Here, the cold road leading from Srinigar climbs slowly out of Kashmir and falls into the heated humidity of a passing night in Jammu. Returning south this road has felt longer, twisting slowly, passing; twelve hours through lingering mountains and an early start. Another bus, left instinctively at a roadside dhaba on the edge of an unknown town, which led to a short cut through the flatlands of the Punjab, to a twisting climb returning into rising hills. And, here, 33 hours after the engine spluttered into life in Srinigar, we step onto a final bus in Dharamsala, to wind the last ten kilometers to the destination, Mcleod Ganj, as I sit watching the lower valleys collect themselves in a sequence of misted ridges leading to an uncertain horizon.
In youth we dreamed such places; formed their images from worn pages, brief glimpses upon film screened as occasional news items; the empire and the monk. And we expect? Images of an old monk’s smiling face, the cult of personality: echoes of Shangri la and the mythology of the inaccessible, the dreams of ages past drowning in the requisite romance of the road.
The reality, bright temples perched above the ragged streets, the subsistence of a bedraggled mountain town, perched upon a ledge between two cultures, two countries; a place of exile. Monks passing by, unseeing, unsmiling, too much seeking after karmic credit, too fixed a vision on another world, the next incarnation: Another viewpoint for sure and no less valid than mine, but I keep coming back to the Presbyterian here, “There’ll be cake in the next world.” Robes are accessorised by the latest, knocked off, fashions of the outdoor type, a latent practicality. Momos for sale, steamed or fried, amidst a sequence of similar stalls, selling handicrafts, symbols of heritage, icons of a distant place. Monks wandering with serious faces, a collation of ethnicities under saffron robes, few smiles. I think of a painting, I think, the vinegar drinkers.
In front of the Kalachakra Temple a Hindu woman sells masks borrowed from Hollywood horror films, trick or treating as a dusty wind blows up from the plains and settles upon this magnet of faith, this place of refuge, dry and dusty, clinging to the hills. At the rear, a Sikh sharpens knives as prayer wheels are turned in the background, sadhus pass, buses disgorge temporary faces. The streets are busier today, an influx from outlying villages, a Japanese friend tells me that the Dalai Lama is returning later, we should go join the crowds and catch a glimpse. Arriving we find that the crowds have already formed, a melange of faces and dress waiting for a glimpse of his face. An hour later, led by heavy security, a blacked out car window passes and the crowd disperses.
How many here, I wonder, remember Tibet? The elderly, sitting or walking, quiet or sociable, hands working prayer beads in an apparently constant cycle, minds cast forth upon a landscape drowned upon years. Weathered faces, lines ridged as if memoried landscape was written there, a sense of distanced illusion, ghostwalkers, refugees all. And here the echoes, the continuation and community of a lost place.
I try to imagine how it might feel to know that you could never go home, that what remains of that place is contained only in your memories; that time has passed there also, that nothing has remained as you last saw it. I fail. This life, this place; the imagination bringing the scent of home upon Himalayan winds; distances counted only upon the racing years, the rotation of a thousand moons. To become, as part of the price of exile, a tourist attraction, romantically magnified by a mythic lens into an anomaly in this chaotic place.
And these younger generations, what dreams do they carry? Prayer beads are replaced by mobile phones, prayer flags supplemented with Free Tibet banners and flags. Here, images form upon words, decanting old memories, the captured film of history playing upon the screens of technology in cafes and tea houses. Outside, traditional garments vie with borderless fashions, connected by wifi to the widening world; a shrinking map, though borderguards remain, hoarding land in the delusional tragedy of ownership.
The spinning world, swift time flowing, old certainties eroding in the current as distances shrink in a mobile age. Here, an island forms, a scant refuge for dreamers and believers, but time still passes. Politics forms bubbles and boundaries upon all maps, regardless of the future and guided by each mythic past. We plunder history and create our own citadels to that which never was, brocken spectres upon imagined landscapes; others intrude forcing their perceptions, superimposing illusion upon illusion until only impossibles remain. And here, perhaps, we all form our own image of Tibet, imaginations colluding with memories, family tales, books and images. Beyond, Realpolitik turns the crushing wheel of its own dharma, colludes with history to create the impossibility of return, the impermanence of an ideal. The Panchen Lama disappeared, the residue of our mortality carved upon our brows. How will the next incarnation appear?
And as the years pass into decades and, further, become generations; as borders open under an imposed regime, exile remains. Against the fluidity of empires, the erosion of culture, this place, amidst it’s beautiful chaos, becomes a time capsule; exiles in a land of the dispossessed, refugees in an age of asylum seekers.
“The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.”
But here, climbing behind the green hills, the snowclad rocks of the Himalaya sparkle in the distance, where, against the blue hour, colder stars begin to form above them.