It’s early morning and the beginning of November in Dharamsala, Northern India, and I shiver as I watch the clouds in the valley below me. The cup of hot chai is nicely warming my fingers, as I peer through the rising steam. At this time of year, it’s getting cold in MacLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamsala. After all, we are at the foot of the Himalayas, 2000 meters above sea level. But despite the cold, I think the winter months is the best time to be here. All the tourists have left for the South, and many shopkeepers and restaurant owners with them, leaving a quiet town behind, and just a few Indian tourists.
Mac Leod Ganj is home to a huge community of Tibetan refugees, as well as the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile. When the 14th Dalai Lama fled the Chinese invasion in 1959, he was offered refuge in Dharamsala by the Indian government. Since then, thousands of tibetan refugees have followed and established a thriving community in MacLeod Ganj. The Tibetans have brought with them their food, their medecine, their music and their art.
One of these art forms is the sacred art of Thangka. Thangka painting is typically Himalayan and has been around for centuries. Thangka painting is essentially centered around Buddhism, and is said to originate in Indian Buddhist art. They depict Buddhas or buddhist deities, cosmological images or subjects from traditional medicine. These paintings are therefore objects of devotion, are meditated upon and help spiritual practice.
I was lucky enough, during my time in Dharamsala, to visit a school which teaches the sacred art of Thagka, and whose mission is to save this dying art form. It was amazing to see the apprentices, sitting cross-legged for hours, paint these figures in such great detail, with brushes as thin as eyelashes. Walking around the gallery, you could spend hours getting lost into the waves and grasses and caves painted on the canvases. And always another detail appears. It was a beautifully meditative afternoon, silent like in a library, watching these young painters learn an learn a centuries old art form.