Location: Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh
Photos on the way, please stand by...it might require a day trip into Vijayawada.
Even with my blue media badge of omnipotent power, I had to elbow and fight my way into the tent's inner chamber to video the dissolution of the Mandala. The Dalai Lama's sister, an austere and elegant grey-haired lady in traditional dress, asked me and all press people to leave. When I saw that no one else was paying heed I stayed put. This was really beautiful and sad at the same time, to watch the destruction of these designs in coloured sand. It took a week for the monks to make it, and is a work of exquisite religious art, but in keeping with their teachings that all things are impermanent it has to be destroyed and the sands are then immersed in the river. I did manage a clear shot of the whole thing, complete with chanting, though a Japanese photographer's head got in the way sometimes. It was oddly thrilling and bittersweet to watch this perfect sand painting, each discrete section glowing like a gem, become a muck of greyish dirt when all the colours are mixed together. Then it was a feeding frenzy (the monks were the biggest offenders!) to scoop up pieces of the sand in little plastic cups, scraps of newspaper, anything (wait a minute, what about impermanence??) Even stalwarts like me were elbowed out of the way as it turned into a monks' mosh-pit. It really felt dangerous for a minute, the competition to get this sacred sand.
As if on cue, the Tibetans started rushing the stage and the throne taking everything that wasn't nailed down, and possibly a few things that were (flowers, pieces of cloth, even scraping the dirt beneath the Dalai Lama's throne for any possibility of earth that his feet might have trodden). The monks began dismantling the altar according to tradition. There are big baskets of cookies and crackers, which have been on the altar all week receiving blessings, and they began tossing them out to the crowd, which fell on them in a frenzy. Indian police and Tibetan security were fighting off those trying to rush the stage, sometimes using bamboo sticks and kicking the Tibetans to ward them off. No one was truly hurt (at least not that I saw) and the Tibetans seemed to look on it as all one big food fight. When a policeman would shove them they grinned like it was all a pillow fight at a slumber party. Such a contrast to the easily-offended Indians who are constantly afraid of losing "face" if they give even an inch or have their foot trod upon.
Then the the torma(giant decorative cakes of compressed barley flour) were brought down from the altar and everyone rushed madly to dig their fingers in. Since these are something like sand sculptures the torma "exploded" and powder flew everywhere, into our hair and all over our clothes. We dug our fingers in an carved out chunks that were then wadded into balls of barley flour, to take back to others and share. The torma have decorations made of congealed butter and at this point all my photos are blurry because butter got on the camera lens.
I realized these were the Tibetans who were returning to Tibet - what else do they have? They can't have a photo of the Dalai Lama, they can't have his name written down, they cannot even utter his name, so they desperately wanted some piece of him to take back with them. Something to reassure them that it had not all been a wonderful dream. For the younger ones, this man had been a legend or myth all their lives - they had grown up with nothing but rumours of his existence. For the elders, those over 50, they had not seen him since their youth, in 1959, when he escaped to India under cover of night on a donkey train.
Secret Sand Society
While everyone was rushing the stage fighting over the sacred Scooby snacks, the monks, including the "big Rinpoche" who had fielded the antagonistic questions at the press meets, quietly and solemnly processed out the side door of the stage carrying the sand in a vase, along with the Dakini crown (photos to come). The monks were all wearing the famous yellow hats that always remind me of Toucan Sam. They climbed into a jeep at the head of a vehicle convoy. People were asking "where is the immersion?" but it had been kept intentionally secret, even the other convoy vehicles didn't know - "lead jeep knows! Only lead jeep knows!" Right about then the lead jeep took off and a few hardcore journos ran and jumped onto the back (!), hanging on as the jeep moved toward the undisclosed location. The secrecy was probably meant to prevent a mob of Tibetans, also to prevent a rush of Hindus from "dipping" in the water. Tibetans are notoriously afraid of water, Indians have this tradition of sacred bathing, fully clothed, on such occasions. Several people drown in the rush at every Kumbha Mela.
Thanks to one of these hardy photogs I got a couple immersion photos I will upload when I return to civilization.
The town of Amaravati is slowly returning back to a normal, sleepy South Indian hamlet after 2 weeks of being transformed into an international IndoTibetoEuroInternational peace and fellowship village. Unfortunately, such sleepy hamlets don't normally have multimedia access! In fact, now there's only one terminal in town and three monks are waiting for it, so I had better run. I feel bad hogging the only media resource from people who spent 29 days crossing the wintertime Himalayas on foot, dodging Chinese soldiers in the ice and snow.
I may have found my angle for the Indian Financial Express. I am talking to lots of shopkeepers and local people who set up impromptu businesses here about their profits. A guy who rented a corner shop specially for the event, and leased fridges, coolers etc. to sell cold water and ice cream, did 8000rs (nearly 200 dollars) worth of business a day. Local homeowners leased their front yards to enterprising Tibetans and Indians who set up tents and ran lucrative stalls. On the other hand, the Norbulingka Foundation (one of the sponsors; in fact the major sponsor) is now saying they are in the hole. Sounds like the big guys lost while the little guys are happy. I think the Buddha would approve.
Letters from Home
One of the most gratifying things in my life is getting fan mail from my own parents. My favorite emails often come from Mom and Dad in Chattanooga, Tennessee. After my enthusiastic blabbering about the Kalachakra initiation two weeks ago, Dad sent a characteristic one-liner:
"So, what's a chakra?"
I wrote a very simplified explanation of chakras as energy systems within the body and the universe. A few days later I mentioned that His Holiness the Dalai Lama arrived here in a helicopter.
Now Mom writes: "So how about a photo of you and HH before he hits the helo?"
Dear Mom and Dad:
Wow, I wish I could have gotten that close to HH. The closest thing to a pic of us together is one of him in the chair at the press conference, with me in a nearby corner with my camera in my face (I videoed the whole thing). I guess at least it proves I was in the same room with him only about 18 feet away. I did get about 8 feet from him as he was leaving the press conference and people were cheering "Long Live the Dalai Lama!"
There were no personal meetings or photo ops for us. Next time I will be smarter and stand behind him at the press conference. Those latecomin' fools inadvertently got their photos made with him!
There are a couple photos of me in various places, with messy hair and sweaty face, but mostly I was behind the cam all the time. I had all these cute ideas of photo ops with myself, wearing my Tibetan chupa, with all the old Tibetan ladies in their traditional dress, but every time I turned around I was out of camera memory or battery juice. Yesterday the media center (complete with working disk drives and DSL conection) was shut down (I was in a frenetic race to get all my CDs burned before they cut us off - I may have lost a few pictures in the process, but I have no personal workspace - what to do? a nomad's life) so I will have to hunt down another photo-transferring place.
More later, I have to meet my friends who are returning to Madras. I will follow them in a couple of days but I think I will stay today here in Amaravati a day or so and talk to some more people about their experience. The local shopkeepers, new arrivals and settled Tibetans still in the camps, and the Norbulingka Foundation. The NF is claiming "unforeseeable expenses" that put them in the hole, and I know from personal experience that doing business in India is fraught with these contingencies. The hidden cost of doing business in India.