"Love is an endless mystery, for it has nothing else to explain it" ~ Rabindranath Tagore


Dharamshala Diary

Madalena Coelho visited India in 1997. Here she shares her experiences at Dharamshala through excerpts from the diary she maintained of her unforgettable holiday in India.

From what I had read in the books and the images I created about it myself, train stations in India were not a place to be at all - too many people and too much confusion. You would not be able to find your platform or locate your train, and you would likely miss it at the end. You could easily get robbed, even kidnapped amidst the turbulence, who knows. Very frightening, really!

In fact I found train stations in India to be very attractive and easily manageable public spaces. They are as lively and dirty as the interior of the human body, with plenty of things, people, animals and their intentions going in many different directions all the time, day and night, creating noise, dirt and endless motive for distraction and curiosity. And that's all I would like to say for the moment, as I am about to recall my very first long distance train journey in India.

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I got to that frightening train station in the evening and I was going to travel all night in a carriage with God-knows-whom. When I came out of the taxi in front of the train station and paid my bill, a porter immediately made his services available. I told him where I was going and showed him my ticket. He took my luggage and I followed him through the enormous station, up and down stairs, and when we approached the right train he directed me straight into my seat and that was it.
Will I be lucky enough to see the Dalai Lama, I wondered? My travelling companions knew he was there. That made me very happy indeed.

I dropped my luggage on the floor and chained and locked it against the table between the seats, just in case. My travelling companions were already there and they looked fine, two of them were foreigners like me and we restricted talking to the essential minimum. Next morning came in no time.

Our compartment with four beds and air conditioning was reasonably spacious and looked luxurious to me. It allowed me to sleep all the previous Delhi troubles away. I woke up happy, relaxed, and ready to get a taxi, from Pathankot where our train stopped, up to Dharamasala.

Luckily we formed a group of four going the same direction, got a large spacious car together, and the two hour journey was very pleasant indeed. I was in the front seat enjoying the morning warm breeze and looking at the cows and trees almost in the middle of the road. Children were going to school and peasants about to go to their daily duties, all so colourful. Will I be lucky enough to see the Dalai Lama? I wondered. My travelling companions knew he was there. That made me very happy indeed.


From my diary:
Dharamsala - Tuesday, 30 September 1997

During November 1990, the daily newspaper, Times of India, published a picture of a criminal and a similar incident. One of my relatives sent me the newspaper clipping.
Seven in the morning - Paljor Gakyil Guest House - Dharamsala, a room with a view and the sun kissing my face in bed. A room on top of the world with monkeys, dogs, the divine sun and the mountains and beautiful country noises. .

This rainy afternoon while taking shelter in a small Tibetan shop, I hear exciting conversation between the shop owner and her client. It looks like this is a very important time to be in Dharamsala. I heard H. H. the Dalai Lama is doing a very special course, something he only does every ten years or so. The subject apparently related to the old Scriptures! The place is full of monks from all over the world. Richard Gere and JFK Junior are both here in Dharamsala.

How marvellous McLeod Ganj seemed to me despite the fact that I had to sleep almost fully dressed with woollen socks on my feet. McLeod Ganj is about 1.800 metres high - this was a big temperature change from Delhi, which had been so intensely hot. It was also very wet with plenty of rain. But eating a tasty cake in a nearby cafe, browsing in those Tibetan shops or just looking up to the imposing mountains or down into the nearby plains was all I was looking for.

I wasn't short of pleasurable things to do anyway. Ulla, the woman from Switzerland I met previously in Delhi, was there as well. We kept meeting for tea and cakes. I was also enchanted with anything Tibetan, from books to frocks, and was willing to spend some money on them.

I found a manageable size bronze Buddha that needed a facelift, as the Thangka painting on the face was fading away. I decided he was going to be my faithful companion to travel with me all over India. For protection, I gave him a velvet blue purse to keep him warm and safe.

