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It’s Sunday of the third week of October. Moving day has finally arrived and we’re anxious to settle into Kirti Monastery in the heart of McLeod Ganj. The luggage is piled into a cab and we’re driven the two kilometres to the monastery, near the bottom of Temple Road. Our driver takes one look at the steep, narrow lane leading to the monastery and parks near the temple gate. At our request, he helps us cart our bags up the hill to the front door of Kirti.
The main building is perched on the side of the hill at the top of the lane. From this point on, the road becomes a restrictive walking path, winding uphill between Kirti buildings, a nunnery, private homes and guesthouses. Inside the front door of the monastery are several offices. From there stairs lead downward to a courtyard surrounded on three sides by walls.
The monks’ lodgings take up much of the building and two large decks, where the men and boys spend their free time, are located above and in front of the rooms. The guesthouse is situated underneath and to one end of the main building, and consists of three levels of single rooms and several suites.
A monk named Kunchok meets us at the door and helps us down the steep stairway to the guest residence. A mature thirty-three year old, he is the manager of this large monastery, a busy and demanding position. Kunchok has the peaceful, sensitive face of an aesthete and a lovely, mild energy.
With a combination of simple words and gestures, he indicates that our suite is being cleaned, and seats us comfortably in the window of a single room overlooking the mountains. After a short time we’re shown to our apartment. It’s small and lovely, with a magnificent view of the mountains and Lower Dharamsala in the valley below. We sense we’ll be very happy during our time here.
From the narrow communal porch outside our suite we have a view of the monks’ deck on the left. To the right is a lawn and a metal roofed building, both are used daily for lectures, chanting, prayers and debating practice.
Our friend Dekyi located the guesthouse through her network when Don requested a place with cooking facilities. (I myself had no plans to cook.) By Canadian standards the apartment is rough, but it’s relatively luxurious accommodation for McLeod Ganj, and affordable at an equivalent of 10 dollars a day. Electricity and hot water are available around the clock, except for occasional storm outages. The suite is bug-free, always a surprise in both north and south India, where one anticipates tropical beasties.
The door of the narrow apartment opens onto a cozy sitting room with a wide window. Behind is a small bedroom with large curtained windows on the living room side, providing both light and air, then at the back are the washroom and kitchen. The tiny refrigerator in the livingroom works after a fashion, but the freezer is defective and as the weeks go by the useable portion of the fridge shrinks because the food freezes.
The cold water kitchen’s location at the back of the apartment is not an ideal situation. Added to this, the rusted exhaust fan over the propane stove is broken; at times the odour of singed oil creeps into our rooms and we suspect that other fans are also defective. We happily make do, using the facilities to prepare cooked cereal with fruit salad most mornings and sandwiches accompanied by steamed vegetables for lunch. We eat dinner out each day, due to a combination of kitchen fumes, laziness and our enjoyment of an evening outing after conversation group. Before we leave we have one final hurrah in the kitchen, brewing up a huge pot of vegetable soup for our friends.
My favourite area is the sitting room, warmly furnished with an old, but attractive wine coloured couch and easychair, purple curtains, a coffee table and an old television set that displays ghostlike Western shows (oddly, my favourites like Grey’s Anatomy). I’m to spend many happy hours in this room, gazing at the valley below, reading and tutoring our new friends.
Sunday is the day of rest for monks and some are sitting in the shade on their deck. Two small boys play a game together at a table under a tree. Birds twitter, hawks soar in the sky and voices filter down from a second deck above the guesthouse. From the Dalai Lama’s nearby temple the deep, haunting sound of Tibetan horns resonates.
The energy is magnificent here at Kirti Monastery, light and uplifting. This “monk energy”, as I come to call it, built up over time, comes from the heightened state of consciousness achieved over years of disciplined practice.
“Whatever you think or say, you’re wrong; it’s the opposite,” said our 14 year-old guide as we walked the lanes of Varanasi. Attempting to describe this multifaceted nation and my relationship to it is impossible. India is a country of paradoxes where extremes are at play.
Writers often apologize for not being able to clearly explain the intricacies that make up this country of over one billion people, where the middle class now constitutes one quarter to one third of the population and English is the common language in cities and tourist areas.
India’s draw is complex; we can’t understand it within the frame of reference of our Western minds, and that is part of what pulls us in. Once our constant internal analysis abates, we’re more open to flowing with what is unfolding around us. To say that the environment there is over stimulating would be an understatement. People, vehicles, cows, even the colours are de trop, but my approach has been, “bring it on”. I was thirsty for India after waiting for her so long and I wanted to soak in every tiny little detail.
