The event had not been publicized, like so much here in McleodGanj, and news flowed through word-of-mouth between friends and associates. Rumors varied from 7am to 9am start and no one knew exactly what would happen or how long it would last.
At 7:45am I flowed down Temple Road towards HH Main Temple in a river of red-robed monks and nuns from various local monasteries. At the temple everyone was thoroughly searched. I was sesnt back outside to leave my forbidden camera in the care of a popular WiFi cafe then returned to be re-searched before going inside to find a seat as close as possible to the gold-cloth draped dias. Several other "inchi" people (foreigners/westerners) were seated in the same area and we all chatted pleasantly.
Upstairs near the main shrines, chanting resounded from speakers. A long line of well-wishers bearing orange and red cloth wrapped boxes draped with white khato scarves files slowly up the stairs. A Quebecois seated near me who is studying Buddhism said they were objects such as texts, mandalas, and other items to be blessed.
Styrofoam cups were passed to the crowd by young monks, then pocha (traditional Tibetan butter tea) was served. Giant vessels of steamed sweet rice were ladled out into bare hands, paper sheets, and any number of other containers the crowd could find. Of all the Tibetans I have met locally, I saw only a few familiar faces.
The chanting continued, mildly hypnotic, as the line continued slow progress up the stairs. Late comers continued to press into the temple. My friend Mary arrives and joins us, but no sign of Sonam or any of our usual monk compatriots.
By 9:10am I am feeling slightly restless, full of anticipation. The blessing line has slowed to a snail's pace and no one around me is sure what to expect or when it might happen.
Two gilded statues of Buddhas or avatars are rushed down the stairs. Suddenly things begin moving very quickly, in a see of rushing color. Much of the crowd has taken up the chanting.
And then the soft voice of His Holiness comes through the speakers...
It doesn't matter what he is saying, in my eyes. His infectious laughter punctuates the speech. The whole crowd is smiling, leaning forward to hear his words.
A song begins, and a woman begins to descend the temple stairs backwards, sweeping each one.
At this moment, it occurs to me I am about to be in the presence of quite possibly one of the greatest humans ever to walk the earth. A great human soul, a great spiritual leader, a leader of a people striving to regain hope and freedom. A truly amazing man.
Geshes distribute money to monks and nuns, and other monks toss fruits, breads, biscuits, cakes, and sweets, reportedly gifts from Tashi Lumpo (the Panchen Lama monastery). We are all laughing and passing around food to friends and strangers alike regardless of nationality, truly a "breaking bread" experience.
Khatas are being passed through the crowd and draped over railings. One passes through my hands, and I feel as though I am presenting this gift to HH personally. A group of monks scurries down the steps.
At times it seems like a lot of nothing is going on, although I know the continuing chants have deep meaning to those who understand them. Every now and then someone in the audience picks up the melody. The chants are deep, resonant, and really penetrate your body and soul.
Atop the temple, Snow Lion flags are stirring.
The chanting stops, and low cymbals fade til there is only the murmuring of the crowd.
Things are about to happen. Everyone is standing up, peering at the stairs, where a lot of lamas and government officials are coming down to the podium.
With a fan fare of horns, High Lamas wearing yellow head-dresses descend the steps holding a type of decorative sceptre.
Then, suddenly, a giant golden fabric unbrella with orange and turquoise trim appears.
His Holiness himself, wrapped in orange robes over his red monk garb.
He moves quickly, and appears surprisingly small, although he is not a short or physically small person at all. I think his humbleness is deceiving. I really expected him to look larger than life.
He DOES look serene, super kind, and like he is just one of the people...
He takes the Golden Dias and cleans his large round spectacles with the hem of his robe.
We listen to Tibetan speeches commemorating the Panchen Lama by high lamas, government officials and other prominent figures in the community as more pocha and sweet rice were served. It's hard to pay attention for very long when you don't understand the language.
Every few minutes I find my gaze returning to His Holiness.
It is a powerful moment for me when I realize that, entirely unpremeditadely, he and I are swaying in unison to some invisible inaudible stimulus.
At last, HH rises, gently tapping the microphone as if unsure of its effectiveness, although he has addressed modern audiences around the world for the past several decades.
His voice is quiet, hard to focus on, even, I expect, for the Tibetans in attendance.
A Quebec native studying Tibetan language is seated next to me and translates in short form the contents.
HH tells a story of searching for the Panchen Lama reincarnation, of time spent with him in person. He talks at length about the state of the Tibetan plight/cause, the fact that the world loves Tibetans for their realness, their lack of pretention, their honesty, and that they need to preserve these qualities. He tells the locals to remain strong and focused on the drive for freedom and human rights, and not to let their culture die.
Suddenly the golden gilded umbrella re-opens and His Holiness seemingly glides past the crowd, many (myself included) with hands folded in prayer. He views a photo and art exhibit about the Panchen Lama, and emerges again after about ten minutes.
A fan fare of horns sounds again. HH and the yellow head-dressed High Lamas hustle down the centre corridor through a crowd of surging fans, passing within maybe twenty feet of me, and I rush forward with the others trying to get a better glimpse.
And then, behind the audience, he disappears on the pathway leading down toward his residence, leaving a sea of humanity surging towards the exits.
It is impossible to stand still and absorb the atmosphere. People are pushing and hurrying all around me.
All I can do is talk to every other westerner I pass about the glory of the experience and hope I get the chance to see him in person again.
He is 75, after all, and although he appears strong and capable, many whisper that they fear he may not live much longer.
Long Life to Hh the Dalai Lama, and success for the Tibetan cause.