A Travellerspoint blog

Settling into McCleod Ganj

Homestays! bustling streets! adorable Tibetan children!

Yes, these and more have been dominating our lives lately, since we’ve been living in McCleod Ganj for a week (!) now. I’d meant this post to be about our “pilgrimage” for Losar (Tibeten New Year), the visit of Emory dignitaries and program alumni for the 10-year celebration, and our audience with the Dalai Lama, but my fingers seem to have had other ideas. So the pictures will have to wait.

Where to begin? I said I was so fortunate in the roommate I was given, and I can only reiterate that sentiment for my homestay family. “Pala” Norbu was raised as nomad (drok-ba) in the eastern region of Kham and now makes jewelry for a living, while “Ama-la” Yöden comes from Central Tibet (Ü-Tsang) and teaches in the nursery of Yongling School, the Tibetan day school in McCleod. Most Tibetan children, including my parents’ older daughter, go to boarding schools like the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV). Their younger daughter Tenzin Diki (unsure of the proper English spelling of her second name), who I think is almost three, goes with her mother to Yongling and has been very patient with me.

I generally don’t particularly like small children. That’s not to say I actively dislike them, just that given the choice, I’d rather spend time with more adult-ish people. (My parents are probably chuckling right now; this has always been the case with me.) Anyway, there are individual children who have managed to get me to really like them; my pottery teacher’s son (I remember the day he was born!) is one, and I think my little sister here is another. Interestingly, Pala calls their daughter “Tenzin” and Ama-la calls her “Diki.” Go figure.

My host family, like many around them, lives in a one-bedroom apartment with separate kitchen and communal bathroom. So that’s different. But it’s clean and neat and the definition of “cozy”,” and frankly it’s really nice being in a home after living in college dormitories since high school (except for breaks).

Here are some pictures of the apartment. Note the gigantic shrine, complete with statues/images of the Buddha (Shakyamuni), the Dalai Lama, Chenrezig (Avolokiteshvara), Tara, Manjushri, and Tsongkapa, complete with bowls of offerings. Some of the offerings were food—candy and dried cheese—that has since been taken down and eaten. The lights around the shrine, as an offering of light, are on at all times. Pala does three prostrations to the shrine at night (when he remembers), but that’s the only activity related to it I’ve seen. The enormous image of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan flag to its right (just outside the frame) also seem typical of the homes I’ve seen, and the other big picture is of the Potala Palace, traditional home of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa.
(Incidentally, my little sister came over while I was writing this and is currently staring up at me with those gorgeous eyes with a mostly-eaten Indian version of a Kit-Kat in one hand. Methinks` mischief is afoot.)

We Emory folks have class at the main IBD campus (the mothership of Sarah College), live with our families, and have some rooms in a guesthouse where we have our library and keep extra possessions (I left my big suitcase there and keep only a few days’ clothes with me at home—it’s pretty small, after all). A general schedule, which the reunion has completely disturbed this week:

6:00-7:00: wake up, breakfast, etc.
10:00-11:30: Philosophy or Culture class
11:30-2:00: Lunch, some free time (errands, homework, etc.)
2:00-3:30: Language class
Time to shower, wash clothes, go on Internet, do homework. I generally get home 6:00-7:00.
7:30-8:30: dinner (somewhere in there)
9:45-10:00: sleep

It’s an OK schedule, though I miss having class only in the morning—our flex time is fractured into little chunks at different points in the day, and since my home, classroom, and the guesthouse are pretty much at three opposite corners of town, travel time is 10-15 minutes to any destination. (Swatties: it’s like moving from Parrish to ML…)

Many of you are probably asking about the food, and you have no need to worry. We receive a stipend from the program to eat lunch in restaurants, so we’re quickly learning all the best (and less-good) places in town. Breakfast and dinner are with our families, and I’m lucky—my Pala was a cook at the all-veg Om Restaurant for two years, and Ama—la was a waitress there. Both cook marvelously, (Tibetan, not Indian, though Pala’s main job was the Mexican section of Om’s menu), and have graciously accommodated my vegetarian diet. I was a little nervous about asking, but the program folks encouraged the vegemites (to borrow a word from my fencing coach) in the group to ask, and so far nobody’s had any problems.

Ama-la makes breakfast, and they seem to trade off who makes dinner. Breakfast has been scrambled eggs (“Omlette” is now an Indian word, though I once saw it spelled “aammlet”), or oatmeal-like stuff (I’m not sure which grain), or pale with butter and peanut butter. Pale is, I think, a general Tibetan word for bread, though in this context it refers to the little hand-rolled circular bread with an air pocket in the middle, like pita—I think it’s the same as plain parantha. Dinner has been various veggies (possibly including bok choy, choy sim [Chinese cabbage], pepper, onion, tomato) on rice, or thuk-pa (oily noodle soup, made with wide flat what noodles), or, one day, mo-mo. Momos can be fried or steamed (ours were the latter), and are very similar to the smaller kind of Chinese dumplings (jiao zi). One of my happiest moments at this program has been walking in a little bit late to find Ama-la rolling out the skins, Pala stuffing, and Diki playing with extra dough. For the first time, they let me help with the cooking, so now I know the technique (and can teach you!). Ours were stuffed with potato and scallion—kind of like pierogies.