I bought prayer beads and prayer flags and more prayer beads for presents back home. I put it all inside a plastic bag and the day before I left and gave it to the security man at the entrance of the Dalai Lama's Palace for His blessing.

I bought prayer beads and prayer flags and more prayer beads for presents back home. I put it all inside a plastic bag and the day before I left and gave it to the security man at the entrance of the Dalai Lama's Palace for His blessing.

The yellow dragon silk brocade was a real find, so beautiful was it that I kept displaying it in front of my very delighted eyes in the cold hotel room, just for a bit of warmth.

I ate momos and more momos, which are small delicious boiled dumplings of pastry filled with vegetables, meat or both, and thukpa - noodles with meat. How on earth was it possible to find so much delicious food available in a place full of crap? That was a real Indian-Tibetan miracle!


Dharamsala - Saturday, 4 October 1997
6.15 a.m. the clouds and the mountain are waking in front of my eyes. The birds, the monkeys, the dog are talking. Yesterday I went to sleep with the irritating noise of some rave party going on, somewhere down in McLeod Ganj, and this morning I wake up with the noise of Buddhist sounds from a nearby monastery, about 5 am.

Yesterday and the day before I was very ill because of a pancake I ate for breakfast on Thursday morning. Luckily my big appetite has returned. When I was very sick it was impossible to walk in the streets because of the terrible smell of shit coming from all those open sewage drains along the streets. Such smells are OK if the body is happy, but with stomach cramps it becomes very revolting.

The morning I was preparing to eat my poisonous pancake on the top terrace of my Guest House, and while I was lost in my thoughts admiring the early morning view, someone from the terrace below captured my attention and pointed at a visiting monkey taking the food away from the room below.

It happens that it was my room and my food that he was disposing of. Something I had intended as I left the window open and some food available by the window screen. That morning I was happy see my first yellow thief.


When my pancake arrived someone gave me a wooden stick to keep by the breakfast table just in case the little intruder would venture forward. And I wish now he had, as that would have prevented me many agonising hours through the following night.

On the second day after this, I remember walking with some pain in the sunny morning, all the way down to the Library with Ulla and a new Swiss friend Andrea. We were looking for a Tibetan doctor in the hospital but no luck

We were asked to return but I got dissuaded as I was told that Tibetan medicine tastes very bad. I spent some time instead changing traveller's cheques in the only bank available in McLeod Ganj, a very slow nightmarish activity.

I went for a palmistry reading by an Indian guru - very expensive at 30 rupees per minute! The man seated in a square room on a sea of colourful floor cushions had a pair of persuasive and very beautiful brown eyes and he certainly knew how to practice an enjoyable business.

He advised me on more artistic activities and tantric sex practice. Back in the cafe we girls compared notes about the guru's advice and predictions. We discovered that we were told some similar things, especially the one to do with the tantric sex!


I also took pictures of the monkey coming to eat my apples and bananas and bread. And I found a Thangka painter who could restore the painting on the face of my very beautiful little Buddha.

9.30 am - Back to bed again! I just put my right leg trough a sewage hole in the middle of McLeod Ganj Square and I bruised my right knee, my left elbow and my left hand. God! So many things happening.

Earlier I was watching the monks going into His Holiness palace for this morning lecture. All the monks are very knowledgeable. It was somehow impressive to see them entering the palace slowly because of all the security measures.

After my fall I bought more apples and bananas from a street vendor on the way to my room, both for my temporarily adopted monkeys and me. It was very enjoyable to see those little hairy yellow hands, very quick and sharp, taking the food away.

Dharamsala - Sunday, 5 October l997

5.30 am - The monks must wake up this early because I do every morning to a beautiful musical metal sound that may come from the Monastery below.


And now big news from Dharamsala! I have seen the Dalai Lama in the afternoon of Saturday 4th of October, a very special day indeed. I knew it would be a very inspiring moment to see him. I am so very lucky!

Iexperienced something that is not fit for words, and the big emotion travelled like a rocket very fast over my whole being, and of course I wept.

