Madam - Norbulingka Institute - Not Made in ChinaAs you know, I’ve just come back from Dharamsala, which is where Tibet in exile is run by the Dalai Lama.

Well actually he runs it from McLeod Ganj, but for some reason when you’re there you know its McLeod that is little Tibet, but when you’re further away you refer to is as Dharamsala. Go figure.

Anyway, the Dalai Lama has been in exile for over 50 years – due entirely to the Chinese occupying his country and trying to stamp out its Tibetan-ness. He teaches on Buddhist matters directly to the faithful, the learned and the wannabe enlightened at least monthly.

Even when he’s not in town there are many important Buddhist places of learning there.

There are museums about the awful things China has done to Tibet and there is an expectation that if you’re in town, you’re probably there to learn something. Learning is in the air – which is rather refreshing. For instance, at one cafe the wifi password was ‘teachings’. Nice.

When the man himself teaches, people flock into town and the place is rife with monks, nuns and the academic and there is nothing but a sea of burgundy (the colour of monastic robes).

Madam - woman spinning at the Norbulingka Institute

One of the places the Tibet in exile government has set up is the Norbulingka Institute – a fine establishment to promote Tibetan arts, to ensure that long traditions of craftsmanship aren’t lost for good by being so far from the monasteries and palaces that nourished them.

It’s named after the Norbulingka Palace in Lhasa, which used to be the Dalai Lama’s summer hangout and if the real McCoy is anything like the tiny replica they’ve built here, then it must be a truly beautiful place.

It actually is in Dharamsala – down the hill from McLeod Ganj and so able to have a lovely, more temperate garden in its quiet grounds. There are beautiful buildings (replicas of some of the original from Norbulingka), water has been run through the landscaped gardens and it is an almost magical spot. Or it was when we got there at 11am… not so much with the crowds later on.

There are poignant reminders of what’s been lost by Tibetans being so far from home, and unable to return. I was particularly struck by a small diorama of beautifully made dolls demonstrating how a summer family picnic afternoon might have been in the ’50s in the grounds of the original palace. It was so detailed, and so full of longing to be there – longing to simply go home.

But the real reason the Institute exists is to allow people to learn their traditional skills by undertaking apprenticeships of up to ten or twelve years in the arts of woodcarving, silk weaving, silk appliqué (for making devotional images of the Buddha), tanka painting (stunningly intricate paintings on canvas and silk) and the making of monastic and temple items. You can wander through the workshops and see people working away on beautiful items.

Madam - workshop wall at Norbulingka Institute

To be honest it felt a bit like disturbing people in their studios at art school. But it was lovely to see people working so carefully and indeed being given the possibility to retain their culture.

And as one of my pals said ‘awful as it is that this has happened to Tibet, it does at least give us a chance to see such a stunning culture up close. We’d never have known about the beauty and the art otherwise.’ Awful, but true.

And all this brings me to this weeks sign. While I was wandering the workshops, I saw this scribbled lightly on one of the staircases. At about the height you’d be if you were chatting to one of your pals.

‘Not made (in) China’

How incredibly and exactly true. And as a poignant reminder of exactly what Norbulingka is ALL about – I think it deserves an honoured place in Signage Sunday


Part of our series of ‘Signage Sundays’. I’m slightly obsessed with signage in this country.

You might enjoy these other, less political signs:

No Honking

Do not pick the lotus

It helps breakdown

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