Varanasi

Originally posted May 14th, 2014

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I can’t say I was sad to leave Varanasi on Easter Sunday when we set off for the tiny domestic airport just outside of the city 5 hours early. Nor did I regret our decision when we ended up unable to check in for 3 hours and sitting in a small waiting area with exactly one bookshop, one Himalayan Herbal Healthcare, and one small food stand. Varanasi was hot and complicated, with an overwhelming main street and an abundance of what our Rishikesh taxi driver would have called “cheater cheater men”, which he’d warned us there were many of in Delhi. After two nights and three days, I still hadn’t quite been able to figure out how I felt about Varanasi or whether any of what I had seen went deeper than surface level. It’s a place I’ve thought about often since I left, so I suppose one thing is clear: it made an impact. IMG_2057.JPG

Located between the Varuna and Asi rivers, the origin of the name “Varanasi” may appear quite logical, but this is a city of many names. Also called Benares or Kashi and referred to by turns as “the city of learning”, “the city of light”, and “the city of temples”, Varanasi seems to have as confused an identity as this multiplicity of names suggests. Varanasi is a city of both water and fire; it’s a city where Hindus come to die but it’s also a city overwhelmingly filled with life. Whatever you want to call it, this place is a perfect representation of what I found apparent in so many Indian cities as it showcases the confusion between the holy and the all-too worldly; between the beautiful and the repulsive.

Varanasi saw the foundation of Buddhism in the 500s BCE, and has long been held sacred by Hindus as one of the seven holy cities which allows those who die there to enter moksha – release from the cycle of rebirth. However, at times the intense showmanship when it comes to religion makes the sacred seem to be little more than a display of devotion meant to inspire tourists to spend money; every man is out for himself and in direct competition with all those around him. And the caste system which is still all too obvious within India is certainly a powerful force in this city. Only the lowest “untouchable” castes can burn the bodies as it’s an ‘unclean’ or impure job, but we were told they themselves are not allowed the honour of being burned on the main ghats. There’s a separate place for the poor. As it is, a burning ceremony is expensive for the average Indian family with the cost of transportation, wood, materials to prepare the body, and taxes. When they can’t afford to buy enough wood, bodies are at times either placed in the Ganges unburned, or partially burned. Which is pretty disconcerting considering the number of people who bathe, brush their teeth and do their laundry just a few ghats down from the designated cremation area.

(Here’s an article about a woman from the Dom caste who has this prestigious yet undesirable job)

We arrived in Varanasi by plane early in the morning, walking out of the airport and into the dust and heat which was quite oppressive even at that hour. Taking a taxi into the area of the city by the main ghats (the stairways leading to the Ganges) we quickly realised that finding your way around Varanasi takes practice. We would soon learn that wandering through the small alleyways it becomes easy to lose your bearing, squeezing past water buffalo and weaving through street vendors. The ghats which were perhaps just a few minutes ago hot and busy suddenly make for a reassuring and refreshing relief from this claustrophobic atmosphere.

After being dropped off, our obvious confusion was noticed by the owner of a small internet café who attempted to give us instructions to our guesthouse. Just then, one of his friends came up and said that he knew the place we were looking for and that the owner was a buddy of his. This seemed pretty unlikely as our destination was an obscure guesthouse which has no website and no advertising; you really only go there if you know the guy, and I had booked it on recommendation from some friends who had just stayed there. But we waited around a minute and it paid off! An awkward man showed up on a motorcycle and, with a weak handshake, introduced himself as our landlord. I hadn’t been convinced that he’d understood me on the phone the week before, so I was relieved that he knew my name and appeared to have been expecting us. So are we walking there? Nope. He pointed to the motorcycle. Well, I guess if you’re okay with it, we are too. So he got on, followed by my mom and our duffel bag (luckily the big bags were safely stored away in Delhi at this point) and then by me. It was quite the thrilling ride, winding around tight corners, but luckily not a long one as we were very close by.

This place was the definition of simple. We walked through rough wooden doors, down a little corridor where this man’s wife was taking care of their baby parrots, and into our room where his two little daughters were sleeping. He pulled them off of the bed and they helped put on pillow cases and a sheet and our room was ready. Just a bed, a simple bathroom and, very importantly, a fan, but this place became home quickly and really was all we needed.

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As our guesthouse was located at the top of one of the ghats, we spent most of our first day in Varanasi wandering along the Ganges beginning to familiarize ourselves with the area.

