Uphills chalein? Should we go to the hills? The answer to this question — the question that someone, somewhere in Chandigarh is certainly asking someone at this point too — holds many a drunken story and numerous silly secrets. It’s one of the blessings of staying in the shadow of the Himalayas, where you can spot the peaks close enough for you to imagine that you can touch them on a clear day.
It’s a state of mind. But ‘uphills’ doesn’t just mean Kasauli and that road all the way up to Shimla, unless you are oblivious to the obvious advantages of Chandigarh’s geographical location. It helps that Manali’s name pops up on almost every one of those big green highway signs, and that Mussourie is closer than you think, that the Nalagarh fort resort is less expensive than you’d believe, or that Dharamsala is barely a five-hour drive, plus 20 minutes for Mcleodganj. And that’s where this is coming from, the place where you’d find out what your female friends mean when they say there’s a difference between making out and making love.
Or, let’s put it this way. You know how poets always say poetry is different from songs, but fail to explain exactly how? Well, in that difference, exists McLeodganj. It needs no accompaniments, no instruments, no headphones and certainly no dance routine. It can only be recited, not belted out.
To most people, it is Little Lhasa, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the land of monks young and old. To those who chase the strings of colourful flags, it’s the world in a bottle. I didn’t mean to use the term Global Village, but to know what it means just walk into one of those cafés that play Buddhist chants on mid-volume, serve everything from Tibetan thukpa to Italian clay-oven pizza and Israeli falafel-hummus to Punjabi dal makhni, and you might even find a British old man flirting rather unabashedly with a Korean woman, who would smile the smile that you smile when you are away from worries. All this while, the Dalai Lama looks at you beatifically from a poster hung over the counter where you pay virtual peanuts for a soul-satisfying meal.
If you plan to shop, trust the Tibetans to drive a hard bargain despite their genial demeanour and rosaries in hand. Good business also means that if you are an Indian — worse, a Punjabi — a lot of things will not be up for sale to you, like those demon-god masks that cost you around `300 at the Kalagram fest in Chandigarh but are sold to foreigners for thousands in these Dhauladhar hills; to all foreigners, except the Israelis .Israelis don’t overpay for stuff, if you know what I mean. They come to India on a customary one-year break from military service mandatory in their conflict-marred country. Mcleodganj is a stop on the trail that passes through Kasol, Benaras, Pushkar and Goa. Thanks to them, Upper Bhagsu, the one-lane haven of peace-seekers near the ancient Bhagsunag temple and a narrow waterfall, has guesthouses that cost `200 a night, attached bath with geyser included, and joints that serve so many varieties of breakfast all day that you’d think time has stopped, or at least slowed down. You won’t need conversation.
Comfortable silence would be passed around the table. Before you know, you will crave for another round of pancakes. Things and thoughts that eat you up otherwise will go down with each gulp of ginger-lemon-honey.
For the spiritually inclined, there is the main temple where monks argue vociferously, rather charmingly, over interpretation of Buddha’s teachings in their sing-song tongue. Each argument, accompanied by a loud clap of the hands by the arguer, adds to the dhamma’s vast philosophy.
Disagreement over teachings o the Supreme Being is seen as treason in most other religions, but here it is part of Buddhism’s evolution. Prayer on their lips, monks also run cleanliness drives in the streets of their adopted home. Quiet and committed, they lend the place its unhurried vibe and that sweet background rhyme audible only to those who care to stop and listen.