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Asia » India » Himachal Pradesh » Mcleod Ganj/Dharamsala - 9 to 12 March 2013

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"I had hoped that some day I might see Tibet, the roof of the world.
However, until China returns the country to its rightful owners and stops brutalising its people and destroying its traditions, I'll make do with Tibet in Exile."

Mike Fossey, March 2013

In March of 1959, after an epic journey on foot over the Himalayas, Tibet's spiritual leader, Tenzin Gyatso - His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, crossed through the Khenzimana Pass into India. Days earlier, in Tibet's capital Lhasa, the people had risen up against Communist China's occupation of their country for the past eight years. The uprising was brutally put down. The tiny Tibetan army was outnumbered and out-gunned. More than 85,000 were said to have been killed. Those members of the Dalai Lama's bodyguards who'd remained behind in Lhasa were publicly executed. Thousands of monks were killed and their monasteries destroyed.

The tolerant Indian nation offered refuge to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, a former colonial British summer hill-station and a place which already had some Buddhist connections. Tibetans had started coming here to live during the 19th century, establishing small temples and schools for its slowly-growing community. The Dalai Lama set up a Government in Exile and Mcleod Ganj (Upper Dharamsala) became his official residence. Just our luck - at the time of our visit to Mcleod Ganj he was giving some teachings in New Delhi, so he wasn't at home! Our arrival did, however, coincide with the 54th anniversary of the 1959 uprising!

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The 14th Dalai Lama

The Tibetan community has steadily grown over the years - so much so that Dharamsala is sometimes referred to as 'Little Lhasa', although the 8,000 Tibetan refugees who've set up home here often prefer to call it just 'Dhasa'. It has to be said that the Dalai Lama seems to have done a good job in creating a solid foundation for them, with financial support and establishment of good schools, organisations, museums and monasteries.

There are several Buddhist temples here. The largest - and, indeed, the largest one outside of Tibet - is in the Tsuglagkhang complex, in front of the Dalai Lama's residence on Temple Road. This was only a couple of minutes' steep downhill walk from our hotel, the Chonor House - itself part of the Tibetan culture so prevalent in Mcleod Ganj (see 'Accommodation' at the end of this blog).

*****

It was on our first walk down to Temple Road, on the anniversary of the Tibetan people's uprising, that we encountered a huge but peaceful march protesting about China's continued refusal to grant independence to Tibet. It was a good-humoured event, despite an unexpected but thankfully short-lived rainstorm, with much waving of the Tibetan flag, face-painting and slogans on placards.

Young and old, monks in their maroon red robes and trainers, school children in uniform, local Tibetans and even some foreigners all thronged the narrow lanes on the march down to Dharamsala.

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We decided not to join the march but, when the procession had gone, we discovered that the multitude of stalls on the long Temple Road were all closed, as were many of the shops. They were clearly run by Tibetans who were now on their way down the mountain or manned by Indians who, by coincidence, were celebrating the Hindu festival of Maha Shivratri on this same day!

Instead, we visited the near-deserted Tsuglagkhang complex. We went there a couple of times subsequently too, when it was busy with monks going about their business, the faithful prostrating themselves repeatedly, chanting prayers as they did so, and foreign visitors intrigued by all about them.

The temple is quite a modern structure, so lacking somewhat in atmosphere, but interesting nonetheless. It contains a museum (which we should have visited perhaps, but we're really not into museums), a monastery which trains monks for rituals associated with the temple, the temple itself, a shrine with a huge gold statue of the Buddha and a massive chorten - a vast array of cylindrical metal prayer wheels bearing the 'Om mani padme hum' mantra. Paintings and wall hangings depict religious stories and fierce Tibetan deities.

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We didn't have an opportunity to speak with any of the monks - most are refugees from Tibet rather than born in India and speak only a smattering of Hindi or English anyway, and their monastic education is entirely in Tibetan. Their days are largely devoted to studying philosophy, history, geography and tantra. Having said that, we did see quite a few monks out in the town, shopping, eating at restaurants, talking on their mobile phones or just walking around.

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Propaganda posters are commonplace. One we saw related to the 10th Panchen Lama (the future Dalai Lama) who was kidnapped by the Chinese government and whose whereabouts are unknown. Others depicted the plight of Tibetan refugees or voiced the claim that a million Tibetans had been killed since China occupied the country, destroying 6,000 religious and cultural centres.

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In the town itself, one side of Temple Road is lined with stalls selling handmade necklaces, trinkets, woollens, leather goods, 'singing bowls' and Tibetan handicrafts of all kinds. Hard bargaining is the order of the day here. On the other side are dozens of small shops selling slightly more expensive articles, clothing, scarves, thangka paintings, souvenirs and the like. Amid this busy scene, all life is displayed - occasional beggars, a small troupe of Langur monkeys, women working on building sites, and even our hotel receptionist on her lunch break.

