After the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Dharamsala, Ben and I decided to stay and volunteer for a week. In Dharamsala, and in the nearby town of McCloud Ganj, there are many organizations that have been established to help the Tibetan community adjust to life in exile here in India.
We only had about one week before moving on to Punjab and Rajasthan, so we figured we could sit in on a few conversational English sessions throughout the week. These sessions are more of an informal exchange that gives travelers a chance to get to know someone in the local community while giving them a chance to practice their English. We found an organization called Tibet World that helps refugee families, nuns and monks in McCloud Ganj.
When we sat down with the director of Tibet World, he said that they hadn’t had an Intermediate English teacher in a long time and asked if we would teach this class for the week instead of sitting in on the conversational sessions. We agreed and said we would be back on Monday to start the class.
I’ve never taught English before, so I was glad that Ben and I were going to do this together. The director told us to expect about 15 students, most of whom would be Tibetan refugees, but when we arrived to our class the first day there were only 5 students present. Throughout the week we slowly gained more students as word spread that the Intermediate level classes were running again.
Most of the students spoke English pretty well which allowed us to have open discussions in class about their lives here in India. Ben and I decided we wouldn’t ask anyone direct questions about their experience leaving Tibet, aware this might involve painful memories, but we were really interested to know their stories. One very talkative girl, about my age, started talking about her husband and son and then began discussing her escape from Tibet.
We listened as she explained how she had to leave her family behind about ten years ago. First, she and several others took a bus close to the border with Nepal. There they met with 2 guides who then showed them the way by foot. They had to walk 5 days, and nights through the mountains to the Indian border. She remembered that her shoes had worn holes in them from the walking and her feet hurt from the cold. When crossing into Nepal she had to hide several times from Chinese border guards. The group was terrified they would be shot if found trying to escape.
We asked if she was angry with the Chinese because of what they have done to the people of Tibet. She said she wasn’t angry with the people and has met many good Chinese people. She said she is angry only with the government. She also said she is happy living here and that the Tibetan community has a good relationship with the Indian people.
Earlier in class she asked us what we thought about Tibet’s situation with China. It was hard to know how to answer her. It’s estimated that over 1.2 million Tibetans have died since China’s invasion. In addition, thousands of people have been imprisoned or sent to labor camps and over 6000 monasteries, temples and other cultural and historic buildings have been destroyed. And all this has happened to a people who dedicate their lives to non-violence and seeking nothing more than inner-peace. I didn’t know what to say except that what has happened to them is a tragedy.
I also feel sad for those living here in exile. Many of them have made the journey seeking a better life but at the expense of living without their family. They are not given Indian citizenship and must maintain the status of ‘refugee’. They are not only living without their family but also without a country. Despite all of this, they remain dedicated to Buddha’s teachings and continue to look to the Dalai Lama for leadership. Since the beginning, he has maintained that they must react with non-violence and forgiveness.
The week came and went really fast. It seemed right about the time we started gaining a decent number of students, we had to leave. I hope a volunteer will come soon and continue the class.
Golden Temple at Amritsar
There is so much to learn about India; it has so many different types of people. What holds true in one region — the language, history and social problems for example — is unique and different than in other parts of India.
We came to understand this firsthand when we left Dharamsala for the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in the nearby Punjabi state, where the communities changed from Tibetan to Sikh. Before coming to India, I had heard the word Sikh before, but never really knew what it meant. I had seen the men with long beards wearing head wraps, but had assumed that they were Muslim. Ben and I had the opportunity to learn about the Sikh religion at their most sacred site, the Golden Temple.
We arrived to Amritsar in the late afternoon. On our rickshaw to the temple we had our first glimpse of what life is like in India outside the peaceful Himalayas. The most obvious difference is the huge increase in population. The streets were flooded with cars, rickshaws, motos, horses, donkeys and cows, all of whom moved in and out of each other’s way without any semblance of order. The streets were lined with vendors selling every kind of good imaginable with sizeable piles of garbage at their feet, causing the food markets to smell overly ripe.
