VOLANTE Stanley Moss heads back to Varanasi, then to Amritsar and Dharamshala, where they were granted an audience with HH the Dalai Lama
Photographed by the author; Dharamshala photographs by the office of HHDL
Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
May I change the subject briefly and write to you later about the extraordinary travel stories we’ve encountered in Rajasthan and northern India? Instead, today another kind of tale of three cities, this one about inner journeys.
Varanasi is like a magnet, attracting us back for a third visit, but why? It is difficult to answer. The city is noisy, dirty, crowded, polluted, rough at the edges, and cows own the place. You can spend a day out at Sarnath, site of an old monastery where Buddha delivered the Four Noble Truths, and there’s an excellent archæological museum. You can take the usual boat out into the Ganges and watch the cremations, and attend the twilight ceremony on the ghats. All in one packed day. Beyond that, not much else beside buying some of the famous silk. Everybody gets something from Varanasi, though. Might be an insight, a revelation, enlightenment, disappointment, rage, but nobody walks away with a big nothing. The usual boat ride starts at the Dashashwamedh Ghat and proceeds out to the centre of the river, you drift around, view some cremations, then head back to shore. This time we approached the itinerary counterintuitively, starting down at the Assi Ghat, and had our boatman drop us upriver at the Brij Rama Palace. He worked hard the whole way and we tipped him an extravagant ₹200, around US$3, equal to the cost of the ride. The river was empty, except for a few boats filled with loudly praying pilgrims. The sounds of lapping oars on the meandering water were our only accompaniment. Impossible to say how long the voyage lasted, but at its conclusion we had that comforting and empty feeling that some necessary passage had been achieved, a small meditation on a river whose currents preceded us, and will go on long after we have quit this enigmatic place.
The skies uncharacteristically opened on the occasion of our visit to the Punjabi city of Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple, Mecca to the Sikhs. The weather cleared enough that umbrellas, while ported, weren’t needed during the 1 km hike through wide, shop-filled streets to the temple complex. Pedestrians only. Typically the place is mobbed by pilgrims, you wade into the ebb and flow of humanity and hope for the best. It’s India, where personal space ceases to exist as we know it. But on this overcast and chilly day sparse crowds allowed an easy stroll. At the white marble entry gate, workers mopped the floors. Shoes not permitted inside the Temple, so barefoot on wet marble became the outfit of the day. Inside the complex Sikh guards carrying very impressive spears gently reminded guests that photography wasn’t allowed, despite nearly everyone taking selfies. The line to get inside the Temple proper at the end of the short causeway turned out to be only an hour, not the usual three hours spent in airport style waiting lanes. But cold feet determined the experience, and instead a slow walk around the perimeter of the rectangular lake turned into one of those time-stood-still moments. We strolled by halls where music emanated, doorways where free food was served, a ghat where ritual bathing was going on. Never saw so many happy people, each with their own agenda. Families with kids, the elderly, elegant tall impeccably barbered turbaned gentlemen, guys carrying amazing swords, lots of smiling, nodding, nobody uptight. Not your typical tourist destination with everyone nervously clutching their fanny packs. Afterward, a strange euphoria, a general happiness that communing with so many positive souls yields. Impossible to articulate the abiding joy which lasted for hours. A journey to the far side of the globe, a destination dreamed of for over a half-century, a moment that will not be forgotten.
For your audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, you need first to arrive on a Monday, the only day when these extraordinary visitations are granted. You will have already sought the help of a local friend with contacts inside a very tight circle of security. Your appointment is for 8.30 a.m. The temple compound where His Holiness resides sits above the Tibet-like city of narrow hillside lanes, involving a navigation of hairpin switchbacks which your driver does not seem to mind. You take your seat in a crowded waiting room with an array of people certainly more unfortunate than yourself, and you fill out your forms and wait. Your passports are checked and double-checked. You’re ushered to a security station where you are thoroughly searched, made to surrender your cellphones and cameras, followed by a second search. Then you sit and wait in a line of perhaps 200 people arrayed along a wall which runs uphill. A handler carefully sequences the guests. You wait some more, the line moves slowly to the top and eventually you reach a small pavilion where His Holiness sits in a doorway. You engage in the sport of watching how each audience occurs. Some ask for books to be signed, others seek advice. A man breaks into convulsive sobs and the Dalai Lama asks him, ‘Where does this negativity come from?’ The man won’t leave. He holds on to the Dalai Lama’s hand, until His Holiness requests a book, patiently inscribes it, the man is ushered away. HHDL welcomes his next supplicant, a young woman in a green silk dress. She asks, ‘How do I take my meditation practice into the real world?’ The Dalai Lama answers for about two minutes, then calls for two books, which he autographs. ‘But Holiness, how do I take my meditation practice into the real world?’ she asks. ‘Read the books,’ the Dalai Lama says, and bonks her on the head with his hand, gives us conspiratorial eye contact, smiles at us, the girl is escorted away and our audience begins.
The feeling is a familiar one, like meeting an old friend. ‘Your glasses are scary,’ he says to Paula, who immediately removes them. My mind goes blank as they speak about I do not know what. We are laughing, that much I remember, making jokes with each other. It must be a relief for His Holiness to have two visitors who don’t ask for autographs or pose profound questions. Several minutes of this amiable exchange pass. Finally I tell him that I write for travellers. What message does he have for them? ‘You have to be open to all people,’ the Dalai Lama says. ‘When you stay too much inside yourself it creates separation from other people. It creates stress. If you stay too self-important it creates a divide. And then physically it goes into your body as a disease. Be open to others.’ He laughs, and his handlers position us for a photo, Paula to his right, Stanley on his left. Click-click-click go the motor drives. He shakes our hands again. Paula gets a hug, and we are sent back to the real world. Days later we study the photos of our encounter. Were it not for the pictures I cannot believe it happened. •
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From issue 35 of Lucire
In praise of Devi Garh
Stanley Moss is taken away from the daily grind, transported to the alternative reality that is Devi Garh in Rajasthan
Photographed by the author
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