Many of the places I’ve visited across India have been devoid of foreign tourists. Dharamshala is certainly not one of them. It joins a modest list of spots frequented by foreigners – Hampi, Agra, Bodh Gaya, Orchha, Jaipur – and yet has an ambience completely different and of its own. Made famous by the Dalai Lama and his band of refugees fled from Tibet under Chinese occupation, Dharamshala is a mix of Indian and Tibetan cultures. For decades, visitors have been flocking to this hill town at the edge of the Himalayas to experience the magic that comes from the interaction of cultures. Foreigners too have added to the pot-pourri by bringing their cultures, comforts, needs and custom. In Dharamshala, a visitor will never be bored. With so much around, everyone is bound to come away with a unique personal experience. For some it may be a spiritual place; for others a place of natural beauty among the mountains and forests of tall deodars; for some it may be a base for treks into forests and high passes; for others it may be a place for shopping and idle relaxation. For me, Dharamshal has been a mixed bag of experiences held together by a string of memorable culinary encounters.
Monday – Dinner
116 Egg-plant with Spinach
146 Veg Thukpa (Noodles in Soup)
I reach Dharamshala and almost take a room until I realize that the famous monastery of the Dalia Lama is at McLeodganj some 10 kms away. It is by chance I spotted a road sign pointing the way to McLeodganj and its temple. By first impressions, I am not taken in by Dharamshala and the hope of a better getaway at McLeodganj makes me want to give it a try. I take a shared taxi. A short pleasant ride by a winding road drops me at McLeodganhj for just ten rupees.
I go in search of Loseling Guest House. The bazaars are packed with wonderful shops and lovely restaurants. Vendors and visitors are milling around amidst their bargains, idle chatter and hellos. The sun set half an hour ago by spectacularly colouring sharp mountain slopes golden. The lights in town have come on. They bestow another layer of magic and exotic aura to the busy scenes in the bazaar streets. I wander for fifteen minutes without finding what I’ve been looking for. I ditch Loseling Guest House. I’ll settle for anything else that comes my way.
The place is full of touts. Walking around with a backpack and looking up and down the lanes or shop-fronts for possible accommodation is a sure way to attract attention. They are drawn as flies to a flame. Any search for rooms must be less conspicuous with furtive glances while appearing to window shop in leisure. Touts are not all that bad but usually what they have to offer doesn’t suit my modest budget. The first room I am shown costs seven hundred rupees a night. Foreign tourists have driven up the price of rooms at McLeodganj.
I find to my left a long flight of steps leading down towards a valley. A large signboard overhangs the landing with the words, “Yoseling Creche and Kindergarden.” I take to these stairs in the dim lighting from the road. Lots of narrow water pipers are running down parallel to the stairs. At the creche, some pipes veer off towards it while the rest continue downhill. The pipes are a clear sign of urban mess and lack of town planning. Living in hills does complicate things.
‘Do you have a single room?’ I ask at a guest house. On these lower slopes are half a dozen guest houses. They are by no means small or crumbling. These are modern multi-storeyed buildings standing confidently on their deep foundations built into sloping ground.
‘How many of you?’ the woman at the door asks. Clearly she hasn’t listened to my question with attention.
‘Sorry. We are full,’ she says. I wish she would state plainly the real reason for not letting out rooms for singles. I have no regard for people who forsake plain old truth for diplomacy and political correctness.
‘Do you have a single room?’ I ask at another place.
‘How many days will you by staying?’ the woman asks. She is not any more cheerful than the previous one.
‘A couple of nights, may be three,’ I tell her.
‘We are full,’ she replies. Later I learn that at many places foreigners stay for weeks or even months. Then I meet Pradeep.
‘Do you know any good guest house in this area?’ I ask him. Pradeep is walking his little grey terrier. The little fellow lets out of couple of welcome barks and starts sniffing my boots.
‘I run a guest house, the Rainbow House,’ he says. He points to the building immediately to my left. ‘Single room will cost you only two hundred rupees.’
I walk with him and take a look. The room is large and cheerfull decorated. Clean curtains, designers bedspreads and a cosy carpet give it a luxury I rarely encounter while on the road. A portrait of Guru Padmasambhava in traditional Tibetan style in the manner of old thangkas offset one of the blank while walls. Hot water is available at all times straight from the tap. I am tempted to stay here for three nights.
