Meg Noble Peterson

Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

Greetings from Dharamsala

Greetings from Dharamsala, where it’s snowing, raining, sleeting, and generally pretty miserable, and where Cary and I are pretending we’re on a Himalayan trek or in a cave in Tibet. Just walking down our steep muddy hill is like fording a small stream. Our shoes are soaked, but we’re protected by Gore-Tex jackets and our $1.00 umbrellas. So far we’ve met some great people and are looking at this as a trial of endurance. We bought some tea, coffee, cups, ginger, lemon, and a heating coil, and with some bananas, oranges and cookies, figure we can survive a week if we get snowed it. None of these guest houses has heat, so for 50 rupees a day (a little more than $1.00) we can rent a small electric heater. So far it hasn’t brought our room temperature up beyond 50 degrees, however. Thank God for sleeping bags and comforters!

This is just another example of what global warming is doing to the weather patterns of Asia. It’s supposed to be spring, but is, instead, the winter they never had. The Tibetans and Indians I talk to are happy about the rain, for a severe water shortage was predicted. So I plan to be patient. But I do miss the wonderful views of the mountains that we could see from our balcony the first two days.

I’ll write more about this lovely place…McLeod Ganj, upper Dharamsala…after I get caught up.

Here’s a recap of my sensational time in the Rishikesh area, a part of Uttaranchal, which broke off from Uttar Pradesh in 2000. I arrived in Haridwar on February 15 after a peaceful ride on the train from Delhi. I had read that Haridwar was a very historic place for Hindus, where the Ganges emerges from its final rapids past the Shivalik Hills, to start the long, slow journey across India to the Bay of Bengal. Haridwar means the Gate (dwar) of God (Hari). It’s 214 kilometers northeast of Delhi, stretching for about 3 kilometers along a narrow strip of land between the wooded hills to the west and the Ganges to the east. This is especially revered by the Hindus for whom the Har-ki-Pairi ghat (the “Footsteps of God,” literally) marks the exact spot where the river leaves the mountains. Looking north along the vast Doon Valley you can see the Himalayan foothills rising above Rishikesh, while Haridwar, itself, faces east across the river to the Rijaji National Park (next time I’ll visit the park and maybe ride an elephant). 

When I arrived in Haridwar I hired a bicycle rickshaw and started looking for a hotel. My driver took me to a wide plaza where I saw the Ganga (the Indian word for the Ganges) for the first time, churning full throttle as it rushed under a large, impressive bridge. People sat cross-legged, watching in silence. No reasonable hotel there.

I really dig exploring a town in these rickety old rickshaws. It’s an exotic experience you cannot duplicate at home. We just don’t have the atmosphere of total abandon and the lack of inhibition that these street scenes embody. Nor the ear-splitting horns of cars and motorized rickshaws jockeying for position on crowded streets. Even our Christmas throngs in Rockefeller Center are subdued compared to the beehive of human activity in an Indian town bazaar. And this goes on from dawn until way after dusk.

I finally found a hotel in the middle of all this chaos, and the singing, shouting, and celebrating didn’t die down until the wee hours (I  found out the next day that this was because of Shiva’s birthday, Shiva Ratri, the night of Shiva).

This whole area is Vegan, so I learned to live without eggs, meat of any kind, and fish. Since I’m allergic to fish, that was not a problem, and I cultivated a taste for curd and its sweetened cousin, lassai. Fruit milkshakes are also very popular, as they were in Myanmar. My meal that evening was a total mystery, since it was only in Indian. As usual, even the non-spicy dishes brought tears to my eyes. I’m looking forward to Tibetan food.

At breakfast the next day I met a delightful Indian family, the Aroras, who are now living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Pankaj Arora is head of the biggest pharmaceutical complex in India, and he offered to drive me to a small town, Gitahdawan, outside Rishikesh, where I could get a motorized rickshaw to Lakshmanjhula, my hoped-for destination. He was returning home for a visit with his father, K.N. Arora, his wife, Nidhi, and two children, Sara (5, with whom I bonded immediately), and Aryan (5 months). We stopped at two temples along the way, and Pankaj explained several aspects of Hinduism to me as well as the reason for the brightly-decorated poles being carried on the shoulders of thousands of people as they streamed into Haridwar from the countryside. On both ends of the pole were small tin buckets to be used for water from the Ganga. The water would be taken back to their respective communities and offered to a favorite deity, temple, or person in need, on Shiva’s birthday. The small containers of holy water were not allowed to touch the ground. 

It was a speedy, interesting journey with lively conversation. Pankaj’s father had worked for years in a pharmaceutical plant in Rishikesh, which made penicillin, but which had recently succumbed to the vagaries of foreign competition.

Lakshmanjhula is fabulous! I approached it from a hill and looked down onto a narrow suspension bridge over the Ganga. Backpackers, and those who had come to study at the plethora of ashrams in the area, tramped across from east to west, while mischievous moneys harassed those foolish enough to look them in the eye. Scary devils they are. And aggressive.

I bumped into many Westerners from the States and Europe. They were here to study with their favorite Yogi or Guru, to attend classes, or to study yoga of all kinds and the healing arts, including Ayurvedic medicine.

Hotels, guest houses, and ashrams lined the hills on each side of the river. Most were painted pastel shades, making a colorful panorama. People were still bathing and bands were playing by the shore. Groups of women danced, and the general revelry continued all day in honor of Shiva.

I found a room in Sant Sewa Ashram, with a balcony overlooking the Ganga. What sunsets we had, but after three days I tired of the amplified chanting shattering the stillness every evening from 6 to 7. It was accompanied by harmonium and drums, and mostly out-of-tune. At night it was quiet, and I could hear the river tumbling over shallow rapids as it rounded a bend and headed downstream. But at 6 A.M. the chanting began anew, this time from an ashram on the opposite side. That side was rocky, with white pebbles leading to the water, so most people did their morning ablutions on the sandy side. Brave souls! It was cold in the early morning, as it was in the evening. I was glad for my polypro underwear and fleece jacket.