My parents also keep a basket of little munchies on the table at all times, particularly for the many guests who seem to show up at any time. Thusfar I’ve seen kupse (the very chrustchiki¬-like pieces of fried dough leftover from Losar), nuts, tiny-but-good dried apricots, and two kinds of dried cheese: one soft and sweet, the other is bland and needs to be sucked on and chewed slowly lest it break your teeth. There are always two big thermos-things of hot water and black tea, and for breakfast sometimes we have pö cha, butter tea (lit. “Tibet tea), which in this family has lots of milk in addition to the butter and salt. The last two days there’s been a little bowl with some kind of pungent spice I don’t recognize that these people eat a couple of with dinner when they want. Pala likes this more than Ama-la.

These are kupse:

I’m really enjoying the way these folks seem to lead their social lives—our little apartment is a sort of base for a bunch of unattached neighbors. There are a couple monks who pop in from time to time, while little Diki is given the freedom to leave on her own to visit the nuns who live in some of the apartments nearby, though I’ve only met them on the way to the bathroom. Lobsang Yeshe, a friend of Pala’s who lives by himself stops by a lot; he’s studying English and has just started learning French, so he’s been helping me with Tibetan and I’ve been helping him with those languages.

We’ve only had dinner twice where it’s just been the four of us—Yeshe and/or one of the monks is usually here, and last Sunday the four of us ate at the home of another family—a couple with an adorable little boy about Diki’s age. What’s more fun than rolling around with a cute Tibetan three-year-old? Rolling around with TWO Tibetan three-year-olds. (At least in small doses.)

Speaking of adorable Tibetan children, this is what an adorable Tibetan child looks like when teaching me the word for candle, tang-ma (I think), in the little mostly-outdoor entryway to the apartment. These were set out as part of an organized thing among Tibetan families to put candles out on the night of March 10, to commemorate the uprising that took place on that day about fifty years ago; since then, March 10 has been a sort of national holiday for the Tibetans.

That family’s apartment was about the same size as this one, but they don’t have a separate kitchen or little outdoor entry/washing area in a kind of balcony—their kitchen was a heavy-duty-looking hot plate, a small fridge, and some storage against one wall. Still, they produced a bucket of chaang (homemade barley beer) from somewhere at the end of the meal, and while nobody partook at that time, my parents brought an overfilled pitcher home (I haven’t seen what happened to it). Earlier that day, I’d gone back with Yeshe to his apartment—it’s literally the length of his bed, and roughly square. He (or his predecessor) must have brought the bed in the door and slid it right to the other wall—but it works. Yeshe’s is another interesting story: having become a monk at a young age (I forget; younger than 15), he lived in a monastery in Kham before moving to the re-established Sera Jey monastery in South India. When I asked him why he’s not a monk anymore, he pointed to the picture of a young Tibetan woman he says is currently studying at an Indian university in the South. Her picture was one of several dozen in the room, depicting his family, monastery, and his monk buddies; one was clearly of him debating with other monks, and offered an interesting contrast to his current situation. Tara-la says that the majority of monastics who give back their robes were Indian-born and that the Tibetan-born monks are much more focused; while this fellow did return to lay life, he’s definitely kept up the work ethic and has a greater endurance than me in our study sessions.

Side-note: I’ve started going by more names than before, largely two-syllable variants of “Chris”—Tibetans seem to have a really hard time with putting that many consonants in one syllable. For those who don’t know my name or just can’t deal with it, I’m Inji, the corruption of “English” that is a general word for “foreigner” (i.e. neither Tibetan, Indian, nor Chinese. I’m not sure if this only applies to Caucasians or not). Sometimes this makes me feel like I’m among the Amish, though one look at the huge altar in every tiny apartment brings me back to Tibet-land.

This hasn’t all been perfect; living in one room with three other people, one of whom isn’t quite three, plus frequent visitors and an often-on television, gets pretty intense, if not overwhelming at times. I’ve learned not to expect to do any reading or other classwork at home—but that’s what the guesthouse and cafés are for. But they’re so sweet it’s hard to be frustrated for long.

Anyway, these families seem to be very open to each other, and the day I visited Yeshe’s place two of his friends came in (also laymen in their twenties), and after a few minutes, our host left and the three of us stayed; they were very gracious in helping me with Tibetan, though his friend Tashi (who’s been going to English conversation classes regularly, and it shows), got me to help him figure out how to express in English a story he had trouble explaining in class. These people don’t have much money (though they seem to make ends meet ok) but they’re very free about sharing their possessions, children, and adopted injis. It reminds me very much of the descriptions I’ve heard and read of life in the tenements of New York, and indeed these refugees have much in common with those immigrants. And while it’s not the best of material circumstances, it’s definitely liveable. At least for three weeks.