There is much historic splendour along the Ganges in the form of ancient buildings constructed by the rich maharaja from the past, although most are irreparably unmaintained at this point. Of the 84 ghats in the city, the two most famous are the Dashashwamedh, the main ghat which Lord Brahma was supposed to have created to welcome Shiva (at the very least all concede that he sacrificed some horses here), and the Mahasmasana – the ‘great cremation ghat’. While the former is a place of celebration in the form of Agni Pooja, the worship to fire, the latter is, as the name suggests, where bodies are burned around the clock.

For part of our walk we were accompanied by an Indian Dr. Seuss who seemed to think that the best way to communicate any information is through rhymes. I think he was wrong.

Once again, as the sun set, we saw several aartis beginning along the Ganges with the huge crowds and bright lights making them an unavoidable spectacle. DSC_0320.JPG

Our second day in Varanasi we began by touring a selection of the numerous temples the city has to offer. Mr. Landlord had organised a rickshaw driver to take us from place to place and then to drop us off in the Mughal district to tour a silk factory since this is one of the most prominent industries in the city. At each temple our rickshaw would pull over somewhere on the street leading to it and we would disembark, leaving our shoes in the vehicle and walking barefoot into the temple. Of the places we visited one of the most distinctive was the Durga Temple, also known as the Monkey Temple because an absurd number of monkeys live there, impressing and intimidating you as enter this place of worship.

As we were zigzagging around the city we rode through the Banares Hindu University. Considered the best university in India, it is also one of the largest in Asia. The campus was very impressive and as we entered suddenly everything became quiet and green; it was a peaceful haven from the rest of the city.

Our last stop on the tour was the Mughal, or Muslim, section of Varanasi, where the famous Banarasi silk sarees are made. These are traditional wedding sarees made popular throughout India for the quality of the fabric and the opulent gold and silver used in their elaborate patterns. We watched as two men worked at massive looms in a small, dark room, weaving together rich pinks and purples with gold and silver to form floral-patterned fabric. Then we walked down the small winding streets and got to peak into a room where men were sitting embroidering details on the finished fabric. Finally, we were taken to the store where finished products were sold to simply view the fabrics – “no pressure to buy mamma!” our guide stated over and over again, smiling a largely toothless smile and reassuring us time and again that as my mom was his American mamma and he is my Indian brother, he would never cheat us. Then, to no one’s surprise, we bought some goods and he ripped us off. I think there was probably an unspoken agreement that this was always going to happen – we were the wealthy American tourists and he was the Indian salesman and that story just had to play itself out. We had an entertaining time, though, and watching the weaving was beautiful, as were the pieces we ended up buying.

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Another hour or so of wandering around the city – which included a break at a well-known tea shop run by a teenage boy who spoke fluent French – and it was evening: time for a boat ride. You can’t go to Varanasi as a tourist and not view it from the water at least once. Our boatman rowed us past all the centre ghats, pausing at the cremation ghat where dusk made the fires even more prominent than usual, burning in front of the dark city. He told us about the different maharaja who had built the crumbling buildings that we passed, and explained that his family had always been boatmen, although they did not have enough savings to buy their own boats but instead worked for others. We circled back to the ghat where the main aarti takes place and viewed it from our boat which was sandwiched in among dozens more. While it was lovely to watch, and beautiful to see candles floating down the Ganges (we also bought a couple and set them afloat) the fact that it seemed like a show might be because it is: according to some, this practice is far from traditional, but recently created to attract tourists to the city. (BBC article)

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We were brought back to our hotel and made an appointment to meet the same man at 5:30am the next morning for a sunrise ride. Varanasi does look it’s best early in the morning, although I wouldn’t say it’s calm even at that hour. Many people were out, starting their days with meditation or doing laundry, and, of course, there were the fishermen. Yes, this river which body remains wash into, where people brush their teeth and do their laundry, this river is also home to delicious fish which one can purchase at the market!

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Varanasi is a place with two very opposing images. The way it’s publically portrayed, as holy and timeless, and the way people describe it as dirty, touristy and uncomfortable. There’s the way you feel when you are sitting in a boat looking at the calm waters and the clear sky, and there there’s the memory of being in a crowd when it’s hot and dusty and the smell of cremated bodies lingers in the air.

