I was in the thick of pottery school in India, living in the middle of nowhere. Sunday was my only free day, and the nearest place of note was Mcleod Ganj, and so this is where I ventured to on the weekends. Although Mcleod Ganj is only 54km away from where I was staying, getting there involved three buses, over three hours of travel, and lots of tapping strangers on the shoulder to ask where I was. Thank goodness for the kindness and good grace of Indians.

In case you’re not aware, Mcleod Ganj is where the Dalai Lama resides, and it’s probably the most important settlement for Tibetans in exile anywhere in the world. Over the last couple of years, I’ve read more and more Buddhist literature, I love to watch Youtube videos of the Dalai Lama giving talks, and I’ve started a daily meditation practice, so this is one place that I was mega excited to visit.

The centre of the action is the Tsuglagkhang temple complex. If you arrive in Mcleod Ganj in search of the temple, don’t worry about getting your head around that tongue twister. The main road is called Temple Road, and clear sign posting leads you all the way down to the temple, and if you ask where the temple is, every local will be able to point you in the right direction.

Truth – the temple complex itself is not such a staggering sight. If you’ve ever visited the gold clad Buddhist temples in Thailand, you won’t find anything nearly as opulent here. The temple spaces are a lot more minimal, with an equal mix of tourists and monks ambling around in a clockwise direction (which is the way you are supposed to walk around a Buddhist temple). As you walk, you can watch people spinning prayer wheels and offering up things to Buddha – there were an awful lot of bottles of Tropicana being offered, strange.

Although the temple isn’t visually spectacular, being there is very affecting. Knowing that you are standing in the place where the Tibetan Buddhist community have worked so hard to hold on to their culture is definitely a moving thing.

But this wasn’t the end of my experience in Mcleod Ganj. Just outside of the temple is the Tibet Museum, and while the museum is small, it’s incredibly well put together, and I managed to spend an hour and a half there, lingering on every word. Before visiting, I had some knowledge about Tibet, the oppression from China, and Tibetan exile, but this taught me a lot more about Tibet’s incredible history and the lengths to which its people have suffered.

The most moving display for me was a wall covered with the faces of Tibetans who have self-immolated in protest of the oppression they face on a daily basis. 143 Tibetans have burned themselves to death since 2009, and I find the enormity of this really hard to even grasp on to in any real way. Standing in front of those faces, I attempted the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, which involves breathing in something negative for a person or group of people, and then breathing out something positive for them. I tried to breathe in the pain of all the people in front of me, and then to breathe out peace for them, but the task was too great and I couldn’t quite make the practice work. I focused in on the face of one guy – a guy around my age – I did the practice for him, and managed to find a moment of connection.

I can imagine his face in my mind still, and I’m sure it won’t leave me for a long time. Being able to have this learning experience and take on board the suffering of the people of Tibet was well worth the trip.

Have you ever visited Mcleod Ganj? What was your experience?

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