Posted by cageissler 07:38 Comments (2)

Kangra Fort and Amritsar

Weekend getaways

A lot of things have been happening and the Internet has been spotty, so I’m trying to organize some posts thematically rather than strictly chronologically. This post is going about two weekend trips we made, not as “official” trips but because groups of students wanted to go see things.

Also, we’ll be gone for the next week visiting some monasteries and temples a few hours away. It’s Losar, the three-day Tibetan New Year, though official festivities have been cancelled (for the third year straight) by the CTA in memory of the un-festive situation inside Tibet. It’s kind of like cancelling the parades, decorations, gift-giving, mall Santas, and other public aspects of Christmas, though private family gatherings and religious services (probably toned-down) would still take place.

Anyway, a couple weekends ago a group of us had already done our homework and decided to go visit Kangra Fort, a nearby citadel whose history stretches back really far. Like so many sites in India, the locals claim it dated back to the time of the Mahabharata (the mythological epic that’s sort of half-Iliad, half-Old Testament)… so I took everything the audio guide said (there were no signs) with a healthy pinch of salt. Nevertheless, I do like its suggestion that Alexander’s army fought here and chose to believe that tidbit. In historical times, this was a major regional power center until the British took over, and the pictures will show you why.

Its location along a hillside meant that the builders could channel anyone entering the place to pass along these switchbacks on the way up, exposing them to more defensive fire and forcing them to pass through more chokepoints, like this one. This being India, we were completely free to climb around wherever we wanted:


Even on the way up, the scenery started getting impressive:


A sign of changing times: this building, a mosque, was used for gunpowder storage by the Hindu maharaja until the British bombarded it with cannonfire from the opposite side of the ravine, mostly destroying the structure in the process. Also note the different flora—just half an hour away, the pine-and-rhododendron of Sarah and McCleod has been replaced by a much more tropical-looking ecosystem:


After climbing some more and passing through a few more gates, we got to this area—the big wall ahead was once the richly decorated outer wall of a Hindu temple, but the façade, like much of the fort, collapsed in the earthquake of 1905. The little dome-topped structure on the left is actually a Jain shrine. The statue there was supposedly made of Mahavira, the Jain founder, during his lifetime (~2600 years ago… factual accuracy of this claim seems doubtful), and was brought here by Jain subjects of the Maharaja for safekeeping during an invasion. As in Delhi, photography was prohibited in this still-active temple, though on the way out I heard a Jain fellow who was ringing a bell and chanting in some ritual I’m not familiar with.


And one view from a little higher up, in the personal quarters of the royal family overlooking the temple courtyard:

And this is why it’s all here—the view from the highest viewing platform commands the confluence of these two rivers. They don’t look like much now, but I can only imagine how high the water comes during the monsoon:


This buzzard (or vulture; not sure which) made some incredible passes right over us. This is the best shot I was able to get, though Will (a fellow student) used his much fancier camera to get a much closer shot:


This is the view in the other direction, a pretty typical scene for the Kangra area. The road running behind the fields along the ridge in the center-left of the image, and across the little bridge in the bottom-left is the road we took to get here from Delhi. I couldn’t find it, but I know the Kangra Valley Railroad (narrow-guage, British vintage) runs along here somewhere—I saw the tracks on the initial trip here:


Perhaps most amazing part of the fort for me was this image: that cliff is unusually smooth, isn’t it? Apparently the sides were hacked away by hand to eliminate potential hiding places for invaders. Whoa. The flat area at left was apparently extensively used for military drills, which makes sense to me.

On the way back, three of us took a little detour down a different road, and came to this unidentified little boxy structure. The walls you see here were part of a three-by-three grid, and while the arches might be Mughal in design (maybe not), I haven’t the faintest idea what this was used for:


That’s it for Kangra. Another trip was to Amritsar—famous for two things: the Golden Temple, the holiest site of the Sikh religion, and the nearby border with Pakistan. Our trip was pretty last-minute, but one of the great things about India is that you can call the taxi company two days before the trip, finally reserve the taxis the night before departure, and get two cars with drivers who’ll stay with you for two days, bringing you 6+ hours to another city and provide all the transportation you need while there… for 7,000 Rs. ($140) per vehicle, each of which holds 6 people. As a bonus, two of our roommates (both male, mine not included) decided to come with us too, which just made everything better.

We left early (6:00 a.m., actually 6:20), so we got to see kids on the way to school a couple hours later:


Stopping for what our driver called a “Pee and Tea” break (ha!), we ordered snacks while the drivers took a break. I learned that “Ginger pakoras” actually just means battered and fried pieces of ginger. Gotta love it.


