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14th March 1999

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In the land of the Lamas

A brief encounter with the Buddhist leader

In his last instalment Delhi street walker Bandula Jayasekera meets the Dalai Lama

When I got an invitation to visit Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh where most Tibetans and their leader the Dalai Lama live in exile I realised that it was going to be the longest bus journey of my life. 28 hours up and down all for the sake of a story and little enlightenment.

I boarded the bus at 5.30 pm from Delhi's Kashmir gate. The bus was comfortable with few passengers and a notice board that said 'drinking water available on demand'. It was easy to make friends with the fellow passengers -a Buddhist monk, Dr. Pedro, a Spanish doctor working at the Tibetan hospital, Tenzin Rapten a wood carver, another Tenzin medical student from Delhi and Momoko a Japanese woman.

We travelled through the night stopping once only to have dinner and reached Mcleodganj by 7.00 am where the Dalai Lama lives.

I checked in and rushed out of the Green Hotel where I was booked to stay, to the temple of the Lama where the main ceremony for the Tibetan New Year was taking place. The ceremony had started at 3.30 in the morning. Dalai Lama's temple is situated at a breathtaking place surrounded by snowy mountains, hill tops and pine trees. Buddhist, Tibetan and Indian flags added more colour to the temple site and heavily armed Indian and Tibetan guards stood protecting the area.

I was allowed entry to the inner sanctum on the roof top of the temple where a special pooja was taking place. The pooja was led by the Dalai Lama with few chief Lamas, senior Tibetans and a few foreign journalists.

It was cold and windy. But the air was fresh.

The Dalai Lama sat behind an altar wearing a long roman like horse cap. The other monks wore similar but yellow caps. The chanting of pirith took place with chiming of bells, conch shells, trumpets and horns.

The Dala Lama continued to ring a small bell, smiling with his fellow Lamas. The pooja ended with his blessings and a round of Tibetan tea.

After that another ceremony took place at the main hall and the shrine with more people allowed to join in. The Dalai Lama sat on an elevated platform and offered prayers for his devotees while the other Lamas chanted pirith.

The little samaneras paid homage to their political and spiritual leader with a dance of worship. And two of Dalai Lama's best pupils showed their debating skills in front of the audience.

All this reminded me of Bernardo Bertoluccis 'Little Buddha' and now I was seeing it in real life.

After the second ceremony the Dalai Lama addressed more than one hundred thousand people who had gathered from all over the world. From top of the main balcony he appealed to his people to make the Tibetan New Year a meaningful year and to think of others with compassion and understanding and practice nonviolence.

He said that his cause is based on truth and justice and no matter what, the truth will last.

In the afternoon I visited the Tibetan children's village managed by Dalai Lama's sister who wrote the award winning book 'Tibet My Story'.

It was a special day for the children as they received special New Year presents. Tibetan children play soccer, basketball and cricket. To my surprise they knew about Aravinda's strokes and Jayasuriya's blasts.

It was a night under the stars with disco music and toe tapping at a discotheque organised by the Tibetan youth.

The 'exile brothers' spinned the discs and played the music as people danced their cares away.

It was fun dancing under the stars with Tibetans and the rest of the world who had come in search of peace and happiness.

We greeted one another "happy losar" - happy New Year. At the party I met an Americano, young Jessi, a look-alike of late rock star Janice Joplin.

She introduced her as an ex-student a wanderer, wondering what to do next.

She wore anklets. Plenty of rings and bangles and a nose ring. She said that life was a difficult long journey, such a long journey in search of her soul.

The following day I moved to Chinar Lodge closer to the temple. The snowy mountains, pine trees and white brick walls and more peace.

I walked all over Mcleodganj, greeted and made friends with travel agents, street vendors, money changers, monks and the international community.

That's what happens in a small town specially when you are in exile. One becomes street smart. Italian photographer Gian Franco however didn't like the American invasion of Mcleodganj he said, "These guys are all over even under the stones." Couldn't agree more.

Although fire crackers, colour lights, dinners and drinks were very much a part of the Tibetan New Year celebration, it was peaceful. The place is bit cramped up. And the monks live in temples, monasteries and in ordinary houses.

They move about with people freely, visit hotels and restaurants for their meals. I saw one monk driving a car and another listening to a walkman. A monk who owned a restaurant invited me to attend a New Year dinner. It was a simple dinner, with soft music and soft drinks.

Before I left Mcleodganj and Daramsala I had the opportunity of meeting the Dalai Lama. An encounter I will always remember. I had to go through strict security checks before proceeding to his inner chamber.

While waiting for him I admired the many awards and plaques he had received from all over the world in support of his struggle. But the most coveted Nobel Peace Prize he won in 1989 was not to be seen.

I had a forty minute meeting with him at the end of which he chanted pirith and presented me with a white shawl blessed by him, and his autobiography 'Freedom in exile'.

The Dalai Lama had an interesting sense of humour, he appeared to be light hearted despite living in exile for the past 40 years.

He has not given up hope, to return to his beloved country. I wished him well and was back to the streets.

Let me end with his words of wisdom. As the Dalai Lama means the ocean of wisdom. "Sentient beings in general and particularly the people of this planet are like members of one human family; our happiness, both temporary and ultimate, is inter-related and dependent on the happiness of others.

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