Buddhism, Clouds, & Good Eats: All the best of Dharamsala
October 4, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
Tashi delek! It’s Tibetan for hello, and a useful greeting in Dharamsala, India, where we spent most of September. Once a small hill station, it became a bustling center of Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama went into exile and moved the Tibetan exile government here. It’s a bit of a tourist town at this point, but still a terrific place to base ourselves.
Before anything, we need to highlight the amazing natural environment. It’s built into the mountains so is a bit chilly, but the cold air is a refreshing change after elsewhere in SE Asia and India. For some reason the online weather report thought it was 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but in reality it was in the upper 60s. The surroundings are super green and the pine forest doesn’t feel like “India.” But perhaps most impressive are the clouds. The clouds are breathtaking – whether there are blue skies, rains coming, sunsets, sunrises, stripey clouds, fluffy clouds, columny clouds.
Speaking of clouds and moisture, we were in Dharamsala on the tail end of monsoon season. We experienced a couple of epic rainstorms (less pleasant than in Rishikesh because of the chilly ambient temperature), but need to give special mention to the slugs and snails. The snails were adorable, with little translucent shells. Some of the tiny ones actually built themselves little slime strings and would hang down from trees, which was precious. And the slugs were enormous (the biggest we saw were maybe 6 inches long) and camouflaged to look like leaves. Because of their size, they moved rather quickly and were fascinating to watch because you could really see their detail.
On another note, the monkey photos never cease to amuse… here are a few choice snaps.
Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj, Dharamkot, Bhagsu… Oh my!
Dharamsala is made up of several smaller cities/towns. Lower Dharamsala is a city that seems more like a standard Indian small city. Upper Dharamsala, or McLeod Ganj, is where the Dalai Lama and Tibetan exile government are based and is the center of tourist activity. We stayed in McLeod Ganj itself for its central and convenient location. It is built into the sides of the mountains, so you get phenomenal views of the valleys, and many of the hotel rooms are tucked away so they’re lovely and quiet.
There is a central square in McLeod Ganj has a few main roads leading off of it. Two of them lead to the smaller towns of Dharamkot, which is a bit more shanti and up the mountain in pine forest, and Bhagsu, which is a more scattered amidst the rocky mountainside and would feel more peaceful if not for the hordes of tourists everywhere. There are a shocking number of Israeli backpackers in Bhagsu – shopkeepers change their signage from English to Hebrew during Israeli tourist season, and many people try talking to westerners in Hebrew as a first attempt.
Bhagsu and Dharamkot are each about a 20-minute walk or short and easy rickshaw ride from McLeod Ganj. They also connect around the back, so you can walk about a slow 90-minute beautiful loop starting and ending in McLeod Ganj through the pine forests and rocky hills, seeing incredible clouds (of course) along the way.
Bhagsu is also a mecca for San Francisco style fashion at super-cheap (for U.S. standards) or super-expensive (for India standards) prices. We have to include some photos of an impromptu-acro-in-a-store session session we had with Gecko aka Surresh in his shop.
Accommodation and Travel Planning
We spent a few nights in the Green Hotel, which is a pleasant, clean, well-managed hotel right near the McLeod Ganj square on the Bhagsu road. It’s a bit pricey at 1000 rupees/night (about $17 USD), but the quality was higher than many other places. And it was really nice to be able to reserve rooms there during teachings with His Holiness, when nice lodging came in shorter supply. To note, if you’re interested in staying there, call or just show up; they don’t seem to respond to email.
For one stretch where we were staying a bit longer, we got a room at Yogi Cottage at the Kailash Tribal School, where we paid half that price for a clean and almost-equally lovely room; unfortunately they only rent rooms if you’re going to stay a week or two minimum.
We don’t usually plug travel agents, but Tsering at Wind Horse Travels near the McLeod Ganj square on the Bhagsu Road was so helpful that we need to give him public props. He was honest, appropriately priced, responsive, friendly, and went above and beyond to be helpful. For bus tickets from Dharamsala to Delhi, he charged Rs 900 instead of Rs 1100 that most other places where charging (taking a smaller cut for himself) and was able to cancel a ticket when my brother couldn’t come (more on that momentarily). And when we left for Amritsar and realized we had forgotten to book a train ticket we needed that often sells out, we reached out to him via email and he booked the tickets and just told us to pay him when we got back to town.
