Great places inspire great books. So it is with Dharamshala. There are many books on the exile capital of the Tibetan world, and they are growing.
So, let’s start with the place, the whole place. Not as it is now, nor as it was, but as it is reflected in literature.
Dharamshala! Dharamshala! No, these are not shouts of a bus conductor declaring to those un-initiated into the whimsical rules of the Kangra Valley bus system the route or the final destination of the lumbering and coughing bus. Rather, they are more in the spirit of New York! New York! These shouts are an affirmation of the existence of the place. The shouts are shouts of celebration – of a place and its people.
But what says Indian literature of the place? Well, we don’t know what says Indian literature about Dharamshala before the Mahabharata war. However, the Mahabharata epic says Dharamshala, or, to be more exact, the Kangra Valley, played a significant role in the world’s first superpower war, according to the mournful and fading plaque planted before the entrance of the jagged ruins of the Kangra Fort that pierce the azure blue Kangra skyline. Ruins and majestic crumbling edifices, witnesses of the ravages of time and by men.
We don’t know what Indian literature says of Dharamshala in the intervening three thousand or so years. Dharamshala, or in the old days the Kangra Valley, must have generated tomes. Indian literature must have made some comments, on the meditations of Tilopa at Tilokpur, the raids by Mohhamed of Ghazni, the famous Kangra school of miniature painting, the Kangra tea gardens, and Gorkha inroads. We plead innocence of the finer details.
But rumours coming our way from the recent colonial past say that there were plans of making Dharamshala into the summer capital of the British Raj. But unfortunately for the Raj, nature intervened. A devastating earthquake dashed the Raj’s plans of transforming Dharamshala as the summer capital of the brightest jewel on the British crown.
And the attractions of Dharamshala to the British were abundant. After the heat and dust of the suffocating plains, Dharamshala’s almost Alpine climate was one decided attraction. Dharamshala gave off clean mountain air and the scent of pine trees. Of monsoon mist and monsoon downpour.
According to John Avedon, whose seminal book In Exile from the Land of Snows contributed so much to changing international public opinion in favour of Tibet, McLeod Ganj, by the turn of the century, supported one of the most vigorous societies, outside of the cities, of any in the Raj.
“With the rail line put through to Pathankot, seven miles from the foothills, bureaucrats from both Delhi and Lahore flocked to the mountains. In the spring the woods with blanketed with primrose, mistletoe and red and mauve rhododendron, followed in June, after the onset of the monsoon, by an explosion of buttercups, violets and honeysuckle.”
60 years or so later, the Tibetan refugees came. As their wont, they covered Dharamshala with mani stones and prayer flags, according to Thomas Merton in his Asian Journey.
Then the stampede began. Those were the days of wars as they are of today — hot and cold, of Vietnam. “Make love, not war” was the battle cry, or the peace cry. They started coming to Dharamshala, first in shy, anxious trickles, then in confident droves and now in their enthusiastic hundreds. With them came the writers, mainly from the West, curious as to what this growing fuss was all about. Then came the Indian writers or writers of Indian origin. We will stick largely with the writers of Indian origin, since a sub-text of our sermon today is Dharamshala as reflected in Indian literature.
We will start with V.S. Naipaul. He has not visited Dharamshala. The nearest place to Dharamshala he has visited is Srinagar in neighbouring, troubled Kashmir. While researching for his book, India: A Million Mutinies, V.S. Naipaul had a brush with the Tibetan refugees in Mysore, who had gathered on the lawn of the state guest house to receive the dharshan of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
This is how Naipaul describes the encounter. “But gradually, in small informal groups, the Tibetans from the Mysore City camp — who had been waiting in the streets outside — began to appear on the burnt lawn, the women in traditional Tibetan dress, the men in jeans, bright faced, handsome people, who after more than a generation away, were beginning to lose touch with home: another Asian dispossession, a part of the historical flux … . My thoughts for some time were with those people … . I felt we were continuing to be part of that wordless Tibetan scene.”
