or the living reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara (the Buddha of Compassion). He is a man believed to be a ‘Bodhisattva’ – an enlightened being, who has postponed his own nirvana and chosen to take rebirth in order to serve all sentient beings. Although most visitors, somehow, don’t find this fact astounding, that a man who is believed to be a reincarnation and has been born and reborn for 600 years lives in exile amidst them, instead of choosing the option of nirvana! The Dalai Lama however, tirelessly repeats that he is just a ‘simple Buddhist monk’, but for millions of admirers and devotees he is a god-like figure to be treated with deep respect and reverence. To outsiders there may seem some incongruity here, when you consider that Buddhism does not subscribe to the concept of ‘God as master/creator of the universe, emphasising instead ‘karma’, or one’s own actions and deeds, and a belief in after – life and rebirth. But the Dalai Lama as the Bodhisattva manifests a physical from to help others, and is reborn according to his wish and will. The belief system of Bodhisattvas and Avalokiteshvara is played out every time the Dalai Lama appears publicly in Dharamsala, in front of thousands of his devotees. The gatherings are simple affairs, but the display of devotion and faith are amazing; even the strictest rationalist would be challenged not to be moved. Perhaps it is the charisma and charm of the man, and his powerful presence, or perhaps it is the massage he brings of peace, simplicity and compassion (incidentally) he was also awarded the 1989 Noble Prize) –and his very personal way of transmitting it, which make his audiences so special. Dharamsala gatherings are simple affairs, but the display of devotion and faith are amazing.
A SPEARATE REALITY IN DHARAMSALA
Dharamsala is simple and easy in Dharamsala to tune into discourses on life and suffering and to search for a way out of this endless cycle. Or easier to repeatedly watch spectacular sunsets over prefect blend of cappuccions. And again while attempting both I question at times if it’s suffering or joy that primarily underlies our lives? Dharamsala is the presence of simple people, their culture, art and their spirituality mixed with a heavy dose of popular culture and sci- fi kind reality, where tech savvy Buddhist monks and nuns exist to make another universe possible, probably closer than we all imagine. A universe where the material and the spiritual can converge and co – exit, without resorting to the extremes. Dharamsala is where you may find a 10 – years – old maroon – robed Tibetan lama practising his chants seated `next to an octogenarian lama reading from ancient scriptures, before he escapes for a break and zips out in his Ferrari – at an internet café cum Playstation game parlour. Dharamsala is a reality where monks and Ferraris come together. In between developing their spirituality and training their consciousness they stay connected to the ‘out there’ world, hopefully traversing a ‘middle path’.
Jet Airways, Indigo, Go Air and Jet Airways has daily flights to Delhi from all major cities in India. From Delhi, one can take an overnight tourist bus to Dharamsala.
Owing to its elevated status in tourist guidebooks, McLeod Ganj offers a huge number of guesthouses to choose from. There are the cheap ones with bubbly cafes and plenty of character, and there are more expensive ones that provide the usual plush conveniences. Use the search window to Book your Accommodation.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
LOG on to www.himachaltoursim.gov.in