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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

A lotus in the mud

November 15, 2010

Pico Iyer
The Australian
November 13, 2010
 
AT certain times of year, half the population of the tiny Indian hill station of Dharamsala is Israeli.
 
A special section of the menu at the Ashoka restaurant is devoted to Israeli specialties and the clocks in the ubiquitous overseas phone-parlours show the time in Tel Aviv.
 
Solicitations in Hebrew script entice customers into shops selling statues of Tibetan Buddhist deities and, worried that too many of his co-religionists will lose their souls to such enticements, a celebrated rabbi from New York is on patrol in the narrow passages around his house in the nearby village of Dharamkot.
 
Young Israelis who have recently completed their mandatory army service take off across the world to enjoy as prolonged a holiday as their budgets will allow, and they have long since found that those with more time than money will find an improvised heaven of sorts in India.
 
The impromptu Israeli circuit has traditionally led from Goa, by the beach, to Rishikesh in the hills, to the Kundalini Cosmic Souvenir shops and Lost Horizon restaurants of Dharamsala.
 
It's not, however, just the prospect of kosher samosas that lures these travellers to Dharamsala. When they get there, they are likely to bump into a friendly long-haired Dane called Christmas who promises to bless them as they stand on the street (being nudged towards a gutter by a cow), a former editor of Women's Wear Daily, a head of state or two and a chirpy blonde temptress standing out in the icy road whom last you saw playing a groupie in The Banger Sisters.
 
Dharamsala means, as in a fairytale, a rest house for pilgrims and the settlement was built by the British in 1849 as a summer escape for government officials from the heat of Delhi. But now, as in that same fairytale, it is the spiritual centre of fugitives, pilgrims and every kind of soul who wants to visit the world's new centre of Tibetan Buddhism and the next generation of Tibetan culture.
 
This is a curious thing because the centre of Dharamsala -- or, rather, the little encampment set up on a ridge in Upper Dharamsala, above the everyday north Indian town of Dharamsala -- is based around a man, the 14th Dalai Lama, who speaks, as much as anything, for the folly of desire and the importance of real action. But since the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet became a friend to the whole planet and one of the globe's most respected wise men, his otherwise unprepossessing home in exile has become a swirl of dreams that are sublime and unexpected.
 
Roughly 10,000 Tibetans congregate around him hoping, at some level, that they can leave Dharamsala -- that it can be erased like a sand mandala -- and that they can return to a free (or at least freer) Tibet. Almost as many foreigners gather around the Tibetans to help them and to learn from them. And about 10,000 Indians watch the interplay of dreams from their shops and sell chocolate digestives and Tibetan thangka scrolls while their crackly sound-systems play renditions of Lying Eyes by the Eagles.
 
I wonder sometimes why it is I keep returning to Dharamsala, the highly unglamorous spot to which I've been travelling since I was 17, in 1974. If you want Himalayan vistas, Ladakh is the place to go, unquestionably, or even some of the quieter places in Tibet itself. The two little roads at the heart of McLeod Ganj, as the Tibetan settlement is unmelodiously called, are cluttered with refuse and animals and minivans and clamour, STD phone-centres (as they are ominously called), beer bars, video dens and, when once I counted, 81 guesthouses. Most of the streets are nothing more than unpaved steep slopes or muddy paths between the trees.
 
In winter the place is dark and icy, in summer it enjoys more punishing monsoons than anywhere in India.
 
Just to get there becomes a lesson from the wrong kind of fairytale. Though only about 480km north of Delhi, Dharamsala is at least a 10-hour drive away, through streets so congested in many parts that one feels one is nosing through a riot. You can travel up by overnight train to Pathankot, but then you still have to make a three-hour drive, after 15 hours on a train.
 
You can fly to Amritsar or Jammu, but both cities have been the site of instability, and in either case you still have to drive five hours to get to Dharamsala, guided by a taxi-wallah who has decided he will show that he can practise his Formula One skills, with his eyes (quite literally) shut.
 
A plane is occasionally said to fly directly from Delhi to Dharamsala, but for months on end it seems never to take off, and even when it does, the local maharajah told me (from the Cloud's End guesthouse he has set up), it often (as in a Buddhist fairytale) has no room for luggage, leaving the passengers at the other end suddenly having to live without possessions.
 
Yet, for all of this, Dharamsala is a place that grows on you in the same way a lotus, in the classic Buddhist image, begins to rise out of the mud.
 
The first impression is of filth, disorder, a sad, ramshackle exile home set up when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet (and the Chinese overran it) in 1959 and, a year later, was offered by the Indian government a new, seemingly temporary home in the largely abandoned British hill station above Himachal Pradesh's Kangra Valley.
 
But as your eyes grow accustomed to it (as to one of the dark and curious-smelling chapels you find all over Tibet), you begin to make out a kind of order, even a vision within the chaos.
 
