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Day 36: Dharamsala and McLeodganj

Dharamsala, India 
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Bulrush fields hide the river south of Dharamsala. The Dhauladar Mountains behind are outposts of the Himalaya.
Michael Palin - HimalayaOn the way back up the hill a driveway turns sharply right, up to the Namgyal monastery, or Little Lhasa, as it's known, where the Dalai Lama is currently in residence. An inveterate traveller, he's just returned from a five-city tour of the US. Our appointment to see him is in two days' time, but there is a flurry of activity around the buildings and word comes through that he is leading prayers in the temple and if we're lucky we might be able to get in and film the ceremony. From then on everything happens very quickly. We're introduced to one of the Dalai Lama's private secretaries, a tall young man in immaculate grey suit, with a Tibetan waistcoat to match, who ushers us through a side entrance, up a flight of steps and through a metal detector. We're then body-searched quite thoroughly and led up into a light, airy courtyard, half covered with a corrugated plastic sun-roof. The floor is packed with people, many of them robed and beaded Westerners, but we are led on past them to the edge of an inner area, where, surrounded by a sea of shaven-headed, saffron-robed monks, the familiar bespectacled figure of the best known Buddhist in the world, the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Love and Great Compassion, sits on a cushioned platform leading the prayers. Every eye and ear is concentrated on him and yet he seems a modest figure, swaying slowly as he speaks and sounding profoundly weary. Occasionally he leans forward to shake a small bell.

We watch all this from a side door, not 20 feet away from him, which gives onto a stage, dominated by a statue of the Buddha and stacked with piles of sweets, biscuits and fruit such as you might find in a church at Harvest Festival. When we have finished filming we're moved smartly away, as the prayers come to an end and the assembled throng rises to its feet and begins to move forward for a glimpse of the great man as he leaves, preceded, I notice, by a guard with a sub-machine gun.
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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 36: Dharamsala and McLeodganj
  • Country/sea: India
  • Place: McLeodganj
  • Book page no: 80

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