*Nine photos by Niobe Galipi (those without my watermark) *
The road to Dharamshala
India: we are in a bus full of colour, speeding along suicidally (as is common). Full of colour, both in its decorations and in its people with their lungis, saris, shawls, jewellery, painted hair, and even painted hands. Outside is not much different, the green valley we are driving through is touched up by houses painted in ‘any colour you like’: purple, orange, yellow, green, and even pink; even the shacks and houses that didn’t want or could not afford any colour have a wash line full of colourful Indian clothes hanging outside them.
Our bus moves through valleys, but ever so slightly we go upwards as we are approaching the Himalayas. It’s an ancient bus (at least 40 years old) powered by diesel, but also by the singsong of fruit sellers who hop on the bus at every little valley or mountain village that we pass – “Dhirmanajan, dhirmanajan, dhirmanajan”. I strongly suspect that it meant banana.
As a general rule – I have discovered – bus rides in India need to take at least half an hour longer than whatever you had been promised before they left, and trains have treated us worse so far. Therefore, looking back, my first long distance trip in India went rather smoothly: a night train (Delhi-Pathankot) that left four hours late, a rickshaw ride, this (ultimately) four-hour bus ride, one more 20 minute bus ride up the mountain …and… we were there.
A place for contemplation
Dharamshala (McCleodganj or Upper Dharamshala to be precise), delivered just before sunset, we were finally there. The name comes from dharma and shala, it is a name that used to be given to rest houses for pilgrims, and now this Dharamshala houses the exiled Tibetan government. Walking up from the bus stop, this spiritual refuge, showed us a valley stretching out for miles, filled completely in a golden mist. And we stumbled through it with our backpacks, ever so happy to finally breathe clean, albeit cold, air. You only really realise what you have been through when you stop to shower or wash your face. After such a land journey in India the water that you wash your hands and face with is, quite simply, black.
That beautiful haze turned out to be delightfully common around here, ranging (depending on time and day) from pure white, to golden yellow, fiery red, and a mystical purple. Here we are in the lower Himalayas, the Dilaudhir range, and the landscape is both impressively stunning, and powerfully serene. This gigantic scenery of mountains, however, surrounds a most curious little bustle created by us humans. In the little Indian town of Upper Dharamshala, serene, calm-faced Tibetan monks in crimson robes weave their way through the village’s narrow streets, between tourists and the Indian moped and car drivers who, although there are less of them, are no less loud or insane. One of the many wondrous things about Indian people is that they seem to be the calmest, happiest and friendliest of people when standing on their two feet, but have them drive anything with an engine and they turn into impatient, seemingly suicidal, loudly honking maniacs.
Still, surrounded by snow-covered mountains, rivers and waterfalls, this town retains a peaceful quality. As do Tibetan and Hindu temples; Ayurvedic medicine centres; yoga schools, and volunteering projects that survive and retain a sense of authenticity between the great number of tourist shops, hotels and restaurants that cover most of the town. In a way it looks like everyone on this mountain is searching for some form of peace and freedom, here in the mountains. The Tourists, the Tibetans, and even the Indians who chose this place to try and make a living, mostly from tourism.
Exploration and exile
To travel and to explore is still seen as one of the ultimate ways to be free (even in this global world where everything has been mapped and documented). That freedom of going wherever you want, being bound to no one, half-hoping to see and experience everything while you can. However, if you keep on travelling you will encounter moments where this ‘ultimate’ freedom feels very lonely. This desire will conflict with our other unavoidable human desire for closeness and sharing. As the famous ending of the film Into the Wild mentions, we ultimately feel the need to share our happiness, or even our unhappiness to make them real.
At some point, there may occur an internal conflict between our 70’s-style desire for rebellious freedom, and our need to connect with others. When you are continuously leaving behind your old and also your new friends, always changing your circumstances and surroundings, this will eventually get to you. Even though you will constantly meet people, you need to be very comfortable with solitude or feel a deep sense of equal connection to all people, to be able to cope with your own constant displacement, the loneliness of the road.
Related to travelling, mountains are probably the most important symbol of freedom. Towering over us and reaching into the skies, they suggest another world free from our problems and limitations. They seduce us and challenge us as places to test ourselves, while they threaten us with their raw and free natural power; they also offer us isolation as the higher we go the more we are surrounded by calm, free, ‘empty’ space. Throughout our history mountains have offered a harsh but free shelter for those who needed it: from hermits, to the exiled, and to ‘freedom fighting’ guerrillas. And it is these very Himalayas which many Tibetans have crossed as they fled their homeland.
