Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tibetan Centres Near Dharamshala


Monks playing football, Sherabling
I recently visited Kangra, a valley in Himachal Pradesh that abuts the beautiful Dhauladhar mountains and also lies close to the Tibetan settlement in McLeodganj or Dhasa (as Tibetans call this area of Upper Dharamshala or little Lhasa).  This region is an area of tea plantations (mostly established by the British) and also home of the Dalai Lama and many exiled Tibetans.  It has an interesting history (and mix of communities), beginning about 5000 years ago and continuously changing until the present.


In 1849, the British annexed this part of Kangra and set up a cantonment for their troops.  The only structure that then stood on the annexed land was a building that was a shelter or resthouse for pilgrims (these structures are typically called dharamshalas), hence the place was called 'Dharamshala'.  The upper part of this area (McLeodganj) was named after Sir Donald Friell McLeod, the lieutenant governor of Punjab.  ('Ganj' means area or place).

Lord Elgin, the British Viceroy of India (1862-63) built a summer home for himself, a property called Mortimer House, that was acquired by Lala Basheshar Nath (a resident of Lahore (Pakistan)) and later taken over by the Government of India.

A massive earthquake destroyed many buildings in Kangra in 1905 and the area was gradually rebuilt.  In 1960, Mortimer House was given to the 14th Dalai Lama (in exile), by Pandit Nehru, then the Prime Minister of India.  This is now the private residence of the Dalai Lama and the area around serves as a refuge for many Tibetans, who still hope and dream of returning to their original homeland in the future.

It was with some anticipation that I travelled to see this place that I had never visited before.  It is a pretty region, with green valleys and snow capped, forested mountains.  But the villages and towns in between are all rows of concrete (not surprising perhaps, given the population density and increase in tourism).  McCleodganj is a two street town, packed with little shops (many run by Kashmiris who have left Kashmir and Punjabis who have come from the neighbouring state to do 'business'), homestays, restaurants, cafes and a couple of modern Tibetan temples.

By chance, a special prayer meeting was being organized at the time we were visiting their main temple.  We sat in a courtyard filled with people and heard them chanting in tune to prayers that emanated from a loudspeaker.  The chants are not very rhythmic and sometimes harsh sounding; one does not know what they mean or convey unless you are familiar with the language.  Outside, groups of students stood in makeshift stalls, demanding the freeing of Tibet and release of the little boy, Gedhyun Choekyi Nyima, (who is believed to be the Panchen Lama - the highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama, who was spirited away by the Chinese government in 1995, at the age of six).  The prayers continued for over an hour and we left about midway, to walk in the streets below.

Motif from the snow lion flag of Tibet, woodcraft from Norbulingka
There were shops and cafes selling knick knacks - T shirts, silver jewellery, tangka paintings, books.  People (mostly tourists and students) clustered in little cafes, sipping coffee.  One of the nicest things about this large Tibetan area that it seems to have encouraged other centres of Tibetan heritage to flourish around it.  I visited two memorable places.

One was Norbulingka Institute, a centre where people are trained in traditional art and craft of Tibet - wood carving, metal work, Thangka painting and more.  This is based on Norbulingka ('the jewelled park') in Lhasa, traditionally a summer palace and retreat for the Dalai Lamas.  The Indian counterpart is a structure based loosely on the original, with the aim of keeping alive Tibetan culture, values and tradition, and a special focus on expressing these through art.

The Norbulingka Institute - a cluster of buildings


A shrine along the way
This institute comprises a pretty cluster of buildings, set against a backdrop of mountain peaks.  Fish swim in clear pools, prayer wheels rotate along the winding stone paths and prayer flags stretch and flutter between pine trees that line the way.  Though there is a general hum of activity, one doesn't hear (or see) much outside.  Most of the action takes place within the workshops or the monastery.  It feels peaceful and happily productive.


Wood painting

Thangka painting
There is also a small, very creatively designed doll museum that depicts traditional scenes of life in Tibet.  The dolls are beautifully made and dressed in colourful Tibetan finery.

Dolls play out a ceremonial dance

Hand painted map of Tibet in the doll museum
 After walking through and exploring all the rooms, we finally sat down in a half shaded spot in their peaceful (vegetarian) garden cafe, ate some momos and noodle soup and just listened to the wind and the flowing water for awhile.

The second Tibetan centre I enjoyed visiting was a large monastery that was completely off the tourist track.  To reach it, one had to climb a few rocky hills (by car of course!), go past a pretty little village surrounded by mustard fields and then up another slope, at the summit of which lay Sherabling (a wonderful sounding name).

Mustard fields forever
We were greeted by rows and rows of prayer flags - I had never seen so many in my life!  They stood out against the blue sky, sending messages and hopes skyward.

Approaching Sherabling

The Sherabling prayerwheels and shrines
The Sherabling monastery and its surroundings, which house about 800 students and teachers, have a very calming and welcoming air.  We reached in the afternoon, when everything closes for lunch, but there was an acting guide (an apprentice monk) who opened the doors of the magnificent temple and took us around, explained the significance of all the symbols and structures present within.  He allowed (actually, encouraged!) us us to take our time, sit below the huge Buddha statue and meditate or pray.

Inside the temple
For praying and learning
We then walked around, past the large ceremonial hall, the rows of student rooms, the makeshift football and cricket field outside - and back to the visitors' room, where we were offered delicious tea and some fried Tibetan snacks.

Sherabling appears to be a large and active centre for serious learning and is one of the numerous Palpung monasteries (Pal- glorious, Pung - to gather) that originated in China and have spread to different parts of the world.  The senior teachers here are highly experienced Buddhist masters who seem to have a large following internationally.  I didn't know this at the time I visited; I was just impressed with how well it was organized and how genuinely peaceful and well balanced it seemed.

Knowing the truth
We wound up in the cafeteria, where we ate a good lunch of handmade noodles in a hearty broth.  Thus, replete in mind, body and soul, we drove back to the tea estate where we were staying.         

9 comments:

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daksh kapoor said...

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daksh kapoor said...

Hey !!
First a fall, I would like to tell you that you have done a wonderful task and write up seems to be amazing. Keep it up.
Dalhousie - Dharamshala Adventure:

One should not miss such a nice opportunity of travelling to a place heaven and enjoy the thrilling experience. Trekking, Bird watching, Identification of trees & plants, Rappelling, Tyrolean traverse, Jumaring, camp fire, Group games, Skiing etc. If you are interested in these, you must pack your bags.

Planning to there and experience it all by myself. If anybody is interested please let me know. We can plan something out. Between I found this great deal online. Check it out.

http://www.365hops.com/social/event_detail.php?eventid=VkZkd1NtVkJQVDA9

anjali gupta said...

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Rishi Kumar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rishi Kumar said...

Thanks for sharing your experience.
Our India has so much beautiful places but many people are less concerned about this.
Exploring a different India through your superb writing and the usual awesome snaps.
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Host my holidays said...

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