Sikhism to Buddhism to tea and chaos
08.05.2010 - 15.05.2010 46 °C
John:....Our drive was from Amritsar in The Punjab across the state boundary and in to Himachal Pradesh finishing up in Mcleod Ganj. The drive was long, enjoyable and largely uneventful. We were all grateful to be out of the 45 degree heat in the air conditioned comfort of the Toyota. We left the city behind and became part of another India, the India we had seen from the train but that seemed more real from the car. The India that is the rural, dusty plains of the Punjab with its house sized, house shaped piles and piles of recently harvested wheat, Mahindra tractors, donkey pulled carts, small, choked townships with their colourful fruit and vegetables on display amongst crumbling buildings and yet more dust.
Sikhs on scooters, their heads 'protected' from crash damage by the tightly wrapped turbans wove their way through the traffic. Our driver, Raman, drove us steadily, introducing us to a yet unexplored facet of Indian music, the Bollywood soundtrack. Popular music here is so inextricably linked to Indian movies that it is hard to work out which is a vehicle for the other. So popular are they that popular songs from the movies were played at the vigorous border closing ceremony near Amritsar (see previous blog). Raman attempted to replicate the volume of the border ceremony in the van and there began a subtle battle between those who wanted just a little less volume and Raman.
We crossed the border from the Punjab into the state of Himachel Pradesh after paying a series of tolls/taxes for the car, and began climbing up into the foothills of the outer Himalayas. Bit by bit the scenery changed from the flat plains of Punjab to hilly, pine forested country. House designs changed, and the dusty atmosphere was perfumed with pine and eucalyptus. After a long drive, requiring lots of concentration and defensive driving methods, Raman delivered us safely to our hotel, Pema Thang, in the town of McLeod Ganj, and extension of Dharamshala.
This bustling, congested little town was once the kind of place that the country's rulers in Delhi would flee to in order to escape from the blistering heat of the capital city. That pretty well fitted our purpose as well. The temperature here at 1200 feet was nearly 10 degrees cooler than Delhi which still made it up in the low 30s but with a little mountain breeze it felt fresher.
McLeod Ganj/ Dharamshala is probably best known as the seat of the Dalai Lama and the Government of Tibet in Exile. Our excellent little hotel was perched on the hill top just above the Dalai Lama's residence and the temple complex attached to it. From our balcony ('please keep windows and doors closed to keep monkies out') we looked, through the lines of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, down on the complex. We could clearly see the lines of pilgrims, visitors and, in their maroon robes, monks passing by the large brass prayer wheels on their way towards the temple itself. Beyond that the Karanga valley.
We had several days in this delightful place. Our hotel, sparcely furnished, very comfortable and spotlessly clean was run by Tibetan people. The food in their restaurant was Tibetan influenced...in fact there was so much Tibetan influence in the town it was easy to forget we were in India. India, to its credit and in amongst all the other challenges it faced at the time, accomodated the Tibetans in 1951 after the Chinese 'liberated' the people of Tibet from its 'tyranical rule' and replaced it with the well known brand of liberal free thinking that I associate China with. This 'liberation' has cost somewhere in the region of 1 000 000 Tibetan lives. Rumours abound in the Tibetan and Indian communities about the presence of spies from China keeping tabs on the Tibetan Government and the Dalai Lama. I'm sure that the Chinese account differs considerably but the Tibetan version sounds bitterly sad. The most optimistic place we found in McLeod Ganj was the Tibetan Childrens' Village and School.
Founded soon after the Chinese invasion this thriving school is a delight. We visited with a gift of fresh fruit and some other bits and pieces to discover this place bursting with energy. Many of the children here are orphans of Tibetans or the children of Tibetans that have smuggled them across the border. The Head teacher is, himself, an ex student of the school who went on to train as a teacher and then returned to serve his people...the same for the school doctor. The classrooms were buzzing with chat and singing, the children very smart in their school uniform and whilst I watched the games lesson in the playground Jackie chatted with the librarian in the well stocked school library. I don't want to over romanticise the place but it seemed to have so much going for it...the children seemed to be very positive about their school and their culture, the school grounds were well maintained and tidy, no shouting and an air of positivity was almost tangible. Unsupervised children would walk up to us and welcome us to their school, interested in where we were from. The school receives support from many offers of help from overseas and from within India.
The rest of the town was fascinating too. We watched a very popular (in India) movie called 'My Name is Khan' in a basement cinema seating 15 people. Whilst following a similar theme, it made Rainman look like King Lear and Dustin Hoffman look like Sir Laurence Olivier. The soundtrack was great thumping stuff which Raman had previewed, at volume, on the drive from Amritsar. We enjoyed the experience, the totally implausible plot lines and the happy ending but felt that at just over 3 hours it was a little long. If I described the story line to you.....