‘You see this sign,’ Pradeep points to a small hand-written sign over the entrance doorway. As I pen my details into a register, he reads out the sign, ‘Clean, cheap rooms.’
He isn’t exaggerating. He used to be a LIC agent and earlier a travel agent. These days he just runs this place which he owns completely. He is a rich guy living out comfortably his retirement.
‘This place is a little away from town,’ I mention.
‘Yes. We don’t employ touts or go around ourselves looking for tourists,’ Pradeep says. ‘Tourists who stay here recommend others. We also charge the same rate for Indians and foreigners alike. Me approach is not aggressive. Whatever comes, comes.’
I wash up and quickly walk up the long flight of stairs back into town. A nice dinner is in order but I am spoilt for choice, perhaps even confused. McLeodganj is a place where can find almost anything for the taste buds. A South Indian affair of sambar and dosas can be had. If you prefer Punjabi, aloo parathas and sweet lassi can be had. If a full Gujarati thali is the craving of a healthy appetite, that can be satisfied as well. Italian pizzas with garlic bread and pickled olives will bring the Mediterranean to the Himalayan foothills. Chinese fried noodles is hardly down the lane let alone across the Tibetan border. Then there is the exoticism of Tibetan cuisine.
I am keen to try Tibetan food but finding a suitable place is easier said than done. It is also late in the evening and some places are already closing for the day. Finally, after numerous walks up and down the lanes, after scanning the crowds seated in various restaurants, after checking prices and long boring menus, I settle for Shangri-La Restaurant. The name makes it sound posh but it is a restaurant without pretensions. The decor is basic and plain. The food is authentic Tibetan vegetarian. The waiter is a single teenage guy named Raju who speaks plainly with no fancy imitation of some Western accent. The place is managed by Gyudmed Monastery and the proceeds are used in support of monks’ education.
They also run a hotel above. Both restaurant and hotel are accessed by a small doorway with a little backlit signboard above. Surrounded by flashy places, it may be missed altogether if one is not looking carefully. I enter the doorway, walk by a long narrow passage and into the restaurant. I greet two monks who are bust counting the day’s earnings and entering the numbers into account books. It is five minutes to nine and the place closes at nine. A menu is brought out and I quickly place my order. The monks have difficulty conversing in either English or Hindi. The same can proabably be said of the cook who is probably a monk as well. Raju speaks Hindi well but his English is patchy. I write my order on a little white slip and hand it over to Raju. This is the way it is done to avoid misunderstanding. Each item on the menu is numbered and the cook goes by these numbers.
The vegetarian thukpa is served in a large bowl. So is the stir-fried mix of fresh green spinach and aubergine. The thukpa is light and tasty. The vegetables are fresh and add flavour to the clear soup in which they have been cooked. I simply love the thick sauce in which the spinach and the aubergine have been served. True to the restaurant’s name, it does feel like heaven. I eat quietly enjoying every little morsel. The monks gossip in the corner. They do not urge me to make haste even though it is well past closing time. I am the only customer at this hour. I finish my meal and tell the monks that I may come back here tomorrow.
Tuesday – Lunch
170 Tofu with Veg Chowmein (Fried Noodles)
This morning I have breakfast in my usual way – cornflakes mixed with Boost dissolved in water, a couple of pears and some biscuits. I hike to Triund and back. When I return to town I’m famished. It is rather late for a heavy meal if I’m to have an early dinner. I think I’ll order something light. I return to Shangri-La Restaurant.
The same monk who collected my cash yesterday greets me with a smile. He recognizes me. Raju takes my order. The chowmein arrives at my table in ten minutes. The yellow noodles are thick and round. The tofu is soft and thinly sliced. The dish is tasty and the taste is quick unlike Chinese or Singaporean fried noodles. I am beginning to like Tibetan food and the friendly service that is exemplified in this restaurant. I believe this place offers authentic Tibetan food with little of cross-cultural flavours. The food here is a preservation of a cuisine fast disappearing in Tibet itself now overrun by Chinese settlers.
As I step out after this late lunch, I take note of restaurants nearby. One of them claims to offer everything under the sun – Indian, Tibetan, Continental, Western. I do wonder if they manage to get any of them right.
