I fell in love with McLeodganj around two years ago, without visiting it even once. It was a book – David Michie’s The Dalai Lama’s Cat – that opened the world of Tibetans in India to me. When HHC (His Holiness’s Cat – the central character of the book) wobbled her way through the lovely hills, I imagined myself trailing on her paw-steps. I wondered about the pretty book cafes where she would perch herself on top of book shelves. The aromas that wafted from the kitchen of The Dalai Lama, would make me mentally re-create those fabulous meals.
So, it wasn’t a surprise that I planned a trip to McLeodganj when I had to accompany my sister to Shimla for some work. We had all of two days so we discounted trekking and site seeing and focused on the town, its people and the food.
The first sight of the Dhauladhar mountains made me fall deep and hard for the mountains. Walls are painted with graffiti reminding people of the war that’s still going on in Tibet. We walk around in the market exploring the beautiful Tibetan handicrafts – handmade paper, woolens and jewellery. This is one place where shop owners don’t scream over each other’s voices to lure you into their shops. There are no two different prices for Indian and foreign tourists and the goods are reasonably priced to begin with. It feels that a Zen-like state has covered the entire town, like a transparent sheet.
We make our way towards the Temple Monastery and that’s when the unexpected happens – there’s a crowd right outside the Temple complex and we hear that The Dalai Lama’s car is to pass at any moment. There was a sudden jolt of excitement just at the thought of being at the same place as him at the same time. Nobody is able to see him through tinted glasses but the brightly lit up faces tell you that this is just equally good.
The monastery is beautiful with a large temple in the centre, a museum that curates the entire history of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the aftermath of it and the ongoing struggle. A book shop close-by has a rich collection of books by and about the present Dalai Lama. In the evening, as we walk around Jogiwara Road, we’re stopped by chattering and clapping sounds. The open ground of the Toshi Choling nunnery is packed with nuns for the debating hour. We watch them holding one-on-one discussions in Tibetan language and asserting their points with regular claps.
We spend most of the afternoon and early evening sitting at the book cafe – Cafe Illeterati – soaking in the view and curling up with a book. McLeodganj’s cafe culture is fascinating; there are book cafes, coffee shops, Italian kitchens with wood-fired ovens, bakeries that will entice you with the aroma of freshly baked breads and umpteen tiny Tibetan joints where you’d see monks tucking in a bowl of thukpa or noodles.
As we walk around the town, we start recognizing faces and get a warm nod from people every time we pass them by. I feel an acute sense of belonging, whether it’s while idling away at a cafe or just sitting at the steps watching the mountains. And sitting there I wonder – if The Dalai Lama hadn’t come to India in 1959, would we ever get to get so close to a culture as beautiful as this?