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McLeod Ganj
 Photo: Hongwei Yu
McLeod Ganj

India: An Audience With His Holiness    
By Anna Lindall

I duck into one of the tailor’s shops that line the bustling streets of McLeod Ganj.  The searing Indian sun outside is bright, and it will take my eyes a few minutes to adjust to the dim interior of the shop.  Three Tibetan women sit behind sewing machines, their brows creased in concentration.   One works diligently with slippery white silk; another wades patiently through endless folds of the maroon wool used for monks’ robes.  They look up and smile when I enter; I exchange the Tibetan greeting, “Tashi delek!”  Then, in English, I explain my mission: In preparation for an audience with the Dalai Lama, I must be fitted for a traditional Tibetan chup—which for women means a complicated dress and blouse ensemble.   The seamstresses point me toward towering bolts of fabric, a rainbow of maroons and blues, greens, golds and browns, lining the cramped walls of the shop.  The women are helpful and mothering, excited to hear that I am preparing to meet His Holiness.  They help me choose colors – a vivid sea-foam green in raw Indian silk for the dress, a fresh white for the blouse.  Ushered behind a stealthy curtain at the back, I’m instructed to remove my outer clothes and stand, in my underwear, to be measured.  Raise your arms above your head, yes; now turn and face the wall, perfect; the Inji girl is so tall, the tiny Tibetan woman mutters, her mouth full of pins as she revolves my body, stooping and reaching to measure me.

Putting the chupa out of my mind until tomorrow when I must return for a final fitting, I step back into the street.  I stand still, my eyes readjusting to the glaring sunlight of midday.  Autorickshaws weave among passing nuns in maroon and saffron robes, Indian vendors selling savory samosas, begging lepers, meandering cows and stray dogs.  Next, I must buy a katah, a traditional Tibetan offering scarf.  Theycan be purchased almost anywhere in a Tibetan neighborhood and; walking up and down the three dingy streets that make McLeod Ganj, I finger dozens of scarves.  For His Holiness I must find the very best katah available – it must be of good quality silk, either white or pale yellow, and be long enough to reach the ground when hung around the neck.  In a tiny cave-like store on Temple Road, I find the perfect katah – more than ten feet long, it is a fine, flowing white, with delicate tassels on each end.  Handing over my rupees, I tuck the scarf carefully away.  Later, in the clean safety of my Tibetan family’s home, I pull the katah  from its wrappings for inspection.  My father, Pa-la, grins approvingly and teaches me how to fold the scarf.  The two of us stand on opposite ends of the small living room; and, starting from one end, he shows me how to fold it accordion-style, wrapping the final inches around the scarf to secure it.  The white silk, unfurled between our hands, gleams in the honey light of evening.

On the day before the audience, I return to the tailor’s shop for my chupa.  Again, I duck into the tiny dressing room at the back of the shop; but this time I’m accompanied by all three of the women, each clamoring to see their finished product.  With total trust, I close my eyes and follow their instructions.  Raise your arms; put them into the sleeves.  Okay, put them down. Now turn around.  One woman stands on a chair as they lift the silk high and rustle it down over my head.  Deft fingers arrange folds of fabric, tugging and pulling, wrapping and tying and pinning.  Finally the women are done and lead me in front of a mirror to see their masterpiece.

 I am apprehensive about looking at my reflection – blonde where they are dark; tall where they are short; pale where they are brown; the idea of me in a chupa screams of cultural appropriation.  But when I do look, I am surprised.  My Nordic appearance does stand out among these tiny, brown-toned ladies – but somehow, the chupa works.  I am amazed at the elegance of this traditional dress, amazed that I don’t look as gawky and awkward as a too-tall giraffe among graceful gazelles.  Glowing with excitement, proud to show my Tibetan mother, Ama-la, I wear the chupa for the one-block walk home, careful to lift my floor-length skirts to avoid the trash and filth on the street.  Looking up from her own sewing when I enter, she says, laughing, “Now you’re really my Tibetan daughter!”

Later that evening, after eating our dinner of rice and dhal, I sit with Pa-la on the couch that doubles by night as my bed.  Sipping on steaming masala chai, I pull yards of fine red cord from a paper bag.  Though Pa-la and I share very little language, he shows me how to cut the cord into proper lengths and then, employing an amusing series of hand motions and grunts, teaches me to tie a snaking knot into each cord.  Once blessed by the Dalai Lama, these cords will offer protection to the wearer.  I tie cord after cord, perfecting the tiny knot.  I am watched with scrutiny by my Tibetan sister, Tsephel-la, who, at age five, seems already to know all about this process.  

The morning of my audience dawns clear and bright.  I rise early for a brisk walk on the kora, the path that circumvents the Dalai Lama’s main temple.  The temple offers a quiet respite for reflection in an otherwise chaotic town.  In the hush of early morning, I take in the spinning prayer wheels, murmured mantras, the scent of burning juniper on the wind.  The thin sunlight ignites the peaks of the Dawa Dar range, which rise directly behind the town.  Their snowy summits and craggy ridgelines, lit in pink and orange, exude calm and peace. 

Hours later, clad in my carefully-tied chupa and  folded katah with the red blessing cords in my hand, feeling decidedly less peaceful, I wait in the temple courtyard.  I am to ask one of three selected questions during our audience, and I find myself muttering the words over and over to myself.  I worry that I’ll forget to say, “Your Holiness” or worse, that I’ll be so nervous I’ll be unable to read the question I’ve scribbled on a scrap of paper.  Our appointed audience time comes and goes, and still I wait the hot sun pressing into the crown of my head.  There’s no saying how long it may be.

When a group of Japanese visitors emerge from the office door with exuberant, post-audience grins, we know our turn has come.  We show our passports, and we’re hurried through a frenzied office – I receive a brisk pat-down, sign a register, and then scurry behind a loping guard in monk’s robes.  He leads us up a hill, across a courtyard and into a large room filled with couches and chairs.  We assemble quickly, leaving the prominent armchair open, and are instantly silent.  The clock on the wall ticking away the seconds is the only sound to be heard, and the air is charged with anxiety.

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