What do you do in McLeod Ganj on a rainy Friday morning? Go to the cinema, of course! One of the locals had improvised a cinema from a medium sized room, some second hand office chairs, and some dark sheets. However, the surround system was decent, and apart from the power cut halfway through the screening, it was the best place to watch a film in the small town. Also, because our group of four were the only customers, we got to pick the film.
Anna suggested Wild, which seemed apt, as it was a true story about a woman called Cheryl Strayed (played by Reece Witherspoon) setting off on an epic journey along the Pacific Crest Trail with a backpack full off things that she didn’t need. We enjoyed the film, but have yet to reduce our pack weight (apart from me losing a T-shirt, which I have now replaced), and we’re not walking 1,000 miles like Cheryl did.
The next day we did some sightseeing, but this time more attuned to the cultural, spiritual and geo-political aspects of the area. McLeod Ganj is the official home of the Dalai Lama – exiled Tibetan, and leader of the Mahayana form of the Buddhist Religion – and the town and area have a strong Tibetan flavour.
Our first port of call was the Tibetan Children’s Village, which from its humble beginning 54 years ago, has today become a thriving, integrated educational community for destitute Tibetan children in exile, as well as for hundreds of those escaping from Tibet every year. It has established branches in India extending from Ladakh in the north to Bylakuppe in the south, with over 16,726 children under its care. As we arrived a basketball game was reaching its climax, and judging by the fervour of the kids surrounding the court, there was quite a lot riding on it. The reds were ultimately defeated, and the court reverted back to its playground function, with various impromptu games breaking out. The place was both ordered and playful, with almost no grown ups around to spoil things.
Dal Lake (which is more pond-like in size) was close by. This young monk was rejoining his classmates, who then sang Happy Birthday (in English) to someone in the group.
We took a route back to McLeod Ganj through the woods, with the town’s main water pipe to guide us.
At the bottom end of the town is the way into the Temple Garden.
The juvenile monkeys were having a lot of fun jumping around on the prayer flags.
We returned to the Temple Gardens two days later, and encountered this small family group. Mum was looking after the children,
the eldest of which seemed quite considerate.
Dad was sat on a nearby branch looking a bit grumpy.
And then it was time to get up and go find a crust, or some discarded fruit, of which there is plenty in the rubbish piled up in and around the town, though thankfully not in the garden.
Further round, we found this beautiful little chap,
this beautiful bigger chap,
and droplets of rainwater hanging from this flower.
Prayer wheels are placed throughout. The monks liked to keep the big ones turning.
Most have the mantra om mani padme hum written (in various languages) on the outside of the wheel. Within the core this mantra, along with others is repeated thousands or even millions of times. Belief states that the turning of the wheel evokes the same merit as reciting those mantras.
Here, it is written in Tibetan.
14th Dalai Lama describes the meaning:
“Thus the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha[…]”
This ancient symbolism sits alongside the modern, with many monks sporting Nike trainers and Apple iPhones. Mahayana literally translated means ‘great vehicle’ for those seeking enlightenment; and it was nearly time for us to board ours (a Volvo bus, a Delhi taxi, and a Boeing 737) for the next part of our journey. We had not gained enlightenment in McLeod Ganj, but we had walked a few paths (often wavering), experienced beauty, and made some new friends.
We had another evening of food, beers and music (probably in that order) in Carpe Diem, and then said our goodbyes the following day.
Hopefully, it is just another beginning. The chess score between Jolan and I is 2-2, so there are important matters yet to be decided.