7 Days In Little Tibet
…Following A Dream to Dharmasala…
India does strange things to people. I have even heard (new age type) travellers say things to the extent that nobody actually travels to India by accident but rather the country “calls you” when you are ready to receive the lessons it has to bestow upon you (notwithstanding the BT and Talk Talk Contractors who came purely to offshore their back-office operations).
Whilst I may not go that far, I will admit that I did decide to visit India following a dream I had and just could not forget about. I will also admit that, when in India, I adopted lifestyle changes that I never could have foreseen and I found myself opening to new ways of thinking and looking at the world that I would have scoffed at before leaving England. Yeah, India did change me.
Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh is set in the majestic Himalayas. This once sleepy, backwater town got a jolt of life in the 1950’s when the Dalai Lama, newly exiled from Tibet, sought refuge there and it became the home of him and the entire Tibetan Government in exile. Ever since then it has been a magnet for other Tibetans fleeing the repression of their homeland as well as for travelers, new-agers and truth seekers.
Dharamsala and in particular the little town of McLeod Ganj has earned the nickname of “Little Tibet” on account of the presence of the monks, Tibetan people and the presiding influence of Tibetan culture. Momo’s steam in pots all day long and singing bowls ring out in the morning. In fact, the place feels distinctly different, not only from the rest of the country but also from the other towns in the valley and it’s quite possible to almost forget that you are in India at all. For many visitors, like the exiles, this Little Tibet is probably the nearest they will ever get as Big Tibet is pretty much off limits owing to onerous, expensive visa requirements as well as the prick of conscience asking whether one even should visit Big Tibet at this particular time in history.
Accordingly, I decided to use my time here to learn as much as I possibly could about Tibetan culture starting with a delicious Tibetan breakfast of stir-fried mixed veg, Yak’s milk butter, and Tibetan tea. Once that was out of the way I headed out to see what else I could find and paid the inevitable visit to the Temple of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan museum which tells sad tale’s of a quiet, cultural genocide which the world no longer bothers to report.
However, this wasn’t quite enough and so I decided to delve further and find some first-hand experience.
Doctor, Doctor…- Seeing a Tibetan Doctor
I heard from an English couple I met that there was a traditional Tibetan Doctor’s surgery employing traditional diagnosis techniques and prescribing traditional medicine. I am actually pretty skeptical (but open) about homeopathy and oriental medicine but decided what the hell, it’s worth a go.
The clinic operated on a walk-in basis, you simply take a ticket (an aged piece of wood with a number painted number on it) and wait for the first available Doctor. There was only one English speaking Doctor in the clinic at the time so I was directed towards a particular room which would mean a slightly longer wait than usual. I sat on a wooden bench, the whitewash paint flaking off it just like the plaster that periodically fell from the walls. A portrait of His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama hung in pride of place on a wall shelf with vases of flowers and burning incense positioned around it. The other patients were a combination of red-robed monks, Tibetans living in exile and a duo of other foreigners who had presumably also been lured here out of sheer curiosity. As I sat I reflected on precisely why I was here and exactly what I would tell the Doctor was wrong with me as I actually felt perfectly healthy. It was at this point that the absurdity of what I was doing hit me, I mean would a visitor to the UK think to themselves “I have heard about the famous British NHS, I must go and get an appointment with a GP!” and then sit in the waiting room trying to work out what exactly they felt was wrong with them?! Still, I was here now so no turning back…
I pondered. Should I mention the causal depression that sometimes afflicts me? No, too heavy for a drop-in appointment and besides that I was scared that the prescription would be that I join a convent and meditate for the rest of my days (I’m far too fond of hair to shave it off) . Then it hit me, whilst I did feel fine, I had caught a cold some weeks ago and the mucus had hung around ever since and I was going through tissues at the rate of 1 acre of rainforest per day. It then occurred me that I had actually had 3 colds this year (it was still only April) and maybe there was some underlying issue I should get checked out. This is the kind of thing you can’t really go to an NHS Doctor back home with – their resources are far too stretched to deal with common colds.
The flies maintained their usual fascination with me which had not relented the entire month I was in India. I wanted to swat them away, kill them if I could but was conscious of been within the gaze of two Buddhist monks so rather I simply ushered them away gently.