I spent a glorious week in this quaint town and even visited the impressive, but decaying ashram in Ram Jhula made famous by the Beatles in the late 60’s. On my third day I couldn’t stand the chanting any more, so moved down the lane to a smaller place, The Dev Ganga Guest House, which I highly recommend ($5.00 a day), also with a balcony over the river, and monkeys that loved to startle you as you meditated at sunset. Here I met Rosemary Lamotta (second cousin to Jake), and William Karnett, both attending satsangs and sessions at one of the large ashrams. We spent many hours at the Moonlight Cafe across the street from the guest house, eating vegetarian meals and talking. Germans, Spanish, and English joined us most evenings. 

A highlight of my week in Lakshmanjhula was getting to know the staff and the work being done at Ramana’s Garden (www.sayyesnow.org), a children’s home and primary school in Tapovan Village a few kilometers above the river. I had heard about the school from Judy Wyman, who gave money in my name last Christmas. It was started ten years ago by Dr. Prabhavati Dwabha, an American woman from Marvel,  Colorado, who saw a need to care for homeless and destitute children and designed and built this artistic compound on what was once a barren hillside. Sixty youngsters live at the school and another 180 children from the surrounding area attend one of the eight classes during the day. The classrooms are ample and the teachers all well-educated. There are vegetable and flower gardens tended by the children, cows for milk, a large playground, and charming rooms for the staff and the children. There is an excellent cafe run by Gaba, the profits of which are used to buy food for the children. Some children are orphans, others come from destitute families that can’t support them, and many were street children from Nepal and India. The children refer to each other as brother and sister.

The only financial help Prabha gets is from individuals who believe in the school and its mission and will sponsor children, and from donations she receives whenever she lectures about her work. This is something many of you might want to look into. It is truly an amazing place. Prabha is also very active in trying to get shelters for the many homeless children in the Uttaranchal state.

I met and talked with many of the staff over several days. Volunteers Cass Foste and Jessi Marlott from Colorado; Anna Vercellotti from Italy; and Adele Maze , an art teacher from California. Each one of these talented people has skills she is giving for six months to enhance the curriculum. A summer residence, called Paradise, is high in the mountains, used as a retreat and a place for the children to escape the heat of summer. Prabha thought of everything!

Two days before I left, I took a challenging trek with Anna and Kishan (the cook), 13 kilometers up a steep mountain trail to Kunjapuri Temple, a pristine white Shakti temple at the sharp point of a conical hill, with a stupendous view of the highest Himalayan peak in India, Nanda Divi. It was a beautiful climb through forests of cactus and pine with vistas of the valley leading to the Ganga. It was brutally hot, cooling down as we reached the entrance to the 325 steps (I counted!) leading to the temple. We had hoped for some food, but found nothing but water, one Kit Kat bar, and some cookies.

The sun was setting as we started down a 3 kilometer serpentine road, singing songs and chanting nonsense rap until we reached the tiny village of Hindola Khat, 15 kilometers from Rishikesh. No chance of hitching, and the taxi was way too expensive. Our only hope was the local bus, which wouldn’t arrive for half-an-hour. We were hungry and we were tired. Then a miracle occurred. The jeep from Ramana’s Garden came by, returning from the mountains, and the driver recognized Anna standing by the side of the road. We could hardly believe it. Thus began a wild ride as we descended in hairpin turns, bumping unmercifully in the back of the jeep, but praising Shiva, Buddha, and Jesus for our good fortune.

I said goodbye to the Ganga, the German Bakery and Devraj Coffee Shop early  in the morning, and boarded a luxury sleeper train from Haridwar to Delhi on February 22. I had to wait one day because of the elections, when no cars or buses would run. The sights along the way took me back twenty years to my first glimpse of labor-intensive India. Shacks and tents lined the tracks. Black shiny cows were tethered in dirt yards. Conical piles of drying cow dung filled the yards and lined every available wall. And women dug in the dirt with their bare hands, putting the soil into shallow dishes to be carried on their head to another location. Three days later, as I sped along the highway to Dharamsala in the overnight bus, I saw great earth-moving machines used to construct the ever-increasing number of roads needed in a modern India. Such contrasts can be seen every day, side by side in this tumultuous country.

It was wonderful to get to Wongdhen House in Delhi, and see Cary, and have a day to visit with Ugen, the nursing student she mentors. We were to meet several more of these students in the next three days, as well as our monk, Thubten Tashi, who caught up with us as we were wandering through the bazaar in McLeod Ganj, upper Dharamsala. He came here to see Cary, not even knowing where she was staying, and found her. But the most amazing coincidence was when Cary, jet-lagging after arriving from a week in Amsterdam, stepped out of Wongdhen House at 3 A.M. and bumped into Dorje, our Tibetan guide three years ago at Mt. Kailash in Tibet. He and his mother were making a pilgrimage and had stopped in Majnu Ka Tilla for the day. Can you imagine the emotional reunion? The next day we put them on the bus for Dharamsala, the same one we boarded  February 24th.

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March came in like a lion here in Dharamsala…

2 Comments

  1. http://www.mcllo.com ” An Informative, Travel and local Community Website of Dharamsala,Mcleodganj and Kangra Valley Himachal Pradesh”

    Dharamsala and Dalai Lama Information.

    A guide to few facts and resources to Dharamsala,Mcleodganj.
    Information about Dalai Lama , His Teachings, Local News Information.

  2. Shalu

    why dont u put a picture with a nice family Indian which you met here

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