These two very different quotes about the Ganges seem to sum it up:

“Ganga is not only a river. She is truly a Divine Mother. She rushes forth from the Himalayas as the giver of life, carrying purity, bliss and liberation in Her waters. Ganga is not only water. She is nectar – the nectar of life the nectar of liberation. She is a source of inspiration to all who lay eyes on her ceaseless, boundless, rushing current. She irrigates not only our farms, but also our hearts, minds, and souls. She is the Mother Goddess – giving freely to all with no discrimination, hesitation or expectations. Her waters purify all who bathe in them, all who drink from them. In fact, She is the remover of contamination.” 

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 “Which black river am I talking of – which river of Death, whose banks are full of rich, dark, sticky mud whose grip traps everything that is planted in it, suffocating and chocking and stunting it?

Why, I am talking of Mother Ganga, daughter of the Vedas, river of illumination, protector of us all, breaker of the chain of birth and rebirth. Everywhere this river flows, that area is the Darkness.”

– Aravind Adiga “The White Tiger”

Both of these impressions are ones that you feel fairly immediately in Varanasi and I suppose they can overlap and intertwine to make this city, while confusing, an interesting and layered one.

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Rishikesh (and Haridwar)

Originally posted May 10th, 2014

First up: Rishikesh

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The birthplace of yoga, Rishikesh is a city built along the shores of a beautifully green Ganges.

Its most distinguishing feature besides the river itself is the numerous ashrams scattered throughout which attract hoards of Western hippies to this peaceful mountain region. It’s quite the destination for those searching for tranquillity and spiritual instruction. Or for people who want to hang out and watch monkeys, like we did. There were lots of monkeys.

We showed up exhausted after a 14 hour bus ride, throughout which my mother decided it was her responsibility to stay awake with her eyes firmly fixed on the back of the drivers head just in case he dared make any careless manoeuvres. The first thing we did was head to our guesthouse’s balcony for a reviving breakfast. Then I had my first shower in three months which didn’t run out of hot water within a few minutes and which I could enter with bare feet and laid down to rest on a bed with real pillows. It was one of the best moments of my life.

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A short walk down the road, past a man dressed as Hanuman, the monkey god, and we appeared at the Ganges – a river known as Mother Ganga and held sacred by Hindus, making many of the cities along its shore sites of pilgrimage. As we reached the stairs leading down to the water we were surprised by how impressively green and powerful the water was, making us think for a split second that somehow we’d turned the corner and appeared in Verona. Any illusions that we’d entered a romantic Italian city immediately vanished, however, as soon as we stepped onto the crowded bridge which shook all too perceptibly with every step and which was serving as playground to a dozen monkeys. On the other side of the river there was one particularly imposing temple and several nearby ashrams. We browsed through the many shops aimed at tourists and walked past numerous cafes offering relaxation and a pleasant view, while street vendors tried to sell us postcards or powder-bindi kits (which we may or may not have bought…).

DSC_0004.JPGDSC_0069.JPGDSC_0036.JPGDSC_0018.JPGDSC_0042.JPGBack at our hotel we asked the English owner of our guesthouse what we needed to do with just one day in Rishikesh. She sent us to the evening aarti down by the river, a half an hour walk from where we’d been that afternoon. An aarti is a worship ritual during which songs of prayer are sung while lamps are lit in order to offer light to the gods. The name comes from the word “Aratrika” which means “removes dark (ratri)”, and it is a crucial part of almost every Hindu ceremony. So we set out early to get some food first and ended up at a little place down by the water. The abundance of flies diminished the atmosphere slightly but the food was very good.

DSC_0073.JPGThen we took a long, meandering walk down to the area where the main aarti takes place – Parmath Niketan – along a lovely riverside path. For the final half of our journey we were joined by an extremely friendly Indian man who approached us trying to sell drums and then, realising we weren’t just a tough sell but genuinely didn’t want one, he settled for conversation. We still showed up too early for the sunset ceremony and spent some time in an ashram garden, happy to find some shade. As soon as the gates opened, we chose to sit on the steps closest to the river, dipping our feet into the cool water while watching the place slowly fill up. It was pleasantly less touristy than we had expected as the vast majority of the visitors seemed to be there for spiritual reasons rather than curiosity. Throughout the entire ceremony you could see how passionately invested so many were and how sincerely they joined in with the prayer.