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Other foreigners, of which there were many around - most of them dressed like hippies in clothes that that they'd bought from locals dressed like non-hippie foreigners - seemed to be enjoying the street food and ice cream cones from the nearby shop too.

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There are one or two decent eating places, and even a coffee bar. I think Tibetans own a lot of the restaurants, shops and hotels in town and employ Indians to work for them. However, some of the restaurants didn't appear to follow any prescribed standards of hygiene - take a look at this (a)shocker:

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We tended to avoid food from street stalls too, but some of the Tibetan soup-like noodles and momos (dumplings, usually vegetable-filled and steamed or fried) looked almost good enough to eat!

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So, we ate mainly at our hotel, where we could choose western-style meals or Tibetan dishes with unpronounceable and eminently-forgettable names; it certainly made a change from the usual spicy Indian food we'd had almost everywhere else, although some still had a bit of kick.

*****

About 15 kilometres outside of Mcleod Ganj is the Norbulingka Institute, a peaceful retreat devoted to preserving the culture and art of Tibet. Norbulingka was the name of the Dalai Lama's summer residence in Tibet. At the Institute, a guided tour introduced us to this picturesque and interesting cultural centre, where Tibetan arts and crafts continue to be practised and a livelihood is provided for a few of the exiled population.

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We saw artists meticulously painting thangkas, some of which could take months to complete. We were shown one painting that had already taken many months of skilled work and which, after several more months of tiny brush strokes, would eventually be presented to the Dalai Lama. Patience was certainly a virtue here.

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Groups of mainly women, sitting on cushions at low tables, made appliqué embroidery thangkas, detailed little pieces being carefully folded, pressed and sewn together with hundreds of stitches.

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Elsewhere, boxes were being assembled then beautifully painted by hand and metal figurines and fretwork pictures were being carefully constructed using basic tools. There's a shop where all the fruits of the workers' labour are well-presented and can be yours for a not unreasonable price given their very high quality.

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The artists' studios were set among landscaped gardens with ponds and streams, flowering shrubs and giant bamboos, decorated here and there with strings of prayer flags.

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A Doll Museum, an unusual exhibition of intricately detailed and lifelike dolls, provides a reference point for future generations of the costumes worn by people in various regions of Tibet and displays festivals and religious events that form part of Tibetan culture.

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Of course, there's a temple here too, with portraits of all the Dalai Lamas lining the walls of its upper floor, together with a stunning gold statue of the Buddha and a few murals of scary gods.

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*****

I loved everything about Mcleod Ganj, despite the number of tourists and the holiday industry that has grown up around them. It was definitely a very different face of India, one I'd never seen before. And, it was almost certainly the closest I'll get to Tibet in this lifetime!

*****

Accommodation:
Although the most expensive option here, our stay at Chonor House provided the ultimate Tibetan experience in this Tibet-influenced town. Its location, up a steep, narrow side alley off Temple Road within two or three minutes' walk of the entrance to the Tsuglagkhang complex was very convenient, although returning up the steep hill after walking around town was, perhaps, not ideal.

It's part of the Norbulingka Institute, some of whose beautiful handiwork provides furnishings for the very comfortable lounge and paintings on the staircases.

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The hotel's staff are all Tibetan and it's decorated throughout with the most wonderful hand-painted murals depicting scenes of Tibetan life and wildlife. Its 11 bedrooms are all different; one thing they do have in common though is a lack of room numbers - they have names instead. Mine was 'Wild Animals of Tibet' and, sure enough, there they were, all over my walls - a panda, yaks, monkeys... There were even leopards on the key tag and the carpet was decorated with tigers. I'd arranged in advance for my brother and his wife, the bloggers Grey haired nomads, to have the room aptly named 'Nomads of Tibet', which was adorned with murals of the country's nomadic peoples.

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The rooms were spacious, very clean, and had good bathrooms, complimentary tea and coffee making facilities, a small fridge, a desk and chair, and free WiFi.

The restaurant served excellent food with many Tibetan specialities. Waiters seemed inexperienced and very laid-back, so service was sometimes incredibly slow but, hey, we were on holiday...

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We paid Rs.4,650 (£56/US$86/€66) per night, room only including all taxes, for the double and Rs.4,016 (£48/US$75/€57) for single occupancy. Meals were additional but reasonably priced.

I'd go back there without any hesitation.

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Farewell Chonor House. My brother David (left of picture) and me about to leave Chonor House
after receiving traditional kurtas (white silk scarves) from Dorma.
Picture courtesy of the 'Grey haired nomads'.

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:04 Archived in India Tagged india dharamsala himachal_pradesh mcleod_ganj

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