McLeod Ganj teeters precariously on a mountainside, its multicoloured houses stacked like playing cards as if one day, a sharp gust of wind will simply blow them away. It’s early, but already the streets are a frenzied whirl of activity —horns blaring, chai wallahs (tea sellers) hollering. It smells of incense, spices and sweat.
Youdon passes easily through the pell-mell of people, one hand holding onto her five-year-old son, Numptha, the other gesturing for me to follow. She skips over cowpats and picks her way around potholes and roadside stalls with the assurance of someone who knows these streets well. And she does. McLeod Ganj has been Youdon’s home since she ran away from Tibet 15 years ago, aged 18 — sneaking out in the middle of the night as her parents, brothers and sisters slept. She hasn’t seen them since.
High in the Himalayan foothills, it’s my home too for the next two months, and Youdon is showing me around. We head downhill towards the Dalai Lama’s home and temple. It’s May, the month of Saka Dawa (merit) and a day Tibetans dedicate to helping the poor. The streets are flanked with Indian families sitting on threadbare shawls, three, four, five people deep. “Most have walked miles to be here,” Youdon tells me, passing her son a handful of small coins. “The same thing happens every year.” It’s a sad scene, and a strange one, for here are Tibetans — technically homeless — handing out money to those who’s country they’re guests in.
Numptha is having a whale of a time, though, temporarily disappearing from sight only to return empty-handed, his arms outstretched, palms cupped. He’s beautiful — rosy-cheeked and ebony-haired, with eyes the shape of almonds. I hand him more money and he dashes off again, squealing with delight.
Passing through the temple gates is like walking through a waterfall. The deafening pandemonium of the street subsides and suddenly, calm descends. Everywhere I look monks go about their daily lives, their faces serene, faintly smiling, as though the ghost of some past joke still lingers on their lips. They move slowly, deliberately, their robes falling around them in crimson waves.
We begin to walk the kora, a ritual circular route around the temple. I watch in wonder as a lady in traditional Tibetan dress prostrates herself ahead of me before standing, taking one step forward and then doing it all over again. Sitting on a bench, three elderly Tibetan gentlemen are engrossed in lively conversation, while up in the trees it sounds like the resident monkeys are having an equally animated debate. Everywhere, strings of iconic Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the breeze.
As we stroll, Youdon tells me her tale. Her journey across the Himalayas took 22 days; walking all night, snatching a few hours’ sleep when the sun rose, and praying continuously that the Chinese guards wouldn’t spot her, or their dogs smell her. It sounds terrifying, but Youdon assures me she was one of the lucky ones. She reached Nepal before the weather turned — frostbite claimed the fingers of those three days behind her.
“No one sees McLeod as home,” Youdon continues. “The Indian government is very kind, but even those who were born here, even those who fled Tibet as long ago as 1959 with the Dalai Lama look at this as a temporary set-up. Of course, I still hope to go home, but while the country is occupied I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. When I left, I did so knowing I would never be allowed back.”
Temporary or not, everywhere I look I can see the lives that Tibetans have built for themselves here. When Youdon first arrived in McLeod, fresh produce was almost impossible to find. Now, mounds of rainbow-coloured fruit line the streets. Schools and temples have been built, they have their own government-in-exile, and a five-minute stroll down the hill takes you here, right to the Dalai Lama’s doorstep.