Well, I saw the Dalai Lama today…from about five feet away. 🙂
I’ve been in Dharamsala for two days now, having arrived on the 8th with a Tibetan activist woman named Tenzin. She used to live in Tibet, and came out to India fairly recently. I asked her if she ever went back, and she said she’d been photographed at too many protests…the Chinese authorities had her number, so if she went back, she’d be arrested.
She did, however, tell me what was up with the ten-year-old girl I met in Rewalsar…apparently, Tibetan parents will arrange with a headman to smuggle their children over the border to India, to live and study there. (It’s too dangerous for the entire family to leave at once, and sometimes the parents don’t want to–they like Tibet, or they have other obligations that prevent them from leaving, e.g. older family.) Thing is, it’s a one-way trip: crossing the border is very dangerous, so once in India, the children can’t return. Once the child goes, they’ll never see their family again–unless, of course, they also escape from Tibet.
I keep trying to imagine sending my six-year-old daughter off to an unknown country on her own, knowing I’ll never see her again. I can’t imagine it.
But then, I’m not living in an occupied country.
In practice, it’s not quite as bad as all that–the Dalai Lama provides for most of these children (that’s where a lot of the money for his teachings goes), and the nuns look out very well for the children. (They sent the girl off to school with so much food that I actually asked whether the school fed the kids. I was seriously wondering. (They do, of course.) 😉 ) The parents speak of it as “sending their children to the garden of the Dalai Lama”.
I’m still amazed by the love, sacrifice, and trust involved in sending young children to a foreign country. She was *six* when she came, for heaven’s sake! A six-year-old walking across the mountains of Tibet, to get to India and freedom. It really makes you wonder.
(A lot of the kids arrive with missing fingers, toes, etc. from frostbite–it’s apparently a pretty dangerous journey. They have to avoid the Chinese authorities, of course–but it’s easier with kids, the authorities don’t care as much about children, as they’re unlikely to be activists.)
At any rate, Tenzin, being a natural caretaker, scooped up two clueless Westerners and got us to Dharamsala, and checked us into a hotel (yes, with hot shower 😉 ) before speeding off to drop three kids at school and set up some sort of business arrangement in Delhi. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to chat with her, but I’m going to try meeting up with her in Delhi.
I’m actually not staying in Dharamsala. I’m actually staying in McLeod Ganj, a small town about 5 kilometers and 1000 meters above Dharamsala. McLeod Ganj is the actual residence of the Dalai Lama and Tibet Government-in-exile, but Dharamsala usually gets the credit–don’t know why.
At any rate, I have to confess that I haven’t done much researching of Tibetan customs, Tibetan Buddhism, etc. so far. Instead, I’ve been shopping. (It’s that darn X chromosome…must go shopping. 😉 )
Dharamsala, being a bigger tourist area than Rewalsar, is plentifully supplied with both Indian and Tibetan handicrafts. I spent my first day in Dharamsala hopping through shops looking at the various craft pieces…an experience roughly equivalent to sitting at a bar and downing back-to-back shots for a couple hours. You would not BELIEVE the stuff to be had in Dharamsala…
…900 knot-per-inch, silk on silk carpets. The back looks like fine needlepoint, the front practically glows with fine, detailed color. The silk is soft and very pettable, and because the pile is directional, the rug looks richly dark from one direction, glowing and brilliant from the other. It’s all hand-tied; a small, 2.5′ x 4′ rug takes 9 months to finish. The larger rugs are tied by two or more people, who sing the patterns to each other as they work.
These carpets (and a number of lesser, wool and wool-on-cotton ones) are made in Kashmir, where they also make exquisitely embroidered wool shawls, reversible double-weave woven-paisley shawls, and (of course) cashmere/pashmina shawls. They also still make shatoosh shawls there, apparently…they are illegal and I have no interest in buying one, but I confess to intense curiosity about them. Shatoosh is a semilegendary fiber, the finest in the world–considerably finer and warmer than cashmere. It is also made from the fur of an endangered antelope–three or four chiru are killed for every stole. I’d like to see a shatoosh shawl, but can’t in any conscience imagine buying one.
