It’s well known that McLeodGanj is the home of the Tibetan government in exile. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama himself, the Buddhist spiritual leader of Tibet, made the journey from Lhasa to India over the Himalayas back in 1959 when they began to fear for his safety after the Chinese invasion, and India have so far welcomed all refugees into the country, and all Tibetan refugees are automatically granted an audience with the Dalai Lama. So let’s start with the touristy shit. Let’s get that out of the way, because that’s kinda fun. The Tsuglagkhang Complex, which I have no idea how to pronounce and typed each letter in one by one whilst copying from the Lonely Planet, is the official residence of the Dalai Lama, not that he’s ever home. He’s usually off gallivanting around the world, meeting world leaders, being generally wise and awesome and shit. You can go and visit the monastery there though, that’s a pretty cool place to check out and you can be all like, yeah, I’m walking where the Dalai Lama himself has walked. We left our footwear on a rack underneath a sign advising us to “Make sure that your shoes are not stolen by someone.” Okay… but, how? Nail them to the floor? Leave a guard dog? You just kind have to trust that no one wants your footwear. I couldn’t see anyone wanting mine once they’d caught a whiff of them anyway, the stench would be enough to singe nostril hairs.
We spun some prayer wheels and took photos where we were allowed to which included these statues, one of which was of Guru Padma Sambhava who was an Indian chap who went to Tibet in the 8th century and taught them all tantric Buddhism, so they like him quite a lot. Enough to put his statue next to one of the Buddha and a statue of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and the patron deity of Tibet. All very important entities, though I’m not sure the Guru’s statue is a perfect likeness, and if it is he looks fucking mental and really quite terrifying. As for Avalokiteshvara, if you’re wondering about all the arms and faces, that’s just because he’s a totally stand up bloke. A Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who could totally achieve Buddhahood should they want to but they choose not to because they’d prefer to remain here and help all sentient beings. Avalokiteshvara wanted so badly to help everyone through their hardship, but when he listened out for the cries of the suffering there were just too many voices and his head shattered into eleven pieces which could have been really really messy if you think about it. So a deity took pity on him and out him back together with eleven heads so he could hear the cries for help, but when he reached out to comfort them there were too many and his arms shattered into a thousand pieces. So again he was reassembled, this time with a thousand arms so he could reach out to more people. The Dalai Lama is said to be a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, except he has the more conventional two arms and one head and he reaches out to people with Twitter.
There was a crowd gathering as we reached a courtyard where monks were debating. I do love to join a crowd so we merged in and asked why everyone was standing around staring at a gate. There were a lot of monks just hanging around as well as tourists.
“The Dalai Lama is coming home!” we were told by several very excited people. He was coming home to talk at the Tsuglagkhang Complex as part of his official 80th birthday celebrations and the gate we were all staring at was the gate to his home. Okay, that’s pretty cool, we could hang around for a quick stalker glimpse of the DL. There was talk that his flight had been delayed but he was definitely on his way. We all stood around and waited and waited, and just as I was wondering how badly I needed to cop a fleeting glance of an elderly bloke in a car, a police van pulled up and a load of men jumped out brandishing massive guns. Seconds later a beigey sort of non-descript car cruised past. I barely had time to get my camera ready but there he was, the man himself, sitting in the front passenger seat smiling and waving at the remarkably well behaved crowd, the 14th Dalai Lama. So that happened, it was actually quite exciting, to be in the presence of this old, wise soul. He’s not just 80 in this body, he’s supposed to be the reincarnation of the very first Dalai Lama. When the Dalai Lama dies his spirit moves into a boy born around the same time, then they have to find this boy and I’m thinking needles and haystacks, then they have to prove it’s him by showing him lots of prayer beads and possessions of the last Dalai Lama and getting him to choose which ones belong to him, then he’s taken away for training. A really good movie to watch about his life is Kundun, there’s a little movie theatre in Mcleod Ganj which shows it a couple of times a week.
Anyway, these debating monks we were about to gawp at when His Holiness rocked up. As the Dalai Lama teaches in Tibetan, the monks here debate in Tibetan, and they drive their point home with a single clap. As opposed to when I debate. That generally involves poorly made points driven home by drooling, followed by a few choice obscenities when I realise I wouldn’t be articulate enough to win a debate with a monkey. Anyone, it seems, can join a debate here as long as they can speak the language. It was mainly young male monks, a few older male monks, a Buddhist nun, and a very angry white guy. So one person sits on the floor and the other person stands up, then they fire points at each other, but I don’t understand Tibetan so I’d no idea what they were debating. But the angry white guy was really going for it, screaming and gesticulating and pushing the guy sat on the floor, putting his hand on his head which I thought was a terrible, offensive thing to do to anyone but I’d read somewhere it was a huge insult to touch a Buddhist monk on his head. These guys were the main draw, the monk sat on the floor kept his cool really well, I’d no idea what the white guy was saying but even I wanted to step in and punch him in the face. We watched for a while before we headed back to Bhagsu, and the next day we asked Om if we could have the morning off yoga on the Sunday to go and watch the Dalai Lama teach. We even saw the Dalai Lama in his car again a few days later.
