Monks with Snowballs

Shangri-La conjures up the image of an earthly paradise; a utopia located high in the Himalayan Mountains; a mythical paradise of happiness and isolation. Tibetan scriptures describe Shangri-La as having been created as a refuge for Buddhists during times of turmoil.

DharamsalaAnticipation and excitement is in no short supply at the entrance to the winding uphill thoroughfare of McLeod Ganj.  Laying in the shadow of its most auspicious neighbor this town of oil drums, wheel rim shops, and mechanics offers little to inspire a traveler. Glancing up though, that is where the magic happens. In the clouds, shrouded in a heavy ethereal mist is a city made famous as a refuge, the capital for Tibet’s Government in Exile; Dharamsala.

Like all roads routed through mountains the composition is that of hairpins, dead man curves, switchbacks, and steep grades. Like most Indian cities McLeod Ganj is dusty, dirty, chaotic, and noisy. It is almost as if McLeod Ganj is acting as a gauntlet through which you must pass in order to fully appreciate what awaits at the summit. 

Having already traveled to Tibet in 1998 I was ready to be overwhelmed but at the same time did not want to expect too much and leave myself open for disappointment.

I shouldn’t have worried.

Dharamsala is Tibet; the way Tibet should be. Free of torture, adverse propaganda, discrimination, and oppression. Sure there are western influences and opportunities that may tempt a young Tibetan from becoming a monk however freedom comes with a price tag the world over.

Here in Dharamsala the price of freedom is temptation and opportunity. Yet still the religious doctrine is alive and well. The Dalai Lama is revered and monks young and old fill the streets with crimson and compassion.

We settled into our hostel on top of the mountain and with a hot shower under our belts we set out to explore this high altitude hamlet.

Surrounding us were pine trees and peaks. The air was crisp, the sky clear, and all appeared to be right in the world. Shops littered the main street all selling the same merchandise but every now and then you would get a surprise and find something just a little out of the ordinary.

Even if you don’t, you will still end up buying something that catches your eye, a gift for someone back home, a souvenir to enhance the memory, or more likely an exit strategy.

For me it was a 20lb brass Buddha who, even though no longer in the mountains, continues to oversee my life from above. Placed on a high shelf he garners the respect and gratitude well deserved.

As evening turns to night, sometime during those hours occupied by dusk, a light snowfall began to coat our mountain sanctuary. The peace and tranquility we had felt upon arrival became magnified as the white powder descended with ever-increasing pace and intensity.

We sought refuge in a bar and as the hours went by, beer was consumed, stories were told, the hanging paper stars were praised, flirting grew to hugs, and photos were taken to seal in the memory.

When we exited the bar with souvenirs of t-shirts, bags, and Buddha in hand we entered, with amazement, into a transformed winter wonderland. No longer were we walking on high altitude dusty streets surrounded by greenery and buildings draped in the Tibetan colors of gold, red, and blue. Now everything was covered in several feet of soft white snow.  A Christmas-like blanket of purity had bound itself to Dharamsala enhancing, even more-so, the affect of divinity.

Breakfast the next morning was a competition between hunger and warmth. The heat in the hotel dining room was out so multiple layers of clothing were required.

Hoodies were up and hands parked themselves in gloves then sought further refuge under armpits. Food was eaten quickly with an eye towards vacating the premises; outside was warmer than inside…we had learned that in Solan.

The main square was not so far from where we stayed. In fact it was just at the base of the hilltop on which our little hotel was perched. As we approached we could see there was some commotion but it wasn’t until we were about to enter the arena that we realized a full on, monk versus everyone else, snowball battle was underway.

Monks on the ground, up a level, and on rooftops of buildings were systematically picking off passers-by with a barrage of tightly molded snowballs. The white blanket of purity had been recycled into projectiles unleashed with incredible accuracy from the hands of the most compassionate and peace loving young men on earth.  Their crimson robes, humor, and life philosophy in stark contrast to the cries erupting out of the melee.

Dr. Cathy led the charge backed up by a well meaning but unprepared cadre of medical students. Within minutes they were hunkered down on the semi-protected steps of a local shawl shop.

Shelter came in the form of the metal stair rails that at best deflected one out of every three snowballs. Given the fact that they were all women, all white, all American, all tourists, the rate at which the snowballs were flying increased dramatically.

It was not every day the citizens of Dharamsala’s monasteries got to exact some sort of revenge on the tourist population, so with a great amount of glee and unabashed satisfaction they attacked until retreat for the doctors at large was the only option.

It was quite a sight to see the snowballs slam into the unsuspecting. Soon the out of the ordinary hilarity had infected all, even those who continued to watch from the hillside overlooking the square.

We found out shortly after that the snow had dumped up to 15 feet in some places and that it had been 38 years since the last time this had happened. Houses in outlying areas had been completely covered and the roads were now closed around Dharamsala.

Even though our group made a valiant effort to drive out the way we had arrived it became abundantly clear very fast that a continued stay in Dharamsala was on the horizon. Not a single one of us found disappointment in this news and so we stayed.

For some of us it would be our last night together, for others we would continue on to more remote villages but for all of us it was bittersweet.

To find out how this all came about; click Beckoned Skyward by an Earthquake.

