First stop was to Jaipur in Rajasthan. It is known as the “pink city” because the oldest area is painted a uniform shade of coral pink. The reason for this is disputed, and each travel guide gives a different “fact” for when and why it was painted this way. I found the city to be extremely touristy but not very interesting. The most famous part of the city, the Hawa Mahal or Palace of the Winds where the ladies of the court could watch the happenings in the street without being seen, was nice but not spectacular. Even the famous lassi’s of the Lassiwallah shop were not in my humble opinion any better than others in India.
The next stop was to Chandigarh, capitol city to two neighboring states. It is famous for being designed by the architect Le Corbusier, who laid out the whole city plan and set the standards for the modernist style of the buildings within it. I was invited there by someone I met at Dundlod; she is a graduate of Chandigarh’s prestigious school of architecture, so it was nice to have someone to explain what I was looking at (and she helped design the monument in the Bougainvillea Garden! pictured above)
Apart from the city itself, there is only real sightseeing spot in Chandigarh: the Rock Garden. It was built beginning in the 50’s by a local man who used the construction trash from building the newly built city to create his own fantasy land. Huge canyons from stacked burlap sacks, waterfalls of recirculating rain water, pagodas and fortresses built from recycled materials and lots of rocks, all of which are peopled by strange little sculptures of people and animals. The entire complex is really big; it took about an hour to walk through it all, and I could have spent longer appreciating the creative repurposing if there had been more time.
After a morning of shopping, my host took me along to a Sikh wedding for lunch, which was simply gorgeous. Even though I didn’t talk to anyone else there, I was content to take in the colors of the floral decorations, the huge fabric covered “rooms” constructed on the lawn, and of course all the lovely outfits of the hundreds of guests milling about. The food was buffet-style, and literally had close to a hundred choices. The dessert buffet alone was a good twenty feet long!
We wrapped up the day with a Bollywood blockbuster at a very nice movie theater in the mall. “Happy New Year” starring Shahrukh Khan and other big names, was a combination action-comedy-love story-musical with lots and lots of dance numbers. A thoroughly enjoyable movie, and I didn’t even need to understand the dialogue to follow along.
The next day was spent almost entirely in the bus as I travelled into the Himalayas to Dharamsala. The bus ride was rather nerve wracking in places, but was filled with spectacular views as we climbed from the flatlands up, up, up, to just below snow line.
Dharamsala is home to the Tibetan government-in-exile and to H.H. the Dalai Lama. The population is largely Tibetan, and there are also numerous monasteries in the area. However, its popularity with tourists has turned the area around the main temple complex into one big mess of souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes and budget hotels. For a religion that encourages non-materialism, there sure is a lot of shopping to do! But once you walk past the main street, the town is a lovely complex of trails and staircases that connect the town built on steep mountainsides.
The other nice thing about places that attract western tourists is that sometimes you see people you know. Even in a big place like India! On my third day here I ran into Rios and Kayla, who had been at Sadhana Forest in south India with me. We spend a lovely few hours filling each other in on our respective travels over a delicious Tibetan lunch.
The town was especially busy because the Dalai Lama was going to give a public teaching on Nagarjuna's Precious Garland of the Middle Way (uma rinchen trengwa). I was able to get a ticket for the three day event (which is surprisingly, wonderfully free), and – with no small difficulty – a room at a reasonable rate.
The teachings were held for four hours each morning, but because of the huge number of people attending, it was important to get there early to get a good seat. The temple venue had two floors; on the top floor was a small glassed-in room where he gave the talk, and on the bottom floor was a big TV and speakers so those with less than perfect seats could still see and hear. The advantage of the lower level was that the Dalai Lama entered and exited through the seating area, so it was easy to get a good close look at him as he went by.
The first day I sat on the ground floor. It was really exciting to see His Holiness in person and hear him speak. Unfortunately, I had counted on renting a radio for the English translation, but as they were not available I was not able to understand the first day’s talk. The American sitting next to me offered to share his, but as we could not listen at the same time I declined. Instead, he gave me summaries through the morning. This worked fine for me, as the introductory material of the first day was already familiar to me from my previous studies.
I had been told to bring a cup for tea. I was looking forward to trying Tibetan Butter Tea, which I had heard about quite often before but had never been able to taste. It is made like Indian milk tea (lots of milk) but also has butter in it, so it is sweet and salty. The first taste was kind of strange for me, but I quickly grew to enjoy it. The monks brought around two rounds of tea each morning, and served it with big flatbreads that tasted like English muffins and were excellent for dipping in the tea.
The next days were less crowded. I guess that a lot of tourists just come for one day, so they can have the experience of seeing the Dalai Lama, and then continue on their travels. This meant that I was able to sit just outside the glass room and watch him actually give the talk. On the second day, I had a somewhat obscured view of his seat, but on the last day I got a perfect view. And I had a radio for these two days, too.
The third day especially was nice, as once the Dalai Lama finished his discourse, he gave the Bodhisattva ceremony, the Four Hand initiation, and a blessing. What a wonderful way to end my trip to India!