Bir: Boom Town

Here are the photos of local Indian houses, and even a laundry with actual washing machines (unheard of in this neck of the woods), that I had intended to post yesterday, but which Rinpoche’s hat and the weather deflected from its original publishing date and has now become today’s offering.

The last picture in the series is of a kind of stile that’s been built into a new wall. It must look ordinary to many of you, but honestly, it’s something I never imaged I’d ever see here. Usually clambering over impossible, dirty and even dangerous objects is par for the course up here in the mountains. But the locals are becoming more and more savvy as they accumulate wealth and experience, so stiles and such like are now on their radars. I have mixed feeling about it all. At the same time, though, this stile is rather lovely… as stiles go.


Rinpoche wore a very distinctive hat last night, which I immediately canned to add to the huge collection of hat portraits I now have of him. Two of the best are today’s offering for my fellow obsessive-compulsive Khyentse addicts. I had lined up a wonderful array of colourful local Indian houses to show you, but it’s a miserable grey and rainy morning her, which makes the sunny photos on my computer screen seem somehow inappropriate. I doubt you’ll lose any sleep over having that particular post delayed, though, given the subject of the substitute…


Things are changing fast around here. I’ve noticed more this visit than any other. For example, a bridge has been built over a small river that we used to have to cross by jumping from stone to stone. I took a photo in 2007 of the un-bridged river and another last week and it’s really difficult to believe it’s the same place.

The Himachalis are becoming more prosperous by the minute. Houses are being built, more animals acquired, more poxy cars, of course, and inevitably more people. The changes are unstoppable, so there’s no point regretting them. But I’d miss the rice steppes if they were to disappear. They’re not being threatened quite yet—at least I don’t think they are. But we’re already eating imported Chinese rice, even though we live surrounded by rice fields, so who can tell what’s going to happen.

(I’ve also added a another picture from OT Rinpoche’s party, for those who care nothing for bridges…)

Our Indian Neighbours

If you climb the steps in the new wall behind Khyentse Labrang, and turn left, you suddenly find yourself in northern India (as opposed to the Tibetan refugee colony, which in some ways is a different country altogether). Some of Rinpoche’s neighbours still live in traditional mud huts, but even those who have built themselves concrete boxes continue to surround themselves with children and birds and animals.

Whereever there is a cow, there are also neatly flatten cow pats drying in the sun that are destined to be burnt to warm the now very chillly nights. The brilliantined cocks rarely crow at day break, but after lunch they can’t seem to help themselves! Perhaps Indians cocks suffer sunstroke?

Yesterday I walked that way an hour or so before dusk (or what passes for dusk in this part of the world) and as the light was being extremely generous, managed to bag a few goodies.

Munish’s Chat Corner

Here’s a photo Penelope conceived and took of me and Tara standing by a fast food stand on the main drag of Bir colony. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that weren’t actually ‘chatting.’ The dead give-away is that our lips aren’t moving. And Tara doesn’t wave her hands around like that unless she’s intoxicated (!)  But I love this photo! Thank you Penelope.

OT Rinpoche’s 61st Birthday Party

Before I start writing about the party itself, I must first apologise for the quality of the photos. I don’t know what got into me. It wasn’t as if I drank anything (not even water), but try as I might, it seems I was incapable of dealing with my camera’s settings. Why then am I posting so many? The thing is I promised Philip and Andreas that I would, so I’m afraid we’ll all have to make do with what I’ve got.

OT Rinpoche is a very generous party host. Delicious food and drinks never ceased flowing, which was just as well because the the entire Bir Tibetan colony had been invited, and quite a number of westerners gatecrashed. Nevertheless, all were made welcome and well-fed and watered.

The flies in the ointment on these occasions are always the guests. Everyone attending these kinds of do is usually so fixated on the guests of honour—the Rinpoches—that noone ever really gets down to any serious partying. People stand in queues, eat, and hunt for chairs, all of which keeps them busy as they wait for ‘something’ to happen. In the process, they forget all about enjoying themselves. By the way, the ‘something to happen’ of choice is usually that one or other of the Rinpoche’s raises a hand, or speaks a word or two, smiles, or, best of all, laughs out loud. So the focus of the evening tends to be a little one-sided.

