Prior to 2012, Jane Austen had never traveled to India. One couldn’t blame her, considering the life-threatening hazards of a months-long overseas journey to a country swarming with malaria, dysentery, and other things we still have today but they have antibiotics and immunizations for. India in Jane Austen’s time was not yet a British colony. The British East India company controlled major ports and was making headways inland, but was not yet controlled by the British military and still competed with the Dutch East India Company and other European concerns. (An excellent book on line in this time period, by the way, is White Mughals by William Dalrymple)
All of that changed last month when I traveled to the former British fort town of Mcleod-Ganj in the hills of Dharamsala and took Jane Austen with me. It was named after its founder, Sir Donald McLeod, a British officer in the Punjab who would vacation in the cooler mountainside. It was not annexed by the British until 1849. Lord Elgin, famous to British historians, is buried there, in a still-functioning Anglican church and graveyard known as St. John in the Wilderness. The town would be all-but abandoned now if it hadn’t been granted as a resident to the Dalai Lama by Prime Minister Nehru in 1960, and a town has sprung up around him, comprimsed of Tibetan refugees, spiritual tourists, activists, local Himachali Indians, and merchants from Nepal and the Punjab. The Tibetan Government-in-Exile is a mile down the hill and most of the major Tibetan monasteries in the North of India are either in McLeod-Ganj itself or Lower Dharamsala, 40 km south. I arrived to join the “activist” contingent, recording and compiling oral histories of Tibetan refugees as part of a Kickstart project. After a month in India, I spent 6 days in Nepal before returning to America, exhausted, to work on book 5 of my series, which is unrelated and out next month. I didn’t do much touring in India itself, but when I did, Jane Austen tagged along (when it was appropriate). She was also present for the Dalai Lama’s spring teaching, but I wasn’t allowed to have a camera for it.
The Bhagsu Nag Temple and Waterfall (Dharamsala, India) – This town, about 3 km from McLeod-Ganj, is the spot where, according to legend, the King Bhagsu made a deal with the naga (snake) spirit who inhabited the nearby lake to create a waterfall, and it was named after both of them. A temple was built at the bottom and the town is named after them.
Chime Gatsling Monastery (Dharamsala, India) Located near the Norbulingka Institue for Tibetan Culture, this often-overlooked monastery is by far the most tricked out one I’ve ever seen, in terms of statuary and paintings. We visited the day before HH the Dalai Lama gave public teachings there.
Kopan Monastery (Kathmandu Valley, Nepal) From there we traveled to Nepal, to pose with some more statuary. The Kopan Monastery was founded in 1959 by Tibetan refugees for the preservation of the Mahanyana Buddhist tradition. Today it has over a hundred satellite monasteries around the world. It was also featured prominently in the move Unmistaken Child. Thousands of Westerns flock there every year for its world famous 1o-day or 30-day meditation course with Zopa Rinpoche and Geshe Tenzin Zopa.
Boudha Stupa (Boudnatha, Nepal) – A highlight of our trip was a visit to one of the holest sites of Tibetan Buddhism, and Buddhism in general, and one of the most iconic sights in Nepal itself, the stupa at Boudhanath in Kathmandu. This sacred circular building is solid, but said to be built on actual relics of the Buddha, possible some bones from his body. Thousands of pilgrims visit it every day to circle-ambulate its base. It is also a Unesco World Heritage Site.
As for my project itself, it was a sucess and you can read all about it at Kickstarter.