This was a piece of the India other travelers had told us about: the hot, sweaty, crowded, smelly, colorful India that provoked every traveler to explain with bulged eyes that India is ‘beautiful but crazy’. This vision of India would emerge in clear technicolor when we arrived to the state of Rajasthan later.
We’d heard there were rooms available to sleep in on the temple grounds. After looking around for a little while, we found the several basic dorm rooms reserved just for foreigners. The rooms were free of charge which turned out to be a reoccurring theme of the Golden Temple.
We spent the next two days exploring the ins and outs of the temple area. Each time before entering, we had to remove our shoes, wash our feet, and we both had to cover our heads with a scarf (which were also provided for free at the entrance of the temple). Once inside we were faced with a large square pool of water with the small, real-gold temple in the middle, the holiest site in the Sikh religion. On the way in I picked up a small booklet explaining the Sikh faith and read it as we made our way around the pool. The water is considered holy and many people stopped to dip their feet and wash their face as they made their way around. It was really sweet seeing fathers take their small kids to the water to teach them the prayers and to wash their tiny faces.
The thing that seemed to stick out the most inside the temple grounds was us. Everyone seemed so interested to see westerners at the temple. Several people approached us asking for a photograph with us. Some didn’t even ask our names, or where we were from, they just wanted one photo. What they were going to do with the photo I have no idea.
After reading about Sikhism, I was really impressed with its simplicity. It was started in 1499 by a man called Guru Nanak, who didn’t understand why people were so divided by their Hindu or Muslim faith. He was completely against the Hindu caste system and set out to preach about the importance of equality. He saw the caste system as an example of how the common man was a victim of political and social tyranny. He set out on a mission to educate and unify Indian society which was so separated by their various faiths, creeds, and castes.
It’s a monotheistic religion that preaches that everyone is worthy to speak to God, no matter their caste or religion. He preached that mutual regard and respect among all people is the basis of a true religion, and that there was no religion that was superior to this principle.
There is much more to the religion’s history and foundation, but that’s the overall message. We saw several people with tears in their eyes as they circled the temple, which continued to remind us what an important site this is to the 22 million people in the world who adhere to Sikhism.
Before catching our bus out of Amritsar, we decided to get a meal in the dining hall of the temple. We wandered inside the hall with many others, without any idea how the process worked. Without asking, someone handed us a plate and bowl and we were ushered into a room in a single file. Once seated crossed-legged on the floor, we followed along with everyone and placed our plates on the floor in front of us. Soon several men appeared with large buckets of dal (lentil soup) and a bean dish. As they passed they ladled the food on our plates. Afterwards a man passed by with chapatti (bread). We held our hands out and he quickly tossed two chapatti pieces in them before moving along to another line of people.
It was a very humbling experience eating this way, on the ground with complete strangers. It’s something everyone who comes to the Golden Temple does at least once. And in staying true to the principles of the religion, it’s one of the few places in India where a millionaire can be seen eating next to a homeless or lower-caste person.
There were probably 400 people in the dining hall at that moment. And in perhaps 30 minutes an entirely new crowd would be in there. The temple performs this service free of charge for an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 people each day.
After the Golden Temple we took an overnight sleeper bus to the town of Pushkar in state of the Rajasthan. To say the bus did not meet our expectations is a major understatement. In all the bus trips I’ve ever taken, I’ve never been inside a bus so unsanitary or had to lay down on something so filthy. The bus looked a few decades old and like it had never been cleaned once in its life. The ‘bed’ was stained black from years of use with a family of bed bugs that had taken up residence in its oil-soaked threads. I would like to say that I rose to the challenge, but in truth I almost had a mental breakdown. The realization that I had to spend the next 15 hours in that putrid little cubby brought me on the verge of rage, which Ben found very entertaining. He sat, adaptable as ever, with a huge smile on his face while I angrily tried to cover every inch of the pad with my towel and jacket.
Now that it’s over, it’s pretty funny how ridiculously angry I was. We can both laugh about it now, and Ben hasn’t stopped making fun of me since. Rightly so, I suppose. This is India after all…you truly don’t ever know what you’re going to get. Patience and adaptability are essential.