Cloth-wrapped impoverished hopefuls line both sides of a dirt road, sitting patiently ? waiting for the one day of the year that historically lines their pockets with more than dust.
June 15 ? just another date for many around the world, but in the far north Indian mountain village of McLeod Ganj this is a very auspicious day. It is known as Saga Dawa Duchen, the anniversary that celebrates the birth, death and moment of enlightenment of Prince Siddartha, the historical Buddha ? and no village in the world has more connection with Buddha than this one, as it is the exiled home of Tibetan spiritual leader His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
On this day Buddhists believe that any act of generosity, kindness and sacrifice takes on a special significance, and the merit that it brings one?s own karma is multiplied 100 000-fold. They prepare by saving their one and two rupee coins throughout the year, for the sole purpose of giving a coin to every outstretched hand or rattling tin cup.
I had ended up here by accident, having originally been on my way to climb the Dhauladhar mountain range ? the outer edge of the Himalayas that forms the backdrop to the village. An unplanned detour led me onto the famous beggar?s road.
It?s a narrow, muddy track that runs around the home and monastery of the Dalai Lama, called the Lingkor or holy path, and then winds its way up to Mcleod Ganj, a former summer retreat of British aristocracy.
"...she?s not a genuine beggar..."
I tried to put what I saw into perspective, but had a hard time dealing with simultaneous feelings of pity, compassion, shame and revulsion. The road seemed to murmur and each pair of sunken eyes pierced my conscience. There were just so many people and they looked so helpless.
I stopped to give a grubby mother holding her crying baby some money. She shook her cup without looking at me.
?Don?t give her money sir,? a male voice called above the noise. ?She?s not a genuine beggar.?
?What do you mean she?s not a genuine beggar, she looks pretty destitute to me,? I said turning to look at the man. He had one arm and a face ravaged by leprosy. He motioned me over to where he squatted.
?She works in Mumbai sir and is one of many people who just come here at this time of year to make extra money,? he said.
He told me in the past years ?real? beggars could count on collecting at least 400 rupees on June 15, which would see them through perhaps two months. He said these unscrupulous people were reducing the ?noble art? of begging to an ?opportunistic free for all.?
The woman was not impressed at the thought of losing out on my donation and let loose a stream of Hindi that was clearly designed to leave no doubt as to the origins of the man?s mother. The baby howled in its own protest.
I kept my head down and walked
On the left of the woman, a wild-eyed bearded friend/co-conspirator saw what was going down and joined in the vitriolic attack at not only my leper confidant, but clearly at me as well. Images flashed through my mind of being leapt upon by swarms of beggars and ripped limb from limb.
I decided it was time to be somewhere else, dropped a coin into the leper?s cup and headed north. In front of me a family of Tibetans were methodically handing out coins, seemingly basing the amount on the ?condition? of the beggar.
I kept my head down and walked, avoiding any eye contact. It had started to rain. After what seemed like an age I was close to the end of the path when a soaked family of four called me over.
?Please sir we have only collected 25 rupees ? we won?t have enough to get to our next destination. The competition here is too fierce,? said the father. His eyes registered no emotion, but the boy holding his hand offered a small smile.
?Where are you off to next?? I asked.
?Panthankhot,? he said, naming the small train-station town about 75 kilometres away.
I had just come from that direction and knew that he was telling the truth about the bus fare. I bent down to drop a note into his tin cup. He didn?t register at first as there was no rattling of coins, then he looked down and saw the paper money.
?Namaste? he said placing his hands together gently. ?The divine in me greets the divine in you and wishes you long life?.
I nodded and watched as he rose with great care, and helped his frail wife and two children gather their meagre belongings. They were moving on ? and it seemed a moment of great dignity.
Behind me the rattling of tin cups rose up above the sound of rain and I felt blessed.First published on iafrica.com in December 2008