The short story on Jewels’s brother is that apparently the Indian government tries its darndest to keep our family out of India. After Jewels’s Indian visa debacles (see our blog entry on that frustrating situation here), this was another absurd blow. Jon was going to take 2 weeks of vacation time from work to come travel with us around India. He sent his visa application in with some 6 weeks advance notice (they say they require 2 weeks), didn’t hear back immediately, and proceeded to book his flights (thankfully with travel insurance). The visa office decided that he was clearly coming for work instead of tourism, so he had his company submit letters explaining that he was going for vacation and not work. Finally, about 24 hours before he was supposed to fly out of NYC to join us, the visa office decided to believe him and put his visa application through for processing; unfortunately that process takes more than 24 hours so he could never come. It’s been a super frustrating and heartbreaking situation for us.
McLeod Ganj for the Discerning Palate
When we got recommendations on what to do in Dharamsala from friends, we ended up with a list of restaurants instead of activities. After spending some time there, we completely understand why. Here’s our list of highlights:
- JJI for momo soup. It’s just near the McLeod Ganj square on the Bhagsu road and a tiny little place. Momos are filled Tibetan dumplings that are menu standards in Ladakh, Nepal, Dharamsala, and easily accessible elsewhere. JJI’s had some of the best we’ve tasted, and their momo soup was ridiculously good.
- Green Hotel for carrot cake. The restaurant upstairs from the Green Hotel was all quite decent, but their carrot cake took the cake. The best post-dinner treat.
- Crepe place for veg burritos. The crepe place on Jogibara Road (the main road in McLeod Ganj) was super great to hang out in and is effectively a reading room on Tibetan Buddhism. And their veggie burritos are worthy of any western hippie eatery, and their homemade apricot sauce (on crepes) is exceptional.
- Japanese place specials. The Japanese place on Jogibara road is awesome, as is the very sweet cat that hangs out there (she likes chin and ear scratches). They have daily specials for Rs 170 (roughly $3 USD) that are enormous and fantastic – Tuesdays and Fridays is sushi.
- Grocery in Bhagsu. On the road to Bhagsu just before the road ends is a little grocery shop that makes these Bhagsu cakes, little biscuit-caramel-chocolate bars of delicious that are just slightly sickeningly sweet.
- Lhamo’s Croissant for croissants, salads, and hummus. Near the main McLeod Square on the Bhagsu Road, the food was just amazing. A really good salad while traveling is an exciting treat.
- Trimurti Cooking Classes in Bhagsu. Rajni opened up the cooking school about 10 years ago after her husband had a paralyzing accident and teaches fantastic private/group classes. It’s Rs 350/person (about $6 USD) for the class and meal, and you register a day in advance and choose your dishes. We went twice (and made naan, malai kofta, mutter paneer, palak paneer, navratan korma, and chana masala) and super enjoyed it. We recommend everything except the chana masala (her recipe is a bit dry).
Yoga Classes and Courses
We took one yoga class at Kailash Tribal School with Yogi Sivadas. We had a friend who did her 300-hour (advanced) yoga teacher training with him a few years ago and were excited to check him out… but were disappointed in his class. He seemed like he was just uninterested in teaching asana and so was very lazy about it – lazy in his own posture, queuing, demos, alignment, adjustments, etc. But instead of then energetically focusing on philosophy or whatever other aspects he claimed interested him, he only actually seemed to perk up when talking about the very distracting music playing in the background.
Jewels and Jen (our amazing friend who spent all of September with us) took a couple of ashtanga classes with Vijjay at Universal Yoga. Mitch didn’t join us because his ankle was a bit injured and ashtanga might have been too much for it. As someone who doesn’t typically enjoy ashtanga, I thought these classes were quite well taught. Vijjay is fun, interesting, has excellent queuing, a team of people who give quick and effective adjustments, and a really perceptive eye to what different students need and how to correct their postures. But, while it was exciting to have Indian men yank on my limbs to get me into asanas I don’t think I could have done on my own (like full kurmasana), there were reminders of why ashtanga has never been the style that sings to me.
We had pre-registered for and were really looking forward to the 5-day course at the Himalaya Iyengar Yoga Centre, but were quite disappointed with it. There are about 20 students and 2 teachers (Yoko and Yara) and the level of the course was super basic. There was very little challenge, and not even very much alignment. And while it claims to be Iyengar-based, each 3 ½ hour class was maybe half standing poses where you could barely go into any version of the pose where you were really working your muscles or getting a stretch (for students who were already body conscious), and then half restorative poses with tons of props.
Maybe it would be great for a beginner student, and there were a few concepts that were super useful and we’re excited to bring home, but we think that we could have gotten the gist of the teachings in about 20 minutes. We have heard great things about Sharat Aurora, the main teacher at the center, but you need to do 3 weeks of these absurd classes before you can even think about taking classes with him.
By the way, we forgot to mention that BKS Iyengar left his body while we were in Rishikesh. Such deep gratitude to someone who taught so many of our teachers’ teachers (teachers)… .