We drove through much of Himachal Pradesh and the entire width of Punjab, and I think just watching the people and scenery go by was the most interesting part. The farther from the core of Himachal, the fewer brightly-colored houses there were, but the deeper we got into Punjab, the more colors there were on turbans. Punjab is a majority-Sikh state, and adult male Sikhs, among other things, don’t cut their hair, but cover it in a turban. I kept trying to get the perfect shot of wacky-colored turbans and kept failing, but they came in light and dark blue, orange, red, maroon, salmon pink…

Besides turbans, visual motifs of Punjab seemed to be carts of meticulously stacked oranges (this is one of the sloppier-looking arrangements)…


…and construction (like in Himachal), as evidenced by several busy-looking brick kilns.


I don’t remember where this was, but I really liked this auto-rickshaw driver’s style. Indian trucks, buses, and other vehicles people spend lots of time in often get personalized in tacky unique ways.


Upon arrival in Amritsar, our driver offered two options for places to eat: Brother’s Dhaba and McDonald’s. While I’m definitely interested in ordering a McSpicy Paneer before leaving, we agreed now wasn’t the time. So we went to this wonderful place with penguin-esque ketchup bottles.


Maya ordered some crazy-looking South-Indian-style dishes: the little puffy things are idli, and the cone-shaped thing is a dosa. Looks more impressive than it is, though it really does look impressive.


I totally pigged out on this thali (big plate of lots of different things), of which there were veg- and non-veg varieties, as well as ones with different carbs (rice or no rice; parantha, chapatti, or, in my case, naan). I really do love Indian food, so to be able to have (clockwise from the bottom) rice, chickpeas, daal makhani (a Punjabi staple), paneer, raita, and salad in one was just… yeah, that good. Everything was just spicy enough that I really came to appreciate the existence of cooling yoghurt-based raita, and… I could go on, but this isn’t a food blog and I don’t want to sound too gluttonous while living at a Tibetan Buddhist college.


On to spiritual matters… the entry to the Golden Temple was the most complicated of any site we’ve yet visited, not because of the security-bureaucracy like the big mosque in Delhi, but for more pleasant reasons. 1) get a headband/scarf (I was a sucker and gave in to the touristy souvenir ones), 2) check your shoes, 3) check your backpack, 4) wade through the water-trough that ritually and practically cleans your feet and 5) actually enter the place. Walking down stairs to enter the compound is a great theory—automatically humbling yourself and such—but is a little tricky when your feet and the steps are still wet. Anyway, after making it safely down, you see this:




It’s quite a complex—besides the central shrine, there are all sorts of rooms and things off this area, places serving free (apparently filtered!) water and Prasad (ritually offered food) plus a museum, bathing-in-the-pool facilities, communal kitchen (more on that later), guesthouses, and the building where the Sikh parliament meets. And its all perfectly clean, in stark contrast to the surrounding city, which is obviously in India. These people really have their act together.

The place is gorgeous, though I felt woefully underprepared—I know a little bit about Sikhism, but didn’t have enough time to do the research necessary to fully appreciate the site as what it was. Still, there’s something about the visual impact, the really friendly folks everywhere, and the omnipresent sound of the holy book being chanted by guys inside the shrine being broadcast live that just makes it… something else. Next time (and I’m not convinced there won’t be a “next time”) I’ll have a better handle on the place and get a better idea of what’s going on.

Anyways, that was only our first glimpse—we got back into the taxis and headed off to the Wagah border. So… India and Pakistan have had a pretty tense history, and the ridiculous show they put on at the border crossing every day is the most appallingly fascinating show in the region. All that actually happens is ridiculously-dressed soldiers (red-and-gold hats on the Indians, black-and-white on the Pakistanis) on both sides strut around, sometimes kicking so high that their feet hit their hats, the flags get lowered, and the gates are closed. But somewhere along the line they decided to build a stadium on each side, and hire some tall guy in a white-with-and-Indian-flag suit to get the crowd cheering. And the put foreigners in the front-left, closest to the action. Interesting.

More than anything else, it felt like an overblown high school pep rally. Except serious.

Nationalism is problematic.

This is the image that made it for me, though—Ghandi gets to watch over this every single day. Ghandi vigorously opposed the Partition, and I’m sure would be horrified to see this… thing. Honestly, I'd agree.


A more realistic portrait comes from this picture. That truck is one of perhaps a hundred we saw lined up at the border, probably waiting to cross tomorrow. Our driver explained that they’re carrying onions and tomatoes (though I only saw bags of what looked like onions) to Pakistan. Whatever the posturing, there’s still a ground-level interdependence going on here:


Dinner that night was actually at a fancy restaurant of sorts. We were heading out the door to find something cheaper when the manager, seeing a group of 11 about to leave, offered us 10% off and no tax… so we took it. That’s the “house specialty,” Paneer Tawa Frontier, with Chukhi Naan (spelling?) and a fresh lime soda. The waiter asked if I wanted to soda sweet or salty, and I said salty… so that’s basically lime juice, soda water, and salt. One of our better meals here, and entrées were still only $4.