I walk around the bazaars window shopping at thangkas, singing bowls, prayer wheels studded with semi-precious stones, carved boxes meant to store incense sticks, mandalas imbues with spiritual symbolism, holy vajras, Buddhas in meditation, beads, necklaces… Among the textiles are brightly embroidered cloth satchels, shawls, scarfs, blankets and woollen garments for cold weather. I step into a bookshop stocked with books on Tibetan Buddhism, tantric meditation, mudras, Tibetan culture and history. Another bookshop nearby has Tibetan newsletters, magazines and books highlighting Chinese oppression, the plight of Tibetan refugees and issues faced by Tibetans on a daily basis. Walking past these, I arrive at the Tibet Museum and its exhibition titled, “A Long Look Homeward.”
At the museum I learn a lot more of Tibetan culture, values and their political struggle against the Chinese. The majestic Potala Palace shown in a photograph is no longer a monastery in the old sense but a tourist spot stripped of its ancient sanctity. Other photographs show the destruction and complete neglect of ancient monasteries of Tibet. The monasteries of Ga-Shew Do-Gon, Shide Samtenling, Ganden and Radreng lie as crumbling walls. Their old grandeur is barely discernible. Tibet’s first fort at Yumbulhakang, built in 127 BC, is a poignant pitiful ruin; and it is a ruin only by a recent deliberate destruction by the Chinese. There is a delightful picture of Bharkor market in Lhasa from 1939. Tibetan monks, women and boys are busy in the market lane where to the right are stacked in large wicker baskets heaps of grain, vegetables and fruits. The old buildings of Lhasa stand around with an old world charm so aptly frozen in this black-and-white photograph. Today Tibet is losing its old values by a deliberate attempt by the Chinese government to settle Chinese into Tibet. The exhibition shows a video of Tibetans staring into the camera with lost dreams and memories of physical torture that would be hard to erase. A white shirt stained with blood hangs as a symbol of injustice and brutality.
There is comfort in knowing that many Tibetans have dedicated their lives to preserve and rebuilt Tibetan identity overseas. As refugees, they have done well thanks to support from the Indian government. They have many Tibetan settlements across the country. Many who fled Tibet in 1959 and still hold it dear, hope to return to it one day. Bit time is running out. Tibetan culture is like an endangered species. The Dalai Lama sums up beautifully that at the core of Tibetan culture is compassion.
I spend quite a bit of time among the exhibits as visitors stroll in an out of the museum. I wish the museum had a collection of art and artefacts but it is mostly photographs to educate visitors on the Tibetan political situation. The intention to tell visitors about a new generation of Tibetans picking up pieces of their identity in a foreign land. I chat with the receptionist for a few minutes, buy a book and step out into a light drizzle.
Tuesday – Dinner
134 Mushroom, Capsicum and Carrot in Hot Garlic Sauce
135 Steamed Rice
From the museum, the temple of the Dalai Lama, the Thekchen Choeling Temple, is only a few paces ahead. The Dalai Lama himself resides in a walled building across the courtyard. A security guard is standing at the gate of his residence. A notice board next to it states that requests to meet His Holiness in private must be made at least a month in advance. Only in exceptional cases an audience will be granted. Apparently, the doctors have advised the Dalai Lama to limit his public engagements.
There is no chance of meeting him unless he choses to come out to visit the temple. I remove my boots and enter the temple. The main image of the Buddha is accompanied by two smaller ones – one of Guru Padmasambhava and the other of Avalokiteshwara. The latter has many heads facing all directions and stacked on top of one another, tapering up to a central head. The crowning head is said to have been smuggled, or liberated, out of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. In another hall is a magnificent deity that is representative of the Kalachakra ceremony. In small print, a lengthy elaborate description of this ceremony stands laminated. I have no patience to read it. My attention is drawn to the other side of the hall where monks are busy making a mandala. I ask one of the monks about it.
‘We are making this mandala for the purpose of prayer,’ the monk says while his companions continue adding to the design with a steady hand. The mandala is colourful and complex by design.
‘How long does it take to make one such as this?’ I ask.
‘We usually start at nine in the morning and the work goes on till ten at night or even midnight,’ he says. ‘We have taken six days to get this far. Two more circles are to be completed.’ He points to two circles drawn on the wooden board. These are the outermost circles of the mandala. The monks are presently working on the inner parts enclosed by these circles.