We don’t have much by way of photos, but check out these adorable kittens at the Himalaya Iyengar Yoga Centre, who would occasionally sneak into the classroom.
One afternoon, we went with a few friends from our yoga training to Dal Lake. A short rickshaw drive out of McLeod Ganj, it’s an anticlimactic holy lake that is vaguely the color of dal. There is a neat temple there, pretty surroundings, and apparently the cab driver association is putting on a big Siva festival this month – so there were a few people dipping in the lake and preparing for a big party. (We intended to go to the party, but were too tired by later in the night.)
A highlight of Hinduism
In Bhagsu, we stopped by this crazy little Hindu temple… which reminded us (as do many Hindu temples) that there is NEVER too much bling. We don’t know much of the background, but there were some homages to Krishna and Siva, some banging stair entryways, a little cave to walk through, and, of course, a dude in a little room who put a splotch of red and some rice grains on our foreheads.
It’s really crazy to be here and experience the Tibetan community in exile. I think that between Ladakh (“Little Tibet” in northern India), Boudha (in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal), and here in Dharamsala, we’ve now been to three of the biggest Tibetan communities outside of Tibet! There are so many opportunities to learn about it, from reading rooms, movie screenings, etc.
There are also a ton of volunteerism opportunities here, which seem to be enormously valuable with Tibetan refugees arriving, needing medical care, and monks and nuns who have been here a while needing to practice their English. We didn’t have the chance to do any volunteerism, but it will need to be on the agenda if we make it back here. It seems like even giving a few hours can be a useful contribution for English practice.
Dalai Lama Temple and Tibetan Day of Democracy
We went to the Dalai Lama temple on September 2nd, which turned out to be the Tibetan Day of Democracy, a lucky coincidence that allowed us to see an incredible cultural celebration of traditional song and dance, with amazing costumes, gestures, etc. Unfortunately you are not allowed to bring cameras or mobile phones into the temple area, so we will just have to keep the images in our memories.
The temple complex was beautiful, both the Kalachakra (wheel of time) Temple and the Avalokiteshvara Temple, a dedication to Avalokitesvara (or Chenrezig in Tibetan), the bodhisattva of compassion, and kind of like patron saint of Tibet in Buddhist terms. They were less gaudy than some of the other Buddhist temples we’ve seen (which doesn’t say much, but the Kalachakra Temple in particular had these gorgeous Thangka paintings literally covering the walls.
Outside the temple there’s a memorial to the monks who self-immolated, and a few signs about the Panchen Lama, who was the youngest political prisoner. He was taken (with his family) by the Chinese government after he was declared to be an incarnation of one of the major lamas some 25 years ago.
One afternoon we went to the Norbulingka Institute, a Tibetan heritage/artisan site that is a pretty great tourist attraction, in the best way possible. It’s a half hour cab ride away so you drive through other areas of Dharamsala. The Institute is built in the shape of a standing Avalokiteshvara (the bodhisattva of compassion), has very pretty gardens and lots of workshops where you can see artisans working on woodworking, metalworking, Tangka painting, applique, etc. There’s a stupidly overpriced gift shop, but it’s beautiful to check out.
Tushita Introduction to Buddhism / Meditation Course
We have had several people along our travels tell us to check out the 10-day Introduction to Buddhism course at the Tushita Center, and it did not disappoint. Most of the experience was internal, so we won’t go into too much detail here, but will just give an overview.
The first and last days (days 1 & 10) of the 10 are introductory and closing days. Then there are 6 days (days 2 through 7) of the heart of the course, where each day you have three guided meditations, two long class/lecture sessions on Mahayana Buddhism, and an hour-long discussion with a group of your peers (which was a total highlight… so much appreciation for the people in those groups). Days 8 and 9 are meditation days, where you have seven guided meditations each day.
The whole course (apart from the group discussion session) is silent, which is a really interesting opportunity to turn the focus inside, but can be challenging at times. It drew out an appreciation for anything in front of you – a slug, monkeys, a leaf, or the food at each meal. And it was interesting to see how community can be created and people can be both supportive and supported without conversation. You’re also asked to check all electronic devices, including cameras, and unrelated books for the duration of the course, so apologies for the lack of photos.
The teachings were quite interesting. Our main lecture teacher was Jimi, an American who first came to India in the heyday of the late 1960’s, spent several years as a Buddhist monk, and is super knowledgeable – albeit a bit quirky and prone to going off on tangents. Our main meditation teacher was Richard, a Dutch guy with interests in yoga and tantra, who is pretty magnificent at leading guided meditations in a way to make you deal with all the stuff you may need to deal with, while feeling very supported while you deal through it.