One thing we’d heard/read about prior to arrival was to see the Golden Temple at different times of day. So we did, this time in the early morning. That’s right, sunrise! We also got to go inside the central shrine, see the chanting and the Sikhs worshipping around the holy book and other things I didn’t quite understand, and marvel at the sheer beauty of it all. One of the other Emory guys and I ran into a group of boys that another classmate and I had met the day before, and they insisted on another round of pictures—the two of us with each of the six of them in sequence. While there was a language barrier, everyone seemed to know “One snap, please?” and “What is your country?” This wasn’t the first time that we’d been asked to take pictures with Indians we ran into—being white is enough of an attraction—but usually it was the blond ones. Here, though, even the less-striking-looking ones among us were included. It felt strange, but everyone was being really polite and there was no reason not to go along.

Another sight—caught in the sacred tree where the guru who is said to have dug this pool slept while working, was this kite. A little touch of whimsy to add to the surreality.


We ate at the communal kitchen—this is another Sikh thing: free food for anyone who wants it, and there’s only one discreet donation box near the exit. They make an insane amount of remarkably good food—chapatti, green stuff, daal, and sweet milk-rice stuff. Actually quite good


And the floor-cleaners were pretty impressive: first one guy came pouring water on the tile floor, then the mop guy, then the three squeegee guys. Given the volume, we were all amazed by the efficiency of the operation. And none of us got sick!

Sikh-Hindu relations haven’t always been the most pleasant, as evinced by the separatist movement in the late 20th Century. We also visited a nearby site, the Jallianwalla Bagh, where British troops fired on a crowd of peaceful protesters in 1919. Whatever actually happened, the place is now part-public park, part nationalist propaganda.IMG_1189.jpgIMG_1189.jpg

The stores around the Golden Temple area seem to survive on selling a bizarre mix of things to tourists: dried fruit and Sikh ritual implements. Two of the five physical reminders of an adult male Sikh (and women, though in varying combinations) are this iron band on the right wrist…


…and a kirpan, a sword or knife (the other three are the uncut hair, the special comb, and the special baggy underpants with a drawstring):


Some other frequent sights on the trip:

Sugarcane on trucks or being pressed at juice stands:


Motorcycles: gas is about the same price in India as in the US, which means it’s really really expensive:


and a more old-school form of transportation, buffalo:


By way of conclusion, I’ll let the pictures at dawn at the Golden Temple speak for themselves:


Posted by cageissler 03:58 Comments (2)

Still at Sarah... for now

We have internet again!

Wow, it's been a long time since I've seen this page. The Internet here has been offline for at least a week, and as it is now it's dreadfully slow. So I'm afraid my ability to upload new pictures is limited--we'll see how this develops.

I certainly have lots of things to talk about, most notably last weekend's trip to the city of Amritsar, a half-day's drive away. But I'll save that for when I can get some serious pictures going here. But from the opposite end from "serious," here's a dish one of us ordered at a restaurant a couple weeks ago. They seem to take "shahi butter paneer" pretty literally:

It's kind of amazing to think, but we're more that halfway done with our time at Sarah College--we'll be moving up to McCleod Ganj with our homestay families in about two weeks. How does time pass like that?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!? While I'm of course excited to meet my hosts, part of me would almost rather stay here, deepen my connections with the Sarah students, and use this campus environment to really concentrate on studying hard and learning as much as I can. But I do understand that's not the only reason why I'm here, or why the program exists.

Speaking of campus environments, I really appreciate living here. The Sarah students are all here for very different purposes (as explained in a previous post), but they all firmly believe that they personally play a part in the preservation of their culture. Many are on scholarship too, and this only furthers their determination. That's not to say they don't blow off steam--there are guys out playing basketball now, even as the sun goes down, and I've heard stories from the girls in our program about the antics that go on in their dormitory. But everyone knows that's just for diversion. In some ways, this place reminds me of Swarthmore at its best--a small community of diverse people people doing lots of different things, but all with the knowledge that their studies are related to the wider world we all live in, and a shared drive to make a difference in the world.

I even had a conversation over lunch with an Indian-born Tibetan student here who had a B.A. from an Indian university but felt like he still didn't have an education--he spoke of students who were driven only by the promise of a career, not of intellectual development or personal cultivation. Obviously, I can't know who those students were or what their backgrounds led them to need to do, but the net result was that this new friend of mine came to this little Tibetan college so he could really learn something. A conversation about the liberal arts with someone at this little Tibetan college in the foothills of the Himalayas... talk about learning about yourself while abroad!