Like many towns in India, McLeod Ganj was as colourful and congested as a town can be.
Cars trying to move through streets where cars have no real right to be and motorbikes honk honk honk all the time. The town is populated by local people going about their daily business as well as genuine seekers after truth, hippies, tourists, cows, charlatans, monks, builders and purveyors of all manner of quackery: A million ways to learn about Yoga, counselling ranging from the pastoral to the downright confrontational, a hairdresser that proudly proclaimed the use of moonpower and much much more. 'Antique' prayer wheels could be purchased as could prayer flags, texts of inspiring materials, flutes, drums, robes, bells, statues of the Buddha of varying sizes and signed pictures of the Dalai Lama (currently visting the USA)...as I said before, a different country.
From McLeod Ganj we drove across to Palampur, only 30 kilometres away. Before we left the Tibetans completely we stopped at The Norbalingka Institute to watch master craftsmen and their apprentices producing authentic, traditional Tibetan arts and crafts. This was the real thing; one Thangka painting can take 7 months to produce and is subject to the most extraordinary levels of scrutiny before iot is allowed to be sold or to be placed in a temple. The gardens and grounds of the Institute are beautifully designed and peaceful. We could have stayed longer but needed to finish our journey.
Our accomodation was at 'Country Cottage', on a tea plantation. Our host, Naveen Sarin was in his early 70s and was a fascinating conversationalist and considerate host. Planted with China Hybrid tea the first cup of tea we had was delicious...they kept getting better. We had only been there for 5 minutes before we decided to stay in Palampur longer and not continue our trip to Shimla. Subsequently we heard that Shimla was crowded and noisy so we were pleased to have stayed put. For two nights we stayed at Country Cottage and from there moved to Naveen's brother's house just up the road. The food at both places was very good; at Parvi and Reeta's place it was outstanding. We stuck with the vegetarian options throughout and very tasty they were too.
The view from their garden was of mountains; big snow covered mountains, a timely reminder of the powerful views that await us on our return to South Westland. The garden was intermittently full of parrots, doves, fantails and all sorts of other birdlife. Parvi and Reeta were generous with their time and tales of India, Hinduism and Tea. Parvi, now almost 70 had entered the tea trade as a shiny 19 year old on the plantations in Assam. His passion is still tea and to him this was more than just a leaf to make a beverage; this was a career, a discipline and a link to international friends and colleagues.
I mentioned that I had heard some very moving Sufi music in Delhi and without further ado we sat in his car (nothing else was working due to the frequent power cuts) listening to Sufi music as Parvi translated the lyrics for me. Around us crashed a mountainous electric storm, all pink, blue and yellow lightning and the kind of thunder that rolls and rumbles around looking for a way out. Parvi's generosity knew no bounds. He took us with him and Reeta up the switchback steep mountain road to their temple late one afternoon. The more we protested the more insistent he became.
The tea plantation, a haven of peace and tranquility most of the time was just above the Cantt of The First Battalion (Infantry) of the Indian Army. A huge complex, in itself a small town, our reveries were occasionally punctuated by the sound of the firing range. A reminder, this, of the troubled borders of India to the west and the north of here.
The journey back to Delhi was painless, car to Chandaghar railway station and the 4 hour train journey back to Delhi. New Delhi train station at 23:00 is a fascinating place. Looking around for which way the war went after it left here we found ourself a taxi which took a good thirty minutes to get out of the car park. During that time wen passed the numerous auto rickshaws queueing hopelessly for fares. Men passed out with heroin underneath advertising hoardings. One man, less stoned than the unconscious people around him, was checking the quality of clothing being worn by those around him. The grime of old Delhi, just across the road, was chipping away at the border with New Delhi. Out of nowhere a woman, dressed in shimmering blue sari with several small children serenely drifted through the dirt and the chaos, above the misery and scrapping for life going on all around, oblivious to the man who lit up his reefer, took a big hit and was too stoned to blow out his match.
The sign boasted 'NO TRAFFIC VIOLATIONS WILL BE TOLERATED' we slowly made our way through all the traffic violators, past the sign saying 'THIS IS A NO SMOKING AREA' just above the last of the stoned smokers. The powerless policeman blew his whistle from time to time but even at midnight it was beyond hot and his heart wasn't really in it. All a very long way from the Dalai Lama and the Tea Plantations.
We are now in Varanasi. The oldest continually inhabited city in the world and probably the most 'foreign place' I have ever been to. There is so much to say about Varanasi that will have to wait until the next posting. Suffice to say that it is full of colour, people of all kinds, herds of cows and water buffalo roaming the streets, monkies on power poles, goats and above all else it lies on the banks of Mother Ganges, or Ganga as it is known in India. As implausible as the plot for My Name is Khan we are leaving on the night train to Katni before driving to the National Park and tiger reserve at Bandhavgarh.
Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.