Author Archives: siewfan

23 Lhamo Festival, His Holiness, and His other Holiness


Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts

Tibetan Opera - Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts


Today’s the start of the Lhamo festival at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) There was a security check before entering the compound. A longish line of people built up as bags were searched, and persons were padded down. Both His Holinesses, the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa were there to grace the occasion. The Dalai Lama we couldn’t see, as he was said to be in a glassed-in upper room. I was disappointed that I could see him. I had attended a couple of his teachings in California some time back, and was hoping to catch a glimpse of him.

The Karmapa, in his 17th incarnation was seated on a balcony with one companion monk. He looked as he always looked in photos, his chin tilting down and his long eyes looking up, squinting a little, looking quite solemn. He was a fairly recent arrival from Tibet. As the head of one of the oldest school of Tibetan buddhism, he was a key spiritual leader. The world learnt of him only when he escaped from Tibet and crossed the Himalayas into exile. He was 14. Other than that I knew little of him. On the other side, a couple of little tulkus (incarnate lamas), maybe 3-or-so years old, with their senior companions. These were incredibly quiet and serene little kids. 

The stage was at ground level in the middle of the courtyard. The largely Tibetan crowd sat chatting on the ground around the performance in their best festive wear. People had their picnic lunches out. The thermos flasks and plates they used reminded me of childhood. People were happy, chatty.  Monastics and lay people sat side by side. The Opera was called Di-Mey-Kun-Dhen I was told. “It’s a long story” I was also told. Unfortunately all my untrained eyes and ears caught was a lot of clanging and colourful costumes. 


Tibetan gent at the lhamo festival

Tibetan gent at the lhamo festival

I wondered around with my camera trying to get some nice shots. The costumes were quite beautiful. Here and there I catch the pensive eyes and deeply lined faces of the aged. Here and there the bright eyes and vibrant glow of the children. The gayly dressed crowd offered lots of candid shots. Many Tibetans wore their traditional dress. Many serious photographers with their serious photographer’s vests were there with their serious lenses. As I stepped backwards to catch a long shot, I became aware of a kind of magnetic force coming from above my head. It was powerful and gentle at the same time. I looked up. There was the Karmapa leaning forward. I felt a kind of lifting and lightness. I was intrigued and decided to investigate the bookshops for his story. I had seen a number of music CDs with his image on them. (



Still feeling warm and fuzzy, I wondered outside. There was a bustling makeshift market serving a variety of fried bread, noodles and momos. After slurping down a bowl of mediocre soup noodles, I checked out the souvenir stall. Since it was going to be more of  ‘a long story’ that I didn’t get, I decided to leave. On the walk down to McLeod Ganj, the wailing of sirens made me jump backwards. First came 2 sedans filled with Indian uniformed men, then came a station wagon with the Dalai Lama in the front seat. I bowed with joined palms as is customary. He smiled a bright smile and waved a blessing. The next thing I know there was a smile in my heart, tears in my eyes, and a bounce in my step.

22 The Freedom Concert

I didn’t have any trouble locating the Yongling Kindergarten. At 6.45pm, I simply flowed with the people draining downhill and there I was. The stage was set in the courtyard. The backdrop was the Dalai Lama’s “Never Give Up” poem. The Tibetan flag was in the foreground. The little kids sat upfront on jute bags just 2 meters from the huge speakers. They were causing havoc for the official video crew as little kids do. It was just like in Bodhgaya. With their mischievous smiles and curious faces, they wrapped themselves around each other to get into frame. The space behind filled up quickly with monastic and lay people, locals and foreigners. 2 guest artistes came on and sang to music backing on a CD that skipped badly. The applause showed that it didn’t really matter. They were really good, soulful, pining, hopeful. The mother of the JJI Brothers spoke into the mic, “Are you ready to ROCK And ROLL….?”. Three roars of “FREE TIBET” followed. The band then came on. The first song, said one brother, “was for the prisoners in Tibet who are suffering because of the f*%$ing Chinese, you know?”.  I noted the powerlessness and anger in his voice. The three brothers played better than they sang, I thought. The audience got the message loud and may be not so clear. But hard rock has a way of emotional expression beyond articulation. What you feel might not be understood but you certainly feel. A dog fight broke up amongst the resident mongrels who came to party. The organisers quickly got into gear and in 4 or 5 seconds hauled the 3 dogs outside. The concert continued gamely. I put in my ear plugs to mitigate the noise level and stayed for 4 more songs. There was only so much angst and anger I could handle.

21 The Concept of Time

I’m not sure if time passes slowly or quickly here. It certainly passes easily, leisurely. I can see how people come here for a few weeks and stay for months or years. There are some nice walks in the hills above McLeod Ganj and Daramkot. A waterfall or 2 are within easy walking. Yoga places, guesthouses, temples, cling to the moutainside around the towns. The days form their own routine of chai and momos, volunteering at the refugee center, meeting and talking with different folks, conversations about philosophy and the meta-physical, reading books and meditating. Slowly reconnecting back to myself.

The taxi-wallah wanted 40 rs for the ride to the Goenka Vipassana center so I decided to walk. The view of the valley was spectacular even though you couldn’t see the valley floor for the haze. A group of macabe monkeys scavenged in the bushes. A couple of rickshaws pass by in clouds of sand and smoke. A shawl is handy for covering one’s nose and mouth. May be it’s just me, but these hills and mountains are spoiled by uncontrolled pollution and erosion. Even at 4 km above McLeod Ganj, the air is not quite fresh. Rubbish litter the shrubbery – evidence of global brands and a different kind of colonisation, of cultural erosion. This is so very different from the mountains of Switzerland where I’d lived. Even time passed differently. Everything was crisp, punctual. Here it was languid, loose, muddled.