Anyway, until that point I hadn't been seeing this place as a liberal-arts institution, primarily because the students don't have a choice of classes to take (besides, for some, Chinese or English language), a factor both of ideology and practicality. For the B.A. students like my roommate, that means (Tibetan)(Buddhist) Philosophy, Poetry, Grammar, History, and a language. Doesn't that sound awesome? I think it sounds awesome. Also, I'm continually amazed whenever I ask my roommate for a native-speaker judgement about some point of the Tibetan Language and he whips out some in-depth answer indicative of someone who's still studying the mechanics of his language at the college level. Granted, the traditional Tibetan system for organizing their language isn't the same as modern Western linguistics, but it still makes sense to me and has helped a lot. Would that we kept learning about English linguistics in college!

That's not to say everything here is perfect. Most surprising for me has been the clear gender segregation that spontaneously happens here. The men are friendly and outgoing, but I don't envy the girls on our program--Tibetan girls, by and large, are very shy when relating with outsiders or when men or authority figures are around. But while I'm not entirely comfortable with this dynamic, I do appreciate the sense of order that accompanies life at Sarah. For one, here's their schedule:

6:30-Morning Prayers (semi-optional, less mandatory when it's really cold)
7:00-Breakfast (flatbread and tea, with a hard-boiled egg on weekends. They all go back to their rooms, and my roommate keeps a stock of peanut butter, jelly, and chili to flavor it up)
8:00-10:00-First two classes
10:00-10:30-Tea break (of course!)
10:30-12:30-Two more classes
12:30-2:00-lunch (veggies and rice/noodles, with broth on Tue-Wed and fancier things on weekends, occasionally oranges)/free time
4:00-tea, followed by free time (basketball, chom-chom walks, etc)
7:00-9:00-individual study time (mandatory)
10:00-back in your room

It's a really nice, high-intensity schedule. Food isn't much, so there's a separate breakfast and dinner for just the Emory studentsand staff at the guesthouse. That's particularly nice for us because the Tibetans eat fast and leave--they don't linger like we do and converse at great length, which is what we really enjoy about meals. In general, our schedule is more low-key than theirs, and more closely resembles a typical American college schedule. Unlike the Tibetans, we don't have classes on Saturdays, and we go on field trips every Friday after Philosophy class. Here's our schedule for comparison:large_IMG_0811.jpg

I can't help but wonder how productive we Americans could be if our colleges dropped extracurriculars, sports, and the like in favor of the Sarah-style schedule. Then I think about how much I've learned from the Fencing Team and all sorts of other non-class aspects of American college life. So I haven't come to any conclusions, but this has made me think about these aspects of our system that I'd taken for granted.

Something else I'd taken for granted? Western bread. Don't get me wrong--I love chapatti, naan, and parantha, and the Tibetan ting-mo (steamed rolls) and flat things we've been getting here are good too, but... they're not dark brown grainy loaves. But then Tara-la casually pointed out "the best bread in town" when we were walking around McCleod, so next time I had the chance I ducked in. Behind the gigantic "GERMAN BREAD" sign is a building with a little apartment where a little guy named Champa sells wholewheat sourdough:
The dollar bill illustrates both the size and the 50-rupee price. The baker, originally from Tibet, told me he was working at a restaurant/café when he met some Germans who were living in town for a while, and they taught him how to bake. He worked as a baker for a couple decades, but in his own words, "Now, I'm getting older, I don't want to work so hard, so I just sell bread."

Our philosophy teacher is originally from Germany, and instantly recognized the bread. She informed me that, once we move to McCleod, we can give the guy our number and he'll call us when it's hot. Next goal? Find real cheese.

Speaking of McCleod, as we drive through the tea plantations to get there we pass by the Tong-len Institute, founded by a Tibetan monk to take in Indian street children (and sometimes their families), take care of them, and send them to Indian schools. Giving back, Tibetan-style.IMG_0810.jpg

That's all for now--once the internet settles down and I find more time, I'll tell you about Amritsar. That might be delayed, though--next week we'll be travelling around some monasteries a little ways from here for Losar (Tibetan New Year, celebrations of which have been formally cancelled by the CTA for the third year running in wake of the non-celebratory events inside Tibet).

By way of conclusion, here's the sunset view from McCleod that I snapped with the German bread in hand:

Posted by cageissler 07:52 Comments (2)

Gangkyi Trips

visits with the CTA and Kalon Tripa

- CTA (Central Tibetan Administration) is the "government-in-exile," though it isn't recognized as such by any country in the world.
- Kalon Tripa: the "prime minister" of the CTA, he leads the kashag (cabinet).

