Spending my days in Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, India, A Lion-Madman, Dream Massage, Tibetan Sky Burial and why Tibetans do not like to eat fish
The Norbulingka Institute is dedicated to the promotion and preservation of the Tibetan Culture.
We decided to go and visit their location just outside of Dharamsala, in a village named Sidhpur.
We negotiated a taxi from McLeod Ganj, which was a bit of a comical experience.
After we figured out how much was the reasonable going rate, each driver that agreed to our price then tried to subcontract the ride to someone who had a cheaper and more rickety car, and who was willing to take the fifty minute drive down the potholed roads, for less money.
That way the original driver got to make a commission fee without the need to drive himself or waste gasoline, but instead could use his time to get more local rides or more commission fees.
After this happened about three times, we finally got a driver who took us to Norbulingka (although he subcontracted the ride to somebody else to drive us back).
In contrast to the mayhem of Dharamsala and the makeshift buildings of McLeod Ganj, the building and grounds of Norbulingka are beautiful, well built and well kept.
There are stone paths and a beautiful garden filled with water flowing in stone channels and many native plants.
In the middle of the garden, on a shaded platform paved with stones, is a cafe.
We ate a tasty lunch of Tibetan dishes and drank some tea.
I enjoyed the Stupa that they had made of stone, and took some time to look into its construction, as I plan to build a Stupa on our own properties, maybe both in NZ and in Colorado.
A Stupa is a Buddhist dome shaped shrine in which you put relics or objects of symbolic importance to carry blessings and prayers. It is a bit like an outdoor shrine or an alter.
There is a wonderful doll museum on the grounds of Norbulingka, which depicts the many tribal costumes of the different regions of Tibet, as well as the costumes used during the Tibetan festivals, masks worn, Tibetan traditional theater and the costumes of lamas and monks.
The dolls and costumes were created by artists who have done a fabulous job at sculpting each doll and sewing each costume, designing each ornament and element that went into those wonderful dolls.
We spent some time admiring the murals on the walls of the main temple hall, which houses a large golden sculpture of the Buddha and where all the meditations and ceremonies take place.
At the gift shop, we saw beautiful Thangkhas (Tibetan scroll paintings) with many intricate details in them.
They were painted with vegetable and mineral watercolor paints, and there was a luminosity and a depth to the colors that one cannot achieve with modern day chemical based paints.
Some of those Thangkhas I saw were not painted, but sewed in an appliqué style.
They were vivid in colors and very beautiful with excellent attention to details.
At the gift shop we bought prayer beads which every Tibetan holds in their hands and rolls between their fingers, as they repeat inwardly the “OM Mani Padme Hum” mantra.
You can hear the Mani mantra prayer being sung from many temples and shops around town.
“OM Mani Padme Hum” translates to: “Hail to the jewel in the lotus,” alluding to the precious and pure spiritual consciousness which is the very core of us and which sits at the center of our minds, beyond the thinking rational mind we use daily.
The lotus flower has been a symbol of spiritual development for thousands of years.
In traditional Buddhist art, the Buddha and other high teachers are often depicted as sitting in the center of a lotus flower.
The lotus flower grows in muddy swamps, but it is still able to bloom into a most beautiful and lush flower.
The roots which are rooted deep in the mud, represent the struggle of the human race, as we attempt to move beyond the hardships and suffering on this earth, and to rise blooming into the glorious Buddha nature that is in each and every one of us (or you can substitute for these terms, by using the Christ Consciousness, or the core of Light in each of us).
We have been in Dharamsala for a week now.
I have had little time to sit and write or even check my emails, because each day was filled with activities and at the end of each day, after we got back to our cottage in the woods, we simply took showers and collapsed into sleep.
I was able to get three healing Tibetan Massages by Dolma and Norbu.
(at about $10 each plus tip)
Norbu operates at the Kunga Guesthouse.
He has a small room with a real massage table in it.
He calls his treatments “Dream Massages,” and the sign on the door claims that they can heal almost every medical problem you might have, physical or mental.
It is a very big claim, but he does give a good massage.
Another plus is that while either of us gets a massage, the other can wait with a book and a drink at the open patio cafe of the guest house and enjoy their good food and drinks.
So many things are happening all over the little village of McLeod Ganj every day.
There are music, lessons, meditations, courses, documentary movies made by Tibetans about their struggle to regain their freedom, to maintain their culture and religion, and to establish their identity.
It may not look like it, but it is still a refugee community after all, with Tibetans who escaped from occupied Tibet and made it over the high mountain passes to Nepal and then to India.
In Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, there are many places offering certification courses.
One can get certified to be a massage therapist in only three to five days.
It is the same for yoga or meditation; one can become a certified teacher just by taking a three to ten day course.
Later, at home, people probably will nod in admiration that one went all the way to Northern India to study to become a yoga teacher or a massage therapist, not knowing that it only took three days and twenty five dollars…
On one of the streets in the village, I was approached by a young Tibetan man with huge novelty yellow glasses.
