The Good, The Bad and The Famous – Dharamsala, India

The Good, The Bad and The Famous
Dharamsala, India

We were spiritually starved and luckily once again on our way to India, to steep ourselves in the Ancient and the Mystical, as our previous trips had skirted this vital aspect, either trekking in the far North or sunbathing in the deep South. There was no rush and we intended to give India’s finest doctors of metaphysics a good chance to work their healing magic.

Leaving Delhi as quickly as possible we took an overnight train to the town of Hardiwar in the northern tip of Uttar Pradesh, the nearest mainline town to our first major port of call, Rishikesh. Hardiwar is situated at the point where the foothills of the Himalaya meet the great Indian plains. It is a remarkable sight, standing at the high point of the Mansa Devi Temple and viewing the meeting of those two titanic geographical phenomena. It is a friendly town and, being on the Ganges, a holy town, although it receives fewer visitors than similar places.

Having decided to spend a night in Hardiwar we had the opportunity to walk around the town. We spoke to a few sage-like old/ holy men, for in India all old men have aspirations to be holy, and discussed the usual topics of the fast-paced Western lifestyle and lack of attention to the spirit. The conversations were brief and uninsightful but good-willed and we felt in an appropriate mood when dusk drew in to visit the ghats and observe the devout who congregate there.

The ghats at dusk provide exactly the kind of images hoped for out of a visit to India – people bathing in the Ganges, offering up prayers and floating flowers and flickering candles down river. The light is golden orange and there is often just enough mist hanging low to airbrush away all the hard edges and give the impression of painstaking composition. The atmosphere is unmistakably holy and, for once as a tourist, seemingly sincere. This atmosphere did not, however, last for long as a party of pastey visitors in unimaginably white robes descended on the ghat undertaking dramatic prostrations whilst all the time keeping a nervous eye on their group leader. It was our first encounter with the people staying at Rishikesh.

The next day we took a local bus for the short hour-long journey to Rishikesh and then piled into a communal rickshaw, through the town to the footbridge leading over the Ganges to Swarg Ashram, where all the spiritual action takes place. Rishikesh became famous back in the 60’s when the Beatles came to study with their guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and has been busy ever since.

Our intentions were to stay at one of the ashrams rather than a hotel, both for financial and meditational reasons and it was to one of those that we headed first. We followed the path down the bank of the river and soon came to our destination. There were a few westerners milling about but no one that might obviously attend to our queries. Everyone appeared very calm and, depending on how generous your description, looked either serene or medicated. Walking up to one guy I asked where I could find someone official. He looked at me, alarmed, shaking his head and pointing to his sealed lips. We figured that staying in a place where people were observing a vow of silence was probably not for us and consequently settled on a normal hotel instead.

The hotel, however, was not totally free from unusual influences. The first morning there at breakfast I struck up a conversation with a young Irishman who looked in some mental disarray. Whereas in India generally all old men assume themselves to be holy, in Rishikesh all men make such an assumption – the Irishman was a client of one of the hotel’s employees who was doing a bit of freelance spiritual counseling on the side. His counselor had convinced him that there was something ‘black’ taking over his mind and had caused the Irishman some significant distress and it appeared to me that he was in need of some severe deprogramming. This kind of experience was not unique. Everyone we met in Rishikesh was proving to be more than a little strange.

My traveling companion wanted to do some yoga training during our stay and she decided to go and check out a few of the residential course, most of which lasted a couple of weeks. She wanted to talk with some of the course participants but, unsurprisingly, had little luck. When she finally was introduced to someone she heard stories of almost military regimes and diets of nothing more than lentils and rice. Not much for fees that ran into thousands of rupees, up front and nonrefundable. We decided there was a distinctly unhealthy vibe about the town of Rishikesh and decided to bail out.

We headed next for the town of Dharamsala in the region of Himachel Pradesh, home in exile of the Dalai Lama, hoping for something a little more inspirational. When we arrived after a bumpy night’s bus ride we were met by a far different bunch of people than at Rishikesh. The restaurant at our hotel played Miles Davis by candlelight and served wonderful food. Everyone looked relaxed rather than nervous and the atmosphere was studious rather than pious.