The monk reflects for a moment, ‘We may complete it tomorrow night. It will then be blessed by the head monk and will be ready for prayer. After the prayer, it will be washed away in water.’
It is a beautiful design created with concentration, patience and devotion. Making of the mandala is as much a means towards meditation as the mandala itself. The artistic skills of these monks is something of an unknown because making a mandala like this quite easy. The key is really the design and the spiritual significance of each and every part of the mandala. It is something handed over across centuries from one generation of monks to the next.
‘What sort of a powder is this?’ I ask.
‘It is sand,’ explains the monk. He is no no hurry to get back to mandala-making. He patiently satisfies my childlike curiosity. ‘We take rocks, pound and grind them to fine sand. It is cleaned and washed. To this white sand we then apply various colours.’
Sand if filled into narrow metal funnels with tiny nozzles at the pointed ends. Little groves on the sides are filed with a metal rod. This action, so clearly heard in the silence of a quiet monastic hall, shakes up the sand inside. Some escape at the nozzle to become part of the mandala.
‘We better not sneeze into it,’ jokes and American.
I watch the monks for a while. Kangyur, the original teachings of the Buddha translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan, line glazed cabinets by the walls. In hundred volumes, they are neatly arrange and uniformly bound in an old tradition of colourfully folded cloths. Elsewhere on these walls hang thangkas. They lack the special aura found in ancient monasteries of Spiti or Sikkim.
Outside a Buddhist monk is giving a religious discourse in Tibetan. Some thirty monks are seated around him in a thick semi-circle and listening intently. Devotees and even tourists who may not even be Buddhists go around the temple turning clockwise the prayer wheels. It is the Buddhist way of letting the prayers and mantras drift away into the world for the well being of one and all. In a verandah a few Buddhist lay men and women are prostrating in a route I had first observed during my visit to Bodh Gaya and later on my way to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. In a glass room, butter lamps are burning steadily with hardly a flicker. The flames are as unwavering as the beliefs that Buddhists of Dharamshala hold. Visitors are posting on a board handwritten messages of birthday wishes. Just about a week ago, the Dalai Lama celebrated his 75th birthday on the 6th of July.
Tourists are taking pictures. It has stopped raining. A sudden brightness dazzles the skies and patches of clouds in the west. The sun is low on the horizon. I see it dipping below high clouds. It is beginning to set. A dozen monks are loudly clapping and talking excitedly under a canopy in the courtyard.
‘What are they doing?’ I ask a passing monk.
‘This is their study period,’ he replies.
Indeed it is an interesting routine to watch. This is cooperative study between peers. One asks a question, the other answers. If the reply is not satisfactory, debate ensues. This process tunes their skills in logic and argumentation. When a point is made, the monk claps even stamps on the concrete floor to underscore his stance. A counter argument is made with the same energy. Boy monks are sometimes supervised by adults. In this manner, the monks perhaps do not stubbornly maintain what is right or wrong. By logic and reasoning, they learn to see different sides of the same cube, arrive at and agree on a middle ground.
It is time for dinner. I pass posters of the Dalai Lama hanging clipped on a line. I pass a placard that talks about the missing Panchen Lama, the second most important monk after the Dalai Lama. I arrive at my favourite restaurant for yet another meal of authentic Tibetan cuisine. I expected shitake or button mushrooms but I am served thin and curly black mushrooms, something of a first for me. The sauce is too mild but with a little sprinkling of chilli sauce it turns out to be fine. Spinach too is part of the recipe. The vegetables are fresh as ever. They add colour and character to many of the recipes. There is no attempt to overcook them. There is no attempt to hide the original flavours with a rich mix of spices. Tibetan cuisine is simple, healthy and tasty in nature’s original flavours.
Wednesday – Lunch
I am done with McLeodganj but I think it’s a good idea to stay here one more night. Most of this morning I sit in my cosy room and catch up on my writing. Sometimes I step out into the balcony and see the mountains to the east. The day starts with thick white clouds that slowly disperse as the morning wears on. I watch a fellow leading his mules up the slope. A milkman is busy with his morning deliveries. I wash my clothes and put them on a line to soak the morning sun.
At lunch time, I go in search of another restaurant that’s closer. I find a suitable place in Hotel Him View. It has a small restaurant at ground level. The place has a homely feeling to it. I place my order.