I also met, in the street, the young monk from Barcelona who is recognised as the reincarnation of Lama Thubten Yeshi, and he told me how to use the giant prayer wheel housed there. All these blessed encounters I found most touching. I had known nothing about turning prayer wheels. And a couple of days later I found myself exchanging a few words with his mother, in one of those delightfully painted rooms in the main Monastery.

I knew, I knew I was going to have some very meaningful encounters with those highly inspiring spiritual people. That's why I went to Dharamsala. But first I had to endure a few horrors as a possible means of purification of all my bad interior vermin; that poisonous pancake for breakfast, and butter tea. I had it for the first (and last) time that blessed afternoon, in the square where I later saw, the Ocean of Wisdom leader.


Tuesday, 7 October 1997

What a time I am having in India! And what a time I was having in Dharamsala. At night I would suffer with stomach cramps, the following day I would be seeing the Dalai Lama, or listening from a distance to his Tibetan spoken lectures seated peacefully opposite the Monastery. Or I would be having tea with different people from all over the world, in a variety of colourful cafes and restaurants.

I also drank blessed water at the entrance of the Dalai Lama's Palace when I went to get my blessed items that I had left there the previous day. And it was most entertaining to look at those little white Tibetan terriers that some people were happy to carry around. I immensely enjoyed the frequent company of Ulla and Andrea, the two Swiss women and we will meet again in Varanasi.

Michael the American guy from Illinois that I met previously at the Delhi YMCA was in Dharamsala too, but we didn't see or talk much with each other while there, he looked to me like he was keeping himself just to himself. By fate we were travelling back to New Delhi on that same day and to our surprise we were given seats on the bus next to each other.

As it turned out, we were just starting a horrible bumpy journey of about 12 hours through the night. We could hardly sleep, no toilets were available, and it was one of the most uncomfortable bus journeys I ever done in my entire life.

It was raining in Dharamsala that afternoon. I said goodbye to Ulla and Andrea who kindly helped me with my luggage. Everything was wet, the luggage, my clothes and boots. My stomach was in need of much privacy and I did not get any. I was extremely worried about making that journey but Michael reassured me that we would be all right as the colourful smiley image of the Dalai Lama was shining from a poster just in front of us, and also a luminous Durga lamp. It was helpful that I was travelling with a consoling voice nearby.


In a guide about South Asia I discovered this piece of warning in the Dharamsala section: it is dangerous to drive at night in the hills - anywhere. The roads are not lit and the risks of running off the edge are great. Few local drivers drive at night.

We started the descent into the plain and it became darker and darker. At around 10.30 p.m. we stopped somewhere for a break to dine in a nearby hotel. I decided to go for a walk and when I got into the main street, to my surprise and delight a noisy Punjabi wedding was taking place. I followed the crowd for a while, down the street, full of curiosity and some excitement, as this was my first encounter with such a ceremony. The groom was seated on a highly decorated horse, surrounded by a noisy and completely uncoordinated band, and a group of men some of whom were dancing like mad. I was probably the only woman in sight.

I spent another four days in Delhi, back into cosmopolitan living and booked my next train journey: destination Varanasi. What I did in Delhi during that period I can't well remember. But yes, I had to go back to the doctor again for more advice and medicines. My Dharamsala bruises where healing slowly. Bruises and hot weather are problematic. Lots of patience is required and so are plenty of plasters and a nice antibiotic cream just to prevent an infection.


But I had my blessed prayer beads from Dharamsala and a new enlightening Tibetan mantra - Om Mani Padme Hum - it was up to me to make the best of those. I already knew the beneficial implications of letting that sacred sound of the mystic syllable OM penetrate my insides. So I could go on exercising for the purification of my very distressed body channels.

And how fabulous it was remembering all those Tibetan souls saying their prayers, and shaking the beads in their fervent hands, while walking up and down the hills of the Little Lhasa.

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