At any rate, I’m seriously considering a side trip to Kashmir…every time I ask where I can see an amazing Indian handicraft, the answer always seems to be “Kashmir”. The downside is, Kashmir is a war zone…which would normally prevent me, but I’ve gotten a very interesting (and I think possibly safe) invitation from a rug merchant in McLeod Ganj. I’m going to spend the next few days networking around and checking his reputation/the situation in Kashmir, and I think there’s only a 25% chance I’ll go, but it’s an intriguing possibility. I *really* want to see those rugs being made, and see the shawls being woven.
Other handicrafts, besides the fabulous shawls and carpets, include all sorts of Tibetan handicrafts: thangkas (incredibly beautiful and detailed religious paintings on cloth), singing bowls, dorjes and two other kinds of bells, Tibetan rugs, prayer wheels, and…oh, stuff. I bought a ceremonial dagger with the angry manifestation of Guru Padmasambhava yesterday, and am still mulling over a handmade Tibetan knife with a yak-horn handle and worked-metal sheath. The sheer volume of incredible handicraft here is amazing. I just wish more of it were made here…I’d like to see the artisans at work.
Almost no one spins around here anymore, but the guy at the Tibetan restaurant where I eat breakfast in the mornings said his mother still spins on a Tibetan spindle at home…I’m thinking I’ll ask him to introduce me to her, so I can see the spindle (and maybe have someone make one?).
Also, the woman at one of the Tibetan handicraft shops said she’d take me to their workshop tomorrow, and I’m volunteering at a Tibetan refugee help center as well, teaching English conversation, which should open up all sorts of interesting possibilities. So I imagine the next few days in Dharamsala should be quite interesting…
The Dalai Lama? Oh yes, the Dalai Lama. Today, as it happens, was the 44th Anniversary of the Tibet Uprising (I think aka the Chinese invasion of Tibet), and a protest/demonstration was scheduled for the day. His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke at the gathering–unfortunately, in Tibetan, so all I can tell you is that he has a deep bass voice, unusual for Tibetans–and walked through the crowd on the way out. I had been near the center aisle, so was very close during the procession–maybe five feet away. I can now say that the Dalai Lama looks like, ummm…the Dalai Lama. 😉
I’m actually very glad to have seen him. There are very few people on the planet whom I respect unreservedly, but the Dalai Lama is one of them. (I had been thinking of trying to network my way in to see him–given a week, I’d give myself at least a 20% chance of managing it–but have decided that it would run counter to Tibetan Buddhist principles, so I’m not going to. If I want to see him, I’ll come back and stand in line like everyone else…a four-month advance request is usually sufficient, and I’m already thinking about coming back to India.)
Afterwards, I joined the peace march–an endless flood of Tibetans streaming down from the Dalai Lama’s temple–and wound up down in Dharamsala, where I somehow wound up on the speakers’ balcony, and got a great view of the speeches. I also met quite a few press photographers–so shadowed them for awhile, and took a lot of great photos.
I’ll probably stay in Dharamsala for another three or four days, then head back to Tso Pema (Rewalsar), unless something else comes up. Tso Pema is a really unusual place, excellent for meditation…I had a “satori moment” while I was up there earlier, but I don’t think I quite worked everything out, so I’m going back there for awhile, to stay with the nuns.
After that it’ll be back to Bangkok for a week (during which I plan to catch up my website and write my travel reflections), and then (believe it or not) back to the U.S. My flight lands in San Francisco on April 2.
(But Rachel, don’t pay out the pool just yet…I’m also on standby for March 31. 😉 )
Hard to believe the trip’s almost over…six months *sounds* like a long time, until you live it. But I’m definitely turning my feet back towards home.
Yours from Dharamsala, and the Dalai Lama–