McLeod Ganj: - In this age of instant gratification, where the young are always restless and wanting more (many a times not sure what), there is hardly any time to look into oneself, the urge to spend some "me time"!
An age when more frequently and aptly you could use the F-word the "smarter" people think you are – an age when the hot and cool mean the same - people at cafes love to seem always super busy, juggling with an array of "smart" gadgets – life has visibly taken a back seat for some or has become "out-of-control" complex.
The "smart and the wise" have enough justification for it though – we always have more opinions than we have facts don't we? But like even the darkest nights wakes up to a morning, the greatest fears see a distant light of hope – some fortunate few (the "wise and smart" call them freaks) off late are a little disillusioned with the "smart" way of life and are beginning to realize it probably makes sense to try to go somewhere slowly instead of going nowhere fast! Hence a journey for those souls has started.
A journey to know thyself, a journey to learn what to hold on to and what to let go, a journey to learn how to live simply – so that people around you can simply live, a journey to be happy – to find peace !
And then it's quick? Remember instant weight loss programs? A 12 hr. night bus journey from the Indian capital of New Delhi, takes you up the narrow, winding mountain roads.
The cacophony and pollution of the city slowly fades into the night, the air gets thinner and colder. You reach Dharamshala at around 4 in the morning. You are half asleep and half awake and it's still dark and misty outside. A little impatient and a lot tired you reach the small sleepy bus stand in McLeod Ganj at the break of dawn. The Sun is out, the darkness and the fog clears to reveal the majestic mountains in the backdrop. That's a little symbolic of you waking up and seeing light finally? – sigh!
Tucked away in the laps of the Dhauladhar, McLeod Ganj has been the HOME of many Tibetans in exile for many years now. His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls this heaven on earth his home too.
For people like me with an awful sense of direction, McLeodGanj has made things simpler. (You can call that the beginnings of the Divine touch already!) There are only two major roads namely the Temple and the Jogibara road that runs across the town (approximately 5 sq. Km).
From the Tibetan family run small and cozy restaurants, the meditation and refuge centers, shops selling the khatas (traditional white scarf) and souvenirs, hotels and guesthouses to the pharmacy stores dot the narrow, winding lanes. You would probably find everything you need, along these two roads. Did you say McDonalds? Well, no – the small town is fighting hard to hold intact its charm and culture but not sure how long it can.
There are a few swanky Italian pizzerias, coffee shops and wellness centers that have come up in the recent past. But then who am I to have an opinion if that's good or bad for McLeod ganj - McLeod ganj will decide for itself .If it works out good for some and makes them happy – so am I! In the words of HH the Dalai Lama, it's time we must realize that we can be happy if the society around us is happy – so we must make a conscious and honest attempt to find a sustainable sense of compassion that responds to all humanity - and this is not just about helping others but training the mind and realizing that helping others in turn benefits us.
"Nowadays we are so interdependent that the destruction of our neighbours means our own destruction too. This is why we have to think of building a more compassionate society and we need to do it less on the basis of faith than on reasoning. If we apply common sense we can see that among our neighbours families who love and trust each other greet others in a friendly way. On the other hand, even when a family is materially better off, if they lack warm feelings for each other, if they are jealous and mistrustful, moved by suspicion, they're not very happy."
To ensure our physical health we need peace of mind. Therefore, just as we need to observe physical hygiene to stay well, we need to develop emotional hygiene too – says The Dalai Lama.
Well, back to where we were – you would find home stays and guest houses that come cheap and clean. From Rs.150-200/day (shared toilets) to Rs.300-400/day (private toilets) to the more luxurious ones (Rs2000 and up). You would probably get a place to stay without any prior booking – so all you need is to hit the road and leave your worries behind.
For those "wanderlust" souls – McLeodGanj won't disappoint you either. The landscape is serene and beautiful.
Bhagsu waterfall - 20 min. walk from McLeod is a treat to the eye with beautiful views of the valley around. You can stop for a "chai" at the small shack at the foot of the falls and admire the views if you wish.
Triund – 3-4 hrs of trek depending on your age and fitness levels. Close to the snow capped Dhauladhar mountains, you will get panoramic views of the Dharamshala valleys and mountains below. A favourite with trekkers, many of them choose to camp and bring their own food. Bring all weather clothes if camping is your choice. Weather conditions change quickly so assessing safety is essential.
