Saturday, November 6, 2010

Mussorie: The Tibetan Monastary, the Dalai Lama's Abode, Trepidation!

The valley below the Mussorie Tibetan monastery.

I was discomfited that morning. I guess that's the word for it. The teachers were leaving that day, and I'd like them all very much. Their willingness to let me sneak into their social group for a couple of days was rather touching: that they told me a lot of useful stuff about expat life was even more so. And worrisome, really. Reality, sinking in. On this trip, I wasn't going home, was in fact staying in Asia, making a life for myself, beginning a career. It's something we all go through, us college graduates (yes, from first world privileged backgrounds, here, have a qualifier). You spend your life going up a grad, passing exams, getting your GPA. And then you graduate and there's no paradigm, the system's all changed. You're on your own. At least I had a job to go to. I knew where I was going to be for at least a year -well, when November came. Until then? Drifting.

I remembered a conversation I'd had in the taxi down from Landour yesterday. Linda and I were talking about traveling, traveling alone as women. "Isn't it hard," she asked. Not really a question.
"Yeah, a little. Especially in India. You stand out, you're always on alert."
"I don't know how you do it, you know. I never saw travel as an endurance game. I guess it's an endurance game, going it alone. And especially here in India. I mean - I sound like your mother - I'm old enough to be your mother - but at your age, I mean, it's paramount that you're safe. Make good decisions."
"I try," I said. An attempt at being tongue in cheek. But the truth was - it was a compelling conversation. Was I making a good decision, by going it alone? And was I really having a good time? Was this an endurance test.?

Lovely flowers outside the monastery.

Of course it's an endurance test, this traveling-alone in India. It's a rite of passage, I guess. The sort of thing many of us cosseted rich kids from fancy countries put ourselves through, because we have not found ourselves sufficiently tested. I don't really have fun a lot of the time when I travel alone. It's more depressing then enjoyable. You're often lonely, often eating alone. Looking over your shoulder and giving everyone you meet on the street a wide berth since better safe then sorry. Man, I have to take everything I own to the bathroom with me, since there's no one there to watch it when I get up. It's funny how something little like that really makes you sad after a while. Just someone to watch my stupid laptop for five minutes.

I do it anyway though. "What does not kill you makes you stronger". That's the mantra I was raised under. I don't believe you should do everything you do for pleasure, that some things you do because they're good for you. And I don't know if traveling alone is good for me. I know it isn't good for anyone else. I rationalize it because I do genuinely want to learn about India. I want to get a sense of what it's like to live here, the underpinnings of the culture and history I find so fascinating. I want to go alone because I don't want to get sucked into the backpacker kid vortex. Sitting around all day in a hostel eating Western food and smoking incredible amounts of hash, no learning involved, putting your feet up and bitching about the natives day-in-and-day-out.

It ties into drifting, post college drifting. Going to a job, at least. I like Asia, I find it compelling. I want to put down roots here, integrate myself into it, live here, know it pretty well. Become, in the indulgent phrasing of a latter generation, an "asia hand." Jaded expat, able to handle the situation. If I go it alone, I'm forced to figure this stuff out. Maybe if I know how to survive here easily and well, I can actually produce a valuable work of art. Start a program that actually makes things better for somebody. It's experience gathering.

If I was traveling with my best friend, I'd have a fantastic time. But I wouldn't have India staring me down half as much as it is right now, have to get by within it, meet other people. Learning stuff is sad, and hard sometimes. It fucking sucks in some circumstances. But I'll keep on traveling alone since that's how I do it.

I don't mind linking up with people for brief periods. A couple weeks or so. Someone I've never met before, that's a given. (Example: Kiran in Sikkim. Coming soon to a blog near you).

Anyhow. The Tibetan Monastery, also known as Shedup Choepelling. It's up the steep Happy Valley road (all the roads are steep here). A taxi from the Mussorie Mall will take you here for a handful of rupees. It might make a decent walk if the weather is good. A mutual friend of some of the Teacher Mafia, a freelance journalist named Amy, had come up the hill after researching a story in the lowlands. She was interested in writing about the Dalai Lama's time in Mussorie, and invited us to come with her to check it out. No need to twist my arm. We got in a rather musty taxi and traversed the muddy road up the hill, umbrellas at the ready.

The monastery is a small place. Decked out with the exuberant and delicious colors of Tibetan art. It's astonishing how much color Tibetan artisans can pack into one small space. Maybe it's necessitated by the muted color palette of the dry Tibetan plateau. Something to keep the eye busy. The displaced Tibetan population of Mussorie set the temple up after the mass exodus of the fifties. Many of them still remain in Mussorie, running mo-mo shops and jewelry emporiums. Biding their time until the impasse ends, hoping that at some point they can go home, or at least that something will change. (And as the years go by and the news reports come in - I wonder what the old people think, especially. I really do).

Mussorie was the first place the Dali Lama went after his exile in the 1950's. Mussorie, as it happens, is about 80 miles or so as the crow flies from the Tibetan border - not far.. The Dali Lama based himself at a house close to the monastery.

I'm remembering a story Baldev told me once, when I was staying at the home in Mussorie. They were on some sort of trek up there, him and Sheila.

Buddhist deities of some vintage.