How can I describe the entertainment? Difficult. Very difficult. Of course, OT Rinpoche had nothing whatsoever to do with the spontaneous floor show that we were treated to, but he seemed to engage a little with one or two of the earlier acts. A girl from New Zealand, for example, performed an arresting Maori dance right at the beginning, but after that things degenerated at a rate of knots. Songs were offered, but I feel uncomfortable even considering afixing the verb ‘sing’ to many of the ‘happenings’. Ditto ‘dance’ and ‘perform.’ A number of contributors certainly appeared to be attempting some version of those activities, yet the results were… well, indescribable.

At these affairs, it’s always hard to know whether the Rinpoches really enjoyed themselves or not. Last night they sat in white plastic garden chairs and maintained a fairly formal front: Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche sat between Dilgo Khyentse’s Yangsi on his left and Dudjom Yangsi on his right, then a little off to his right, OT Rinpoche sat with Thartse Khen Rinpoche. Dzongsar Khyentse often beamed broadly, but for no apparent reason.

Generally, though, there was a great deal of laughter and conviviality throughout the evening, so thank you, OT Rinpoche, for your abundant hospitality. May you enjoy many, many more birthdays.


Khyentse Rinpoche has tremendous devotion for Saraswasti and keeps images of her all over the place. The statue below is the one that stands in the pagoda in his garden in Bir, and I love her.

Yesterday afternoon I found another image of Saraswasti as I walked through Bir, one that I’ve never seen before. Truth to tell, it was a grey and uninspiring day, until I happened upon the local school. Since I was last here, they’ve had an image of Saraswasti painted on their wall, which is extremely appropriate given she’s the goddess of knowledge and the arts.

Lessons are usually conducted outside, so the teacher, a middle-aged man with glasses and a very kindly face, sat on one of those ghastly white plastic garden chairs that you find all over the world, surrounded by a dozen or so children, most standing, some sitting, and all of them happily listening to whatever it was he was saying.

Rather rudely, I thought in retrospect, I poked my camera through the bars of the gate to grab a quick shot of Saraswasti. Of course, all the children saw me and, with the permission of their patient teacher, immediately rearranged themselves into a neat line so that they too could have their photo taken. It hadn’t been my intention to immortalize them, but honestly, who could resist?

The Dining Room Lamp

There’s a lamp in the Labrang dining room that’s causing me quite a lot of anguish. But it’s my own fault. I mean, if you were Rinpoche, would you want to be the object of an amateur snapper over supper, especially after you’d put in a hard day giving lungs and empowerments and whatnot? I wouldn’t. So I can quite see why the lamp has been placed in the least advantageous position for chancers like me to get a good shoot.

Sadly, with age I have less control over my actions than ever and can’t seem to stop myself from reaching for my camera, even at the least appropriate moment. With luck, I’ll grow out of it before long (I should really be thinking of other things), and anway, I have that poxy lamp to contend with.

To that end, here are few rather ordinary portraits, stolen over the past couple of nights, but offered in the hope that drowning you all in images of an Indian standard lamp (a throwback to the English style imported by Memsahibs in the early part of the 20th century) might satiate my rather desperate obsession.


I thought I’d got over monkeys, especially after Varanasi, but when our driver stopped the car on the way up to Dharamsala to change a flat wheel, we found ourselves surrounded by them and I couldn’t resist snapping away like a first-time-in-India-tourist (so humiliating…).

Mostly I’m afraid of them, I must confess, but according to Drubgyud Tenzin Rinpoche, you just have to make the gesture of throwing something at them and they’ll go away. Neither of us managed to put his advice into practice, though, the day we sat on the banks of the Ganga to work and were set upon by two or three, bearing very sharp and possibly rabid fangs. I froze while Rinpoche met the eyes of the gang leader. My only thought was for my computer, which seemed to be the object of their desire, and in a rare show of bravery (and against Rinpoche’s advice) I quickly scooped it up, then started shaking as I realized what could have happened if the monkey has been really determined.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t restrain myself  when I saw these two engaged in heavy ‘preening’—although there were moments when I wondered where ‘preening’ ended and ‘pornograph exhibition’ began!

Anna the Boy

A beautiful, completely healthy little cat has moved into the place I stay in Bir. Jamyang Dorjee says he’s from Bhutan and that Tarthang Tulku named him Anna. How did a boy cat acquire a girl’s name? It seems noone could find a willy or balls when he was a kitten, so they assumed he was a girl. He is Bhutanese (as are many of the people I live with) and I wonder if the equipment cats from Bhutan are born with is of a different dimension to that of European cats.

Anyway, I first met him yesterday at lunch as he nestled into Khyentse Rinpoche’s lap. I then bumped into him regularly throughout the day and was delighted when he joined us for supper, this time purring contentedly on Jamyang Dorjee’s lap. Cats are rare in Bir, and health-looking cats, until Anna, completely unknown.

