Tips from the Tibetans

"AND THEN I turned to the Dalai Lama, who was sitting next to me, and told him... " What a buzz to mouth these words. But the two young women, who did get to sit next to His Holiness, didn't exactly say these words, though they did talk to him for an hour or so.

It all began when 17-year-old Bhuvana Kumar and 21-year-old Krittika Arvind spotted a write-up saying that the Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth (Spicmacay) was inviting applications to spend a month at Dharamsala, artist Anjolie Ela Menon, or Father Windy (who is involved with village reconstruction in Hyderabad). These two articulate young women sailed through the test and interview and found themselves in a batch of eight from the country headed for the Dolma Ling Nunnery, Sidpur, Dharamsala, to participate in the Gurukul 2003 project, sponsored by both Spicmacay and the Dalai Lama's Foundation for Universal Responsibility.

"I even missed two or three entrance exams so that I could have this new experience," says Bhavana, an aspiring architect who has appeared for the CET. Chips in Krittika, a graphics designer just out of Chitrakala Parishat: "I had always been painting the Himalayas and had been to Bylakuppe and the Buddhist monasteries in the North-East, and it was a dream come true for me to go to Dharamsala."

For the two city-bred youngsters, life at the nunnery was an eye-opener. They had to be up at 5 a.m.. "Often I would yell, `Oh, go away!' when I heard the knock on the door," smiles Bhavana. Breakfast would be a large pal�, a flat bread made of maida. Lunch was usually thick rice with boiled vegetables (even boiled brinjals and bitter gourd!), lightly salted. Dinner was practically the same, except the rice would be replaced by timo, a local version of the croissant. Coming from a culture of fiery cuisines, both would die for the bit of tomato chutney served as accompaniment.

Being with the nuns gave them a new perspective of life. "We in the city are obsessed with unimportant things. The nuns were as if they lacked nothing. They were always bubbly and enthusiastic and I thought, `They must be doing something right.' In fact, they laugh more than we do." Though language was a bit of a problem, communication wasn't, because their smiles said it all.

The nuns were aged between 14 and 80, the seniors mostly being there in a monitoring capacity. While the nuns were into serious studies, Bhavana and Krittika joined them for some classes like philosophy and plant arrangement. (Not flowers because flower arrangements involve `dead' flowers.)

Bhavana proudly shows a decently executed Tibetan wood painting she did at the Norbulinka Art Institute. It was a lesson in patience for her, while Krittika headed for the Thangka painting classes. "They are meticulous about every little detail. They believe that every little mistake they make affects their karma and that if you accumulate bad karma, it is a shortcut to hell."

Serious Thangka students spend years learning the basics. In fact, basic course stretches six years, four of which involve only sketching. It takes 25 to 30 years to be a Thangka master. The norms and proportions are very rigid and the artists use no geometric tools barring strips of paper folded in measurements of 12 units.

Tips from the Tibetans

The girls didn't see Richard Gere or even Steven Seagal, but saw someone who looked just like Judi Dench. They did get to meet the Tibetan Prime Minister-in-Exile, Samdhong Rimpoche, as well as the Karmapa. "Very handsome, perfect features, and very grave-looking for his 19 years."

But it was visiting the Dalai Lama they looked forward to. He shocked them by opening the door himself. "He was just like the next-door neighbourly friend. He spoke very fondly about Karnataka, about how Nijalingappa, as Chief Minister, gave his people land in Bylakuppe and Mundagod when they had to flee Tibet."

According to them, "He has this wonderful chuckle. There was this Vietnamese lady with a stiff neck who became all right the moment she met him. We asked him about this miracle and he laughed and said, `Maybe she said that to please me!' We spent an hour with him. He is there everywhere. In MacLeodganj, whenever he goes by car, a siren sounds and everybody drops whatever they're doing and rushes to catch a glimpse of him. It is so touching the way the nuns talk about him. They later told us how lucky we are to get a private audience with him as very few nuns and monks have had such honour."

Bhavana says the stay has shown her the power of positive spirit, and the uninhibited warmth and the natural generosity of the Tibetan people. "I wish to remember these messengers of simplicity for the rest of my life."