India is very rich and very poor, spiritual yet also extremely material, beautiful but also ugly. The welcoming hospitality we felt everywhere helped to counteract the overload, the frustrations and the oxymorons of the country.
For as long as I can remember I’ve had a preoccupation with India and its people, feeling drawn to go there. Life intervened, and my first visit did not take place until I was well into midlife. It was worth the wait, and I viewed it with different eyes than I would have at a younger age.
I’ve always felt quite certain that numerous past lives have been spent in India, and my immediate affinity and strong connection to the country and to the Indian and Tibetan people living there pointed to this. Later a friend, a talented professional psychic, confirmed this for me.
My partner Don and I are very fortunate to be on the same page when it comes to travelling. With our childraising years over and career transitions underway, my desire to see India overtook my homebody routines, and our first six week trip to the Indian continent was in 2007. The adventure was so successful we decided to return two years later for a longer period of time, one that would involve volunteer work as well as travel.
For three months we lived, volunteered, soaked in the culture and breathed the often arid, dusty air of the country. India turned out to be everything I imagined it would be…and more. The women and men we met, almost without exception, in both the North India Tibetan and Indian communities and in South India, embraced us with their warmth and friendship, and a sincere desire to understand more about our country, our lifestyle and us as individuals.
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This excerpt from An Indian Sojourn describes our time in Shekhawati, Rajasthan, northwest of Jaipur. Upper caste women are all but invisible there and I found the energy to be odd and repressive.
We’re driven through the outskirts of Nawalgarh, near the resort. The community appears plain and arid looking, a working desert town, not gentrified in any way for the tourists. On arrival at Apani Dhani Eco Lodge we’re greeted by Ramesh, the owner. The resort is beautiful; it consists of one-story terracotta huts built in a U-shape around a central courtyard. Flourishing bougainvillea bushes
in a variety of colours creep up to the roof of the central pavilion where guests gather to read, chat, or listen to harmonium concerts. At the end of the courtyard is a building that houses the dining room and kitchen.
A slim, attractive sixty-something man wearing simple white cotton pants and shirt, Ramesh wears traditional Rajasthani white stud earrings in both earlobes. His bearing is aristocratic. Ramesh is a devout Hindu and a member of the Rajput caste, the second highest in the state; he’s multilingual in English, French and German, as well as Indian dialects, having lived in Europe for several years. There he became interested in the environment and Swedish and German ecology, he explains. Our host still spends a third of each year in Europe and half of Apani Dhani’s clientele is French. Ramesh’s altruistic values, common among higher caste Indians, are reflected in the fact that 5 percent of the resort’s gross earnings are contributed to a school for handicapped children.
I initially find Ramesh’s manner somewhat superior and off putting; while clearly used to being in charge, he does prove to be a congenial host. Later I experience something similar with our Goa hotel owner. This may be reverse snobbery on my part, having little to do with Indian culture and more bearing on my own class background and politics…
The cosmopolitan Ramesh reverts to tradition when at home, and each room of the lodge has a binder with an exhaustive list of traditional Hindu customs and guidelines that clearly demonstrate this. Both males and females are advised to cover most of their body: “No sleeveless t-shirts or shorts, transparent or revealing clothing, no braless look; wear a long sleeve t-shirt or shirt covering the buttocks for women”, (the last is traditional in most of India, even in the more progressive South).
Some of the French tourists, perhaps unable to read the English-only guidelines, bare their legs and arms. Always attempting to dress modestly in India, respecting the cultural norms, I feel controlled by “the book of rules”, and by the atmosphere in this ultra conservative setting. There’s a sensation of being watched and I likely would have opted not to come here had we known more about the place beforehand.
Alcohol is strictly prohibited: “Don’t bring it to your room out of respect; it is against our way of living and you would deeply offend us”, I read in the book, hearing Ramesh’s voice in my head. The Prince Polonia Hotel in Delhi is run by devout Hindus; however the atmosphere there feels calm, not constrained in any way.
Please register at the library: 886-2130
Travel Author Presentation: India An Indian Sojourn by Ellen Besso
April 27, 2013 1:00-3:00pm
GIBSONS & DISTRICT PUBLIC LIBRARY
Join author Ellen Besso and her partner Don Smith at the GPL in a two-part event. Ellen will read from her memoir about volunteering in the Tibetan refugee colony of Dharamsala and travelling in other parts of India in 2009-2010. Following this Ellen and Don will give a slide presentation of their time in Dharamsala last fall, their relationships and the events that unfolded while they were there.
Please register ahead at the library by phoning 886-2130 Hope to see you there Ellen