During the summer of 2010, I went on a tour of Northeastern India. The tour was presented by Know India Travel and was titled “Great Indian Religions and Cultures”. Organized by Kelly McHenry who works as a librarian at Seattle Central College – in love with the country – she had led nine tours previously, mainly so she could share in the enjoyment of the experience.
The itinerary was planned so we explored mosques and temples of all the major religions and visited the Taj Mahal the final day. One thing that added so much depth to the experience was our guide, Dr. Arvind Singh. An expert on Indian religions, history, and culture; when we saw something exotic he could tell us what we were observing.
We flew into New Delhi and visited the beautiful Muslim Red Fort. On we traveled overnight by train to Amritsar, to the heart of Sikhism, the amazing Golden Temple. Then we took a long bus ride into the foothills of the Himalayas, to Dharamsala. This is the residence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.
To get there, we bused over winding narrow roads with spectacular views looking over cliffs deep into mountain valleys with the headwaters of the Ganges winding through. At one point we met another bus coming the other way, where some of the road had partly washed out. Our driver backed to the outside edge of the road to let the other bus pass by. Looking out a back window, I could see the very rear of the bus hanging over the precipice with the back tire only a foot from the red clay drop-off, down what looked like miles, into the valley below. The other bus passed and we continued up the mountain, business as usual.
We arrived in Dharamsala just before dusk, and our hotel was right where the road entered town. We had another fabulous meal and went to bed. I’m in the habit of waking at 4:00 in the morning getting up and doing some yoga and meditating. I wake exactly at 4:00 without an alarm. I was surprised, when we arrived in New Delhi near midnight two days before, that next morning – after a 17hour flight and half a world away, I still woke exactly at 4:00 India time.
After my yoga that morning in Dharamsala, being from Seattle, I started to look for a cup of coffee. I walked out of the hotel and into the dusky predawn morning. I’d only gone a few doors when an old man left one of the houses ahead, waving over his shoulder to an elderly woman in the doorway whom I took to be his wife. Walking a few yards ahead of me, I was intrigued by his wholesome grandfatherly appearance.
Ahead and behind us, as if on cue, persons were leaving other residences and all walking the same direction with us. I soon noticed each person had a string of beads in their hand. After only five blocks, we started to leave town on a well-tended path into the woods. The spirit of the occasion caught me up and I continued along following the old man, who somehow seemed my guide. The dirt path wound through woods that had much the same appearance of mountain terrain in the Pacific Northwest. At intervals, at the side of the path, were rows of prayer wheels that each passerby would give a spin. To our left, between the evergreens, we looked out over deep valleys filled with fog. Some of the walkers were monks and by their dress, what I took to be the female equivalent. Most appeared householders. The trail wasn’t crowded with ten to twenty feet between walkers, but I noticed all seemed to be softy repeating “ Om…Mani, Padme…Hum”.
After a long time, I began to wonder if this was a holiday and we were a procession to another village and made a silent plan to find a taxi on our arrival to get back to Dharamsala. After a good hour, we passed below the walls of what appeared a large temple complex, walked around the temple and into a town. I was taking in the strange narrow streets with seemingly crooked multi-story buildings clinging to the steep hillside as I wandered three blocks into town. Ahead I saw two persons who were members of my tour and for the first time realized we’d made a big circle and I was back where I’d started. Later I learned this walking meditation, this circumnavigation, is a ritual many of the local residents perform every day. The temple was Suglag Khang, the place of worship of His Holiness, The 14th Dalai Lama — Tenzin Gyatso.