Exciting times have been happening here--last Friday we went to visit the CTA headquaters in Gangkyi (Gangchen Kyishong, between Lower and Upper Dharamsala). We first met with Tenzin Norbu, one of their chief legal counsels, who showed us an introductory video and explained and answered questions on the workings of the unicameral Assembly. A look at the structure of representatives tells a lot about how the Tibetan community works:

- 10 deputies elected by refugees (or descendants of refugees who choose which of their parents to identify with) from each of the three regions of Tibet who currently live in India, Nepal, or Bhutan
- 2 deputies from each major religious tradition--the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and the non-Buddhist "indigenous" Tibetan religion called Bön.
- 2 deputies from Tibetans in Europe, and 2 from North America
- Prior to a few years ago, the Dalai Lama could and did appoint 1-3 deputies too, though now that he has renounced all political powers this isn't in effect.

So there are official representatives of religions in the parliament, as well as plenty of monks serving as regional deputies. Also, the regions correspond not to where Tibetans actually live (except for those in the West), but to where they came from in Tibet... even those born and raised in exile... very interesting. They do their business here:


(Note the painting of the semi-historical "Three Dharma Kings," the Buddhist statues, and the gigantic portrait and throne reserved for the Dalai Lama, who fully renounced political authority last year. Hmm...)

Also, we got to sit in the very seats occupied by deputies...
... and pretend to have more power than we really do. Or, probably, than they do.

This map has caused lots of tensions--our guide informed us that when some Chinese representatives came, they suggested removing it, since it marks all three regions as being part of Tibet, while China only recognizes one region in the TAR. See the link below for comparison: the yellow part in this map is TAR and all the other colored regions--basically the whole plateau, traditionally inhabited by Tibetan-dialects-speaking people with varying historical ties to Lhasa--are claimed by the CTA. They've officially given up pursuit of full independence (though this opinion is not universally shared in the Tibetan community on either side of the border) in favor of a "Middle-Way Approach" seeking "genuine autonomy within China" in a plan based on quotes from the Chinese constitution. I've read the memo and one of the Chinese responses denouncing it, though I'm not enough an expert on the Chinese constitution to judge further.

Interestingly, in the current round of self-immolations and protests over the past year, most of the activity has taken place in the eastern Tibetan regions--the parts outside TAR. So whatever situation existed in the past--and while both sides fight over history, just as good a case could be made for both China and Tibet to be a part of Mongolia--the Chinese presence has unified the three regions to a greater degree than ever before.

After this tour, we met with a representative from the Department if Information and International Relations (DIIR--i.e. the press people) who took questions and explained in some depth the work that the various departments do. In brief, they seem to do a pretty comprehensive job supporting monasteries/nunneries, providing education and health care, and other sorts of support for the 120,000+ refugees. Complicating this, more than half of new arrivals are children and almost a third of the total population are monks/nuns (on whom the Chinese government has been particularly tough). Out of a total budget of 100,000,000 Rs ($20 million), our guide said about a third comes from a small voluntary tax, a third comes from donations and international aid, and a third comes from the Dalai Lama himself. Interesting...

As you can probably tell, the religious dynamics are pretty interesting. The Dalai Lama has pushed for gradual reforms towards the creation of a secular democratic government, though the government remains founded on Buddhist principles and religious groups play an explicit role in parliament. Moreover, Buddhism, as well as the Tibetan language, has become one of the defining features of the modern Tibetan identity. Lots of interesting implications for Bön, Islamic, and other non-Buddhist Tibetans. (According to Tara-la, most of the Muslim Tibetans were taking in by Kashmiris, became Indian citizens, and aren't really involved with the CTA at all.) Also, this chörten is the first thing you see upon entering the government complex:

Perhaps the strangest part of the religion-in-government business is located on the other end of the complex--the monastery of the Nechung Oracle, the state oracle of Tibet.

Wait, what? While the Tibetan government supports lots of monasteries, this one is special, since its monks (of which there are about 70) exist to support this very special oracle, who is consulted a few times a year by the CTA and the Dalai Lama on important decisions. Apparently, this oracle (through the previous medium) was the one who advised the Dalai Lama to flee Tibet, and has apparently played a role in lots of other important decisions. We're talking a bona fide oracle here--a person who, as part of an elaborate ritual, goes into trances and utters strange things that get interpreted by a senior monk and used to help make decisions. The temple itself was small but ornately beautiful, and we got to see an inner-sanctum-type-room with lots of mostly-covered statues of various scary-looking tantric deities. This is the other side of Tibetan Buddhism.

In less-frightening news, the temple also had a pair of Snow Lions, a Tibetan guardian animal related to other lion-protectors in China and elsewhere in asia. The white color, turquoise mane, and mountain-to-mountain leaps give it away.

I'd love to know the story behind the dead tree:

  • *

Today, we went back up to Gangkyi to meet the Kalon Tripa. There was a bit of panic the night before as we all scrambled to find nice-looking clothes, though I was saved by my recent purchase of a Tibetan-style shirt (sorry for the [temporary] lack of pics, though this is the general idea--mine is a bit more on the reddish side:)

Anyways, Lobsang Sangyay is an interesting man. He studied law at Harvard and has been living in the States for the past 16 years until last year's election. He's young and was a political outsider, and won an overwhelming majority of the vote in the party-less elections. Lots of comparisons have been drawn between him and Obama. "Dr. Sangyay" wore a Western-style suit and tie and had some considerable charisma.

