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Between Monks and Monkeys

Walking the kora in McLeod Ganj

INDIA | Tuesday, 10 January 2012 | Views [4723]

Nuns helping out on a building site in Jogiwara Road, McLo.

Nuns helping out on a building site in Jogiwara Road, McLo.

While I lived in McLo I stayed at Snow Height Apartments. It was conveniently sited right next to the Tibet Charity school, but it was down the hill from the main part of town,where the shops, street stalls and restaurants were found. 

There were three ways of getting to town from Snow Height. The most straightforward method was to walk up Temple Road. The drawbacks were the steep climb, the uneven surface, having to avoid wandering cows and the occasional fresh cowpat, and of course the traffic.

Temple Road was meant to be one way downhill, while the uphill traffic took the steeper Jogiwara Road. However you needed to be alert because motorcycles and even cars used to regularly drive up Temple Road. Many of the motorcyclists also used to turn their engines off and coast silently downhill, so at dusk or after dark pedestrians had to be particularly careful on the road, and a good torch was an essential accessory.

It was an entertaining walk between Snow Height and town. Monkeys often gathered in the trees beside a small Hindu temple just up the road. I loved watching the baby monkeys playing and leaping fearlessly around in the trees, but it was best not to make eye contact with the adults who could be aggressive, hissing and baring their teeth. The monkeys were used to people and seemed quite sensible about traffic. Several times I saw an adult apparently watching for the road to be clear before the troop ran across.

It was a good place for bird watching, too. Raucous crows were everywhere, cawing and showing off. I once spotted a big black-shouldered kite sitting regally right at the top of a Himalayan cedar, like some sort of novel Christmas ornament. Another day, a sinister flock of hunch-backed vultures was flapping around above the forest. There were occasional pheasants and lots of small finch-like birds as well as the ubiquitous sparrows. What with the animal life and the beautiful lined brown faces of the elderly Tibetans walking downhill to join the kora, there was plenty to look at.

If you felt more energetic or wanted to get to town in a hurry, you could use the goat path. This led straight up the steep hill behind Snow Height. It lived up to its name in being narrow, winding and quite tricky to negotiate. At first I found I had to have several stops ‘to admire the view’ on the way up. Eventually I could make it in one go, but still panting. If you met another person on the goat path or even worse, a cow, it could be difficult to find a safe place to pass. Completing the obstacle course were tangles of half-buried water pipes sticking haphazardly out of the hillside.

The kora was the third way to town. It was definitely the most enjoyable but also the longest. To really appreciate it you needed to have time to spare and be in the right frame of mind, because the kora is the sacred path around the Dalai Lama’s residence. It replicates the ancient Lingkhor path around the Potala Palace in Lhasa. It is traditional in Tibetan Buddhism to circle stupas, temples and other sacred places in a clockwise direction, saying prayers for the cessation of suffering and the happiness of all living beings. In old Tibet, the Lingkhor - the path around the home of the Dalai Lama - was crowded with pilgrims praying and meditating as they trudged along the route. If they were really devout, they would cover its eight kilometre length in repeated prostrations.

The  kora  in  McLeod Ganj is like a miniature version of the Lingkhor. The way is lined with white painted rocks, and the Himalayan cedars and oaks on either side of the path are hung with hundreds of prayer flags in all sizes and degrees of fadedness. Beside the path are multicoloured mani stones carved with Om Mani Padme Hum, the mantra of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, of whom the Dalai Lama is the living incarnation. At intervals there are prayer wheels - twenty in a row, or a few together, and two huge ones which ring a bell when they get up enough momentum.

Most of the Tibetans walking the kora carry their own prayer wheels or prayer beads. They chant mantras as they go, but there’s also a casual feel to the walk. People greet each other, stop for a chat, or rest on the benches placed at intervals beside the path. There are stunning views across to the mountains. Walking the kora feels like a very practical, everyday sort of devotion.

After a while, the path passes a gate leading to an old people’s home, with May all sentient beings be happy painted on the wall beside the entrance. Then you emerge into a small open temple area. Clouds of incense waft across to a line of prayer wheels below two imposing stupas set in gardens of flowers. Early one morning I came across Ani-la, my Tibetan teacher, weeding in the garden by one of the stupas and looking very contented.

You pass the temple and circle three times around two huge prayer wheels, then continue up the hill past a beautiful and expensive guesthouse, and an open stone shelter housing a family of beggars. At last you reach the end of the kora, framed on a clear day by a view of the towering Dhauladhar mountain range, and approach the entrance to the main temple complex. Here you’re jolted back into the bustling life of the town: beggars, street sellers, insistent taxi drivers touting noisily for business, tourists  taking photos, cows and crows, dogs  and the occasional monkey.

Entering through the modest gateway under the Where is the Panchen Lama? sign, you go past the small museum and a couple of craft and book shops and up the steps to the temple itself, pausing - if you’re a foreigner - for a cursory bag search by the security guards.

I never saw anyone prostrating on the kora itself, but on the upper terrace of the temple grounds is an area set aside for this demonstration of reverence for the three jewels of Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. People fold their hands in prayer at the head, throat and heart, then measure their length on the floor - and repeat. I tried it (in my room) and found ten were exhausting, yet devout Buddhists, including elderly people, regularly complete thousands of prostrations.

When I walked the kora I felt as if I should be saying some sort of mantra to get into the spirit of the walk, so I began with “Om Mani Padme Hum.” I felt a bit embarrassed repeating this mantra, even silently, because I really didn’t understand it. I only knew it loosely translated as “Behold the jewel in the lotus,” referring to the Buddha, and each syllable represented an aspect of compassion. I later learned that hundreds of pages have been written about the finer points of “Om Mani Padme Hum”, so I didn’t feel quite so alone in my confusion.

 “May all sentient beings be happy” felt like a good, positive thought to repeat. Sometimes I alternated with “May Tibet be free.” This became “May Tibet be free in the Dalai Lama’s lifetime,” and finally as the implications of reincarnation started to sink in, “May Tibet be free in the Dalai Lama’s current lifetime,” which seemed to cover all the bases.

I found it really fascinating to be in a Buddhist  town where religion was so much a part of daily life. The maroon-robed monks and nuns around town, the old people with their prayer wheels, waking every day to the faint sound of chanting by the monks in the monastery up the hill; all became a familiar part of the everyday scene.

Life in Dharamshala was full of surprises and unexpected events. One afternoon I came across a work gang of young nuns helping to clear debris from a building site next to their nunnery in Jogiwara Road. They were all laughing and chattering away while passing chunks of rubble from hand to hand. That evening, as I walked back down the road, they were practising debating. I could hear the ritualised hand slapping and stamping which is used to emphasise a point as their clear voices drifted out through the twilight.  (Chapter 11 from "Between Monks and Monkeys". I'm so looking forward to walking the kora again! )

If you liked this story, you might be interested in reading "Between Monks and Monkeys", written after my first time in Dharamshala in 2010. Available as an Ebook for US$1.99 on Kindle, NOOK, I-tunes 

etc, or as a paperback (email me for details.)

Tags: dalai lama, dharamsala, dharamshala, kora, mcleod ganj, mclo



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