The Tibetan monks know that real freedom must be found and fought for inside of us. Through becoming a master of our own emotions, through understanding that the world around us depends, most of all, on our own minds. They have not come to Dharamshala for their own freedom, but for something else. They have come to save their culture and philosophy from destruction. Many images of the Buddha depict him touching the ground. His touching of the ground symbolises, that while there can be inner freedom from our emotions and our thoughts, to transcend our normal views of reality and find inner peace, this is meaningless without a connection to this material world. Instead of turning completely inside, the trained mind still connects to the world. The natural response to inner realisation should be to live in a gentle, constructive, and respectful way, with our environment and with others. As the Tibetans see the spiritual wisdom they have developed as important to the world, they try to save it. That’s why many Tibetans have fled to India, beginning with the Exodus of the Dalai Lama to Dharamshala in 1959, taking with them whatever relics they could save from destruction by the Chinese cultural annexation.
As the Dalai Lama said: “We like our own culture, our own land; we have the right to preserve it. Also, the six million Tibetan people are human beings, no matter whether we are a materially backward country or not. We are six million human souls with the right to live as human beings. This is the problem.”
Now Dharamshala is a place where Tibetans from all over India come, in hope to see their Dalai Lama, to see their spiritual places, but also – in many cases – to expand their capabilities and freedom by learning English. And forming a beautiful circle, it is us western tourists and searchers for (spiritual) freedom who come to this place and teach English or participate in many of the other volunteering opportunities. This way everybody finds something in Dharamshala. However, unsurprisingly, in this place of contemplation, refuge, and newfound hopes, you can still find a sense of loss. Not only in the posters lamenting the torture or disappearance of fellow Tibetans, but we also found it in some of the conversations we had. One of the Tibetan friends we made, told us he had fled his country when he was twelve, for a monastery in the south of India. When trying to explain how happy he was to be in Dharamshala he said that what he loved most here was the cold, because this cold reminded him of his home country, to which he is not able to return.
Having been to this Tibetan refuge, having seen, and talked to some, wonderfully kind and positive-minded people who fled their own country, it is their inner strength that amazes. Having, on this trip, also seen many Indian people living such kind and joyful lives in conditions that would frighten the hell out of us in the West, I am more convinced than ever that we can, and should, all achieve a greater amount of (inner) freedom.
Are we looking for freedom?
Freedom has fascinated us humans in so many fields. It is one of those ideals, like love, that we talk about and strive for, without completely understanding it. We have dreamt about freedom in many forms: freedom from slavery, freedom from tyranny, freedom through democracy, freedom through equal treatment, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom from society’s rule, freedom ‘the system’, freedom of mind, and so forth. Since the enlightenment our obsession with freedom has grown. In our increasingly individualistic societies the freedom to do whatever we want is key. We have established many ‘rights of freedom’, but meanwhile everything is increasingly under regulations and surveillance. As our planet globalises we seem to have more freedom of choice than ever, while at the same time cultures seem to be slowly blending into a global one. The most obvious example of this is that we can now choose if we have McDonalds, Subways, or Starbucks for lunch in Amsterdam, Sydney, Santiago, or Delhi.
In a world where everything is interconnected and dependent on each other, nothing can be completely free. Even freedom is just a concept in which we compare situations where we have more limitations to one where we have less limitations, but usually we trade some limitations for others (like trading our free time for financial freedom). As long as we exist we will have limitations, the limits of our bodies, our minds, and those through the societies and people that we relate with. Nevertheless, limitations come hand in hand with opportunities, there would be no temples in the jungle without societies, it would be hard to grow up without the protection of our mother, and we wouldn’t have the products we love without the many people working hard around the world. So while it can be good to rebel, to train and stretch our limits, at times we should love and respect the benefits that they can create too.
Then, when we do search for freedom, we cannot look merely at our actions: what we do, where we are, and where we go. Nor, can we look only at our inner selves: freeing our minds and forgetting about the world. As always, it is a balance that we want to be looking for, developing our minds through well-intentioned actions (doing good), and developing our actions through training our minds – to be more free in our decisions: free of our fears, desires, and anger.
Though this is not necessarily easy, I feel it is the only way in which we can truly feel and be free, no matter where you are. And every small step on this path is a big victory, not only for ourselves, but also for everyone around us. And now more than ever, everyone is around us.
As the eagles fly over the valley, the cows stroll through the streets, we humans also stumble along – in many directions, on foot and on machines. Sometimes we destroy each other and sometimes we build each other up, as our brains and our passions tell us to. Sometimes we lose ourselves in stress and loneliness, and sometimes we find each other. Meanwhile, the cows and eagles just go on as they always have.