One of the young boys in yellow leading the aarti was playing an instrument and singing the prayer. His voice was one of the most beautifully clear and pure sounds I’ve ever heard, and while we, of course, didn’t know exactly what was being chanted, the even and repetitive singing was entrancing. It also served as a beautiful backdrop to the entire scene as we sat there, feet in the Ganges, witnesses to the emotions of the crowd: faces around us expressed by turns enthusiastic pleasure, calm enjoyment, and focused devotion.

Then H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji Maharaj (luckily for his friends, he goes by a shorter version: Pujya Swamiji) came down into the crowd and joined with some other VIPs to light a fire and say some prayers, all of which I’m sure were very significant but I can’t say I knew what was going on. It turns out he’s quite the famous holy man with an assortment of accolades listed on his website. (We talked to someone later in our journeys about this aarti and he expressed disapproval of Pujya Swamiji as he didn’t believe that it was appropriate for holy men to become so embroiled in politics.) At this point some kind of lecture started during which many people began to leave and we decided to head out as well before the sun finished setting. After we left the aarti concluded with the iconic offering of light to the Gods in thanks for the light they provided all day long. However, we were happy to head back to our comfortable guesthouse and, as we saw the same process in Varanasi a few nights later, I don’t feel much regret for leaving early.

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The next morning our time in Rishikesh had already come to an end. After breakfast we decided that there was little point in hanging around longer since we had an hour’s drive to our train station in Haridwar and chose to get there early in order to see a bit of this sister city before we left the area. Turned out this was a pretty ignorant idea as there was no way we could wander around and see anything in just a few hours, but we had quite the adventure nonetheless.

HARIDWAR…

On the ride over my mother expressed an interest in the red thread bracelet on our taxi drivers wrist and he explained that it was blessed and that the god Hanuman would protect the wearer from harm and bring them good fortune. We quite liked this idea, so he stopped the taxi on a side street and bought us some. Perched in the front seat of his taxi in front of the train station, he held the string up to a makeshift altar on his dashboard while saying a prayer and then continued to pray as he wrapped them around our wrists. So now the deal is that we’ll be protected as long as we don’t remove them but let them eventually fall off on their own.

Then we got to experience an Indian train station for the first time. Like everything else, it seemed to function in a unique state of organised disorder. We stored our bags in their locker after much confusion about the process, including me running around the station trying to buy the cheapest ticket possible since ours was technically from another station and therefore not valid at the storage room. There were people sitting on the floor all over the station and we decided to temporarily escape the crowds by heading out into the streets… (ha!). We entered one of the first restaurants we found with quite low expectations. It was a chain specialising in dosas and the image on the door was a cartoon of what looked like an Italian chef, but surprisingly we then had one of the best meals I’ve had in India – a vegetarian thali (basically a tasting platter with lots of little dishes) which I’d seen many times on menus but this was the first one I’d ordered.DSC_0186.JPG

As we finished up, we saw some commotion outside and went to investigate. There was a political rally going down the street in support of the lotus party and its candidate, Modi. Most people we talked to while in India stated that they planned on voting for Modi if they were going to vote at all. Others claimed that there was no good choice as everyone was corrupt and that Indian politics was the same as it had always been; lots of promises and no intentions to follow through. DSC_0189.JPGDSC_0191.JPGDSC_0207.JPG

It was clear that there was nothing we could do with just two hours left to kill so back it was to the train station for us. We picked up our bags so that they could serve as seats and sat on the main platform watching all the life around us. Monkeys ran back and forth above our heads, which was charming until the man next to me showed a deep gash in his arm from when a monkey had bitten him five days earlier. That combined with the line of people who started forming eager to have their pictures taken with us drove us a bit further down the platform.

We watched as those without reserved seats in the more expensive coaches shoved themselves into the luggage carriages where they would have to stand for the duration of their journey. Quite a few leapt into doorways as the train was moving, hanging on from there or sitting on the stairs. Space certainly isn’t left unused in India. There was one family arriving by train who seemed to be moving house – the three or four children and two adults kept jumping back into the train to collect more packages, bedframes, and chairs and passing them onto the platform before they loaded up every person and walked out of the station. DSC_0211.JPGDSC_0232.JPG

Finally our train pulled in (but on time!) and it turns out the reserved seating area is lovely. They just kept bringing us food. First it was a snack, then a meal, then tea, then dessert… It went on and on and highly efficiently. It was only 5 or so hours and then we were in New Delhi ready for a night of rest before our flight to Varanasi!

Amritsar

Originally posted April 6th, 2014

A glimpse of Pakistan

I’ve been eager to visit Amritsar ever since I started reading about Punjab in preparation for my time here.