White Tara

As I passed the time of day with Heather and Jason, I found myself telling them a story about the White Tara image that was said to have spoken to Khyentse Wangpo, which was kept in Khyentse Rinpoche’s personal shrine room. Heather, very sensibly, asked me what she said, but, as you will already have predicted, if I ever knew I’ve now forgotten. But I did remember a wonderful moment in 2006 involving White Tara, Khyentse Rinpoche and Sogyal Rinpoche.

Sogyal Rinpoche was staying in Bir and Khyentse Rinpoche, a most gracious host, took him on a tour of his home. Those of you who know Sogyal Rinpoche won’t be surprised to learn that he really lit up when we came to Dzongsar Khyentse’s shrine room, and was particularly thrilled to see the original White Tara painting once more, a photo of which he had printed thousands of times and distributed all over the world. Many of Khyentse Rinoche’s things are familiar to Sogyal Rinpoche, who knew them first when they were in Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s care, and seeing them again is always a moving experience for him.

As we all gazed at Tara, ooing and ahing and oggling, Sogyal Rinpoche told us a little about her, finishing with the words, “She is said to have spoken to Khyentse Wangpo.” Although we had heard this story before, more than once, standing before her and in such company invoked a moment of awed silence, that was broken, with impeccable timing, by Khyentse Rinpoche, who said, somewhat indignantly, “Well, she’s never spoken to me!”

Anyway, having enjoyed introduced you to Penelope, I’ve decided to start posting photos of other people I bump into up here in Bir, and so you’ll find below a rather hastily taken snap of Jason with Rinpoche, and a rather less explicit one of Heather receiving blessings from Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s stupa…


The drive up to Dharamsala was much shorter (between 12 and 13 hours) than I expected, even though we stopped three times for quite long breaks and had a flat. The cheap hotel was extremely grim, but the circumambulation I made of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s temple and residence was magical (loads of snaps below—forgive me if I overshare…). We drove straight up to Dharamsala before going to Bir so we could get our protected area permits, and amazingly the office was open and pulullating with old friends on the same mission, many of whom had survived Bodhgaya and are now in Bir for the winter’s transmissions.

Jyoti Mahal

Philip is always interested in finding new places to stay in Delhi and so I’ve decided to write a few words about Jyoti Mahal before my impressions evaporate into the fug and chaos of what’s left of my memory. I heard about this hotel through Penelope, and as she and I share a similar taste for quirky comfort, I decided to give it a go.

I should warn you, though, about the photos I’ve posted. My camera just adores India and makes everything look impossibly gorgeous, so in practice this hotel may not quite live up to the images I’m offering. And I hate the area around it (near the railway station—avoid at all costs unless you intend to travel by train). Given all that, I really enjoyed the one night I spent there, and would stay again.

The first room I was given wasn’t a great advertisement for the place. Room 206 overlooks the interior courtyard by reception and is noisier than a Wembly Cup Final. I discovered, quite quickly, fortunately, that it isn’t really a guest room at all, but belongs to the owner’s brother, who takes care of favoured guests’ bags for them by slipping them under the bed. How do I know? Because someone turned up to collect his and I was called from the restaurant to let him in.

Such interruptions threatened to be repeated all night, actually, but I had a stroke of luck. Once the brother realized he needed easy access to the hoard of expensive boxed whisky he kept in a padlocked wooden chest in that room, (and was giving away as Diwali gifts at a rate of knots), I was moved. Room 312 was a huge improvement (see the photo below), relatively quiet (apart from the fireworks—nothing I write could convey the horror of the din they made until 1am next morning), a decent bathroom and prettier ceiling. I missed the illuminated glass display case containing more than a dozen dust covered bottles of said whisky that greets you as you walk through the door of Room 206, but you can’t have everything, right?

The best things about the hotel, from my point of view, are the friendly and willing staff, and the rooftop restaurant. Fairly ordinary food, but the atmosphere is charming. And it was a great bonus that we could sleep and eat in the same place because the whole city ground to a halt as the celebrations hotted up, and the only way to get anywhere was to walk! Not a good idea in what was, effectively, a war zone.

I’ve also added a couple of pictures I took of Penelope over supper. I feel unreasonably proud of them, but they only turned out well because all cameras loves her so much that even if a cow had been pressing the shutter, it would have been impossible to produce an image that is less than lovely.

