From Hindus to Muslims and Christians to Buddhists—revelling in the multi-cultural hues of the Doon Valley
Growing up in the hills of Mussoorie and Almora - within the sights and sounds of deodars and scent of pines - made me a misfit in the cement environs of cities forever after. I now live in the Doon Valley which, apart from its nearness to the hills, I enjoy for its cross-cultural ambience. Monocultural societies, like people with closed minds, are so boring. Up the road from my house in Dehradun, the Tibetan Sakya Centre stands a few yards away from the temple to Shirdi Sai Baba. Further up, in the Rajpur bazaar and the houses sloping up from it, the camaraderie of the Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Buddhist mix is a sign of communities that have known each others’ families for a generation or two.
In keeping with the cultural variety on offer we now have a Centre for Tibetan and Himalayan Studies 15 minutes’ drive from Rajpur, on the road to Sahastradhara. It was opened by the Dalai Lama in March 2003 and already ranks as a recognised research and resource centre with a library whose collection can be accessed through the Internet worldwide. The Director, Dr Tashi Samphel, plans an expanded resident scholars’ program and a lecture series. Indian and foreign scholars come here to learn Tibetan, take courses in Tibetan medicine, or Buddhist philosophy, or to carry on their own projects in the history and society of the Himalayan region. There is residential accommodation for 60 of them—last year there were 35 — and they eat well, judging by the excellent vegetarian meal I had on my first visit. The grounds and the several buildings, which include a college for monks, a retreat, and the home of the institution’s founder, the Drikung Kyabgon Chhetsang Rimpoche, are immaculately maintained. The heart of the complex is the magnificent Songsten Library with its marble floors and stairs, its beautiful frescoed ceiling, and two auditoriums equipped with conference facilities where the Library hosts a workshop once a year on environment conservation in the Himalayas. Its special pride is its collection of precious manuscripts dating from the sixth to 12th centuries, which were discovered in caves along Central Asia’s Silk Route.
What struck me on my two visits to this imposing complex was the presence of a profound reigning silence that was as spectacular as its view of the hills and its setting overlooking the Sahastradhara river valley. No scholar wanting to get on with his work could ask for more.
Some international travellers come to Uttaranchal looking for instruction in yoga. If they ask me I direct then to Yog-Ganga in Rajpur, established four years ago by Swati and Rajiiv Chanchani, pupils of the renowned master, B.K.S. Iyengar. They hold classes for beginners as well as advanced practitioners, some of who teach yoga abroad and return regularly for refresher courses. Yog-Ganga has a spacious hall supplied with ropes, mats, belts, bolsters and other props that are unique to the Iyengar method of training the student to achieve the exact alignment for a perfect asana. I join a group of Doonites here for a 90-minute session two evenings a week and this is a totally transforming experience for us all. Believe me, blood begins to flow intelligently. Internal organs listen and learn to behave. Glands perk up. Furthermore we understand that all this is happening. We women and men all ages, sizes and varying flexibility go through demanding routines that send us home twice as alive, rejuvenated, and in a body-mind equilibrium that I am convinced would not be available at any price anywhere else on the planet, barring Yogacharya Iyengar’s own ashram in Pune.
Since yoga became a buzzword it has been commercialised, glamourised, patented and mauled into versions that are little more than exercise sessions. Yog-Ganga teaches the real thing, pure hatha yoga as Patanjali intended it. An added attraction is the pavilion for bird watching on top of the building and a lavish, lovingly tended garden that stays in perennial bloom. A British woman told me, “I come all the way from London for instruction. You’re so lucky to have this at your doorstep.” All things considered, settling here has been the right choice.