Name, profession, religion, lineage and land constitute an individual’s identity. A mere thought of sudden disappearance of any of these leaves a big question mark regarding one’s existence. In an attempt to explore oneself, scores of differently aged backpackers often set out on individual voyages to McLeod Ganj, a small town in Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh. While some return with a reinvigorated perspective towards life, others turn numb and a few permanently settle there. The silence resonating within the lush green slopes of Dhauladhar range is believed to be attributed to the presence of Buddhist monks in exile.
Gangchen Kyishong, a Tibetan phrase, meaning ‘happy valley of snow’ is a site of Tibetan Buddhism in Dharamshala. It has its roots in the teachings of Nepalese Sakya King, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. Tibet, a land of separate tribes, dominated by the indigenous Bon religion witnessed a Buddhist cultural exchange between Tibet and India across the Himalayas in the 7th century BCE. Indian sages were invited to Tibet to propagate Buddhist teachings to the locals. It is speculated that a blend of tantrism rooted in India with the practices of Bon religion developed into an exceptionally distinctive form of Vajrayana Buddhism, prevalent in Dharamshala. In 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, had escaped from the clutches of the Chinese communist regime in Tibet to establish their ‘government in exile’ in India.
These homeless expatriates struck with an identity crisis chose to pursue Buddhism in a city that breathed a fresh life to their existence. Several even aspire to return to their hometowns to begin an education in Buddhism. It is said that a Tibetan Buddhist is inseparably linked to his ancestral clan, believed to have protected his lands for years. An invasion of their mountains and holy lakes is considered an infringement of religious beliefs and annihilation of their forefathers’ legacy.
The monks and nuns–popularly known as lamas–meditate to collectively protect their legacy and attain the ultimate goal of Buddhism–nirvana or enlightenment by freeing themselves from worldly desires. The path to achieving this goal is considered to be rejuvenating.
To eliminate evil energies coming in the way of their ancestral beliefs, the lamas spin differently-sized prayer wheels printed with mantras, a practice unique to Himalayan Buddhism. It is said that Chakrasamvara Mandala, a meditation technique, brings about a radical transformation in the conception of self and experiences of the world. It is believed that this process enables an individual to encounter his own uniqueness.
The Namgyal Monastery in McLeod Ganj serves as an intellectual centre where monks teach, attend to their daily practices and analyse their own minds while observing silence. Every monk has an individualistic perception of the world based on his past experiences, the exploration of which reveals his distinctive personality. When all meditate together, it appears as if each one is helping the other build an identity. Several delay their own attainment of nirvana so as to help others achieve it first.
A colourful reflection of varied thought processes simultaneously working to achieve a common ultimate goal of enlightenment is evident in the Cham dance–one of the several ritualistic dances performed by the Himalayan monks during festivals. It is said that this hypnotic dance depicts meditation in action, requiring intense practice in order to be passed on from one person to the other. The monks wear masks concealing their originality, suggesting alternate identities of deities they represent. Often, it takes an entire lifetime to gain the expertise these skills require.
Draped in maroon–the colour often associated with Mother Earth–many have preserved their childhood paintings of the time they fled from their own lands. While some paintings depict a man draped in a monk’s wardrobe being shot at gunpoint, few others portray an array of footprints crossing the Himalayas. Within the cradle of Mother Earth, clinging onto Buddhahood, several landless lamas have created new identities, while many others continue to create one.