By Shakti Maira
Ever since the Dalai Lama came here in 1960, the tiny hill town of McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh has become imbued with a gentle, calming grace. It is now a modern power spot, drawing seekers of wisdom from around the world
We like to vest our special places with extraordinary power by pushing them beyond history, preferably back into the formless, perhaps because we want to ground our faith in a past that is beyond the reaches of petty human reason and time. Yet new power places that are well within the grasp of human memory are forming. They may birth around the presence of a living saint, such as Sai Baba’s hometown Shirdi, or the grave of a Sufi pir, as in Ajmer, or ‘Little Lhasa’ in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, that started not because of some cosmic event but because the Chinese occupied Tibet and the Dalai Lama fled to live, pray and meditate in McLeodganj, a suburb of Dharamsala.
The faith of believers bestows places of veneration with a special aura. Just the presence of pilgrims shuffling up difficult steps, pressing against people they would otherwise not touch, lips moving in prayer, fingers moving beads and eyes filled with expectation, creates an atmosphere that draws one into the human yearning for a blessing from a power that is larger than our selves and beyond our comprehension. Even a non-believer like me is not completely beyond this fascination. As I drive past the many temples in Kangra—Chintpurni, Jwalamukhi, Chamundadevi, Baijnath—though I never stop, I often look again and wonder.
I remember when I first drove up the steep mountain road to McLeodganj the quiet excitement I felt of getting closer to a special place that was somehow spiritually charged. That I have been deeply drawn to Buddha dharma and greatly respect the Dalai Lama undoubtedly made me susceptible to this pull I felt.
After all, this little hill that was given to the Dalai Lama in 1960 was at one time just another vain British hill station where David McLeod, Lt Governor of Punjab at one time, built himself a house with a spectacular view of the snow-clad Dhauladhar Himalayas. McLeodganj had no special rock formations, no caves or unusually shaped stones that could have been imagined as footprints of the Buddha or the Tibetan yogi Tilopa (believed to have spent long years meditating in a stalagmite-filled cave below Dharamsala).
There is a little village on Dharamsala’s eastern slopes called Jogiwara, where a natural spring pours into an ancient stone pool, which has remnants of statues, and it is said that a great yogi once lived here amongst the animals. There is a majestic drop into a deep river valley whose northern end is framed by the dramatic rocks and ice of the mountains. But other than the magnificence of nature, there is nothing extraordinary about this little hill where the Tibetans have built the Tsuglag Khang (central cathedral). This temple is a plain and utilitarian substitute for its namesake in the legendary Jokhang monastery in Lhasa in Tibet.
Yet this architecturally modest, even plain temple, built just below the Dalai Lama’s equally modest home, office and private library, exudes an attraction that draws thousands of visitors from around the world to its portals, including the growing Tibetan diaspora, some of whom have recently fled their occupied land, and others who have never been there. Many of them come, prayer beads in hand, mantras in throat, devotion in eyes as they turn the racks of colourful prayer wheels, and sometimes, prostrate full-body outside the temple.
Little Lhasa offers a chance to come closer to one’s Buddhanature
Recently, I find Indians in surprisingly large numbers emerge at the door of the Tsuglag Khang from overcrowded Sumos and Maruti vans, tilaks on foreheads, perhaps from visits to the Devi and Shiva temples that fill the beautiful Kangra valley.
The Indians mingle with the Tibetans in the temple. Some are tourists and have come to just look around and take photographs of themselves in the sanctum, either oblivious of or ignoring the sign that requests no photography. Others are clearly in that power place zone of awe and expectation. Is it because they are Vaishnavs who see the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu? Or are they neo-Buddhists who have at last found a temple where they are welcome? Probably some of both, shuffling about, touching hands and heads to this hallowed ground.
There are many foreigners too. In a single day, I hear fragments of Italian, Hebrew, Chinese, Korean, Australian, American, English and German. They circumambulate the sanctum; having left their Nikes and Reeboks right next to a sign that warns pilgrims to guard their shoes from loss. Who does the shoe stealing and who the guarding, I wonder? But it is a relief not to have one of those aggressive shoe-care stalls that mark temple entrances elsewhere, whose insistent workers pull at your sleeves and then frown disapprovingly at the tip that is never good enough when you leave.
