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Up the middle path -- Tibetan culture

August 9, 2010

Sharon Fernandes
The Hindu
August 8 2010

What brings a group of youngsters to a crash
course in Tibetan culture? At the Namgyal
monastery in Mcleodganj, the answers are as
varied as the people looking for them

Said Reza, from the land where the Bamiyan
Buddhas were built and then felled to dust,
traces a map in the crisp Mcleodganj air. His
fingers draw, in a few centimetres of space, the
centuries-old trade route that linked Central
Asia to Tibet. This is also the path, he tells
us, that Buddhism took when it travelled from
Afghanistan to Tibet in 7th century AD. The
conversation fits right in with the scene around
us. A cup of ginger honey tea cools at an open
café near Namgyal monastery, the crowd passing by
is a rainbow hue: Germans, Africans, Americans,
Indians and Tibetans. Buddhist monks, their iPods
and iPhones gently gleaming against maroon robes,
walk up the rocky lanes of the various monasteries scattered around Dharamsala.

Twenty-seven-year-old Reza from Balkh in
Afghanistan is a student of Persian and Central
Asian studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in
Delhi. Unlike many visitors to this mountain
refuge, he is not here to escape the summer
raging in the plains. He is here for the Gurukul
Foundation course, a 10-year-old initiative of
the Foundation for Universal Responsibility that
invites students from across the country to learn
about Tibetan history, culture, art and the
government of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.

If Reza found rare books and rarer Tibetan
manuscripts in the library of Tibetan Works and
Archives in his month spent here, others in this
year’s batch of 30 students were drawn to this
crash course in Tibetan culture for different reasons.

Here to find some answers in detachment is
22-year-old Dibyajyoti Das, a postgraduate
student of physics at IIT, Kanpur. He is serious
about snapping his ties from the world he comes
from, at least for a month. "This is not a
vacation. I deleted my Orkut and Facebook
accounts before coming here. I wanted to have
some time alone just with myself," he says. At
the Tushita meditation centre, he spent 10 days
getting comfortable in that solitude, minus his
mobile phone and iPod. Will life return to the
tyranny of the status message once he returns to
Kanpur? Das doesn’t have an answer.

"I wanted to be in a place where no one knows
me," Rajarshi Sen tells us when we meet him, a
string of prayer beads around his neck. He is 21,
an undergraduate student at BITS, Pilani. “I am
arrogant. I wanted to come to a place where I
could be alone. And yes, in this month, I saw
that the philosophy the monks talk about is
really practised here. These were humbling experiences," says Sen.

The flaming colours of the thangka are what drew
Riddhima Jaiswal from Delhi to Dharamsala. This
student of fashion at NIFT, Delhi, says she
"wanted to get a closer look at Tibetan symbols
and culture, so I can use it in the future in my
work." Twenty-one-year-old Aheibam Preetibala,
who is studying anthropology at the University of
Hyderabad, has no designer dreams. But most of
her stay here has been involved in learning the
thangka technique, handling the lush silk and the
spools of thread. She is taking back with her the
fruit of her labour -- a tiny thangka in
brilliant indigo, on it a yellow sun and smiling flowers.

This is not a rigidly defined course. Students
are left on their own, to pick and learn what
they wish, to find their middle path. They can
saunter up to the departments of the Tibetan
government in exile and find, not stuffy red
tape, but genial bureaucrats ready to listen to
their suggestions. Or, find a cause to rebel for.
Vikram Doshi, for example, wants to draw the
country’s attention to a Tibetan treasure. An
artist. “He is Pemba Dorje. He is 80 years old.
He was the master sculptor at the Namgyal
monastery and has made over 10,000 statues," says
Doshi, a 21-year-old who has studied computer
science from St. Xavier’s Kolkata. Doshi wants to
know what he can do to convince the Indian
government to include Dorje in the list of Padma awardees next year.

Jyotsna Sara George, a 20-year-old student of
philosophy from St. Stephen’s in Delhi, is here
because she wants to see how the monks bring the
solemn truths of Buddhist philosophy to bear on
their quotidian lives. At the Dormalinga nunnery,
she sits on the floor, a wooden desk before her,
as monk Rinchin conducts a class on philosophy.
"When I show you a book, what do you see? What
really is a book? Is it the pages? Is it the
colour? Is it a shape?” she says. The answer, she
says with a smile, lies beyond the physical fact
of the book. George is an eager student and has
plenty of questions. But what moved her, she
says, more than philosophical abstractions, were
the monks—their easy, smiling detachment from the
world, their unobtrusive enjoyment of life.
"Staying with them, eating with them and
observing how they share the smallest thing teach
you more than the lessons,” she says. And later,
in a moment of perception, she adds, “Here each
question begets more questions and in between somewhere are the answers."

Some of the students have kept things simple.
Shruti Srivastav, a 23-year-old literature
graduate from Ahmedabad, says, "I came here to
learn the Tibetan flute." Perched at the edge of
a mountain is the Tibetan Institute of Performing
Arts, home to the sounds of the damnyen (a
six-stringed lute) and the Tibetan flute. The
prayer flags dance to their tunes. Hitting the
high notes on her damnyen is Tenzin Nagdon, a
student of political science at Delhi University.
Her reasons are slightly different. “Tibetans in
my own college don’t interact too much. Perhaps I
can take back something that can bring my community closer," she says.

A month has whizzed past and they are on their
way back. Many still too tickled about meeting
the Dalai Lama -- "He opened the door and bowed
before us! Can you imagine? We were shocked”. The
others have new Facebook profile pictures of them
at prayer wheels. Reza is armed for a
presentation on the Silk Route for a conference
in October. New routes are being laid out from Dharamsala.
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