Monks chant, dancers sing, children learn Tibetan here as they never could do in Tibet; at the same time there is a rough warmth, a charismatic calm in the Tibetan-flavoured community that can be a relief after the cacophonous intensity of India.
 
I go there in the spring months of April and May or in October and November, when the days often dawn radiant under the shadow of the nearby snowcaps (the foothills of the Himalayas); in spring the slopes are covered in rhododendron and apple blossom, with marigolds everywhere.
 
I stay at Chonor House, an 11-room Tibetan-style cottage of sorts set up by the Tibetan government-in-exile, where each room is decorated with the fiery murals and props of some corner of Tibet and most of the staff are recent refugees who've fled across the mountains. Across the road is the Dalai Lama's house, and next to it a temple for 175 of his monks who practise ritual debating under the trees of their courtyard overlooking the valley. From the quiet garden of Chonor House, or from the sunlit terrace of my room, I can hear the low muttering of chants from through the pines, temple bells being ceremonially sounded in the dark.
 
I can see red-robed novices scampering along the whitewashed terraces of their monastery or leaving their clothes out to dry.
 
If you scramble across the hill, slithering over industrial piping on a muddy path above a nunnery, you come to another mountain road where (in the Israeli spirit) a Japanese restaurant sits neat to a Thai one, with a Korean jazz cafe only a handful of yards away, and an open-microphone cafe even closer, where once I heard a Canadian professional singer deliver a rending version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.
 
If you take a taxi down into the valley, you come to the Norbulingka Institute, where Japanese-designed walkways and pools (apple blossom flowering against sharp snowcaps and blue skies) really do look like Shangri-La. Nearby, nuns are taking doctoral exams, practising classical Tibetan Buddhist debating and learning to be abbots as they could never do in old Tibet (part of the Dalai Lama's attempts to use Dharamsala as a drawing board for a new, more open Tibet).
 
It may not be everyone's idea of a perfect holiday, but sometimes, I find, one travels not to move but to stay put; and sometimes the very best holidays involve stepping out of the world of headlines altogether. Wake up before dawn and walk in the pitch-black quiet (broken only by the barking of wild dogs) around the hill on which the Dalai Lama's house is built, with clusters of often very old Tibetans spinning their prayer-wheels.
 
Go to breakfast at the Moonpeak Cafe down the road, with its strong earl grey tea and world-class apple pies. Browse among the exhaustive selection of paperbacks at the Bookworm shop (run by a fiery ex-guerilla), or ride up to the Tibetan Children's Village, a city on a hill of sorts, most of whose students have left Tibet and their parents, perhaps forever, to grow up near their beloved exiled leader.
 
Indians are ushering you into little, home-made movie parlours where you can watch pirated DVDs in a space smaller than your bedroom. A Kyoto beauty is singing Japanese lullabies in a Monday-night musical celebration at the Khana Nirvana cafe, a cosy, vegan-burrito joint originally established by two idealistic young people from California. Teachers right across the place are offering training in Buddhism, Tibetan and all the spiritual practices known to mankind, from traditional Tibetan full-body massage to Zen shiatsu therapy.
 
For those of a nostalgic cast, Dharamsala is, like many parts of South Asia, a savoury, compacted museum of the Raj. An Anglican church, St John in the Wilderness, sits among the pines, with the grave of Lord Elgin (he of the marbles) in its tiny churchyard. Nowrojee General Merchants stands at the centre of the clamour in the settlement, as it has done for six generations, still offering Andrews Liver Salts and Pears soap. Home counties cottages sit beside their gardens, their names remembering the time when Kent and Surrey were re-created in the midst of tropical confusion.
 
Many people go to Dharamsala to hear the Dalai Lama giving his annual new year's teachings (outdoors, before thousands) in late winter, or coming out from his house occasionally to offer public audiences or to rally his people. The guests you meet in a place such as Chonor House are a self-selecting group of diplomats, philosophers, religious leaders, Hollywood directors and brand-name photographers, all sharing tables in the garden at breakfast.
 
On certain days when the sun shows up above the ragged teeth of snowcaps, burning the windows of the new Indian hotels gold, and you have eased into a quiet day of sitting in one of the temples, or watching monks play flashy games of basketball against a New York-worthy mural that calls for peace, it feels as if you've stumbled into a parallel world that lives by different (and often more appealing) values than your own.
 
I went to Dharamsala in April 2003, just as the US was invading Iraq. In Dharamsala all the talk was of peace and, as is often the case among exiled Tibetans, it was more than talk: two prayer halls were filled with monks assembling before dawn every morning, and retired ambassadors from Washington, former associates of Martin Luther King, even young Mexicans concerned about their own uprising in Chiapas, were in every other pizza restaurant talking about forms of conflict resolution.
 
Even the Israelis had much to offer on the subject. As the sign at a meditation centre in the hills had it, listing the day's activities, Breakfast/Impermanence and Death/Suffering/Selflessness/ Dinner/Serenity.
 
Pico Iyer writes at greater length about Dharamsala and Tibet in his most recent book, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
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