McLeod Ganj, a holy suburbia

It’s a place of piety, a haven for an exiled government, and a shopper’s paradise as well.

It is difficult to remain apolitical in this small Himalayan outpost perched in Himachal Pradesh. The snow-clad Dhauladhar Range, motionless as it seems like the Buddha, is not indifferent to the aspiration of a people whose eyes still get moist at the thought of homeland far, very far away.

McLeod Ganj, also known as Upper Dharamshala, is a suburb of Dharamshala, seven kilometres up the mountain. And is home to Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile. Culturally, McLeod Ganj seemed to me as a fragment winched out of Lhasa in Tibet and plonked under the trusteeship of the Kangra Himalaya. Complete with despair and hope, anguish and prayers. And this is where political correctness gives a slip and emotive compulsions take over.

I asked a local for directions to Dalai Lama’s Temple. He showed me the one he preferred. And I didn’t realise I was doomed. The path — you can hardly call it a walking path — snaked down a precipice and gave way to a small mountain stream, which I barely managed to jump across. Hurtling down further, the path abruptly ended at the front porch of a small house with a large furry dog blocking the way, sunbathing. I didn’t dare to cross. Just then, a little boy with rosy cheeks and a running nose chirruped past me. He stopped, looked back at me quizzically, much like a sparrow, then gestured me to ‘follow him’ past his canine friend. “No worry,” his eyes and smile combined impeccably to assure me. I obeyed, and in another five minutes of sheer descent, hit a proper tarred road right at the entrance of Dalai Lama’s Temple. What a relief.

In that frosty morning, two ladies were sweating out selling steaming momos by the entrance of the temple. It was tempting, but divine sense prevailed and I entered the temple complex ignoring the waft of chicken momos.

Seat of holiness

A large board right at the entrance condemning the custody of the six-year-old 11th Panchen Lama by the Chinese government indicated the temple to be the hub of political activity as well. The angst hangs like a shroud in thin air, sometimes manifestly, like in posters and banners, otherwise subtly. And you can sense it etched indelibly in the deep furrows of elderly faces as they walk by while meditating on their prayer beads.

I followed the streaming devotees, past the temple library, up a flight of stairs to a courtyard. I lined up behind a group of young monks to have a go at the prayer wheels occupying a good part of a wall. The courtyard is open on three sides to the views of the snow-capped mountain range, the town of Dharamshala below like a patchwork on the slopes, and the valley deep down blurred in the mist.

Dalai Lama’s residence is at one end of the courtyard facing the temple. “His holiness sits over there when he delivers his sermons,” said an elderly monk, pointing at the raised veranda of the temple. I eagerly enquired if the Dalai Lama would speak anytime in the next few days. “His holiness is travelling in Europe now.”

“His holiness sits over there when he delivers his sermons,” said an elderly monk, pointing at the raised veranda of the temple. I eagerly enquired if the Dalai Lama would speak anytime in the next few days. “His holiness is travelling in Europe now.”

Another flight of stairs took me to the upper part of the temple, to a smaller courtyard. At the flanks were wooden planks with cushions. On those cushions, a couple of devotees were at their ritualistic obeisance, lying down flat on their chest with folded hands and then standing up again, much like in yoga. They kept repeating the process while facing the sanctum adorned by a golden statue of Buddha Sakyamuni. Near the sanctum of Buddha are those of Padmasambhava and Avalokitesvara. The lineage of Dalai Lamas is considered as reincarnations of Avalokitesvara.

Back from the temple, it was past noon but the sun was too feeble. The narrow Jogiwara Road was, however, cherry-up with shops and eateries, jostled one above the other as pile-up in a rugby game. The place was abuzz with locals, mostly Tibetans and few Himachalis, tourists, monks, elderlies with prayer beads, hand-drawn carts for goods, and an odd mini-truck, much oversized for the road, which couldn’t move either way, blocking everyone. Tibetan handicrafts and antiques dominates the bazaar, shop after shop, and that wasn’t surprising. I felt like a child in a Swiss chocolate store where I could buy only this much. The only consolation being that my wife’s situation was worse, and we both needed some version of parental supervision on splurging. To buy a lot of small items or a few of larger ones without blowing up and surpassing the baggage allowance of the airlines?

Buyers’ take

After browsing through five stores, retracing back to the second and the fourth, we picked up a prayer wheel, about a foot long, with ornate metalwork. Exquisite. I bargained hard, or at least that was what I thought of my performance. On to the next shop, and the next. When did afternoon roll over to late evening I failed to notice, and realised enough was enough only when the weight of the items shopped almost reached the point of the proverbial straw that would break the camel’s back.

Exhausted, and hungry. And lo. The aroma of piping thukpa — the Tibetan noodle soup — sent me headlong to the Tibet Kitchen. The choice wasn’t many. But I still had to pick between phingsha — made of beans, vermicelli, meat, potatoes and dried mushrooms — and stewed ribs. I tossed the coin. The bakery was the next stop. With a stomach pretty filled already, I had to gamble between yak cheese pastries and yak muffins. At that moment, Lhasa didn’t seem too far, perceptibly.

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McLeod Ganj, a holy suburbia

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