We'd spent about two hours coming up with six questions the night before, and asked him them at the beginning, after which he proceeded to talk for about an hour. The one I helped draft, and ultimately presented, was: "Under the leadership of the Dalai Lama, the CTA followed a policy of gradual democratization and secularization. Given the explicit role of religion in Tibetan exile politics, including the second vote cast by monastics in Assembly elections, how do you as Kalon Tripa see these processes continuing in the future?" Other questions asked about his opinion on other prominent topics, like the relationships with India and the wider international community, the apparent failure of the Middle Way approach, and the development of "robust political discourse" after the Dalai Lama's resignation. Sounds legit, no?

The first part of his talk outlined the history of the Dalai-Lama-led democratization reforms, then he turned to his own story, in a slightly-but-not-outlandishly egotistical extension of the same pattern. He said he had no plans on running, but when no names were appearing in the nominations website, a friend of his nominated him--and the initial nominations were the friend and said friends' wife and in-laws. Thinking he was just nominated to get the election going, he was surprised to become a front-runner but decided to go with it. And I kind of agree--Dr Sangyay was only the second elected kalon tripa in history, and was the first Tibetan elected official to really work a campaign trail, initiate debates with his opponents, and otherwise act like a candidate, not a humble "I didn't ask for this" type. Still, he went about his campaign Tibetan-style: both for ideological, friendship, and financial reasons he and his main opponent had a debate in Dharamsala and another in Delhi the next day, so they split a taxi, hotel room, and meals! The general impression I'd been getting that the CTA feels less like a national government and more like a city-level administration was again confirmed. Also, just a couple weeks before the election, the Dalai Lama announced his retirement from politics, which shocked everyone, especially the candidates!

The kalon tripa touched on most of the topics we'd asked about, though didn't comment on the future. He did say that the current incarnation of the Middle Way is as far as they're willing to compromise, and, since it's (supposedly) based on the Chinese constitution, any further concessions would require a rewrite of Chinese law. So for now, while the Chinese are refusing to talk, the official plan seems to be to hold the moral high ground while campaigning for international support. Honestly, while we were all disappointed that he didn't give more concrete answers, it's really hard to see what else he could answer. Indeed, the current administration is actively discouraging protest actions among Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet, in favor of more discreet (potentially closed-door) meetings between governments. So regardless of whether or not anything changes under this kalon tripa's leadership, he seems to have played the valuable role of breaking up the traditional establishment rulers and promoting a more active form of campaigning for office. How this will affect the funding of campaigns (currently there is none) remains to be seen. But for now, they seem to have a really smart leader. We live in an interesting time, with all the immolations and such, and this is the first kalon tripa since the Dalai Lama fully stepped down--so there's a lot of pressure. We'll see what happens.

Posted by cageissler 05:00 Comments (0)

Mini-update 3

some snapshots before a longer post

We've been pretty busy--I'm thinking of posting about classes, daily life at Sarah, and last Friday's trip to the Tibetan government-in-exile (the CTA, Central Tibetan Administration), but I'm just going to roll those into a post about tomorrow's trip to meet the Kalon Tripa--the "Prime Minister" of the exile government. We just spent about two hours coming up with a list of questions to ask him... exciting!

For now, here are some pictures I took in McCleod (Upper Dharamsala). Nothing too special, just felt like posting them:

Sadhus, holy men (usually men), are a common sight throughout India, though I'm sorry to say I'm rather deficient in my knowledge of all things Hinduism. I liked this fellow's trident, a sacred symbol of Shiva.

Fundamentally, even McCleod is a part of India, so its streets are a messy jumble of all sorts of things, and it's pretty dirty too. But turn a corner through an alley, like this one behind the TCV Café (profits go to the Tibetan Children's Village schools), and you get a rather pleasant view:

Also, this was the sight that greeted us on our way down that day (Friday). So may wonderful sunsets here.

And rainbows too! This was Saturday. The lower grouping of buildings is Lower Dharamsala, and the upper line of white-looking structures is McCleod Ganj, through which the rainbow passes perfectly. The Dalai Lama's residence, temple, and monastery should be in the right-hand-side of that line. Just before this was taken, there was a clearly visible double rainbow stretching across the whole sky, but my camera couldn't quite capture it all.
That picture was taken from the top of one of our buildings at Sarah. So yes, we can (and do!) see McCleod every day. It's kind of unreal, even after having gone there four times, to think that I'm currently within sight of His Holiness' town, and the center of the Tibetan exile world.

Posted by cageissler 08:37 Archived in India Comments (3)

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