If we missed this bus, there was no way we could make it back to Delhi in time. We were eighteen, with shining eyes and large backpacks falling off our shoulders. Limbs flailing, we scurried across a wide, grey road lined with pine trees standing tall against the clear blue sky. I remember pausing for a second to take a breath and letting myself be overwhelmed by the peacefulness of Dharamshala.
I grew up in Mumbai, a large city in the West of India, but I moved to Delhi to attend university. Living away from home for the first time was strange because I was constantly exhilarated and terrified, excited and exhausted, savouring every new experience. When spring break came along, I knew I wanted to travel to places that would be different from anywhere I had ever been before. Dharamshala is a tiny city balanced on the edge of the Himalayas and is home to the exiled Tibetan community including the Dalai Lama. I had heard friends talk about the scenic mountains and communities of backpackers who made their way to this peculiar city, and I was convinced that Dharamshala had to be the first of the new places that I would explore.
Eleven of us made our way to Dharamshala on a crowded bus in the spring. After an excruciating twelve-hour journey we finally made it to McLeod Ganj, where we found a cheap hotel that would accommodate us all. The first few days were full of long walks down meandering roads surrounded by lush forests and fluttering prayer flags. Plates of steaming momos and warm lemon tea on community tables. Sunlight falling in shafts over smiling monks in red robes and Bob Marley’s face on every possible surface imaginable.
Dharamshala was full of travellers who had not come to stay – some come for one month and others for six years, but eventually they all leave. Every interaction with a stranger was peculiar because I found myself talking to people I’d only known for five minutes, in languages I wasn’t fully comfortable with, about the most intimate details of my life. I asked an old Tibetan monk about how he managed to keep resisting peacefully, and he said he had no answers, but he told me about the excitement he felt when he first saw the Dalai Lama. Another woman from South America had tears in her eyes when she explained how painful working with a small Tibetan journal for the last few months had been. People from all over the world came to Dharamshala for many different reasons. Some came to study Buddhism, others came because they were lost and didn’t have any other place to go.
With my camera, I tried to map out this small city, and photographing its people led me into the most curious situations. Sometimes, the gap in languages led to massive misunderstandings – with old Tibetan ladies yelling at me with words that most certainly sounded like curses and worn-out backpackers who had travelled across four oceans to make it to India because something was calling out to them. Most times, these conversations ended with loud, honest, belly-rumbling laughter because neither of us could understand each other, but something about the act of photographing these strangers felt deeply personal to me. I went to Dharamshala looking for answers, but Dharamshala only raised questions that I’d never even considered before.
When I went to the Tibetan museum, I saw photos and videos of Tibetans being brutally assaulted. As I looked at pictures of old currency that Tibetans used and family photos from Tibet, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed in myself. Why had I never even heard of the Tibetan cause? What did it mean for my history textbooks to never have considered Tibetan history worthy enough to even touch upon?
Museums and movies touch me deeply because secretly I love being able to get a peek into the most personal moments of people’s lives – to be able to look without having anyone look back. But I realized that the act of traveling is radically different. Dharamshala showed me a very different side of traveling; traveling as something that is not fluffy beds in fancy hotels but shoes hanging out of scruffy backpacks. Traveling as both a beginning and an end, a constant series of doubt and exhaustion interspersed with moments of incredulous laughter and chills. The constant reminder that you are alive and that there are other people that are eating, breathing, shitting, and doubting themselves much like you are. The fear that you’re the same as every other hippie wearing those om-printed pants and the knowledge that you can never actually be one of those hippies because you are not a white person in India. When you’re walking down a street at 11 PM and a rowdy group of boys starts jeering, you cannot help but think about the massive role privilege plays in India and how different it is to travel through this country as a woman. When shopkeepers speak to you in English because of the colour of your skin, how can you not think about caste, class, and decolonization in a way that feels far more real than any readings in your Social and Political Theory class have ever felt?
Dharamshala gave me a peek into a world that was wildly different from my own. The struggles of the Tibetan community left me speechless because really, what was there to say when young monks were engaging in self-immolation just so that someone somewhere might decide that the Tibetan cause is something that deserves attention? When I decided to travel to Dharamshala, I was fully sure of what I would find there, but as I stood on the turn between Bhagsu and Temple Road, I felt hopeful and excited about the world in a way I’d never felt before.
Photographs by: Anushka Kelkar