A Day of Contrast in a Land of Contrast
Some days are more magic than others.
Tuesday was in that category. I didn’t plan it – and isn’t that often the way – but sitting in Gunehar with my Tuborg at the end of the day I had that feeling of delight you get occasionally when you know you’ve had a perfect day.
The company had a lot to do with it. Puneet Kaushik sees a good portion of the world as though through the eyes of a small child, and certainly through the eyes of the artist, so everything is wonderful – the colours, the sounds, the atmosphere, the smell – he’s a man with all his senses operating at full tilt, and he has to share it with whoever he’s with.
Our other companion was Sanchita ‘Buku’ Schlichtmann, Frank’s* mother. Buku came to Himachal Pradesh as a young girl in search of a guru. She found that in Khamtrul Rinpoche (rin-po-shay, literally means ‘teacher’) and stayed. Along the way she became best friends with Tenzin Palmo, formerly Diane Perry, a young Englishwoman newly arrived here also. Buku didn’t take vows but remains a devoted Buddhist and follower of Khamtrul Rinpoche. Diane became a nun in the late 1960s and was given her new Tibetan name. At Khamtrul Rinpoche’s request in the mid-90s she set about building a nunnery for the education of nuns of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. It was to here I’ve been wanting to visit and I’d asked Frank if his mother might take me.
Sadly, Tenzin Palmo herself was not at home. Ironically she’d flown to Scotland for the beginning of a few months European speaking tour, just as I’d arrived in India. From Scotland. Sometimes the Universe is a hilarious tease.
This area is the Kangra Valley and its dotted all over with monasteries. Nunneries are fewer. And smaller. Historically, Buddhism has been patriarchal in the extreme, although clearly not through the intentions of the Buddha himself. (Much like every other religion.) Not only did nuns receive no religious education, they received no education period. And they have had the lowest standards of health of any Tibetan demographic. Tenzin Palmo(pictured left), along with other high-ranking nuns – Pema Chödrön (formerly Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, from Canada), Thubten Chodron (formerly Cherry Greene, from California), Sangye Khandro (formerly Nancy Gay Gustafson, from Hawaii), Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, and others – have worked to change this, even speaking to and gaining the support of the Dalai Lama.
Tenzin Palmo’s nunnery then – the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery – nestles alongside Khamtrul Rinpoche’s monastery, Tashi Jong, in the Kangra Valley, between the towns of Paprola and Palampour. Like all Tibetan Buddhist facilities, it’s beautiful, and immaculately clean and tidy. Here, in addition, there is an obvious feminine flavour. There are more gardens, it’s more inviting, and it’s built in a circle.
Being English and a former librarian, order and function are huge priorities for Tenzin Palmo. Here is a highly functioning organisation, aimed at ensuring the sustainability of a religious education facility with none of the funding of its male counterparts. The nunnery has been built entirely by donations from Tenzin Palmo’s speaking tours and sale of her books and recordings.
When we arrived at the nunnery, 30 young women, all in the marron robes of Tibetan Buddhism, were heading into their temple for prayers. Perfect timing! We sat on mats on the floor in the temple for an hour and listened. I’ve meditated for 25 years so it was easy to close my eyes and find myself transported away. It was absolute bliss. No photography wasn’t allowed but I recorded just a few minutes of their chanting. Several different musical instruments are played, notably drums and the long Tibetan horns called dungchen. I so want to go back.
There are many retreat opportunities through the Buddhist colonies and indeed throughout India, but at Dongyu Gatsal Ling westerners may only stay a week. I’m sure I will come back for that week later in the year.
I recommend Cave in the Snow, a story of Tenzin Palmo’s life. I loved it. I’m now reading Dakini Power by Michaela Haas, which includes a biography of 12 international Buddhist nuns, most of them westerners. At the nunnery I bought Tenzin Palmo’s own book, Reflections on a Mountain Lake.
After this exquisite peace we drove into the hustle and bustle of Palampour. All Indian towns look like this. There is barely enough room for two lanes of traffic, and pedestrians and animals (including cows) share the same road. Indian drivers toot their horns like crazy. If you’ve ever been in New York City when horn-tooting was at its height, India is at least 10x that. Whether you’re a passenger or a pedestrian you take your life in your hands. Best not to think about it too much. For a westerner, it’s initially shocking to see the dirt and dust and cow pats and rubbish. Best not to think too much about that either.
Just as we pulled into the taxi-parking area, Puneet, like a blackbird spotting a shiny thing, was all like “Oh my god, look at that – stop the car, I have to go see!” Basically when you’re with Puneet and he does this you have to follow or you’re just left behind. Buku and I wandered after him, and Kashmir, our incredible driver, (“Ladies like air-conditioning; I only turn on AC for ladies.”) went off to park the car somewhere. Here’s what caught Puneet’s eye.
Mr Himachal. All greased up. And the loudest, screechiest Indian music you couldn’t even imagine. It was so awful it was hilarious. Looking down on this scene was a block of flats.
We went for tea and coffee and had Indian sweets and samosas. The bill was 160 rupees. Less than $US3.
We took Buku home and then headed back to Gunehar, but the day was still not over. We asked Kashmir to stop the car several times for photo ops as the sun set in these Himalayan foothills.
We asked Kashmir where we could find leather sandals – he knows everyone and everything – and he took us to an actual cobbler in Bir where we were measured up. We’ll collect our new sandals in a week. 400 rupees a pair. About $US6. Handmade.
Finally home. Dinner, a Tuborg, music from the soundtrack of Buena Vista Social Club, and the latest episode of Game of Thrones.