After maybe a half hour it was my turn and I respectfully, almost sheepishly, entered the Doctor’s office. The room was tiny with just enough room to navigate through the door and then close it behind me. The Doctor sat behind a rustic wooden desk. She was a monk, shaved head & robed in red and at her side sat a Tibetan, civilian nurse.
I took my seat and the Doctor asked what was wrong with me. After scribbling some notes she asked me to hold out my hands and placed her finger on my pulse, first right and then left. After a short deliberation, she issued her diagnosis; I was strong and healthy, I had a great immune system but suffered from allergies. I would have to change my diet to avoid meat, eggs, spicy and sweet foods.
This was not what I wanted to hear. I was in India for crying out loud, how was I going to avoid spicy foods?! However I have to say she did have a point, I had long noted that my nose does always run pretty badly after spicy food although I had thus far interpreted it as a good thing, that the spicy foods were “clearing me out”, rather than in fact causing the problem.
She also prescribed me a course of medicines which I collected from the dispensary across the hall. It was a series of pellets which appeared to me to be made from entirely organic ingredients. All of this for 350rps (under $5).
A Sky Full of Stars – Tibetan Horrorscope
I noticed that the medical centre also had a sign for an astrology department so decided to enquire (yes in Tibetan culture medical science and astrology share the same building). Astrology remains very important in Tibetan and Chinese culture, readings are very common and are taken very seriously. In order to book my appointment I would need my time, date and place of both and to allow the astrologer a few days to consult my birth chart. I paid my 2000rps ($25) and made the appointment for the following Monday giving the Astro department time enough to make their investigations.
As I climbed the stairway to the department I noticed that a bird had made its nest in the corner of the stairwell and, I guess in accordance with the Buddhist faiths’ all-encompassing respect for life, had been allowed to remain there.
I sat in the room and waited for my astrologer. I didn’t know to what expect, would it be another monk or a camp, eccentric loony like the clairvoyants back in the west? After a few minutes, Lobsang entered. He wasn’t a monk but a civilian, average height, mildly overweight, smartly dressed and smiling kindly. He seemed perfectly normal, reasonable and sensible and not somebody who would have made an entire career out of something as wishy-washy as astrology. This encouraged me greatly.
He placed his chart on the table and offered me a pen and paper to take notes before getting straight down to business. First up, I was born on my unlucky day (Saturday) but that this needn’t be a problem as long as I ensured never to begin a project on this day. My elemental sign is Wood and my animal sign Mouse. This means that I have a particular affiliation with Dog’s (1982 or 1994) Dragon’s (1976 or 1988) but should avoid Horses’ (1978, 1990).
He told me that my lucky colours were Red, White & Blue (the colours of the Union Jack) and that I had a penchant for travelling in our other countries. So far so interesting right? But of course, he knew that I was British travelling in India so these are easy hook lines to feed.
The reading doesn’t attempt to divine one’s future and the only predictions I was given were that I should live into my 80’s (dear God no!) and should not expect to ever be rich. What it does do though is advise what you have to do, and at what particular points in your life, to ensure the realization of these predictions such as the most crucial years to take special care of your health and the best and worst years to take financial risks. The reading also offers almost comically precise ways to improve one’s karma. For example, to improve the karma relating to the health of my feet and kidneys, I should feed aquatic animals!
The reading also offered some insights into my personality. Some were neither here nor there such as I am loving but can sometimes seem distant, that I am a joyous person but can be troubled. Some, however, were bang on the money, I love learning, I get on with educated, intelligent people and don’t suffer fools. When it came to a career assessment he said I should be either a composer or a writer; I used to be the former and now ply my trade as the latter.
I’m mostly rational and rational people don’t like to believe that their life trajectories and destinies are shaped by random, cosmological alignments at their time of birth. Rather rational people like to believe in the power of their own choices. Yet this is clearly flawed. Firstly the single most important lesson I have earned from traveling is that the accident of been born white and British were the best things that ever happened to me and gave me so many advantages and opportunities in life that many people in the countries I have visited do not have and will never have. Equally my talents for music and writing are seemingly random, God-given occurrences. Nobody in my family has a predisposition for either and I was never exposed to these arts at a formative age. So maybe they really are a result of a seemingly inconsequential alignment of planets over Halifax one autumn morning 31 years ago?