There’s a magnificent golden temple and the city offers the unique opportunity to walk right up to the dividing line between India and Pakistan.

With only two weekends left here, the trip could be put off no longer and, with a very last-minute visit to a travel agency, we figured out the bus schedule, and I somehow found 5 other people willing to commit to a 4am taxi ride to Dharmasala with no real notice.

An hour or two of sleep and then our 3:30am alarm went off and we made our way to the main road in Naddi hoping that the taxis will actually show – I was far from convinced that the driver I talked to on the phone knew what it was he was agreeing to. They arrived, after giving us a bit of a scare by showing up 10 minutes late, and off we went to the bus station. The daily 5am bus is the only one going to Amritsar, and it’s an ordinary bus, so we were happy to be there early and all chose window seats to avoid constantly being walked into and having to brace yourself around every turn. I didn’t manage to sleep at all for the 6 hour ride but had an amazing time watching the scenery change as we descended from the mountains.

First thing was first when we arrived in Amritsar – breakfast. It was hot and it was sunny and we took a large rickshaw to the area around the Golden Temple, stopping at the first place we saw that served food. There were fans going from every corner of the restaurant and we quickly got through some cold coffees and ordered local specialties. I got Amritsari Kulcha, a stuffed bread with channa and vegetables on the side. Others got Dosa, a type of crepe found throughout India.

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Then a beggar threw a banana at me. This woman came up to us saying how hungry her baby was and asking for money for food, and as I happened to be putting bananas in my bag at the time, I gave her one. As soon as I started walking away she threw it at me and came back to ask for money again! Not overly surprising that she didn’t actually want food, but disheartening nonetheless. Still, it’s amazing how easy it is to say no now compared to the guilt I felt when I first arrived and these kinds of experiences just harden you even more.

After that little welcome to the city, we found our way to the temple dorms to store our bags and we were led to the foreigners’ room. Many people visiting the temple stay there for the night, but while Indian tourists can sleep outside in the courtyard and around the temple itself, we as foreigners have to be segregated indoors in our own area. While I do understand why this is done, and our area was lovely and simple with cots and fans and cabinets for storing our possessions, looking at everyone prepare for bed in the evening, mattresses filling every inch of spare floor space in the courtyard, I couldn’t help but be the tiniest bit jealous.

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Amritsar itself was quite a bustling and not overly attractive city, but somehow to me it didn’t feel as gritty or aggressive as Delhi. The colours were amazing and being in the sun was refreshing. Most people in Amritsar are Sikhs and our group definitely got a lot of curious stares. But to be fair, I was staring a bit myself. Everything was very different from Himachal Pradesh; most men wore turbans and had impressive beards and women were in headscarves – this added to how beautifully colourful the city was, and all these colours stood out wonderfully against the white marble which was common near the temple.

At 2:30 we got ready to go to the Wagah border ceremony. This occurs every evening around sunset between Indian and Pakistan as they put on a nationalistic ceremony before the lowering of the flags. The cars stop a kilometre from the border and you have to walk the rest of the way, bringing nothing with you but passports and cameras – no bags allowed. Being foreigners we were instant VIPs for the ceremony and got to stand in our own line and had our own designated section in the stands. They don’t even check passports, just let you through after a thorough look at your face to make sure your features betray your status.Which was slightly uncomfortable, especially at the end when we were allowed to leave first and they wouldn’t let the Indian visitors go take pictures by the border until after we were finished.

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After passing through several security points we were ushered into our section by guards in elaborate uniforms, including dramatically plumed hats. The stands were eventually packed with Indian tourists and then this strange ceremony began. It was not even remotely what I expected. I thought I was about to witness some kind of somber military event, like the changing of the guards – impressive but very structured and formal. Instead what followed was more reminiscent of a sports arena with incredibly intense – almost comical – gestures of aggression towards Pakistan.

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While Pakistani guests were still filing in, the Indian side started. Women and children came out from the crowd to line up for the chance to run down to the gates separating the border with the Indian flag. It was quite touching actually, seeing how excited they were to show their patriotism. I was surprised to see that this was an interactive ceremony and found the informality at the start quite beautiful. Then music was blasted into the stadium and women came out to dance. That was unbelievable to watch; it felt like being on the set of a Bollywood movie and the colours were surreal. Still, while I loved watching this, it was clear that the guards there were very much in control and this “spontaneous” joy seemed to me to be a calculated attempt to show that women in India are freer than those in Pakistan. It felt like this was done purely for the purpose of setting themselves above Pakistan – “look, our women are less repressed than yours – we let them participate in public events”.

