x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A little like Lhasa

A Tibetan refuge in the mountains of north India provides an opportunity to talk politics with the Dalai Lama.

A Tibetan boy hangs prayer flags in Dharamsala.
A Tibetan boy hangs prayer flags in Dharamsala.

A cluster of Tibetan lamas stand in the street, gorging themselves on juicy momo dumplings. In the temple behind them, many more are prostrating towards a large statue of Buddha, while still more circle the compound, spinning prayer wheels clockwise as they go. All around, the streets teem with stalls selling Tibetan jewellery, embroidery, music and food.

At first glance you might be fooled into thinking you were in the back streets of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, nestled in the Himalayas. But this Buddhist community is far from there, tucked away in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

Fifty years ago, when Chinese forces streamed across the border, the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, slipped over the mountains in disguise, along with his most trusted supporters. He sought sanctuary in India, where he was permitted to reside near the small hill station of Dharamsala. It's been his abode for half a decade, and has become a fragment of his homeland away from Tibet. The community, known locally as "Little Lhasa", is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists the world over, revered as the place where the Dalai Lama lives.

Driving up to Dharamsala, the road zigzags sharply, twisting and turning back on itself, one precarious bend following closely on the heels of the next. Either side of the tarmac, lush vegetation looms up, the trees and creepers alive with langur monkeys, colourful butterflies and brightly coloured birds. As my taxi ascended, reaching cloud level, the greenery all around seemed to change, the conifers replaced by fabulous jungle plants and lizard-green ferns.

I had arrived by overnight train from New Delhi, which pulled into the sleepy station of Pathankot a little after breakfast. The drive up to Dharamsala took about two hours, most of it spent choking back my fear and begging the driver to slow down.

 

Contrary to popular belief, the Dalai Lama's community is not actually based at Dharamsala, but a little further up the hillside, at McLeod Ganj. The incongruous place name derives from Sir Donald Friell McLeod, a 19th-century governor of Punjab. Set at a little over 2,000 metres, the hill station enjoys spectacular sweeping views over the plateau below. It was a favourite with the British during the Raj as a cool refuge from the ferocious summer heat of their capital, New Delhi.

As soon as you reach the outskirts of town, you begin to see lamas strolling easily about, and wizened old Tibetan women, walking with canes, their legs hidden beneath striped aprons. From the moment you arrive a sense of tranquility hits you squarely in the face, as if the burdens of the outside world have somehow melted away. There's irony in this, of course, because the several thousand Tibetans who make their home at McLeod Ganj do so because they're unable to return home. But their struggle against the Chinese occupation of Tibet has been all about non-violence, after all.

Every year, hundreds of ordinary Tibetans travel in secret over the mountains to Nepal and across into India, on a pilgrimage to Little Lhasa. For the first time in their lives they are permitted to celebrate the life of its most famous resident, His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. This religious freedom must come as a tremendous relief, for merely speaking his name in their homeland is a crime.

Many of the foreigners who arrive at McLeod Ganj stay for weeks, or even months, residing in the little guest houses and hostels found in the back streets and lanes. They fill the cafes on the main street, sipping green tea, chatting about Buddhism and the Dalai Lama's teachings, or browsing the stalls for bargains. It's not uncommon to find celebrities there as well. Richard Gere and other Hollywood A-listers are quite well known to the locals. Unlike elsewhere in the world, when they come to Little Lhasa they are left alone.

At one store I got talking to an Indian shopkeeper who was selling Tibetan knick-knacks and antiques. Showing me a fabulous bronze bell inscribed with Tibetan script, he could tell instantly I adored it.

"As an Indian, I can travel to Lhasa and buy things to sell here," he said. "It's something that most of the Tibetans can't ever hope to do."

The shopkeeper promised to give me a good price on the bell and, after much bargaining, he did.

"Do you resent the Tibetans who have made their home in your town?" I asked. He laughed.

"How could we resent them?" he responded quickly. "Tourists come in their thousands and buy from us. They've made us wealthy. We only fear the day the Dalai Lama leaves. When that happens, I can promise you, there won't be any celebrities like Richard Gere and Angelina Jolie for a thousand miles from here!"

Having visited Tibet a few months ago, and writing about my experiences there, I had travelled to McLeod Ganj in the hope of being given a private audience with the Dalai Lama. Two months before setting out to India, I had corresponded with the Dalai Lama's office, having made contact through his website (www.dalailama.com). The Dalai Lama's travel schedule is posted on the web pages, along with a great deal of information about his teachings.

I had heard that a private meeting is near impossible, a result of the Dalai Lama's packed programme and his frequent travels abroad. After all, there's a never-ending line of world dignitaries, let alone ordinary people, asking for his time.

Fortunately for me, there had been no last-minute travel plans. The Dalai Lama's private secretary asked me to present myself at the main Namgyal Monastery in McLeod Ganj, the afternoon after my arrival.

As with most of the community's other important buildings, sacred to Tibetan Buddhism, the Namgyal Monastery is quite modern. The wide stairways, the terraces and courtyards were teeming with people, a mixture of Tibetan monks and tourists.