The Mind is Like A Monkey – Meeting with Tibetan Monks
In McLeod Ganj I watched the Monks wander around the town and really wanted to approach them. However, I
never knew how this would be received so kept my distance. Accordingly, when I heard about conversational classes, where volunteers simply spend an hour a day speaking with and meeting Tibetan Monks to help them practice their English, I jumped at the chance.
Tibetan World in McLeod Ganj is a charitable organisation dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture as well as helping the 1000’s of refugees who flee Tibet each year. At 4pm each afternoon volunteers sit cross-legged on the floor and hold court with a circle of monks.
I was matched up with Thubten and Tashi. Native speakers of any Oriental languages generally find English pronunciation especially difficult so I did have to listen very closely to understand them. Likewise, it seems everybody finds a Northern British accent hard to understand (even other British people) so I had to make a concerted effort to speak as slowly and carefully as I could.
I told the monks a little about myself. I told them how I admired their asceticism but I would find it too hard a life as my mind was far too active. “The mind is like a monkey” Thubten stated, “but a monkey with the potential power of a stampeding elephant”. I was far more interested in hearing about them than in talking about myself. It did occur to me that maybe they got asked these questions a lot but they were certainly very gracious, open and seemed genuinely glad to talk about their experiences.
Thubten had become a monk at the age of eight, one day he came home from school and advised his Mother that he no longer wished to attend regular school and wanted to join the monastery. I was stunned at how an eight-year-old boy could even comprehend what was that was let alone feel sure enough to make such a massive decision but he assured me he had never once looked back. He had come to India years earlier after the oppression of Tibet became too much for him and hiked with a party of eleven for eighteen days across the Himalaya’s.
Tashi was a recent convert and had joined the order only three months earlier after graduating University and deciding that a regular career wasn’t the path for him. He was very shy and respectful in the presence of the older monk but very sweet and did open up when he got talking.
I asked them both about the routine day to day lives in the order. They awoke at dawn, five am to meditate. Then they breakfasted, took a walk and spent the remainder of the day either teaching or studying pausing to meditate again. It didn’t actually sound like that bad an existence.
Thubten had never returned to Tibet but had travelled to China for some kind of conference. At this point, I jumped in and asked him what he thought of China and whether he bore any anger towards the people. Whilst he remained calm and composed I did see excitement flash in his eyes revealing embers of a passion burning deep within his serene soul. He did not bear them any ill will but rather he had hope for the future, he felt that the youth of China were sick of the status quo, were hungry for change, that it would soon come and with it the liberation of Tibet. They both concurred on this point with assured nods of their head utterly convinced that they would both live too see the red armies leave the Tibetan plateau, live to see their flag flying once more in the squares Lhasa but more importantly that they would both live to see their homeland with their own eyes once again.
We were talking long after the session had ended and eventually vacated only because a Yoga class was beginning and needed our floor space. Thubten showed me out. I had much enjoyed the Monks company and found them to be a very peaceful, open and loving company. Moreover, I had been surprised at the brief insights of wry humor both had shown (I shouldn’t be surprised, there is a laughing Buddha afterall) and also that Tinsi was wearing Adidas trainers. Thubten asked me if I would join him and a group for a walk into the mountains the following morning. He commented that it would great to have a young, strong man like me in the middle as I looked like a Hollywood movie star. High praise indeed eh? As it was I had to leave town which was something of a shame as I would have loved to learn more about Buddhism, Tibetan culture and hope for the future.
I Will Never Forget Little Tibet
I’m a hopeful skeptic who neither believes nor disbelieves. I have the mind of scientist but the heart of a poet and sometimes my faith can co-exist happily alongside my doubts. I want to think that the ancient mystical, plateau kingdom of Tibet located at the roof of the world, does have some ancient, simple wisdom that puts western rationality modern science to shame. Yet I also have to acknowledge that Tibetan Buddhism is a much primeval superstition as it is Buddha’s teachings and I can’t deny that the polio shot I had administered into my buttox via western, rationality, at the age of two appears to have done the trick and kept me getting polio.
What cannot be denied though is that even considering their struggle and their homelessness all of the Tibetan people I met seemed to have an inner strength, peace, belief and conviction that is most certainly missing in most western lives. By the end of my 7 Days In Little Tibet, I realised that Dharamsala made a deep and lasting impression on me and the Tibetan people, in particular, have assured themselves a very special place in my heart.
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