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Searching for Tibetan Culture in Dharamsala

Perched in the Himalayas of India, Dharamsala shines with vibrant colors emitting forth from its quaint streets. It is impossible to ignore the unique beauty while walking through the city, but even simple sightseeing in what has been dubbed “Little Lhasa” is an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism.

Dharamsala became a center of Tibetan Buddhism in a predominantly Hindu area after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and was allowed to resettle in the Indian city. Since then, thousands of Tibetans have followed, settling especially in the McLeod Ganj area of Dharamsala, and their culture and history has come to not only influence but also define the city.

Most obvious is the prominence of Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout the area, such as the Kalachakra Temple, whose vibrant green and red tiers and golden carvings bursts onto the McLeod Ganj street scene. The Tsuglagkhang Complex is relatively simple, with a homey style, but as the residence of the Dalai Lama it is a must-see place, especially for the rich history, art, tradition, and culture that lies within. The Norbulingka Monastery is more traditional, with a large red wooden gate at its entrance, intricate thangkas and a giant gilded statue of the Buddha.

Searching for Tibetan Culture in Dharamsala

The Golden Buddha in McLeod Ganj. Photo: Pranav Bhasin

Prayer wheels of all sizes whirr throughout McLeod Ganj, standing orderly in a row together or held as hand-sized individuals. The cylindrical wheels are decorated both externally and internally with Sanskrit mantras, traditionally “om mani padme hum”. These intricate wheels can be bronzed and gleaming, reflecting the rays of the sun, or colorful and bright, like flowers popping up where you least expect. They present people with upaya, another  path towards enlightenment. Created partially for the benefit of the illiterate, it is believed that spinning a prayer wheel has the same meritorious effect as orally reciting a sacred text.

The city is dominated by prayer flags whose colors erupt across the city like silent fireworks. Streaming down from rooftops and tree branches, the lung ta are captivating with their cloths of blue, white, red, green, and yellow. But the flags serve a higher purpose than beauty. Covered in mantras, it is believed that as the flags flutter peacefully in the breeze, the wind will spread the compassion of these prayers into all space. To be surrounded by prayer flags is to not only feel like you’ve walked into a kaleidoscope, but also a way to be blessed by their mantras. Admiring prayer flags – where bold bright new cloth is strung alongside faded tattered old flags – is bearing witness to a grander philosophy: the ongoing cycle of life, and how we all become part of the universe.

Searching for Tibetan Culture in Dharamsala

Tibetan Buddhist mantras decorating rocks in McLeod Ganj. Photo: Geoff Stearns

Even what could be dubbed “graffiti” in Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj is beautiful and symbolic. Stones are covered in mantras with bright letters, both large and small, shouting positivity to the world. Some of the mantras are painted on but others have been carved into the stone – their message a permanent part of the earth. Since the 8th century, graffiti such as this has been left on roads to Buddhist holy places, acting as mystical maps. Large piles of dull gray rocks are markings on the path to enlightenment. Not only do they lead the way to holy places, but it is believed that viewing the written form of the mantra has the same beneficial effects as chanting it.

To walk through Dharamsala McLeod Ganj in search of Tibetan culture is to admire beauty, color, and vibrancy, from the architecture to the graffiti. This beauty that so naturally catches your eye is not only a physical manifestation of Tibetan Buddhist philosophies, but also invites the viewers on a path to enlightenment. If you ever happen to meander through Little Lhasa, keep your mind and soul open to its beauty.

Top image: Pranav Bhasin.

Article by Jeannette Viens.

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