Diya Gupta


Meetings with Monks

4:05 PM, Friday, 16th May, 2014
The Dhauladhar mountains cradle Dharamshala
The beautiful Gyuoto monastery in Dharamshala
The narrow road spiralled its way up towards McLeodgunj, and amid the lashings of rain I could see figures with shaven heads and magenta robes mingling with the local people as well as foreign and Indian tourists. In coffee shops, small restaurants and mobile phone centres, they moved about in groups of twos and threes, going about their business or sheltering from the rain. I watched from the car in fascination.

I suppose I was being the typical tourist in Dharamshala, but never before had I seen such a conglomeration of Buddhist monks. They were to become as endemic a part of the town’s landscape as the grand snow-capped Dhauladhar mountain range that cradles Dharamshala, or the small international food shops advertising Lebanese, Indian, Italian, Israeli and Russian meals in the heart of the town.

McLeodgunj in upper Dharamshala is particularly international, and several times as Shaun and I wandered through its streets, we felt as though we had walked into a corner of Glastonbury. It was hippie haven. Tourists from across the world, most sporting t-shirts with the ‘Om’ symbol on, sauntered about, sipping tea in the ‘chai’ shops, drinking avocado smoothies or tucking into a delicious salad. Some were off on treks to scenic places in the mountains, like Triund. One or two walked with us to Bhagsu Waterfalls, a popular tourist destination. From the top of Bhagsu, we looked down to see the river trickling over rocks, across which were spread magenta robes. It was a regular washing day for the monks.

The Buddhist monk who directs the school where Shaun and I will be working lent us respectability at our McLeodgunj hotel. I could feel the hotel staff’s eyes on us when Shaun and I checked in, and although they never questioned us and I never volunteered to enlighten them on the nature of Shaun’s and my relationship, I sensed their curiosity. It was only when the Venerable Tashi Namgyal announced his presence at the hotel and proceeded to whisk us away, bags and all, to his hostel that their entire demeanour towards us changed. If a Lama-ji himself comes to greet this strange couple and garlands them with the traditional Buddhist ‘khata’, a symbol of good luck, then they must be entirely acceptable!

The Sidhbari hostel in lower Dharamshala, where the older children from Spiti live in order to access higher secondary education, was delightful. For the first time, Shaun and I tangibly felt the life of the children pulse around us. We would sit in the office, working on a large funding proposal to establish a new primary school in Spiti, and hear the children chanting their prayers or playing volleyball and badminton in the courtyard. The older ones smiled and said “Good morning”; the younger ones peeked at us through curtains and scuttled off like disgruntled crabs when we caught their eye.

Shaun and I shared a small bedroom and bathroom in the hostel, and I did my usual spreading out of toiletries in there – it’s one of my roosting habits. What I hadn’t realised is that we weren’t alone in using the bathroom. I watched in horror as one morning a tall young Tibetan monk came out from ‘our’ bathroom. Whatever must he have thought of my unabashedly girly ‘Glad Hair Day’ hair conditioner in a vivid pink bottle, or my fragrant and very worldly lemon-scented shower gel!

The tall Tibetan monk, we discovered, didn’t speak a word of English and we didn’t speak a word of Tibetan, so our encounters took place through smiles – of which he had a very warm one that touched the corners of his eyes – and broken Hindi. Somehow, in this confusion, he and I managed to strike a deal: when he came to Spiti, I would teach him English and he would teach me Tibetan. We sealed this deal through age-old human gestures – he folded his hands together and bowed his head, and I gave him a thumbs-up. I really want to tell him that he’s very welcome to my precious hair conditioner – only he doesn’t really need it.
Diya on 11:20 AM, 22nd August, 2014
Hi Colleen, nice to hear from you. Yes, Spiti is wonderfully peaceful! Good to hear that you were with David and Katherine in Rangrik - Shaun and I really enjoyed meeting them!
Colleen Fisher on 2:42 AM, 22nd August, 2014
I was in Rangrik with Dave and Katherine, and i felt really emotional seeing that they have gone back..would love to meet up again, sorry we lost contact...but still here in Portugal...well done, but seeing the photos really evokes wonderful memories...truly a beautiful place where one feels so , so very peaceful..
Diya on 11:25 PM, 23rd June, 2014
Hi Rachel, thanks so much for getting in touch. We must swap notes on volunteering! :-) Spiti is indeed a wonderful place. Now that we have settled in, we are really beginning to enjoy ourselves!
Rachel on 11:11 PM, 23rd June, 2014
Hi, I volunteered at the Sidhbari hostel teaching English and science for 6 months back in 2007, aftewards I visited Spiti and my student's families. This post bought back fond memories. Just wanted to wish you both all the best. It's a wonderful place. Rachel
Diya on 2:54 PM, 26th May, 2014
Laura! How lovely to hear from you! Blogging is very much on my list of priorities - it makes me feel connected to the rest of the world! Glad you are enjoying the posts, and cheers for your good wishes! There will be more...
Diya on 2:52 PM, 26th May, 2014
Ah, cheers Savage - big complimento, coming from you! Yes, sharing pictures is a massive issue - I will try to reduce the size and upload some on Facebook. The monks have satellite internet, but maybe it hasn't been blessed properly by the Buddha! ;-)
Diya on 2:50 PM, 26th May, 2014
Thanks, Leanne - I won't keep you waiting too long! :-)
Laura on 6:17 PM, 22nd May, 2014
I am thoroughly enjoying these blog posts! I realise they are probably the last thing on your list of priorities right now, but I sincerely hope they continue - both have had me smiling from ear to ear! Good fortune for the rest of your adventures!
G on 4:17 AM, 22nd May, 2014
Nice blog guptinha. Lovely finish. Shame you can't share more pictures. Tell them monks to sort out their internet - ain't there special Buddhist satellites or summat!?
Leanne on 12:46 AM, 21st May, 2014
Another thoroughly entertaining read. Recommended. Looking forward to the next instalment Diya x
Diya on 10:27 AM, 17th May, 2014
Jason, glad you're enjoying it! :-)
Diya on 10:26 AM, 17th May, 2014
Ushasi, indeed. I had to do a very careful underwear check before I entered and exited that bathroom!
ushasi on 11:25 PM, 16th May, 2014
Sounds like the adventure has started in earnest. I'm glad you hadn't left your nightie hanging on the bathroom door. Would've been awkward.
Jason on 6:45 PM, 16th May, 2014
Ace blog, good humour, thumbs up and a Namaste! lol
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