McLeod Ganj | India | Living in Mexico

McLeod Ganj

In the old British hill station of McCeod Ganj, I am as much in Tibet as in India. Billboards for Indian Companies like Airtel and Tata hang over streets crowded with Tibetan refugees and their descendants. A Tibetan Buddhist temple barely manages to rise above the traffic, the signs, and the power lines.



Temples are open to the public most of the time. Interiors are ornate and colorful. This one is in the monastery of His Holiness Gyalwang Karmapa, an important spiritual leader in his early twenties. I find it remarkable that someone so young is regarded as a sage whose wisdom is believed to eclipse that of monks three times his age. He has visited many countries (under tight security) and has dazzled the Buddhist world with his knowledge and erudition.

The temple interior shown below is typical: gilding, statues of the Buddha, relics, benches for meditating monks, a dozen priceless thangkas hanging overhead.


Walk near any Tibetan refugee settlement and you'll find piles of prayer stones. Most are inscribed with prayers for compassion and enlightenment. Some bear the symbol for the mantra Om, the syllable many of us Californians chanted during our counterculture years, ignorant of its meaning.

We hike mountain trails, well away from villages. From time to time we come upon simple stupas, no more than rough piles of stones, surrounded by firs festooned with prayer flags.
Prayer flags bear messages of peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom in the belief that these will be blown by the wind throughout the world.
I am taking some classes at the Tibetan Library, on the subject of ancient Tibetan Buddhist texts. I am not a Buddhist, but I am curious. Our teacher is a wizened senior monk named Ghenma who lectures in Tibetan. He is considered to be a great master, and indeed he is one of those rare individuals whose face radiates enlightenment. An Englishwoman named Ruth has been translating for Ghenma for thirty years. They have an easy relationship, sometimes bantering back and forth. Occasionally Ruth scolds Ghenma for being obscure.
Classes begin when Ghenma enters the room. We all make three prostrations. Then Ruth leads us in ten minutes of chanting in Tibetan. We use phonetic chant books to make it through this ritual. Then Ghenma lectures, his smiling face animated. We are studying the 18th chapter of Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Middle Way. I am pretty much lost, comprehending only snippets of the subject matter.

Class ends with more chanting. Then the subject shifts to something I better understand—lunch. The library offers a healthy vegetarian meal for students, buffet-style. I go into an anteroom of the kitchen and ladle food out of cooking pots onto my plate. The lunch pictured below consists of yellow lentil soup, sauteed vegetables and potatoes, rice with green beans and carrots, and steamed Tibetan bread. (Nomadic people usually don't have ovens so sometimes they steam bread instead of baking it.) The drink is hot: lemon, honey and fresh ginger.
Food in India is inexpensive. This meal is cheap even by Indian standards: All you can eat for 25 Rupees—about 60¢.

In Dharamsala as in Lhasa, China is the great Satan. Bitterness at Chinese occupation of Tibet runs high. So shopkeepers and restaurant owners declare their allegiance to reassure their clientele.
Covering all the bases, the sign is written in English, Hindi and Tibetan.

Although English is widely spoken in India, it remains a second language for most Indians and all Tibetans. Malapropisms abound. From a menu: "babby potatoes, minched fresh vegetables, fresh tomatoes with smashed basil." The sign under the prayer wheels meant to say that "defaulters will be prosecuted under law."
Just as San Miguel de Allende with its large influx of Norteamericanos and tourists is not the real Mexico, Dharamsala is not the real India. This Himalayan town is full of red-robed monks, shopkeepers selling malas (prayer beads), and hip twentysomething Tibetan youths romancing blond girls, hoping to find tickets out of this way station—into the freedom and opportunity of the west.