THE BLOG
04/21/2008 11:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Searching For the Olympic Spirit in New Delhi

The global Olympic Torch relay has at various times been described as "farcical" "disastrous" and "troubled". In Delhi, India, it was described to perfection by one Indian journalist -- "spiritless". While the Indian government breathed a long sigh of relief that they avoided the clashes seen in other cities, the 15,000 Indian security forces employed to protect the torch ensured that there was no excitement either. In fact, no Indian civilians even got to see it except a few school kids who I doubt will be regaling their grandchildren with stories of the lackluster jog in the burning sun grimly flanked by a branch of the People's Armed Police (the so-called Olympic Holy Flame Protection Group). The route had originally been 9 kms long, but had been reduced for security reasons. Ironically, former Inspector General of prisons and UN advisor, Kiran Bedi, was one of a number of high profile Indians to refuse to run with the torch, saying she was not interested in participating in a "caged relay".

Fortunately, there was an alternative -- the Tibetan torch relay. We met up with it at the site of Gandhi's memorial where a gathering of Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, all dressed in the traditional attire of their calling were conducting an inter-faith ceremony in solidarity with the Tibetan people. I nudged a Tibetan journalist friend and gestured towards an over-sized butter lamp that was burning on the edge of the wall. "Is that the Tibetan torch?" I asked. "Yeah," he replied with a big smile. It was a beautiful idea to use a butterlamp, the golden cup-like candle traditionally lit when someone dies and as part of Tibetan Buddhist prayer services, to represent the Tibetan version of the Olympic spirit.

Then, across the street, we met up with about 1,500 Tibetans and began a lively 2 kilometer walk to the protest site. Many wore the colorful Tibetan flag around their shoulders, giving the impression of a slightly raggedy bunch of superheroes. When we arrived, I was impressed to see that the organizers of the parallel relay had turned a street corner in Delhi into a miniature Tibetan city, with tents, rugs, banners and brocade. A line of yellow-robed monks sat before a giant backdrop of the Potala Palace, while the local Tibetan population chanted gently but persistently under the shade of the tents. Images of Tibetans who had been shot by Chinese police during peaceful protests in Tibet hung like macabre prayer flags across the street. Snacks and cold drinks were served from carts, groups of beefy-armed monks, some of whom had taken a two-day train ride to be there, sat and spun their prayer beads.

And then the journalists all began running and jostling their cameras into position as someone leaped onto a stage and held aloft a replica of the Olympic torch. After a few minutes of this media frenzy, a rather harried looking man stepped up to the microphone and said, "Media, please! The torch is about to arrive." Then everyone ran out into the street just in time to see an SUV arrive with the large butterlamp attached to its roof. Of course, this was the Tibetan torch. Cameras snapped away once again. Then a couple of hundred Tibetans ran towards us and I saw another torch raised aloft in the crowd, and then another. I counted five altogether. Later I was told there had been seven. The point of having seven Tibetan torches was never explained. It was chaotic, confusing, dizzying and... fun.

The Indian authorities had been able to guarantee China security for the torch, but not meaning or celebration. Here there was both; in the embrace of old friends, in the excitement of children, in the steps of the yak dance, in the shouts and chants of the protesters, in the prayers of the monks and the tears of old men, and perhaps most of all, in the commitment to facing adversity with dignity and grace.

What most New Delhi residents will remember about that day are the traffic jams created from cordoned off roads in one of the busiest parts of the city. What I'll remember is that even while the real Olympic flame was down the street, the Olympic spirit was alive and well among the Tibetans.

Rebecca Novick is a writer and Executive Producer of The Tibet Connection radio program.