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. Continue reading “McLeod Ganj”