The upcoming vipassana retreat is full, so I made plans to leave for Delhi. I’m still not sure if I should go to Nepal or call it a day. I haven’t had any epiphanies, realisations, or clarity about what I want to do with the rest of my life. I just know that I am done with the corporate world. It’s hard knowing what you don’t want, but not what you want. I had some vague idea that I want to do something meaningful, like the rest of the transient crowd in McLeod Ganj. I hope I don’t have to stay here for months and years to find out.

It had taken 40 years to realise that I have been on auto-pilot, just existing in vague, quiet desperation. But without those 40 years, I would never have had realised. I don’t want to just exist, I want to live. But what is freedom? What is life? As Thoreu said “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow of life….” But I don’t have another 40 years, there’s an urgency to get the right answer. And the answer eludes me. I decide to check out the “Freedom Concert by the JJI Brothers” at 7pm to distract myself.

20 Reflecting on McLeod Ganj

I had a reasonably good night in my 60rs room, but after breakfast was inclined to look for something a little less rustic. Hard travelling had taken its toll on me, and I was ready for a little creature comfort. I’d rather liked a room with an attached bathroom with a hot water shower. It gets chilly at this altitude. After walking around town and Bagsu and Draramkot, the Green Hotel still looked like a good bet at 250 rs for all that I want, plus a nice view. It ain’t the Taj, but it’ll do for me.

Being here isn’t like being in the rest of the India that I saw. There were few beggars and few touts. There seems to be lots to entice the New Age types – classes of all descriptions, alternative therapies, music, spirituality, nature… There are many beautiful people with clear eyes and bright smiles. There are Bob-Marley-dreadlock-dope-smoking types, mantra-chanting-prayer-wheel-whirling-mala-clicking types, Kishmiris, Tibetans Nepalis, Punjabis, and other Himalayan peoples, new age buddhists, old school hippies, add to that the diverse international and Indian tourists… The whole world does seem to meet here.

And who are the foreigners? Some look like first world rejects – healers, spiritual seekers, yogis, musicians and their hangers-on, those running from themselves and those who are looking for themselves. Young rebels with their belly button rings and dreadlocks denouncing the materialistic world. Here almost everyone is making a statement about who they are or aren’t, usually by some sort of head gear and hairstyle. A lot of the foreign men wear bandanas or scarfs, or are shaved bald, or have topknots or long braids. But alas they are no match for the men of the exotic east. 

An abundance of young foreign women seemed infatuated with the exotic east. The exotic east seem only too happy to oblige. Bare bellied nubile blonds lounge with arms around ear-ringed Tibetan youths with shining, long black hair. They look into those long, sensual eyes set on high cheek bones and hear  sad stories of heroic sojourns across the mountains into freedom. I can see how girls fall hard and fast.  If truth be told, most of those young men were born outside of Tibetan and made no such journey. Disenchanted and unrooted, they seem to be looking for validation and their reason to be. Living in exile must leave a deep scar unable to heal. What does a young man in his prime, with no job, little prospects, awaiting for a first world country to approve his refugee status do with all that restlessness, longing and angst?

Here, unlike in south east Asia, I did not see local young women  flirting with foreign men; no sign of the sarong party girl anywhere. Except for vendors and nuns, women seem kind of rare.  The most gregarious of women seem to be the middle age matrons who man the stalls in the streets. 

Kishmiris come to sell handcrafts, since tourists are not going to Kashmir, Kashmir has come to the tourists. So here buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, new agers, bohemians, monastics, materialists all exist in mutual dependence and relative prosperity. All this is, because His Holiness, the Dalai Lama resides in McLeod Ganj, and is this part of the Himalayas’ biggest draw.

McLeod Ganj probably has more Tibetan culture per square inch than in Tibet itself. The Dalai Lama predicted that Tibetan culture will only exist outside of Tibetan in the decades to come. The Chinese are taking over Lhasa it seems. Tibetans have become the under-class in their own country.

19 Journey of 1000 kilometers

One does not sit in the south pole and winch about the weather…. One does not travel non-aircon sleeper from Varanasi to Chakki Bank and winch about the distance. People who travel with “unreserved” tickets sit on the floor or perch off other’s bunks when they fell asleep.  All in all the train was 5½ late in pulling into Chakki Bank. I thought that wasn’t bad for a journey of over 1100 kilometers.  It cost Rs369 for this trip of about 36 hours. The almost completely Indian men kept to themselves. The women were very kind, and curious, especially the middle-aged aunties. They kept feeding me , and invited me to stay with them.

On arrival in Chakki Bank, Thomas and I managed to find each other on the platform. We shared a 3 hour taxi ride to McLeod Ganj. The 3 other foreign girls who were also going there went to take the bus. They had a ‘closed sisterhood’ thing going and weren’t very friendly. The prospect of another 5 hour bone-rattling bus journey didn’t quite appeal to me. Thomas and I arrived at McLeod Ganj at 8.30pm to find that rooms were scarce. It could be that we took the only 2 rooms to be had that night. I had the Rs 60 (US$1.50) hole-in-the-wall at the Green Hotel. Thomas took the strastospheric Rs500 (US$12.50) room at the …. hotel. Everything is relative.