Art and Soul in Dharamsala

Prayer flags trembling in the breeze. The firm, golden gaze of a seated Buddha. Artists’ hands at work, creating something holy. A single sign of imperfection, and hours—days—of labor would be cast aside.

These are the things I remember most from our visit to Dharamsala, India, the next holy site we visited on Intrepid Travel’s Mountains and Mystics tour.

When we arrived at the town that is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile, I expected to be overwhelmed by the place’s holiness. Certainly, numerous pilgrims come from around the world to meditate or engage in in alternative therapies or to try to get a glimpse of the holy man himself. Others simply come to the temple that adjoins his house, offering supplications to Buddha alongside maroon-glad monks with shaved heads.

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And while we went to the Dalai Lama’s compound and enjoyed our fair share of Tibetan eats in the town around it (see recommendations below), it was the Norbulingka Institute that really caught my eye.

After hustling and bustling in trains and cars and vans all around the subcontinent, the Norbulingka Institute was not only a reminder of the importance of slowing down and being present but also the ways in which the arts can be a form of worship. The way that paintbrush on a canvas is a call to prayer.

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At the Institute, artisans work to preserve the artistic culture and heritage of the Tibetan people through woodworking, metallurgy, and painting. One of the most breathtaking forms of artistic work at the Institute (and in Tibetan Buddhism in general) is the creation of mandalas—meditative images of Buddha’s life and ascension, of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, of the path to nirvana.

Artists apprentice under masters for years, spending hours painting mandalas to perfection, the smell of incense clinging to the air around them. And as someone who has often struggled with the competing desires and calls of a spiritual life (“be a pastor!”) and creative life (“but I’m a writer!”), there was something heartening to me about this marriage of the two.

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Artists at work at the Norbulingka Institute

Of course, the most famous mandalas are those created by the Dalai Lama himself—drawn with sand to exquisite detail and then, once completed, swept away.

Because, of course, according to Buddhism, all is temporary. The only constant is change.

Life is here. Death is here. All we can count on is this moment.

This.

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Prayer wheels outside the Norbulingka Institute’s temple

And though the paintings are more permanent, there was something momentary to those, too. The meditative act of paintbrush on paper. The movement of one’s hand with the breath. The focus—this line, this color, this singular act.

And as I sat alone later in the Institute’s temple, looking up at the golden Buddha before me, the breeze drifting through the open door, I thought again of the wonder of creation and the inevitability of destruction—the lessons of Shiva. That from one comes the other, and thus, both are a kind of gift.

A mandala of sand. A meditation. A prayer. A moment.

There.

And then wiped away.

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Prayer flag

Early in our journey last summer, my friend Keyes told me that I cling too much to my memories. That not only was I an academic hoarder (I can’t tell you how many boxes of old papers and notebooks I threw away last spring), but I was also a hoarder of memory.

I tried to justify myself—of course, I cling to memories. I’m a writer, after all. It’s in the smallest of moments that I find inspiration. The littlest detail.

But as I was traveling in rural Korea with my homestay sister last summer, I realized how much Keyes was right. How even in my efforts over the last few years to “be present” and practice mindfulness, I wasn’t “being present” to be present, I was only “being present” to remember. To be able to adequately describe this moment to someone else later—in a story, maybe, or over coffee.

Or even to be able to describe it for myself. As if only in my reconstituting of my stories to myself, running my fingers over the strings of moments and memories, could I really be sure of my existence. My meaning.

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Golden Buddha at the Norbulingka Institute

What would it mean for me to let go? To live knowing the brevity of existence? To create knowing the smallness of my labors? To empty out the sack of memories I bundled up and carried with me each day—the hurts, yes, but also the loves and the smiles and the small, beautiful things?

And what would it mean to take this journey with that in mind?

A mandala. A meditation. A memory.

The sand slipping through my fingers.

The paintbrush in my hand.

The pen pressed against the paper.

The cool surface of the temple’s metal prayer wheels.

The bright, fluttering flags sending blessings into the wind.

A breath.

Holding it for a moment, and then letting it go.

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Travel Tips

  • Getting Around: Dharamsala is quite walkable (especially in the tourist area), and there are a number of restaurants, yoga studios, meditation centers, etc., that will welcome you with open arms. Note that getting to the Norbulingka Institute is located in Sidhpur, which is a suburb of Dharamsala, and will require transportation (we used a van for our group, but it’s only a 30-minutes ride away and should be accessible by taxi, etc.–find out more info here).
  • Eating and Drinking: My favorite place to eat was the Snow Lion Restaurant, a vegetarian cafe with traditional Tibetan foods, amazing coffee, and delicious desserts. (If you go, try their momos!) And if you stay in the McLeod Ganj area, try breakfast or lunch at the German Bakery (which, for me, was a perfect place for a cup of coffee and getting some writing done).
  • Things to See and Do: If you get tired of meditating at the Dalai Lama’s residence/temple complex, there are other things to see and do, of course! You’ll find a Tibetan Museum nearby and a small, colonial church a short hike up the road (a lovely place for some haunting photographs). And be sure to check out the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, which works to preserve and share Tibetan performing arts, including dance and music, and offers regular shows visited by tourists and locals alike (we saw a great, down-to-earth show performed by local youth when we were there).
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