As I wait for my lunch to arrive, I chat up with the woman who runs this place. She is obviously Tibetan. Her parents are among the first refugees to escape from Tibet along with the Dalai Lama.
‘Have you ever thought of visiting Tibet?’ I ask her. She is quite young, perhaps in her late twenties.
‘Not really. I was born in India. I’ve never been to Tibet,’ she replies. Understandably, she is not all that keen to visit Tibet although her parents would desire otherwise for themselves.
‘Is it easy to visit Tibet?’ I ask.
‘Yes. I think they stopped issuing visas to us during the Beijing Olympic Games but now I hear that restriction has been lifted.’
‘You speak good Hindi,’ I comment.
‘Okay, a little bit. We don’t generally study Hindi at higher levels. We go to special schools where Tibetan is taught,’ she says. ‘We have to preserve our culture, you know.’
‘What about higher education?’
‘Generally most of us study English formally.’
‘You have a degree?’
‘Yes, in commerce.’
‘No, from Bangalore.’
‘Really. I’m from Bangalore. Which college?’
My lunch arrives. Thenthuk is not noodles. It is Tibetan homemade pasta made of wheat. Chunks of pasta, possibly broken off from a big ball of the same, are dropped in a soup of vegetables and cooked. The texture is a little rough and having thenthuk for a meal is heavier than thukpa. Well, that’s how I find it. I add a little bit of pepper to the broth of boiled vegetables. With a mix of spinach, carrot, tomato, onion and shreds of cabbage, it is a tasty meal. It has the added advantage of being colourfully balanced.
After lunch I walk through town towards Tibetan Children’s Village. It is a place where refugee children, mostly orphans, are housed. I learn on arrival that visitors are not allowed inside. Facing the village entrance is the Dal Lake, a place known for some holy power. Pilgrims come to pray at a temple on its banks and take a dip in the lake. This is a ritual that happens annually in September. The lake is completely dry. Forget a dip; there isn’t enough water to have a frugal wash. On the other side of the lake, the slopes are filled with thick deodars standing together beautifully amongst the rolling mist. I walk around the lake and make my way back to town. I stop by for a few minutes at a handicraft shop. In the same premises are numerous workshops. I see women busy at sewing machines. Handlooms stand silently in an adjacent room. A couple of men are busy carving a piece of wood that would eventually become a door lintel. All these elements of Tibetans surviving outside their own country and attempting to preserve their rich old traditions. On my way through town to Rainbow House, I pass a board tied to a fence by the road. It reads,
Tibetan Cooking Class
I am tempted but I let it go. I return to my room to continue with my writing.
Wednesday – Dinner
125 Potato Veg with Soya & Rice Noodles
152 Veg Momo (Stuffed Dumpling)
Dharamshala, or rather McLeodganj to be exact, is a scene of movement in the late evenings. I find many foreigners walking out of the bazaars towards the bus station at this hour. Many of them would take a long overnight bus ride to destinations that include Shimla, Delhi or Manali.
I walk into Shangri-La Restaurant for one final meal. The monk at the counter, as regular as Raju, has become used to my presence. I consider ordering vegetarian baglebs. A bagleb is shaped like a momo but bigger and fried. I don’t want to tey any deep fried stuff. So I settle for rice noodles and vegetarian momo.
I’ve never been a great fan of momos found all over these parts of India, from Leh in the west to Tawang in the east. The dough is often not fresh. It is folded in thick layers while I would have preferred thin ones. In most cases, it is rubbery on the outside. Only the fillings are generally good. Today I’m going to give the momos one last chance to redeem themselves.
I’m afraid they have squandered away this chance. It is quite as bad as I’d imagined or expected. Of the ten momos that were served to me, I could barely finish half of them. In Tamil cuisine, there is a dish called kozhakottai. It is generally filled with shredded and sweetened coconut. The rice dough is rolled thin, filled up, crimped and steamed to perfection. At least, that’s how my mother makes them. The momos of Tibet fail miserably against homemade kozhakottai which are very commonly cooked for the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi.
The rice noodles on the other hand are wonderful. The noodles are thin and translucent. They are rightly cooked. Potatoes have been skinned and chopped into large pieces. They too have been boiled without loss of natural flavour. I love it. They in some measure make up for the momos. Nonetheless, I’ve come to realize that heaven is not perfect.