He told me that he was an artist and that he will be performing a song and dance kind of interactive evening that I should not miss.
He said that his name was Lion-Man, and that he was a madman and that I would love his show.
Of course I could not refuse.
On the night of the performance, we made it to the street where Lion-Man was performing.
He stood there at the entrance to a steep stone staircase leading down into the streets below.
On the grounds of an elementary school, in a small concrete room painted with peeling children’s murals, I saw empty rice sacks spread on the concrete floor.
This was the seating, and we sat among other tourists waiting to see the show.
Lion Man lit a candle and pressed the play button on his portable CD player.
He started with a traditional Tibetan song and dance.
At first he seemed a bit self conscious and inhibited.
As he warmed up, he took off his clothes, untied his long hair and started jumping on the walls.
Many Tibetans had self immolated, (lighting their bodies on fire,) in their desperation to express the hardships of living under the Chinese occupation.
To give us a sense of the horror of their experience, lion man took off all his clothes except for his underwear, unrolled a lot of toilet paper which he attached to his underwear, and lit himself on fire, while a Tibetan song was wailing in the background.
He poured hot wax from the candle on his face and danced like a mad man.
I do not think that there was one person in the crowd who did not hold his breath as we saw him dance around, while burning toilet paper was falling from his underwear.
The last part of the performance was an interactive play with the audience, in which he jumped and pressed his forehead against each of our foreheads, gazing a long time into our eyes.
Later he lifted people and spun them around, piled up people on top of one another and crawled under the pile of people and lifted them all up.
One man adamantly refused to allow him to get close to him, to gaze into his eyes.
He seemed so fearful and uncomfortable with the intimacy of the physical contact with this sweaty, wild-haired Lion Man.
I am not sure that I enjoyed the performance.
It is always interesting to me to see small entrepreneurial non-professional shows, so I was content to simply be there, without judging it as good or bad, worthy of my time or not…
Time in Dharamsala is fluid anyway, with people spending the whole day just reading in cafes, or lingering over a five hour lunch.
The next day Lion Man approached us as we were sitting in a cafe.
He was handing out flyers for his next performance.
We noticed that he had raised his rates.
One young man in a table next to us, asked Lion man why he had raised his price from 150 rupees ($3) to 200 rupees ($5) and Lion Man said apologetically that he changed his act a bit, and made it longer.
From his uncomfortable answer, it was obvious that he was just making excuses, but if you ask me, it would take MUCH more than five dollars per person for me to get naked and bang my chest against the walls and light myself on fire….
It is very easy to make friends in McLeod Ganj.
Many of the cafes are small and you are invited to sit at other peoples’ tables, and it is easy to meet people all around town.
I have heard so many stories and bits of information.
One thing I have not heard before, is why the Tibetan people do not eat fish.
Tibet has some beautiful, clean lakes, but still the people do not fish nor like to eat fish.
This is because in Tibet, when a loved one departs this world, the highest form of burial is a sky burial.
The body is taken to a special Tibetan tribe called Ragyapas, which is the clan in charge of sky burials.
They dismember the body of the departed and feed it to the vultures who live nearby them.
The blood and every part of the innards, is mixed with barley flour called Tsampa, and also fed to the vultures.
It is believed that the vultures carry the karma and blessings up into the sky, while the soul or consciousness of the body is going through the “Bardo” stage of in between lives, and based on its Karma and lessons learned in past life, spiritual aptitude and merits, is then reincarnated into another life.
If they have a few bodies to “bury,” they usually feed the vultures first the bodies of departed males, since it is believed that a female body is sweeter tasting, and since the males’ bodies are more sour, if the vultures were to get full by eating sweet female flesh, they would not eat the males’ bodies.
Those who cannot afford to pay for a sky burial, choose the second best way of disposing a body, and that is by dismembering the body and feeding it to the fish in the lakes…..Hence the reason Tibetans do not like to eat fish, unless they live in remote mountain villages and know that nobody uses human flesh to feed the fish.
The third best burial choice is cremation.
Day by day I am adjusting to Dharamsala.
My eyes are less assaulted by the dirt and rubbish, by the lack of aesthetics and beggars, the dismal architecture and temporary shacks from which people cook and serve street food and drinks.
I am less bothered by the smell of cow and monkey shit, and I am less afraid of the traffic which seems to pass just inches away from your legs.
I love the fact that most Tibetans still wear their traditional dresses and still keep the spirit of their culture alive.
It is a busy and overcrowded, but neatly tiered community with many of the problems and joys of so many people living so close together.
There is gossip, and rumors and social rules and binds, which run above the heads of most tourists, who are completely unaware of it.
Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj are located in the Himachal Pradesh State of India.
It is the state with the highest mountain ranges in all of India, and it borders the Himalayan mountain range.
Above the charming and busy, dirty and potholed streets of McLeod Ganj, the high mountain range is beckoning to me…. I am eager to go and hike there…. And to experience the real charm and beauty of this mountainous place.