Later that evening our first impressions were proved correct as we stumbled across a video hall showing a mix of older movies and bang-up-to-date pirate DVDs straight from Hong Kong. That night they were showing I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and, in the front row, were several Tibetan monks responding noisily to Jennifer Love-Hewitt’s wooden acting. From that moment on we knew it was the place for us.

The Tibetan and Western monks of Dharamsala were far more down-to-earth than their cousins at Rishikesh. There was nothing prescriptive about their conversation and the atmosphere was more of dialogue than monologue. Many people were engaged in study, yet there was no pretence and, most importantly, unlike Rishikesh you could buy beer and the suitably named Christian Brothers rum. The town itself was conducive to the art of contemplation, being nestled below snow-capped peaks and looking out over its own wide green valley. Eagles sore on the thermals and prayer flags flutter in the wind. It is probably the best sample of the Himalaya possible in exchange for the little effort involved in getting there.

After we had been in Dharamsala for a couple of weeks we discovered we were lucky enough to be in town when the Dalai Lama was due to give a week of public lectures. When the security office opened to release passes there was a mad rush of queues and people trying to get photos taken for their pass. In a moment of incontrivable spiritual tourism one Chilean – I saw his passport – took out his Osho community membership card (an infamous Indian guru-lead movement) and cut out the photo for his security pass to see the Dalai Lama. Osho had been pipped at the post.

Everyone was most excited when the day of the first lecture came around. People began queuing early at the gates of the Tsuglagkhang, the Dalai Lama’s temple, hoping for a good spot to place their cushions. Just before the main man was due to make an appearance a ripple of excitement passed through the third of the outdoor temple reserved for Westerners. At first I thought the show might be beginning early but, as I turned around to see what was happening, I did not see the famous little man I was expecting, but another. There, dressed all in black with Indiana Jones style glasses and a nap-sack was Richard Gere. He had with him a painfully thin and beautiful assistant who was also dressed in black. In that moment, were the Dalai Lama to have come out, I am not sure who out of the two would have received the most adoration from the Western women present. Gere weaved his way to the front of the temple, for he had a comfy cushion securing his spot in advance, and took his position with open notebook. During that week Gere turned up each day looking progressively more rugged and pious as his gray beard began to grow. What a saint.

There were remarkable sights and sounds on offer observing the many Tibetans, both monks and lay-folk, engaging in prayers led by the Dalai Lama. The throwing of rice and white silk scarves along with the distinctive sound of Tibetan trumpets alongside the deep resonance of the prayers was all you could hope for.

The only issue to detract from the occasion was that the lectures were all in Tibetan. This wasn’t a total waste of time as live translations were broadcast on 101 FM and we all sat with our ears glued to radios. The problem was in the translation, as the translator clearly didn’t feel confident attempting the Dalai Lama’s jokes. It was quite frustrating to see the Tibetans fall about laughing only to receive silence from the radio. Still, despite the inadequacies of the translation, the Dalai Lama managed to come through as an appealing character and the queuing and sitting on the cold floor was worth it.

We spent a peaceful and happy month or so in Dharamsala and could have stayed longer were it not for the fact that we were due to meet a friend in a couple of weeks’ time in Kerala and we didn’t want to rush. Neither of us were looking forward to returning to Delhi, but needs must as the transport network necessitates going via Delhi and similarly awful towns and cities. I was, however, determined to take my newly found calm with me and not be affected by the devious inhabitants of Paharganj and Connaught Place.

With this new determination set in place I engaged more frequently in conversations with the Delhi locals I came in contact with. I met a pleasant Sikh guy before our train southwards was due to leave town. We got into a long and detailed conversation about Sikhism and religious plurality and I was feeling quite pleased with myself that my determination to be more embracing was paying off. It was at this point that the conversation began to move off on a tangent and, before I knew it, the Sikh guy was attempting to embroil me in an elaborate tax scam involving my exporting semiprecious stones and gems. It appears in India, however determined you are to be more spiritually aware, there will always be someone getting in your way.

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