The Main Temple and The Dalai Lama's Residence - 5 min. walk from McLeod Ganj. You can take a serene morning or evening walk around the temple and residence. Tibetans call this 'Ling Kor'- a place for circumambulation with beautiful views of the Dharamshala area. You can see many traditional Buddhist "stupas" and prayer flags fluttering.
At the main temple you can meditate while listening to monks chanting from 6-8am and in the evening you can watch the monks debate between 4 -7pm. There are wonderful statues of Buddha, Chenrezig and Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) in the main temple alongside many Buddhist scriptures. You are unable to visit the Dalai Lama's residence for security reasons unless the Dalai Lama is giving a public audience in the residence grounds.
The Tibetan Museum - The Tibetan Museum is within the temple area and has a very well presented permanent display of pictures depicting Tibet's recent history. Open 10am- 6pm Tues-Sunday.
The Tibetan Library - 15 min. walk. Two Geshes (Doctors in Buddhism) give teachings Mon to Friday, 9-10 and 11-12pm; the Dharma class at 11 has an excellent English translator. Between Dharma classes, 10-11 you can study the Tibetan language. There is also a small museum here and a good bookshop. There is a small monthly fee for attendance at classes.
GU-CHU-SUM - 5 minutes from Main Square. Established in 1991, Gu Chu Sum provides support to ex-political prisoners and their families. There is a permanent photographic exhibition hall here where you can learn more about Tibet's history under the Chinese occupation.
Norbulingka Institute - 20 mins from Dharmashala bus station + 15 min walk, or 20 minutes from McLeod in a taxi. Norbulinka Institute promotes and preserves Tibetan traditional arts and culture as well as offering apprenticeships at both degree level and for craftspersons. You can see artists at work on Thangka painting, appliqué, woodcarving, metalwork and tailoring. The grounds are peaceful and beautiful, a true sanctuary, with Japanese style gardens and water features. The temple is also stunning with a giant statue of Buddha and many beautiful frescoes.
Most of the restaurants are small but cozy and family run. The food is mostly vegetarian and is delicious and healthy. Probably reminds you of the times when food was not fast - they may not be served with an option of mayonnaise or mustard but with love and warmth for sure.
But then a few have come up in the recent times that serve Italian gourmet pizzas and beer! As Marie who has been coming here from the UK for 10 years now finds it "pleasantly shocking" on how the times have changed since she first came here in 1999. She would think this is the last time that she's here but would end up being here every year. Is it the innocent smiles of the Tibetan toddlers at the children's home she volunteers at or the warmth of the locals or a sense of satisfaction of doing something for others or is it the atmosphere in McLeod ganj is simply charged by His Holiness's presence? – She like the others are not sure what really draws her here back again and again ...
Though McLeod ganj is small and in a time warp, you would find a steady inflow of tourists/volunteers from the West and East alike. You would find a young and energetic Cathy from Germany travelling solo all of India and is stuck here – happy and at peace working with the kids at Rogpa or a Jane teaching the monks English. There are quite a few NGOs operating at the grass root level namely Tibet Charity, Lha Social Work and Hope Center, trying to make things better for the Tibetans in exile. People coming to McLeod ganj with the primary objective to doing something worthwhile to help those who need it, would contact these NGOs and find some suitable voluntary work that's available.
I met some young men and women who were born in Tibet but have then crossed into India. They explained to me with utmost eagerness and innocence on how they crossed on foot and how they escaped the patrol in night to get here. Some looked a little sad when I asked if they wanted to go back? And then I realized, going back is far from reality in the current situation.
Most still have their aging parents or some siblings left back in Tibet but haven't seen them for years. But there's hope - that things would be better one day – said one and the others joined in and rejoiced. They were all smiling.
But it struck me like a sledge hammer on the head. Almost all of "us" have taken for granted that we have a free country, a home, a family to go back to – and blame and complain about the small things in life.
We have enough for our needs but our greed for more is taking our lives away from us – and there's on the other hand (not very far away) many who have the "real" problems, where survival is at stake but still are trying to live life with dignity through the odds. Maybe it's this feeling of hope that binds all who come to McLeod Ganj for a week or so but the lessons learnt stay for life!
So next time you walk into a fast food joint to "buy" happiness, think twice, McLeod ganj is not that far away that offers happiness for a relatively longer period of time. Burrrp – Check please !