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Then the real military part of the show started. There was a kind of shouting match between both sides and Indians in the stands were screaming and waving flags. It was quite intense and I felt weird not knowing what was being chanted. And then guards began to do these crazy high kicks, stomp and march up to the gate and then theatrically kick at it. It looked really aggressive, but it was so coordinated and over the top that I couldn’t quite take it seriously either and I wasn’t sure if I was meant to. I’ve also read that the ceremony is less aggressive now than is used to be. They then opened the gates and there was nothing separating the two countries anymore. The two top military commanders (I believe) stood there and had a stare off. Other guards kept coming up and kicking and eventually the flags were lowered simultaneously and then the gates were slammed in an amusingly childish manner.

I couldn’t help but think that this immense amount of coordination, which clearly requires much practice, and the fact that they do it every single day must mean that the soldiers on both sides probably know each other really well and that this unfriendly attitude is at least partially just for show. Whatever the real relationships, however, the ceremony kept the crowd wildly and passionately involved every step of the way.

This is an interesting article on how the ceremony reflects the actual relationship between the two countries.

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After an hours ride back, we went to see the Golden Temple at night. We stored our shoes, walked through a pool of water to clean our feet and put on our head scarves. The temple was glowing and reflecting on the water surrounding it while everywhere else you looked was white marble. People were sitting and praying or quietly reflecting, some preparing to settle down for the night. It was all stunning and so shockingly peaceful for a place with so many people. It was an unbelievable experience and a great way to use up our last remaining bits of energy from the day.

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A quick and silent dinner followed and then, delirious from sleep deprivation, we went back to our rooms and the four of us girls sharing a room rolled around giggling in bed like 12 year olds at a slumber party until the fan lulled us to sleep. After missing an entire night’s sleep for travel, it felt spectacular.

The next morning we returned to the temple in the daylight and found it much less impressive. Suddenly everyone looked more like tourists on a mission to see the place rather than spiritual experience-seekers. Still, it was quite amazing even in the light of day and it was a shame that we didn’t have time to actually enter the temple itself, but we had a bus to catch.

7 hours later we were back in Dharamsala; it was a short visit and exhausting travelling, but well worth it and I’m so glad I didn’t leave this area before I got a chance to see Amritsar.

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Tibet here in Dharamsala

Originally posted April 6th, 2014

Learning about Tibetans in India

A couple of weeks ago I woke up in one of those moods –  discontent, not well rested but too on-edge to relax; bored and lazy but wanting to do something nonetheless.

The weather was un-inspirational, everyone around was slightly ill or exhausted and there was just no energy anywhere. Work was in an ebb of the frequent ebbs and flows they have here, and with no real drive or direction but still wanting to be productive, everything was just frustrating. Besides it was back to plaid shirts and two pairs of socks after a few days of spring had given us hope that the change in weather was permanent this time.

So then I decided to leave the house. The walk to McLeod usually re-energizes me and after months of frustrating iTunes problems (there’s a programme seriously incompatible with international living) I had finally found a way to access most of my music on my iPhone and could once again listen to some old favourites while taking a peaceful walk in the woods.

But then this plan got slightly sidetracked when I ended up going on a search for a leopard-mauled cow corpse and getting a head-massage from a Tibetan man. Sometimes the world likes to remind you that you have to do is leave your house when you’re feeling stagnant and uninspired and novelty will eventually find you.

Let’s explain – I left the house and as I was making the turn next to the Brigitte Bardot Animal Shelter I heard a guy shout down from his porch above “be careful!”. There was a massive cow eating out of the dumpster next to me so I assumed that’s what he was referring to, and gestured to it. “You saw the dead cow down the road?,” he asked me. I hadn’t but now I was curious. He went on to tell me that he’d seen a leopard in the woods just the day before – a young one, but still strong enough to take down a young cow apparently since he’d seen the dead body in the field nearby. I asked if it was normal to have leopards in these woods and he said that they don’t normally appear in the winter but now that it’s spring it’s possible to stumble across one. Then he asked if I wanted him to show me the body. Obviously I said yes. (In case anyone reading this finds this decision odd, I promise it was out of curiosity, not serial-killer tendencies). So I followed this Tibetan guy down the road the way I’d come, while he stopped several times to inform groups of Indian men about what he’d seen. They all seemed quite in awe, so I can’t imagine this is a regular occurrence. When we got to the field it turned out the cow’s body had already been removed, so that was slightly disappointing. But I’m sure a huge relief to anyone reading this because it means there are no disturbing pictures included in this post.