What I am particularly drawn to in the Tsuglag Khang is a presence of quiet dignity. The sanctums are airy, bright and spotlessly clean. The incense has a woody, herbal, healing smell. The lamas are quietly doing their prayers and there is never any hustling for donations. It’s a place that allows you to stop and gain a sense of perspective in the shadow of giant images of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion of whom the Dalai Lama is believed to be an incarnation.
I have always felt a well being looking into the calm face of a Buddha image. In this place, I am reminded of the Dalai Lama’s plea for compassion, and his injunction: “Help others, but if you can’t help, at least don’t harm them.” Is it the temple that stirs me, or just my willingness to be reminded of what I hold dear when I am here?
That so many people are moved to come and pray here is witness to the power of the Tsuglag Khang. But it is a new place with a shallow history, unlike the Jokhang monastery in Lhasa, which it represents. For Jokhang, Tibet’s most sacred shrine, is believed to be built on the heart of a giant, supine ogress whose shoulders, hips, elbows, hands and feet have to be kept pinned down by strategically built temples and protected by geomantic power points stretching over hundreds of miles, some as far as Kongbo (where the Brahmaputra turns into India) and Bhutan.
I haven’t heard fables around this new temple yet, but in time they may get spun. Perhaps there will be a tale of a white crane that had foretold an earlier Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, flying across this hilltop on Buddha Purnima, leaving a fleeting shadow in the temple’s courtyard every seven years, and which can be seen only by yogis who have developed special astral powers of hovering in the sky! Or, there might be stories of people getting mysteriously healed, and their longings fulfilled by praying here.
I do hear a touching refugee story about the gilded Avalokitesvara images in the Tsuglag Khang. The original jewel and relic encrusted image in Jokhang was built in the 7th century and had been an idol of great worship and devotion throughout central Asia. During the Chinese ‘Cultural Revolution’, the Red Army ransacked the temple in Jokhang, broke the images and threw them out on the streets of Lhasa.
The Tibetans managed to salvage and smuggle out some of the broken pieces, and after passing through many hands, a few fragments from the image’s face finally made their way to India via Nepal. These pieces were encased in the newly sculpted Avalokitesvara statues, which are now established in the Tsuglag Khang. For the Tibetans that know this story, these fragments may have a special power, but for the rest who don’t, it doesn’t matter. McLeodganj and its temple are new power places that have a presence and blessedness that is difficult to miss, whether you are a believer or not.
Being in this place, I think we humans need the miraculous. We need to feel awe, wonder and astonishment. Special places help us meet these needs. They provide moments of relief from thought and reason. People need places where they can bring their tenderest hopes and deepest fears and ask for and find succor and encouragement. Life has a way of bringing events to us that are beyond the pale of reasonable causality. These places are a way in which we can invoke or make an equally unreasonable request for the care and protection of the unknown.
I am unable to go to these places to pray and wish, though I am certainly not beyond wonder and curiosity. Perhaps there is a difference between seeking to be granted a boon, to be blessed, and seeking to be stilled and transformed. So maybe power places are of different orders. Some offer the blessings of devis and gods and bring us closer in union with them; others, like Little Lhasa, offer a chance to come closer to one’s own nature, to unite with the Buddha potential within.
On the Dalai Lama’s hill, there is a path for a popular outdoor parikrama (circumambulation) consisting of perhaps a kilometre of gently falling and steeply rising gradients. I walk on this path, along with mostly old Tibetans who are barely able to walk and struggle peacefully along.
When they get to the back of the hill, they raise their folded hands to the stupa, the thicket of prayer flags, the Dalai Lama’s home and the Tsuglag Khang. They then methodically turn every prayer wheel in the long array there, murmuring their mantras, moving their beads. Somehow, I am touched and moved by their intensity which, mixed with the blue sky, white clouds, birdsong and breeze, creates a gentle grace.
Power places do begin and grow. And this one is special for its quiet dignity and calming grace.
Shakti Maira is a noted contemporary artist who paints and sculpts. He also writes on art, aesthetics and culture.
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