Delhi on Diwali

My ability to organize has reached such a deplorable low that I managed to book myself a flight to Delhi that arrived on the morning of Diwali. For the uninitiated, Diwali is a winter festival (it’s significance, spiritually, has yet to be unveiled to me) during which Indians set off lorryloads of fireworks, entirely arbitrarily, from their rooftops, for about 18 hours without remission. It’s like being in a war zone—and probably as dangerous. Absolutely noone sleeps—”Nessun Dorma” to the power of infinity. The air stiffens with post-explosion toxins and residue and becomes virtually unbreathable. In fact, there’s so much smoke and gunk around that you can’t actually see the fireworks explode. You just hear them. Yet, this is the day I personally arranged my arrival in India. There really is no hope.

In a way, the flight itself was my first step into Indian-ness. Never before have I been on a flight quite so packed with older generation Indians, scores of them so infirm that they had to be wheelchaired to the boarding gate, accompanied by their entire extended family. Ironically, if my fellow passengers weren’t octogenarian Indians, they were French, which meant that the plane was overflowing with beings determined to do things their own way, regardless of the consequences to their co-travellers.

It should have been a nightmare (for me, one of the worst my fearful, rusty brain could summon ), but strangely, it wasn’t. For once, luck (or an aeon’s worth of blessings, depending on your point of view) shifted the moody teenaged French girl I was supposed to sit next to to the back of plane and I found myself in an aisle seat with an empty seat next to me. Then the woman in front of me disappeared (alien abduction? corporeal dissolution as a result of spiritual realization? or just decided not to go? I’ll never know). But the upshot was that the only two empty seats on the plane had opened up around me!

By contrast the woman across the aisle from me was sitting next to an Indian couple in the 60s, neither of whom had any teeth, who launched themselves with what, in other circumstances, would have been admirable vigour into her lap (sometimes both at the same time) at least twice an hour to escape their window seats. She tried several times to persuade them to ask her to move (in perfect Hindi), or at least give her some warning before they landed in her lap, but they just smiled and jiggled their heads, as Indians do, and continued to physically mount her whenever the fancy took them. What a fine line it is between heaven and hell.

I chose not to explore the more negative possibities as to why, on this occasion, I was the lucky one,  and instead focussed on trying not to feel too guilty about my good fortune. Maybe, I wondered, the character and quality of my trip will be defined by its beginnings: however desperate my situation may appear at first glance, the reality will turn out to be surprisingly survivable. It’s a comforting thought, especially with the prospect of a 13 hour drive up to Dharamsala tomorrow (I suffer from terminal car sickness).

Here are a few snaps of pretty bits of the guest house I’m staying at, the Jyoti Mahal, near Delhi’s new railway station.

Truly Spiritual Music (2)

Today’s selection was to be Spem in Alium, but I’ve hit a brick wall. First of all, I can’t find a decent recording that’s freely available for upload, and worse by far, it seems one of the characters of Fifty Shades of Grey (a book I wouldn’t give dustbin space to), according to the Guardian newspaper, likes it so much he (or she, “Christian”) uses it as background music for all manner of badly written sexual acts. So, it seems, sales are booming and you’ve probably already been introduced to this remarkable 40 part motet by Thomas Tallis.

Instead, some more old Bach. He was a follower of Martin Luther and his St Matthew’s Passion (which I’ve already quoted from on this site) contains some of the most beautiful sacred music ever written. As always, the piece I’ve chosen isn’t precisely the interpretation I would choose to share, but it’s not bad. Why isn’t it great? Because the oboe sounds like a constipated duck. The aria, “I would beside my Lord,” or “Ich will bei meinem Jesu,” is sung by the incomparable Fritz Wunderlich, so even I can forgive the fowl oboe. Why is it a ‘truly spiritual’ piece of music? Because the tune is sublime, and the sentiment bitter-sweet devotion.  

Truly Spiritual Music (1)

I’m on a bit of a quest to find music that provides the perfect environment for my mind to relax into quickly (I’m an impatient creature, as you know). Not such a difficult task, actually, but the problem is I forget. So, I’m taking the advice Sogyal Rinpoche gave me decades ago (but which, in the meantime, I forgot) of trying to remember to remember, and will tell you about what I come up with as a way of doing just that.

As I child I was convinced I had been born into a noble Russian family and that my name was really Natasha. Yes, I was delusional from a very early age. I loved everything Russian. Especially the sacred music and the folk songs. And in that spirit, this is what Andreas and I found on youtube this morning, to listen to over breakfast…