Sunday, November 6, 2011

Finding Tibet in Dharamsala, India


“Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.”
~ His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

And so it was that we missed our train to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, India. I was really looking forward to seeing a real desert town and from the pictures I have seen of Jaisalmer, the huge stone fort and the town that surrounds it, it looked straight out of the Arabian Nights. Like at any moment, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves would come storming over that mound of sand in the distance. But we all knew we had to let go of it. Something else was planned for us. We talked and hashed out a couple of places (Goa, Ladakh, etc.) until we agreed on Dharamsala in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India. The name alone sounded something else. And it was. I knew that it was a part of India that was completely different from the rest of it. I didn’t realize it until I got there.

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

What is in Dharamsala, one may ask. Well, in Dharamsala, not much. However, there is a small town about 30 minutes up in the mountains called McLeod Ganj. The place is where the Fourteenth Dalai Lama fled, fearing persecution by the Chinese government under the rule of Chairman Mao around 50 years ago. Ever since then, Tibetans from all over the old country make the pilgrimage there, choosing the long, cold and arduous trek up in Tibet's high mountain passes rather than face religious persecution back home. McLeod Ganj is now the base of the Tibetan government in exile.

Prayer Wheels at the Tsuglagkhang Monastery, McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

Tsuglagkhang Monastery, McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

We got there pretty early in the morning. It was amazing (and scary) how our big tourist bus got up the mountains with all its hairpin bends and narrow cliffside roads. At one point, some of the passengers shifted to one side as the bus was dangerously tilting to a rather deep ravine. Thrilling. When we finally arrived, we were welcomed by the cold, alpine air. Hey, we are up in the Himalayas, so obviously, it gets really cold. But I really like it. And from all the chaos that we have seen in Delhi, the relative peace and quiet of McLeod Ganj is very much appreciated.

View from McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

There is a lot to do in Dharamsala. One place I made sure I visit though was the Tsuglagkhang Monastery, an actual working monastery, with Tibetan monks of all ages. It also houses the very moving Tibet Museum (5 INR entry) which features videos, photos and news clippings of the very sad recent history of Tibet and the Tibetans. Walk further from the museum and you'll find Tsuglagkhang itself. It is the main monastery in McLeod Ganj as this is where the Dalai Lama holds his lectures whenever he's in Dharamsala. I knew it was the first place I wanted to check out. To actually do the kora and spin prayer wheels. Those were things I knew I could only do if I travel. I am not a Buddhist but the experience was nevertheless meaningful.

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

I noticed that people are nicer and more relaxed here, too. You can actually tell people apart here easily. You have the Tibetans, the Hindus, the Gaddis (the semi-nomadic peoples of Central Asia) and, of course, the backpackers (who are quite plenty and spread out all over the town). Greet everyone with a namaste, or in the case of the Tibetans, tashi delek, and they greet you back. It’s quite nice.

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

All in all, I was really happy about this turn of events. Had we not missed our train to Jaisalmer, we would not find ourselves in this little Tibetan town in the heart of the Indian Himalayas. Imagine my surprise when I, browsing the Internet, happened upon www.dalailama.com. Yes, His Holiness has a website and it was stated there that he was actually in town as he was giving a lecture at the request of a group of Korean Buddhist who made the pilgrimage there. When we found out that the lecture was open to everyone who wanted to come, we realized the reason why we missed our train in the first place. We had to be here to see the Dalai Lama. How to register for the lecture and the lecture itself, I'll recount later. Right now, I was just really glad that everything worked out. Travel is a beautiful thing like that.

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India


* How to get to Dharamsala from Delhi: Get yourselves to Majnu Ka Tilla, the Tibetan colony (read: neighborhood) in the heart of New Delhi. There will be a couple of travel agencies there that sells bus tickets straight to Dharamsala. Get yourself a ticket and that’s it. We went with the AC buses and a seat cost 700 INR one-way. Buses leave about 6 or 7 in the evening every day in the parking lot adjacent to the colony. From Delhi, it will be about a 14-hour bus drive.

** More photos of Dharamsala in my Flickr set: India - Dharamsala.


Have you been to Dharamsala, India? What did you think of it? Have you also had curious turn of events in your own travels?


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