Dharamsala, or the upper town McLeod Ganj where we stayed, is a gorgeous little spot. In one direction lies the deep valley below (McLG is at 1750 m altitude) and in the other direction the impossibly high snow-capped mountains above. The town is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile as well as a large population of Tibetan refugees – it looks and feels incredibly different with prayer wheels, prayer flags and Buddhist stupas everywhere. It is also firmly on the backpacker trail with plenty souvenir stalls and cafe’s serving banana pancakes, and many aging hippies.
The place we stayed in was nice and had a good vegetarian restaurant (most places are all-veg here) – hot water worked in the room as soon as we had figured out to flick the switch outside the door (..though I did manage to have one very refreshing shower before this). There was also a large toad sitting outside our door the whole day which I took to be an auspicious sign!
Second day we went for a walk to find the Dalai Lama’s residence and monastery, however we got a bit lost as the map was not to scale (..and clearly labeled “not to scale”). Ended up on a long path downhill with beautiful views to the mountains and prayer flags in the trees. Eventually we figured out that we had walked right past the palace and completed a “kora” – a circumnavigation path around the temple complex completed by devotees always in the clockwise direction. Everyone we met had been walking the opposite direction to us! I’m somewhat worried now that we might have acquired a negative one on some sort of karma score-card after doing it anti-clockwise. Also, the toad outside our door was gone when we came back!
In the evening we got a tip from a Buddhist monk in the hostel that the Dalai Lama would be at the monastery the day after to meet with a number of Indian guru’s so we might have a chance to catch a glimpse of him. We got there early which was lucky as we were sent back to the hostel to leave camera and mobile – the security was pretty strict with metal detectors and bag inspection. A crowd of a few hundred, mostly Tibetans, had gathered sitting on the ground and we spotted the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa (a high Tibetan lama for a different Buddhism school) with a number of Indian guru-looking types walking up to the palace. When we came back after lunch some hour later the meeting had just finished and we spotted the Dalai Lama again on the way to a waiting car. We was waving and smiling at everyone and seemed to be in good form.
In the evening we popped by a Tibet museum near the palace. It had lots of photos and information about the devastation following the 1950 invasion, including pictures from many of the monasterys that were completely destroyed during the “cultural revolution”. About 6,000 monasterys were destroyed and 1.2 million people killed in total – many of the people designing the exhibitions had been in “re-education” camps and tortured before fleeing Tibet. The museum also had Tibet stamps, Tibet currency, a Tibet passport and pre-1950 National Geographic articles to refute any claims that Tibet “always was a part of China”.
After spending a few days around McLeod Ganj we signed up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat, though I’ll save that for the next post.