By this point, however, the Tibetan guy I were kind of buddies and he was quite interesting to talk to and seemed eager to discuss his culture, so when he offered to show me around some of the TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village) complex I agreed.  I’d been to the school which is right up from Dal Lake and the largest (and first) Tibetan children’s school in India with just over 1700 students. And I knew that there was a handicraft centre there too, but what I didn’t realise is that they also have a hospital and a retirement home for teachers who had worked for the school for at least 30 years. It’s quite the organised community.

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He showed me the call centres, the lecture halls and we chatted about the TCV as we went. He told me was born here, had gone to school at the TCV and then worked there ever since. We sat down for tea and shared khapse, a Tibetan bread they eat during Tibetan New Year’s (Losar) celebrations. I saw pictures of his wife and son and I asked questions about the school and about how difficult it is to go back to Tibet. I learned that in the TCV there’s a room for all the babies who came as refugees from Tibet; that many of them are orphans or have only one parent. That many of the children arrive with frostbite from crossing the border on foot. Many parents in Tibet send their children to India for school because back home all the good schools are solely populated by Chinese students, and that children in the TCV are discouraged from taking pictures because when Chinese government officials find out that Tibetan families have sent children to India for school they are punished. He said that it was incredibly difficult to go back and visit, and quite impossible to if you went to this TCV in particular because it’s the most well-known. It was started in the 1960s when Tibetans began to cross into India as refugees and the Dalai Lama realised the importance of establishing a place for them to educate themselves while maintain their culture. His younger sister was told to come oversee these schools and has been a huge advocate for Tibetan refugee children since.

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I asked if the children learn Hindi at school as well, curious about their integration into Indian society, and he said absolutely, and that they also have classes in Chinese. His explanation for this was really surprising – that if Tibetans could speak to the Chinese people in their own language they might be able to have discussions on a personal level about Tibet and to explain that they weren’t a threat and why their culture is important. He said that the government had spread much misinformation about Tibet among the average Chinese populace, and that they believed that the way forward was to enable dialogue, to push through the propaganda. Obviously I wasn’t talking to an unbiased observer here, but this seemed to be a really enlightened and pleasantly simple approach to such a divisive issue.

I still got the impression that Tibetans and Indians around here really don’t mix much. I asked about how he felt the Indian government had been to Tibetans – if establishing all this incredibly organised infrastructure had been a challenge or supported – and he said that while the government had been incredibly supportive, the local Indian people in the area were not necessarily very open to Tibetans. He explained that when Tibetans have some money they tend to be a bit flashier with it than Indians and this can lead to resentment. When he was talking about the hostels they have for Tibetans in Bangalore and Delhi I noticed that while he was mostly talking about how they were there to provide cheaper alternatives for graduates from TCV looking to go to university in one of these cities, one off-hand comment he made definitely made me realise that part of the intention here was to keep their cultures separate and making sure the identity of these Tibetans is not diluted, so to speak, by too much time spent living or interacting with Indians. I realise the importance of maintaining a sense of group identity, but that still made me a bit uncomfortable.

 

And then he was talking about how the school also taught massage for health purposes and he gave me a really intense head massage and told me I need to wear warmer clothes and rest more. So that was weird. And on that note I said my goodbyes, asked what to do if I saw a leopard (he said throw it into the dumpster – but I’m pretty sure he meant throw something at it), and continued my walk to McLeod.

I’m in no position to comment on the politics of Tibet and China and certainly don’t intend on making any of this one person’s comments seem like absolute truths, but it was really interesting to sit down and hear a bit about the experiences one person has gone through and how he sees the situation of Tibetans here in India. I’ve talked to a few other Tibetan men very briefly here and when asked how long they’ve been in McLeod or how they like it, always get the same answer. It’s very nice, they like it very much, but it’s not home and they wish they could go back or at least visit more easily. I tend to forget that people here are refugees just because they dress well and go out and have communities, but when you actually ask where they are from, no matter how many years they’ve lived here in Himachal Pradesh, they always make the point of saying that they live here, but that Tibet is their home.