Rohinton Mistry, in his A Fine Balance, gives a description of Nowrojee’s General Store, a landmark of McLeod Ganj, situated in the heart of the hamlet. “The account of the hill-station, the settlements, the mountains, the langurs, the snow, fascinated Avinash … The house was built by my great-grandfather, on a hill … Because of the steep slope, we have steel cables to keep it tied in place … There was an earthquake and the foundation shifted downhill. That’s why the cables were connected.”
Patrick French, in his Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, has this to say about Nowrojee’s General Store, “Nowrojee General Store was a stately, decaying wooden structure in the hill village of McLeod Ganj. There were old-fashioned tin signs advertising Bovril and cough medicine, gargantuan glass jars of boiled sweets and every variety of biscuit. The proprietor was a composed Parsee in a tweed jacket, thin and distinguished, with a hint of sneer. His family had owned the store for over a century.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Nowrojee is no longer with us. He passed away a few years ago and with him vanished an important institution of Dharamshala’s now cosmopolitan community. We wouldn’t know whether he was aware of the effusive descriptions his famous store elicited in so many books. But in these books, Mr. Nowrojee lives on, always with his very British stiff upper lip. Salman Rushdie, in his The Ground Beneath Her Feet, writes, “On an impulse, Standish and Vina decided to head for a retreat of their own: Dharamsala in the Pir Panjal range, the place of exile of Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama and, in Standish’s opinion, the truest man in the world.
“Indians” — or lets say plains Indians — behave like children when they see snow, which seems like a substance from another world. The towering mountains, the lack of pretension of the wooden buildings, the people who seem free of all but the simplest of worldly ambitions, the thin clear air as pure as a choirboy’s soaring treble, the cold and, above all, the snow: these things render the most sophisticated urbanites open to what they would not normally value. The sound of small bells, the scent of saffron, slowness, contemplation, peace.
“In those days there was also Kashmir. The peace of Kashmir is shattered now, perhaps for ever — no, nothing is for ever — but Dharamsala remains.”
Pankaj Mishra, in his The Romantic, makes the main character of his novel do a stint of teaching English at the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamshala. And some meditation for himself.
Humphrey Hawksley of the BBC has more sinister use for Dharamsala in his highly imaginative and hugely entertaining novel called Dragonfire, which narrates a chillingly realistic Armageddon in which China nukes India. And the start or the end of the fictional third World War. Hawksley makes his Tibetan assassin start his journey from Chandigarh through Una to Dharamshala.
“At Una, the road forked into little more than two country tracks, and Sattar had to ask the way. Tashi wound down his window to let in fresh morning air. As they climbed the mountain, the countryside became emblazoned with orange and blue spring flowers, sometimes beautiful, sometimes wrecked by the poverty of the villages.”
In Dharamshala, the author makes Tashi check his wristwatch. “The journey had taken place just over five hours. In half an hour his job would be over. They left the cantonment area and passed the church of St. John’s in the Wilderness, where Lord Elgin of Kincardine was buried. The road was busy, half-blocked with three-wheelers and monks walking slowly in clusters.
“Sattar drew up just before the bus stop. European backpackers, in loose, grubby clothing, some with Tibetan beads hanging off them, unloaded their luggage.”
“This was my first encounter with Tibet in exile,” writes Isabel Hilton, one of Britain’s foremost China experts, in her book The Search for the Panchen Lama. “As our taxi climbed the vertiginous, twisting roads that led to the hilltop on which Dharamshala perched, India seemed to fall away. The Indian men, women and children who had thronged the streets for most of the journey gave way to flocks of young Tibetan monks in maroon robes and old men in chuba, to old ladies in long skirts and striped aprons, walking slowly, feeding beads through their fingers as they said their rosaries.”
“The muddy streets that form McLeod Ganj, the mountain village at the commercial heart of the exiled Tibetan community’s home, were lined with shops selling Tibetan trinkets, souvenirs, jewellery, books and religious pictures. In the centre of the village there was a small temple with heavy wooden prayer wheels that creak and squeak as they are turned by the faithful, sending the devotions inscribed on them to heaven. Among the crowds on the streets there drifted groups of foreigners: backpackers, volunteers, tourists and the occasional Western Buddhist monks and nuns, lumpy and incongruous with their shaven heads, maroon robes and Doc Marten shoes.”