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Travel: Holy cows, paddling pilgrims and fine shrines

January 11, 2008

Northern India is peppered with places of worship, but it offers more
than spiritual pleasures, says Clover Stroud
By Clover Stroud
The Sunday Telegraph

Everywhere, I see dark-eyed boys selling the softest multi-coloured,
embroidered and sequined, paisley shawls in the late afternoon sun. The
shawls hang outside the stalls that tumble onto the streets of McLeod
Ganj, high in the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas, northern India.
Their brilliant splashes of colour clash gorgeously with the burgundy
robes of the monks who walk through the streets, mobile phones clasped
to their shaven heads - the town is home to the Dalai Lama, who was
granted official asylum in India after fleeing Tibet in 1959.

Tibet is everywhere: Buddhist prayers swirl through the air and lines of
coloured Tibetan prayer flags, some faded, some bright primary blue,
yellow and red, are strung through trees and across streets. They
flutter in the warm mountain breeze, but the sun dazzles on the snowy
mountain peaks, which provide an almost cinematic backdrop to McLeod Ganj.

The town, encompassing Lower Dharamsala, was named after the governor of
the Punjab, David McLeod, who established it as a British garrison in
the 1850s. This British link aside, the town is otherwise defined by
Buddhism. Well-shod, middle-aged travellers in wide-brimmed hats with
expensive bags and good cameras are in evidence, as this is an epicentre
for anyone interested in Tibetan politics and culture. Richard Gere has
been spotted here, and locals still murmur about the day Cindy Crawford
sashayed between the beggars to buy shawls.

But it's also a magnet for a certain type of late-teenage gap-year
traveller. Dreadlocked, sunburnt and travel weary, they write postcards
home and flirt unashamedly over plates of dhal and bottles of icy
Kingfisher beer -the King of Good Times - in the local restaurants. So
as well as holiness, the town sizzles with another sort of energy from
the backpackers, staying in the Mountain Cloud Hostel, drinking at
Jimmy's Bar or going for an Ayurvedic massage at the Home Indian Massage
Room.

This fusion of the holy and something more carnal creates a surprisingly
enlightened atmosphere; although the town is full of tourists, it
doesn't feel spoiled or over-sold. Monks, teenagers, shawl-sellers and
rickshaw drivers inhabit the town with jolly and companionable ease.
Stacked up like Lego, the Buddhist monastic complex was built - and
continues to grow - in a haphazard way.

The hot stink of His Holiness's Holy Cows hits you as you circumnavigate
the hill on the Holy Walk. Little shrines dot the path, cluttered with
flags and carved prayer stones, and oddly incongruous little objects of
spiritual significance. Crows the size of dogs peck at piles of tsampa,
barley meal mixed with butter, which the monks eat for breakfast. In the
Kalachakra Chapel, the walls are decorated with winking gods and
fabulous coloured animals, like a kitsch, Eastern-version of the Sistine
Chapel. I lose count of the times I see an exhortation that All Sentient
Beings Be Happy.

The days in McLeod Ganj were part of a trip that had started in
Amritsar, whose name means the Pool of the Nectar of Immortality, a
monicker derived from the pool surrounding the town's famous Golden
Temple. Amritsar is the Holy City for Sikhs, but the temple has seen
much violence: first during Partition, and later when Indira Gandhi
ordered it to be stormed to remove Sikh militants, a move that
ultimately led to her assassination by her Sikh bodyguards.

But now it feels like a peaceful place. Thousands of people visit every
day - the huge majority of them Sikhs - padding shoeless around the
marble walkways, stripping down to pants and turban to bathe in the
water they consider the most sacred in the world. Little boys, the first
wisps of their glossy black locks escaping from their top knots, chase
one another, while their mothers bathe, obscured from the male gaze, in
a white, wooden bathing hut along one side of the pool.

Sikhs come to bathe in the water and visit the Abi Granth, or Original
Holy Book, but there's also something reassuringly domesticated about
the clusters of people gathered at the water's edge. There's no caste
system within Sikhism and this egalitarianism characterises the mood at
the temple.

I first visited in the late evening, and saw families finishing their
picnic suppers, or stretching out for the night, the flimsiest edge of a
sari their only padding on the white marble floors. A father with a
bright pink turban carried his sleeping baby, clinging to his shoulder
like a starfish; under a 500-year-old peach tree a cluster of teenage
girls shared secrets. While some slept, others continued to bathe
silently in the mirrored water. All the while the sound of chanting
filled the air.

At dawn, as the sun shivered into life over the temple, hundreds of
volunteers cooked for the thousands of visitors. Men and women sat
together on a faded red rug outside the kitchen, peeling piles of potatoes.

Amritsar is three hours' drive from Basunti, a private house run as a
relaxed hotel by Dave Butterworth. He grew up largely in India and
didn't arrive in London until his late teens, when he helped set up
Neal's Yard. He now lives in India full time to run Basunti.

This is the perfect place from which to explore McLeod Ganj and the
Himalayas, but also Amritsar, the Golden Temple and the extraordinary
display of national Indian pride that is the nightly "Closing the Border
Ceremony'' at Wagha on the border with Pakistan. Dave is quietly
passionate about the project. He knows the name of every bird and plant
in the area, and has planted a garden with banana trees, oranges,
grapefruit, peaches, papaya, pomelos, lychees, figs, chillis, guavas, a
huge lemongrass plant - even olives from Italy and Greece.

When we walked down through the village of Khatirah to swim off rowing
boats in the nearby lake, Dave was beckoned into a marble-clad house by
Kasmiri Lal, the local village boss. We drank chai on a dusty pink
veranda as children flitted around like humming-birds. In a back room, I
could hear the buzz of an Australia-India cricket match.

Basunti is a jewel, the kind of magical place that you might spend
months looking for if you were travelling independently through India,
and still never find. Open to groups and individuals, it's a superb
place for fishing and bird-watching, as well as yoga, which is held in a
thatched pavilion on the lawn. Tall cannabis plants surround the
pavilion and their heady scent makes an evening's yoga a strangely
sublime experience.

Almost all the fruit and vegetables cooked in the kitchen are grown on
the property, and although you want for nothing, staying here doesn't
have the sometimes uncomfortable formality of a hotel. Rather, it leaves
you with that laid-back, "I-got-lucky'' feeling of staying in a pretty
and perfect private house.

I came home from Basunti

with a bulging suitcase, straining with the dozen shawls I had acquired
in McLeod Ganj. So many, in such vivid tones of orange, pink and purple,
that you might have thought that India really had gone to my head, and
that I was planning to open my very own temple.

GETTING THERE

Audley (01993 838300; www.audleytravel.com [
http://www.audleytravel.com]) offers tailor-made tours throughout India.
A 10-day trip including three nights at Basunti, two nights at White
Haven in Dharamsala, two nights at the Judge's Court in Pragpur in the
Himalayan foothills and two nights at the Svaasa in Amritsar costs from
pounds 1,300 per person. The price includes return flight from Heathrow
to Amritsar with Jet Airways, a private car with driver throughout,
English-speaking guides and b & b accommodation
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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