I made my way to a small office at the far end of the central quadrangle, the stone flooring damp with the last of the monsoon rain. Once there, I was received by an assistant and introduced to the Dalai Lama's private secretary. After an informal chat, and being looked over, he asked me to return the next morning.

In McLeod Ganj, hours can be spent pleasantly wandering up and down past the shops and stalls brimming with their endless array of Buddhist literature and accessories. What I liked so much about the place was the sense, shared by all, of good fortune at being present there. Besides, everyone seemed to know that the Dalai Lama was in town, and that fact appeared to raise communal spirits, as if they took energy from being close by.

On the evening before my audience, I was sitting on a low wall in McLeod Ganj, a little apprehensive about the next morning, when an old Tibetan woman staggered up and rested herself there. She had long grey plaits, was dressed in the traditional apron, and looked about 85. I asked her if she had lived in India long. She looked at me hard, her watery eyes straining to focus.

"I came here across the mountains with His Holiness," she said. "That was fifty summers ago. I was young then, and strong."

I asked if she had ever returned to Tibet. She shook her head slowly, left then right. "The soul has left our country, and who can live in a place without a soul?"

The next day I was back in the cramped office at the Namgyal Monastery. While waiting there, I was surprised how many dozens of tourists casually drop in, optimistically hoping for a spur of the moment rendezvous with the Dalai Lama. They are all turned away politely.

Having passed through airport-style security, I was taken up to a private meeting room. After a short wait, I was ushered down a long wooden corridor towards the Dalai Lama's study.

The doors were open wide, the room spacious and bright, furnished simply with sofas and intricate tanka paintings hanging on the walls.

Before I had got through the doorway, the Dalai Lama had appeared. He shot forward to greet me, smiling broadly, his face glowing with childlike delight.

It's always weird to meet someone face to face who you know so well already - or, at least, someone you think you know. But, in this case, it was strangely comforting. Dressed in his trademark maroon robes, and wearing sturdy brown lace-up shoes, the Dalai Lama ushered me to a sofa. From the first moment we were eye to eye, he strived to put me at ease.

Born into a farming family in 1935, the Dalai Lama looks a fraction of his 75 years, his skin extremely youthful, his eyes wonderfully mischievous behind square-shaped frames. He comes across as a man charged with almost superhuman energy, with wit, and with a razor-sharp mind.

Well-briefed in advance by his private secretary, he knew of my great fascination for Tibet and of my recent journeys there. Having presented some of the books I have written, I described my experiences in Lhasa and beyond, and my thoughts and fears of life beneath Chinese dominance. The Dalai Lama listened intently, his brow furrowed in thought. It was as if my description of the present situation affected him deeply, although I couldn't have revealed anything he didn't already know.

"The Chinese are diluting our culture," he said once I had finished. "It's as simple as that, and it is a very grave problem. Every day, Tibet's ancient society is eroded a little more."

I asked how to counter such a terrible predicament. The Dalai Lama thought hard before answering, his hands clasped together at his chin. "We do not use weapons," he said. "We don't believe in that. But we do believe in talking about what is going on.

"You are a writer and a man in the media," he said, leaning forwards, "and so I ask you and others like you to keep the struggle of my people in the news. Talk about us, and tell people of the things you yourself have seen in my homeland. Describe the details to people. Tell them not just how Tibet looks, but how it sounds and how it smells."

In the three-quarters of an hour we spent together, chatting about the Tibetan situation, the Dalai Lama struck me as someone utterly at peace with the world around him. Unlike anyone else exiled from their country, his pacifist approach was downright astonishing, as was his dignity. These are, of course, qualities that have captured the world's attention for five decades.

Shortly before it was time for me to leave, there was a pause in the conversation. I filled it by asking what he missed most from Tibet. The Dalai Lama's eyes seemed to glaze over. He smiled, a smile that blossomed into a grin, and then erupted into a resounding laugh.

"How can I begin?" he said, wiping a hand over his mouth. "I miss so much. But you are asking for a single thing. Well, it's easy. I miss the freedom of my people."

Another pause, and I asked him about yaks. The Dalai Lama's love of animals is well known, and he has written of how he used to save any yak he saw in Lhasa being led to slaughter. He let out another thunderous boom of pleasure.

"What a sadness we live here at an altitude too low for them," he said, his eyes lost in the creases of his smile. "They need height, high mountains to survive."

I stood up to leave. But before I turned to the doorway, I promised that on my next journey to see him I would bring a yak. It was a tall and spontaneous gesture, one that both of us knew would be near impossible to fulfil.

The Dalai Lama unfurled a long cream silk scarf, put it over my shoulders, and blessed me, his eyes tightly closed. I left the room feeling like I was walking on air, with my head lost somewhere in the clouds of magical Tibet.

travel@thenational.ae

If you go

The flight
Return flights from Abu Dhabi to New Delhi on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost
from Dh1,385 including taxes

The train
Fares for the journey from New Delhi to Pathankot on Indian Railways (www.indianrail.gov.in) cost from 555 Indian rupees (Dh46)