It is around 1959 and Sheila and Baldev in Northern India on vacation. They are, as I imagine them, young and handsome and successful, just embarking on a spectacular career, beginning a singular and fairly remarkable life. She dresses in Lacoste and capris and he in a suit, carrying their camera and a luncheon with them and tea biscuits, in the manner of young professionals on a holiday. The Chinese have just come into Tibet and beaten everybody, they have beaten them and run them out. The Dalai Lama and his saffron disciples are streaming down the passes, and with them residents of Lhasa. And these displaced people are terribly poor, Baldev tells me, looking out the window at the evening coming down, the way the fog rolls in smoky and damp across their little lawn.

The way he describes it: The Tibetans came from their squat homes, and they came from their wood burning ovens. Came with their curious curl-tailed dogs, came down the hills, riding donkeys with braided bridles, jangling jingling all the way, picking through the rocks and dangerous paths. And all the time knowing they could never return, moving somewhat in tandem with their leader who swayed back and forth in his textured palanquin.

"What did they bring with them?", I ask because I know he wants me too, as the house's wood burning oven snaps like a campfire.

The Tibetans rummaged in their mattresses and hats and dug in their gardens before they left. They took out all their beads and amulets and idols and placed them in sacks or wore them around their heads and necks, weighing them down unfortunately, as they streamed downwards through these terrible passes, and down to the Ganges. They brought all their fine things with them, he tells me. They were terribly poor, and they were selling their things to buy food and water, to get them through until they reached India, and reached their ultimate point of exile.

Yama, God of Death, biting the Tibetan Buddhist image of the world. I'll explain it some other time.

And here Sheila and Baldev are on vacation, stopped beside the roadway. They are sitting on their picnic blanket, and they can see the people streaming down the paths in colorful profusion, limping and walking, leading mules and dogs and children. Sheila is unwrapping a sandwich and pauses to watch them pass, and Baldev puts down his thermos of tea.

A woman stops and looks at them, and is offered a sandwich and a biscuit which she takes. Around her leathered neck she wears a silver and turquoise amulet, smoke-roasted and weathered and beautiful. Almost as if it would smell of campfires and pine resin even if it were brought home and worn around one’s neck at a Delhi charity ball.

She of the white capris, the polo shirt, is entranced by it.

The Tibetan woman in her rainbow jacket and her fifteen teeth wants to sell it to Sheila. She takes the necklace and wraps it around the rich woman’s delicate and fervently moisturized hand, chains and filaments resting coolly against her skin. And Sheila wants it desperately, but, you know - well, you know -

“Sheila told me afterwards: that if she bought it, whenever she looked at it, she would see the face of that woman. See all of them streaming down the passes and the gullies wih the snow melting behind them. The fact is, you can’t buy something sold out of sorrow. And you can’t wear it to a charity function.”

The woman went on with her necklace that smelled of campfires and pine resin and kept walking down the hill. God knows where she is and where the necklace went. Where both she and the necklace ended up. And you know, we finished our sandwiches and put on our shoes and sipped our tea and it was like nothing had happened. Nothing in the world."

And those were the Tibetans in their exile, to Sheila and Baldev.

To us, the monastery was a simple enough affair. A small building and some prayer wheels, a bit of nice gardening around the perimeter. A lovely view of the mountains below, better when it isn't foggy. But it has a history behind it. It was the first Tibetan monastery built in India proper, and was consecrated by the Dalai Lama himself. Full of dogs, everywhere dogs. like all Tibetan monasteries. Two monks in evidence in the main prayer room, one dozing off, one nodding sleepily when we walked in the door. "Photos okay?" I asked him, and he shrugged.

That's not actually the Dalai Lama. Just a clever cardboard standee. There are many of those in Tibetan temples in this part of the world. A quiet little room with the scent of incense wafting through, and the sound of rain outside. I don't know how to behave or think in these places. I'm no Buddhist, no spiritualist. Have never been comfortable with the notion of religion or the sacred. I awkwardly took a few photos then went out again, to watch the rain.

Yes, it's a swastika. As you may have guessed, it has nothing to do with Nazis. The swastika is a symbol of vast import and meaning to a variety of Asian cultures, and is often associated with Buddhism - the Buddha is said to have had a swastika inscribed on his chest by his followers after his death. The word "swastika" derives from the Sanskrit "svastika," which is translated into "All is well." To Tibetan Buddhists, the swastika symbolizes (among other things) eternity. In Japan, it's called a manji.

A swastika was even used in a 1925 Coke advertisement. In all cultures, it's a sign denoting immutable good luck. To me, this makes the Nazis perversion of an ancient and venerated symbol all the more repulsive.

If you know me, you know those red boots. Faithful friends.

The Dalai Lama and his mother at Birla House in 1959.

We made a brief visit to the Birla House, the Dalai Lama's residence during his time here - and I was too lazy to take photos. There isn't too much to see. The Indian government allowed the Dalai Lama, his mother, and members of his entourage to put up here after his 1959 escape, before they were granted land in Dharamasala. The house where he spent his time here is an extremely attractive one, set in a quiet and beautiful stand of trees with a view down the valley. I can think of worse places to be exiled to. I don't know if you can go in.

We didn't get a chance this go-round. A smaller cottage on the grounds hosted Gandhi in 1946. Quite a history. The first Tibetan School in India, the Central School for Tibetans, was established near here in 1959 as well, and is going strong well into 2010. There's also the Tibetan Homes Foundation, an institution dedicated to supporting Tibetans in exile - especially children - in their lives in India. The entire Happy Valley region functions as a sort of sanctuary for exiled Tibetans, as this article far superior to my own explains.

It was a damp little excursion, but well worth it.

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