Thursday, March 31, 2011

From Mountain Lamas To Golden Gurdwaras

Or in other words, from the exiled community of Tibetan Buddhists in Dharamsala to the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar.  Both were amazing and a great way to see the cultural diversity of India.  Sikhs and Tibetans also happen to be really, really friendly so that helps matters as well.

I'm currently sitting in a bar in Pokhara, Nepal enjoying an afternoon White Russian.  Nepal has been great so far, especially Tansen which is a small mountain town between the border and Pokhara.  I'll write all about it soon.  Pokhara is really touristy, with a surprising amount of Chinese tourists as well.  That said it's also fairly laid back and scenic with a lot of trees around town and a beautiful lake under the wooded foothills of the Annapurna Range.  My plan is to go trekking in a few days, probably the whole Annapurna circuit which takes about 3 weeks!

Now back to the trip...  I ended up going from Rishikesh to Mussoorie, an old British hill station that is still well known for its private schools and relative coolness.  Mussoorie was beautiful, and my first glimpse of snow-capped peaks, but like many hill stations it was over-touristy and I didn't have much to do other than walk around.  That and the Indian school kids, even the ones in private school uniforms, were all asking me for money.  That got annoying, especially when one 13 year old threw a rock at me after I lectured him a bit on why he shouldn't be begging from random strangers.  When the first words out of a kids mouth when they see you are "Ten rupees?" it gets old fast.  On a positive note, not a single Nepali child has asked me for money but instead have all been full of smiles and Namastes.  Yeah, Nepal is nice.

I was in Mussoorie for just a few nights then took a night train to Amritsar, the home of the Golden Temple (holiest place in Sikhism).  I was originally planning on staying there for a night or two but something inspired me to head straight to Dharamsalla.  That something was probably the heat.  And it was a great fortune that I did, because on the bus I learned from some German tourists that the Dalai Lama was giving a teaching in 2 days!  So all of a sudden I was a man with a plan.  Granted I didn't expect it to take 9 hours to reach McCleod Ganj (the town in the mountains above Dharamsalla) but I got there just before dusk and was able to settle into a nice guesthouse.

I toured the main Tibetan temple which was full of chanting monks and worshipers praying in various ways.  Tibetan chanting sounds like someone speaking through a didgeridoo and is all kinds of awesome.  There's also an informative museum there about Tibet and the exodus of so many fleeing China's colonization of the region.  Sadly Tibetans have no say in the matter, even today there's a total of about 6 million ethnic Tibetans in the world and increased immigration from eastern China into Tibet has meant that Tibetans are becoming a minority in the cities of Tibet.  And since Tibet is around 30% of China's land area and is rich in water and mineral resources it isn't going to be getting independence anytime soon.

Spin a prayer wheel, get good karma
The scenery around McCleod Ganj is gorgeous as well.  Lots of beautifully forested mountains with snow-capped peaks way in the background.  The people are really friendly and there are tons of small handicraft shops selling some of the nicest souvenirs I've seen in India.  Tibetan food happens to be delicious with Momos (like Chinese dumplings but better) and noodle soups.  I didn't find anywhere to eat Tsampa, the Tibetan barley-paste that is the staple diet in rural Tibet.  I've heard it's an acquired taste but wanted to give it a go regardless.

The best day of my entire trip happened here as well.  I woke up early at 6 AM and began the hike into town to see the Dalai Lama at 7.  On the way I grabbed some Tibetan flat bread on the street so I wasn't starving and made my way through the security checks.  I was really early since the teaching starts with a ceremony for the monks upstairs before they come down and the Dalai Lama teaches in front of everyone around 8:30.  But the early bird gets the best seat so I was comfortable through the whole thing and had a great view of His Holiness who gets animated and is a great public speaker even if I didn't understand a word he was saying without my headphones.  He does the teachings in Tibetan and there's a translation on FM radio that I took advantage of.  I was amazed at the amount of tourists who didn't do the 30 seconds of research it takes to find out you need an FM radio for translations though, a lot left halfway through the 2 hour long teaching.

He started by talking a lot about the need to study the philosophy behind Buddhism and not just follow the religious rituals of chanting mantras or turning prayer wheels.  He went on to explain about the interdependent nature of things and how clinging to material objects leads nowhere.  Next he addressed the new Tibetan refugees in the audience who had just come from Chinese-controlled Tibet.  It was a big moment for the entire community as the next day they were having their first elections to replace him as the spiritual leader.  He spoke to them about the need to abandon anger and how we can't live in fear and hate and expect to lead compassionate lives.  Eventually that lead to a reading of a story from the Jatakas and an explanation of its meaning, that one must strive to remove suffering and live an altruistic life.

It was a real honor to be able to see the Dalai Lama speak and was a great experience.  He has a real presence when he speaks and his teachings of compassion and the need for rational thought ring true.  I wish I could have gotten a few photos but no luck, cameras aren't allowed.

To continue the great day it was Holi and I got smeared with colored dyes as I walked back to my guesthouse.  Being an ethnically Tibetan community the celebration was pretty laid back but people still got into the spirit and were having fun.  And later in the afternoon, when all the alcohol and bhang kicked in, you could see people becoming argumentative drunks as they got themselves into trouble.  I decided to go on a quest for a bhang lassi myself but couldn't find one for the life of me.  The quest did lead me on a hike to the village of Dharamkot up in the hills though and I say THREE wild mongooses on the way!  I had left my camera back in my room though so only have the mental snapshots.

The rest of my time there was spent doing more wandering and enjoying of the sights.  I got a little sick off of a street-side falafel shack run by a one-eyed dude.  It was delicious and recommended by other traveler's but the next morning saw it pass through me like a rocket ship and delayed my trip by a day.  After recovery I was off on a bus to Amritsar to actually see the Golden Temple this time.  Getting sick meant I only had one night and morning but since you can sleep in the temple compound for free it made life easy.  The shortness of time also meant I couldn't go to the Indo-Pakistani border to watch the closing of the border ceremony but that's all good.  I'm pretty sure my mom would have freaked out if I told her I actually went to the border even though it's actually become a big tourist attraction with goose-stepping guards and lots of flag waving on both sides.

The Golden Temple itself is amazing.  There's an entire compound made of white stone all around it and in the center of a water basin stands this golden building with throngs of pilgrims entering it to pray almost 24 hours a day.  It's the home of the original copy of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, and therefore is a 100% no shoes zone.  I even got requested to remove shoes from my bag because the luggage room was in the outer part of the compound and shoes needed to be kept in the special shoe basement across the plaza.  Sikhs are extremely hospitable as well, as a rule the Sikh temples host communal dinners and welcome strangers to stay overnight.  And since the Golden Temple is the grandest of Sikhdom they offer a special room for foreigners and have 24 hour kitchens churning out chapatis, tasty dhal and some sort of milk drink.  All for free!  I donated a little of course but the hospitality was excellent and the Sikh pilgrims were great as I wandered around their holiest landmark making dozens of faux pas.

The next morning it was another daytime circumambulation around the temple and a wait in the long line to see the inside.  Then off to the train station to catch my 12 o'clock train to Gorakhpur, a whopping 26 hours!

So my India journey was almost over and in the next big post I'll try to sum it all up if that's possible.  It ended up being just shy of 4 months and it seems like it passed by so fast.  But when I think back to the beginning of my trip it seems like ages have past.  I'll need to put up photos when I find a good connection, upload speeds here are dreadful.

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