They focused a lot on the analytical aspect of Buddhism – that the Buddha taught that we should not simply accept what he said, but analyze it and test it. Using that thesis, we are learning over and over the value of not taking everything in one lump package – and while neither one of us wants to take Buddhism as the package deal, there is so much to be learned from this philosophy and religion.
On practical notes… We were housed in dorms which were separated by gender. Jewels was in a large dorm with 8 women and a private bathroom in the main building, which felt quite lovely and spacious for what it was. Mitch was in one of the smaller dorms with 3 men and a shared bathroom, and a bit of the mildew smell that is common around here during and after the monsoon season. The course provided 3 meals per day – breakfast was a porridge plus delicious homemade bread, peanut butter, and honey; lunch was various veggie dishes; dinner was a soup with more of the bread and peanut butter. (The bread and peanut butter makes it very difficult to feel unattached to food! Unfortunately Mitch got pretty sick on one of the first days and ended up with an aversion to the bread.)
Everyone has to do a karma yoga job daily – Jewels and Jen had the joy of cleaning some of the public toilets, and Mitch washed dinner dishes. During the closing circle, one of the Indian women in the course remarked that while she could see how Indians would be asked to clean toilets, she thought it was remarkable to see westerners doing it. It’s surprising how offended we were by that stereotype and assumption – who exactly does she think cleans our toilets at home? Did she think that we have an Indian tucked away in a closet to clean up after us?
Lastly, the monkeys at Tushita deserve commentary to themselves. They are super mischievous, stealing people’s food right off the plates. When we would chase them away from the eating area, sometimes they would run across the green plastic roofing to try out at another plate, and you could see their 4 hands silhouetted above and hear the pat-patting as they run – so cute! There are tons of babies, which are adorable beyond words. We sat for many an hour watching the babies learn how to be monkeys. One of the monks had built a swimming pool for them, which was being fully utilized. And one of the adolescent monkeys is albino, totally white.
Mitch said apparently one day he was sitting on a bench and felt a branch fall on him, and looked up to see that it had been dropped by an adolescent monkey, who was looking down as though thinking “I wonder what will do if this branch falls on him?” Next day, same exact thing with a little leaf. As a baby monkey would say, chirp!
Teachings with His Holiness the Dalai Lama
We spent three days in teachings with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at his main temple in McLeod Ganj. The official topic of the teaching was Bodhisattvacharyavatara, a 1,400-year-old (or something like that) text from Shantideva. We had each devoted some time to reading it at Tushita before the teachings, which was super helpful, and His Holiness focused particularly on two chapters – one of which was beyond complex. Each day, he spent a good deal of time discussing more general topics, which was much more interesting and valuable (and it seemed more passionately discussed) than his on-topic teachings.
His teachings are open to the public – you can spend 10 rupees (15 cents) to get a pass to attend the teachings, which somewhere around 5,000 people do. We found out about these more expensive passes (expensive by India standards, cheap by U.S. standards, at around $150/person), which were given to about 600 ticket holders. We went with the more expensive option, which meant that we actually got to sit in the room with His Holiness, have review classes each afternoon with other lamas (teachers), partake in a question and answer session with him, and get a group photo with him (which was a super hectic process). Whether or not it was worthwhile is probably questionable, but it was pretty amazing to be in the actual temple room with His Holiness while he spoke.
Truly, he is one of the most inspiring and heartwarming people we have ever had the honor to come into contact with. He has made it a personal priority to become very knowledgeable (across disciplines), and then – per the Buddhist tradition – deeply contemplated everything to arrive at the ideas and concepts he now shares.
So for example, if someone asks him “how do I start to learn about shunyata?” (the Buddhist concept of emptiness, although the word does not have its usual meaning here), he might reply “learn about quantum physics.” Or (in answer to an unspoken question that is clearly in the center of all our hearts) he said that he strives for the benefit of all sentient beings… and then explained that mosquitos might be an exception because when he offers them a drop of his blood, they show no appreciation – and he wonders if appreciation is necessary for sentience.
There is so much to contemplate and share and discuss – but it may take a bit of processing to get there. His focus on secular ethicism rang particularly deeply for us and echoes many of the thoughts we already had been contemplating, and we’re excited to read more from him on that topic.
But really, the biggest take-away from him is the honesty and full-heartedness of his smile, laughter, and genuine love for all beings. He is the only global leader you just want to go and hug (unfortunately, you can’t), and you immediately see how genuinely and deeply he embodies what he teaches. These teachings are truly infectious, and truly immeasurable.
As usual, here is a larger collection of photos from our month based in Dharamsala. Feel free to click on one and scroll through them all as a slideshow.