Photos by: Sonal Devraj
My favourite destination in the last few years has been the enchanting district of McloedGanj, situated in the Indian-Himalayan town of Dharamsala. Though McloedGanj may sound like the name of a Scottish clan, it is actually the home of the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees.
To get there, I fly into Delhi and make my way to a place called Majnu Ka Tilla, a commune for Tibetans living in exile in India, and where I can catch a bus to McloedGanj.
From the airport I usually jump into an auto or three-wheeler and travel for an hour through the chaos of India’s capital city, through the bustling roads of cows, chickens, auto rickshaws, people, heavy traffic and blaring car horns.
Many, many car horns and close death calls later (my auto has nearly been run over by giant Tata trucks on several occasions), I arrive at Majnu Ka Tilla, situated north of New Delhi. The chaotic streets lead to a gate which reads “Tibetan Refugee Colony”.
I enter this gateway and suddenly it is as though I have been transported into another dimension; it feels like entering a portal into a surreal world, calmer and warmer in contrast to the hectic city outside the gate.
Once you step into Majnu Ka Tilla, you are greeted with a myriad of Oriental faces and smells: Women in peculiar dresses; groups of monks clad in red robes; offerings with candles around photos of the Dalai Lama; young children running around the streets, shouting out in Tibetan; street stall vendors selling Tibetan mandala paintings, singing bowls and elaborate jewellery.
Walking through these narrow streets, I realised that this was my first experience in a refugee community, and it really was their home away from home.
THE ROAD TO MCLOEDGANJ
The bus ride from Majnu Ka Tilla to McloedGanj is a 10-hour, backbreaking journey, filled with more monks in red robes and hippie backpackers, all heading up to the mountains to find themselves through meditation and yoga, volunteer with an NGO or have a whiff of the Himalayan greens. You can fly into Dharamsala from Delhi, but I usually take this route as it is very budget friendly and a lot more fun.
McloedGanj is situated at a small hill station, buzzing with activity. As a visiting traveller, one can teach English, German or French; volunteer at a movie festival; attend the Dalai Lama’s teachings; check into silent Buddhist meditation retreats; take up a yoga course, or just relax with the hundreds of army-dazed Israelis who head up there to ravish the greens.
The town has an interesting history: In 1905, a massive earthquake destroyed the town, leaving it abandoned for decades. In 1959, India decided to give this deserted town to the Dalai Lama and Tibetans who were fleeing from Chinese persecution. China took over Tibet in 1951 and slowly worked at eradicating its nomadic culture and religion.
Ever since the Tibetans warmed up this little town with their prayer flags and abounding positive energy, the place seems to have been blessed.
THE NAMES OF MONKS
I usually head up the mountain to volunteer as an English teacher at Tibet Charity, a non-profit organization that offers a very reasonable English education to the locals in the area.
As a volunteer, I ran a daily conversation class with Tibetan monks, and monks from other countries such as Thailand or Myanmar, and Tibetan refugees.
The preconceived idea I had about monks – especially Tibetan monks – flew straight out of the window the first time I stepped into a classroom. In my mind, monks were the most enlightened of beings: Serious and spiritual people,who had transcended to a spiritual level above us.
But as soon I made my introductions and met their smiling faces, I realised they were just normal people, and that I had nothing to fear.
They used smart phones and fancy laptops; all of them were on Facebook and other social media platforms. Some of them would try to flirt and chat you up online, while some liked to talk about their girlfriends. I learned soon after that Facebook actually helps them spread the word about Tibet, and get news from home.
More importantly they were fun! So much fun! They loved telling and listening to jokes. They would tease each other, and were eager to learn about countries they had never been to, like Australia, America, Singapore or Africa.
Some of the monks were making a transition out of the monastery while others were purely learning English so they could understand the world around them, and perhaps follow in the steps of the Dalai Lama, who had his Austrian tutor in Tibet for seven years.
The monks and the refugees I met while teaching were always alive with enthusiasm and full of hope. They had walked thousands of miles across the harsh, mountainous terrain from China to India and back again; they had gotten caught, arrested, beaten up on their journey… and yet they were still constantly smiling and happy.
Our favourite topics of discussion were “Does money buy happiness?”, and “What will you do with a million dollars?” I have had monks in serious arguments over the importance of money, and one of those debates ended with a monk storming out the classroom. And then I learnt that, yes, monks get angry too!
Their names – Gyaltsen, Ngawang, Choegyal, Rinchen, Wangchuk to name a few – were a real tongue twister for me in the early days of teaching. Tenzin and Lobsang were my favorite, as they were easy to pronounce. It took me a few weeks before I could start pronouncing and remembering their names, but my students never made a fuss and were very patient with me.
Beneath these smiling faces lies the troubling reality that these people are slowly losing their culture. Even though they are the most successful group of refugees in the world – with their own schools and governing bodies – some young Tibetans have feelings of displacement.
Daily conversations with them revealed that they each wanted to go back home, and were full of hope that Tibet would be returned to them. They looked so determined and happy that I never dared to share my pessimism about Tibet.
There are stories of drug abuse and lack of employment opportunities within their settlements. There are also disputes between the local Indians and the Tibetans, and by talking to people there, you get the feeling there is a serious inner resentment between the two groups of people.
With all these facets of life in this small town, there is always something going on in McleodGanj. It is a place where you can relax, learn about a unique, nomadic culture and help out at the same time. Of course the most wonderful part is that the Dalai Lama lives there; you can meditate in his temple, and he might be conducting a teaching if you are lucky.
What I love most is the unexplainable magical energy floating in this town. Is it the nomadic culture of the Tibetans? The mountain air? The Dalai Lama? I do not know. But I know for sure that the force is strong here and I will always know it as magical, mystical Mcloed.