You need to check out the museum whilst you’re here because this is where you learn about the shit that went down between China and Tibet. Now, everything here is written from the Tibetan perspective and there are always, without fail, two sides to every story. This is what I learned in a nutshell both from the museum here in Mcleod Ganj, and from the interwebs when I got back to Bhagsu. In 1949, China announced that they were going to “liberate Tibet” from the tyranny of the Dalai Lama, or something like that. I don’t think that life in Tibet at this time was all sunshine and rainbows, a lot of people lived in horrific poverty and it wasn’t any manner of democracy. The Dalai Lama was boss and people were ruled by monks and that was that, and they weren’t all very nice people. But anyway, China rolled in and eventually annexed Tibet and no one likes an annexing, apart from the British government who wrote the fucking book on annexing nations and actually had a little bash at Tibet themselves way before China thought of having a go. But it’s not like they were being invaded by a democracy that wanted to free the nation, they simply replaced one awful autocracy with another arguably worse autocracy lead by Mao who was an absolute nut job by anyone’s standards.
Eventually the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government were forced to sign a seventeen point agreement which gave China sovereignty over Tibet before the Dalai Lama fled in 1959. Time went by and China oppressed the shit out of the Tibetan people. One of the information boards I read stated that since the occupation the Chinese had destroyed over 6000 monasteries and 1.2 million Tibetans have died as a direct result of the occupation, through executions, torture, hunger and labour camps. They swept in and started the slow eradication of the entire Tibetan way of life, stealing land to relocate Chinese nationals to Tibet, marginalising the Tibetan language and raiding all of their natural resources. They’re not even allowed to hang a photo of the Dalai Lama in their homes as China tries to destroy all traces of their religion. Some people feel they have no choice but to make the journey on foot over the Himalayas to India. It’s hard and cold and many people die or suffer from frostbite but they see it as preferable to succumbing to the annihilation of their culture by an invading force. And even worse, many young people are turning to self-immolation to get their struggle heard. That’s basically where they douse themselves in a flammable liquid and set themselves on fire. I’m not even shitting you, that’s how desperate they are.
In an extra special effort to stop the Tibetan people from practicing their religion the way they had for centuries, they tried to change the way the Panchen Lama is chosen. The second in command. So here’s the thing; there’s only meant to be one, you don’t get to choose whoever you damn well please, he’s meant to be the reincarnation of the one before him. China weren’t happy with this, they wanted to choose the candidates thus not only missing the point, they completely denyed the existence of any point and had the point kidnapped as soon as the Dalai Lama confirmed who it was. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is, according to a sign at the monastery, the world’s youngest political prisoner, and no one knows where he is. These days the Dalai Lama supports a democracy and has given up a lot of power to elected Tibetan exiles. He recognises that a nation can’t live on spirituality alone. Of course I’ve formed an opinion on this, it’s impossible not to after reading about the atrocities committed by China against Tibet and her people, but I’m not sure it’s something I want to get into on this blog, I’m not very political and I’m pretty shit at getting my point across.
Right. So Sunday rolled around and we dragged ourselves out of bed at some god awful hour so we could try and get a seat at the Tsuglagkhang Complex to hear His Holiness speak in a language we couldn’t understand. There are no photos of this, there’s no point in bringing your phone or camera as you’re not allowed to take them in whilst he’s teaching. We got seats and sat there for fucking ages before he finally made an appearance. He shuffled in surrounded by lots of men in hats. I had no idea that Buddhism involved so many silly hats. To be honest it’s eye opening how little I did know about Buddhism before I came here, I kinda just thought it was some dude who said some shit that made a whole bunch of sense and preached the Middle Path because poverty sucked and being supremely wealthy was a dick move, I thought it was just a philosophy, but no. It’s a whole religion with structure and monks and hierarchy and apparently hats. So many hats. It’s got deities and stuff, and who the crap are the massive blue dudes with the big teeth I see painted in a lot of Buddhist art? Who are they? What do they do? But anyway, the excitement of sitting on a blanket on a hard floor packed in with hundreds of other people soon wore off and we wandered off to locate and consume some food. Turned out we missed a load of free food and the DL wandered through the crowd handing out said free food. My fear of missing out kicked in, but my stomach said that the chole puri I gave it was very much worth it. But that’s the third time I’ve seen him now, we’re practically bros, we’ll probably knuckle bump or some shit next time I see him.
Mcleod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, India
Stayed at: View Cafe Guesthouse, Bhagsu