The last few metres of the road up to the Deer Park Institute was under construction, and I parked a short distance away from the gates. As I walked up the cement path between similar rows of houses on either side, elderly ladies in traditional Tibetan smocks strolled over to their neighbours exchanging greetings. Some sat on little stools just outside their homes turning their prayer wheels, nodding their welcome at newcomers.
Bir is an unexpectedly idyllic village tucked away in a corner of Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh. The Deer Park Institute is located within a Tibetan refugee settlement in Bir, housed in the buildings of a former Buddhist monastery. Deer Park was set up in 2006, by a committed group of people keen on environmental change and education. They were following the request of the Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, under the patronage of the Dalai Lama, that a centre be set up for Indian Buddhist students following the traditions of the ancient Nalanda School.
It was a 12-hour drive from Dehradun to Bir, through Uttarakhand, Himachal, Haryana, Punjab, and Himachal again, with heat and sheer boredom as constant companions. My driver insisted on taking a route through towns he had heard of. According to him, the route I was suggesting was too pahadi. The term pahadi literally means mountainous, but has connotations of being rustic, backward, and remote, and is applied to both the landscape and the people with not always benevolent intents. I wanted to tell him that the whole purpose of my travel and work was pahadi, but I did not have the energy to begin on my ‘mountains are discriminated against’ monologue. I relented to his suggestion, against my better judgment.
And so we ended up on the longest road ever between Dehradun and Bir, which turned out to be the road from Chandigarh to Manali, and Leh - the most favoured destination of the reclusive traveller today. But that there are so many reclusive travellers that they cause high-altitude traffic jams in their quest for solitude. It doesn’t make them the best of recluses I fear, and indicates an increasingly common trend of ‘gentrification’ of tourist destinations. In cities like Berlin, old ghetto areas become hubs for poor, young artists who cannot afford better digs, driving up the cool quotient of the area. The yuppies soon follow in their wake, as tiny, eclectic bars and studios pop up. Soon the rents become unaffordable for young artists and definitely for the original ghetto folk, who retreat further away and form yet another ghetto. And the cycle continues.
Of course it sounds patronizing to claim, after I myself have been to Leh, that other people ought not to visit. Many of these tourist towns have economies that are entirely tourism-driven today. The challenge lies in converting this to responsible and sustainable tourism, with limits on numbers so as to not damage the fragile ecology of these regions irrevocably. But it is a funny sight. Long trains of bikers in full gear, decked out in flags and other biker paraphernalia, caught behind the diesel fumes of over-loaded SUVs stuffed to bursting with sugared-up children clutching packets of fried snacks, overwrought parents and dozing grandparents. Too many people fighting their way across the one road away from their usual lives, in a communal quest for peace.
Deer Park is an oasis in this madness. I took a short walk with one of the founders, to a grassy meadow nearby, which is a landing site for the paragliders from near-by Billing. He has lived here for about ten years, and during our walk knew almost every single person along the way. The doctor, the shop-keeper, the itinerant errand boy, the furiously pedalling little kids with their training wheels, and the abbot – all stopped to greet and chat. I was at my most awkward prime and slinked away far from the reach of introductions. The Institute runs short courses ranging from Buddhist chanting to filmmaking, but without certification so that only those who actually want to learn come. Courses are free, and boarding charges are nominal.
There are strict timings for meals in the common dining hall. The food is bland, but nutritious, as bland food tends to be. The tongue resists, but the stomach exults. There is a mild buzz of activity here at all times, and everyone rushes around doing everything and being everywhere. Divine incarnations of illustrious teachers walk around like everyone else, sitting in the dining hall, washing their plates after meals, posing for photographs and looking just as awkward as some of us. Gongs and chants resonate from different parts of the settlement around us, gentle and unobtrusive. There is an unmistakable calm in the air. I slept better here than I had in weeks.
Places like Deer Park attract many interesting people, and I hear trickles of conversation as I walk around. There are certain classic types of travellers who inhabit places like these, and you can find them in many retreats and out-of-the-way lodges. There is the ‘in-my-day’ type who will catch anyone who passes by, preferably impressionable members of the opposite sex, to regale with stories of how remote and untouched this place was when they first came in AD 203. They will explain in detail how all hope is now lost. Then there is the ‘naively arrogant’ type. They claim to know all the answers to all the problems in the world. If only someone would ask them. “The biggest issue is water pollution. We only need to fix that. Now we have the internet, so we know all the solutions. We only need to use it”. There! And with an air of smug achievement, they dust their hands off and walk off to solve the world’s next crisis.
There is of course the slightly unkempt white guy who forgot his comb back in Pennsylvania and who is looking to ‘discover himself’. Usually lanky, and always with a slightly dazed expression, he can be seen trying complicated yoga stands in the middle of the lawn. And finally there is the ‘firangi Indian’. Indian-looking, but not quite Indian-sounding, they are here to find their roots, laced with some herbal medicines and tie-and-die pyjamas. They will tell you stories of “back home in <insert name of developed country>” every once in a while to ensure that you truly know where they are actually from.
They are not all bad, and I suppose these typologies are phases we have all passed through or will at some point, in some measure. Except maybe the upside-down yogi. I hope I never go through that phase. Places like Deer Park are never dull. There are incredibly committed individuals who live and work here. And maybe it is this melange of mixed up human beings, all of them attempting, successfully or not, to be better versions of themselves that lends this environment a rich and comforting sense of purposefulness.