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58 thoughts on “Monks with Snowballs

  1. This is amazing! You are so incredibly lucky to see Tibet in two very different states. To top it all off, you got to see monks throwing snowballs? I’m sure very few people can say that! What a fantastic re-introduction to Tibet!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tim, what fun to picture monk’s throwing snowballs – totally unexpected as I’m sure it was for you. I love the winter scenes and the snowman – it must have been a nice break for you from the mission you were actually on.

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  3. That’s a beautifully written depiction of a surreal experience, in an almost otherworldly locale! You have to wonder, how often do the monks have a chance to cut loose like that? I guess the unexpected snowfall gave them licence to get mischievous. Lucky that you were there to take it all in! And thanks for sharing : ))

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    1. It was amazing for all of us so am pretty sure the it did give the monks as much of a thrill as it did us; they certainly cut loose and where did they get that natural aim.

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  4. A great post, again you have given a wonderful description of a place I want to visit. The Himalayans are a place I wanted to go to ever since I read “Lost Horizons” as a child. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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  5. Wow, Dharamsala is beautiful when covered with snow. The snowball fight might have been quite a site to see. Too bad you didn’t have your camera out when that happened!

    I love how you always explain some horrible freezing condition you were in, and then show a picture of people with smiles on their faces. Must have been a great group of people.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It is always great to capture the beauty of a snowstorm before thoughts of all the little inconveniences and problems set in. The story of monks throwing snowballs reminds me of a documentary I saw many years ago about Tibetan monks sneaking off to watch the World Cup on TV.

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  7. What a unique experience. Who would every imagine a snowball fight with monks in this magic part of India! Not many people would have that experience! You seem to always find the most unusual sights and events. Too bad you “had” to stay longer!

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    1. Yes, it was definitely a gift in more ways than one. The snow ball fight and getting to stay an extra night were both unexpected and welcome.

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  8. What an amazing experience and as always I love your photos Tim. Never would I have imagined the snowball thing with the monks but it adds a human element that was previously lacking in my mind. I can’t say that were I in your shoes I’d be disappointed about spending more time there either. 🙂

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  9. What an unexpected story! I love the way you write Tim, and I feel I can see the events unfolding before me, and even feel the cold you describe.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Beautiful photographs as per usual! I look forward to reading your posts as you describe your journey with such passion that I can almost see myself being there.

    Travelling, meeting people and experiencing different cultures is an amazing thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. As usual, the pictures and narrative are outstanding and vivid! But I’m still giggling at the whole idea of monks throwing snow balls! Would have been too rude to throw some back??? Laugh! Nonetheless, it sure made me laugh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh it turned into an all out snow-brawl with monks against who-ever dared. It was one of those travel memories that sticks with me as something kinda special.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Wow – monks in the moment. I mean who wouldn’t be throwing snowballs with 15 feet of snow to deal with! How else to clean the pathways? Great story Tim, complete with your always story telling pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading Constance. This story took place in Dharamsala which is in India, in the Himalayas, and is where the Tibetan Government in exile continues its operations. I have been to Tibet also and you are right; it is beautiful.

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  13. Wow. Amazing. One of my best friends has been to Tibet and he remains fascinated by it to this day.

    What an experience to have, all that snow. Precisely not what you expect to see of those orange cloaked monks.

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  14. Tim, the photos are lovely, but in this case, I think your prose actually outshines the pictures. “You are there” writing, brother.

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  15. Man, really envious that you’ve been to such awesome places. Everyone who’s been to Tibet always raves about it. Seems like such a meeting of East and West there and must be tough for aspiring monks to fully commit. Such a fantastic story and the pictures to boot. Happy to have started following your blog.

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  16. Before I came to Asia is always thought of monks as being these, dour, silent, meditative types. Come to find out, they really are people! Great post!

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  17. Great post, Tim! Isn’t it amazing how a quick weather change can dramatically change the feel of a place? And how sometimes, those unwanted and unexpected changes can result in a rather magical feeling? Sounds like the snow really warmed your Tibetan experience.

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  18. Hi Tim,
    Your picturesque writing evinces my curiosity and enlivens my imagination. Who would have thought that monks would let loose a barrage of snowballs? I suspect that waiting all those years for that amount of snow, they must have recognized the opportunity to have some fun in the moment.

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  19. Hi tim; you are a born story teller my friend. i could just imagine the monks in their robes and the doctors hunkering down under the stairs. makes you wonder what else those young monks do to let loose. looking forward to reading more of your travels. and really hoping to be doing some myself soon. take care out there, Max

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  20. Tim- The scenery is beautiful but I have to say after the winter we had on the East Coast it is hard to get in the mood for Tibet. Now when we have had enough of the brutal heat, winter will look good again

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  21. Tim… I don’t know if I missed it previously or if my sub-par computer skills are the cause, but I’ve been waiting with such anticipation for this particular journal entry out of all of them. You did not disappoint in the least and you describe it perfectly from my memory! I think this is one of my favorite and most vivid memories of our India trip and after reading and remembering through your words I can’t stop smiling! I seriously giggled out loud and thought I’d wake up George for a second… But he’s sound asleep and I’m lying here thinking how much I’d love to do another trip, some day, somehow ….despite the realization that the first will most likely remain the most special, it’d be worth trying to repeat the fun!
    Without sounding too sappy, I have to admit that the most cherished part of my India trip was meeting a friend like you… I could feel within the first few days of meeting you that you were a special person and you amaze and astonish me every time I write or talk to you … I hope you realize what a fantastic human being you are and thank you for blessing me with your friendship! I truly hope we can catch up sometime soon. Love ~ Cathy

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