I met a holy man in India once. Well, sort of. And not in an Eat, Pray, Love kind of way.
Back in 2009, I was traveling with a friend in Leh, which sits in the shadow of the Himalayas in the arid region of Ladakh. Ladakh itself is located in the disputed territory of Kashmir, which you will often see in the same news reports as the adjectives "restive" and "strife-torn". But Ladakh, dotted with centuries old stupas (mound-like structures containing Buddhist relics) and gompas (monasteries) and prayer flags, is the proverbial oasis in a sea of conflict. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Tibetan Buddhism, with its emphasis on prayer and meditation, is the dominant religion here. But as far as I could tell, the only dangers were from the hordes of unshaven and unshowered Caucasian backpackers that showed up everywhere, and the thin, gasping air. For if Tibet is the rooftop of the world, Ladakh, once ruled by the ancient Tibetan kings, isn't far behind - more than 3,500 metres above sea level, it can leave your lungs crying out for oxygen and your head pounding like a jackhammer.
So there we were on the road, traveling in an MPV on a distant highway to some distant monastery in the Indus Valley, against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains all around. it was a bright, sunny day, with barely a cloud to be seen. We had just landed from New Delhi the day before, and I was still struggling to adjust to the climate and lack of sleep, when we came to a roadblock. A policeman waved us over to the side of the road, where several other vehicle were already parked. There was a palpable buzz in the air. Some had their cameras out, while others had prayer shawls draped over their shoulders.
Naturally, we asked our guide what was going on. Without skipping a beat, he casually replied: "His Holiness the Dalai Lama is passing by. "
Stunned silence. Cue mad scramble for digicams and fumbling with the door handle to get out of the car, as visions of that crap movie Seven Years In Tibet flashed through my head. Mainly because, television aside, that was almost the sum total of my knowledge about a man viewed by devotees as a living god.
Then before you knew it, there he was. His SUV, sitting at the head of a convoy, slowly came into view over the horizon as people lined the sides of the road and cheered. Some knelt, their hands clasped together in greeting. The great man waved back in that regal manner that you often see in kings and queens on TV. As he came closer and closer, a million questions I wanted to ask him raged in my head. Will Tibet ever gain independence? What can ordinary people do to fight inter-religious conflict? And why on earth would he ever want to associate himself with Richard Gere?
Suddenly, he was right before me. For just a millisecond, I made eye contact with him, and saw that famous smile and those dark red robes from mere inches away. Then the Dalai Lama was gone like a wraith in the mist, and the cars and the people had dispersed, and everyone had gone right back to minding their own business, leaving us bemused and exchanging wry looks on a dusty highway. There was nothing for it to but to get back in the vehicle and continue on our journey down that long, winding road.
And that was it. That was how I 'met' the Dalai Lama. Needless to say, I never saw him again. But the memory of Ladakh is never too far away, and I can easily conjure up the image of an old, bespectacled man sitting behind a car window, his hand raised in greeting, and an easy smile crinkling his face.