Dharamsala was my first destination. After spending 3 hours in the Delhi airport trying to re-check my bag in pure chaos, I was delighted to land in the tiny, tree-lined airport of Dharamsala. It was a tiny plane and equally small airport, and as I walked out I was greeted by the sun, trees, fresh air and taxis right at the door. While I thought I would take a bus, there was nothing clearly waiting, so I chanced a taxi. I was going directly to the registry office of HH the Dalai Lama to get a ticket for his teachings the next two days.
It was a relief to stretch out in the taxi, and look at the mountains around me- to see children walking along the road in school uniforms and the buzz of rural life around. Thirty minutes later, I was dropped at the gate of the temple & began looking for the office— which was of course, 15 minutes walk back from the direction we’d just come! Classic India… I had my giant backpack & a second tote and trudged through the morning crowds heading to the temple for that days teachings.
As the Dalai Lama is ill, his public engagements are limited, and most are now here in McLeodganj, his home, and attract large crowds. That days attendance was over 5,000. When I got to the office, or nearby, the queue was long, so I waited, hopeful. After maybe an hour, and an extremely slow move forward, a large group ahead left the line, and word travelled that tickets were no longer being given out. I was expecting to not get a ticket for the next day, but had been told 2 days ahead should be do-able…
I was quite hot by then & very tired, so went ahead and stayed in line and worked my way to the office. There I was told (and written notices had been displayed) that the schedule was changing and that HH would not speak the next day, but other revered teachers would stand in, but tickets were gone. The final day HH would offer a ceremony open to the public, rather than a morning of teaching…. and that we would NOT need a ticket for. I was hesitant to leave, as the website had stated you needed to give a passport photo, get ticket and clearance in order to take part, but I thought… if it’s meant to be, it will work out.
I got a tuk-tuk up the mountain towards my accommodation, and started walking. I had expected a little town, but it was a spattering of buildings tucked into the mountains, with a main footpath & lots of smaller trails. A young man (mid-20s) saw me sit down, take off my pack, looking at my phone & asked if I needed help. I did! I had no idea where the place I was trying to find was— I had expected shopfronts & signposts, but it was more like a forest walk & my maps weren’t updating - so he took my other bag & walked with me. He had grown up in Delhi, but attended college nearby for graphic design. We talked a bit about art, and he said after working a couple years, he decided to move back & teach here himself to escape the city. When we came to a tiny cafe he asked about our whereabouts and someone there rang my guesthouse. They were all very helpful. In a moment, a lovely woman appeared and walked me back (I had gone way too far again!) to my home for the next few days.
Everyone I spoke to was friendly. I was older than most of the Western travellers there (and there weren’t that many), and everyone was curious of why & where I was going on my own. Everyone who wasn’t Buddhist was shocked that I came just in hopes of seeing the Dalai Lama. No one had gone to see themselves, despite being right there! I found that shocking- what a lost opportunity for them.
I loved the place I stayed, the UnMad, in upper Dharamkot, despite the steep stairs to get up to it. The views, the air, the peace were amazing. You looked down on the village, across through the trees or up further into the mountains. My room was very spacious, with a king-sized bed, plenty of floor space, a table & 2 chairs and ensuite, with large screened windows & a patio. It was a lovely spot to do yoga, to write, to read… to really relax. There was easy access to the rooftop, where you could get an even wider view. But since I only had a few days, I mostly explored. I always like to get a feel for a place, and map it out in my mind.
In the evenings, I ate at the UnMad, where they have a tree-shaded patio & a lovely menu of tasty food & fresh juices & coffees. They were delightful & helpful hosts. They were also transplants from Delhi- leaving stressful ad-agency jobs to try their hand at hospitality in the mountains, and a slower, more peaceful way of life. It was suiting them both.
I enjoyed exploring the area— went on long walks, communing with nature, watching monkeys, chatting with other visitors. I ate lovely food & looked at all the stalls & shops, visited the mountainside meditation center, Tushita, as well as the Tibetan museum- which was sad & informative . I also took a taxi into Dharamsala to visit the Norbulingka Institute- where they teach, preserve and display traditional Tibetan art forms in a beautiful property surrounded by Japanese-styled gardens, a fabulous temple, cafe & workshops.
On the morning I was meant to see the Dalai Lama I was so excited- I was up extra early- made coffee in my room & walked to the temple. It was surprisingly quick & efficient, but we had been told no bags, no devices- so security was quick. I chose to sit amongst Tibetan people rather than a specific ‘English’ area- and enjoyed people watching while we waited. All the school children of the area are invited & many teenagers were near me- so I sort of felt like I was on a school trip, as I often am in Ireland. (I am still a secondary school teacher here!)
As the time approached there was some music & announcements, and when HH arrived- he slowly walked around, allowing many of us to get near- he waved, touched an occasional hand. He was being led/supported by others as he was frail & slow-moving, but with that great smile & lively eyes. After he had circled the temple and surrounds he entered the inner-temple, which was filled with monks, and we watched on a big screen- similar to a concert. It was a lovely experience- sometimes with laughter, and others with seriousness about the losses & struggles on the Tibetan people.
When it was over- packs of biscuits & sweets were thrown out to the crowd & monks walked around with giant teapots, offering everyone a drink. There was a lovely sense of communion & great friendliness. It was hot & sunny. I felt honoured to be a part of what turned out to be over 10,000 there on that day, and I will always remember it.
I had accomplished my first goal for the trip- I had been in the audience of His Holiness the Dalai Lama- I had seen the smile, heard the encouraging words and laughter of this incredible leader, and gotten to know more about the Tibetan people & culture. This was an amazing corner of India- and so different from what I had seen & experienced on my prior trip to Delhi, Agra & Jaipur. But if India is anything at all, it is diverse, it is huge & it is full of surprises!