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Dharamsala: Permanence Of Exile

Dharamsala — the de facto capital and home to nearly 20,000 Tibetans in exile — is taking on all the trappings of permanency

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Fifty years after tens of thousands of refugees streamed out of Tibet following a failed uprising against Chinese occupation, their hopes of returning to their homeland are fast receding and the Himalayan town of Dharamsala — the de facto capital and home to nearly 20,000 Tibetans in exile — is taking on all the trappings of permanency.

Exiled Tibetans have become one of the world’s most visible refugee communities and their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, a Nobel laureate, has become a global icon celebrated for his humanity and Gandhian, non-violent struggle for a Tibetan homeland. But as Tibetans worldwide on March 10 marked the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s 1959 flight from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, there was no escaping the hopelessness of their quest to reclaim their homeland. Even the Dalai Lama has admitted: “I have spent most of my life in this hill station. Now I feel like a citizen of Himachal Pradesh.”

 Monks at the main temple
Beijing’s hard line against the exiles, as well as its brutal repression of the nearly 5 million Tibetans in China perceived as separatists or sympathizers of the Dalai Lama, makes it increasingly unlikely that any exile will ever return to Tibet. Instead, an estimated 2,000 Tibetans risk their lives crossing the treacherous Himalayan ranges to escape Chinese control every year.

Indian Prime Minister Pandit Nehru offered the Dalai Lama and the nearly 8,000 Tibetans in his Central Tibetan Administration political asylum and a section of the British Raj hill station in Himachal Pradesh of Dharamsala (religious abode), which now serves as the seat of the exiled government.

Over the years, Dharamsala has been transformed into Little Lhasa, as the original Shangri-La eludes their grasp. It is now an internationally renowned Tibetan community, pulsating with Tibetan architecture and cultural rhythms, where thousands of monks mingle comfortably with international tourists and long-term foreigners, many of whom have spent years in monasteries and voluntary organizations.

Set in the verdant Kangra valley in the Dhauladhar mountains, nearly 20,000 Tibetans have settled in and around Dharamsala, including Mcleod Ganj, Sidhbari, Chauntra, Bir, and Tashi Jong, making it the largest settlement of overseas Tibetans. In all, an estimated 140,000 Tibetan refugees are scattered all over India and Nepal in 36 communities in small towns in Himachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand and Jammu and Kashmir, as well as Bylakuppe in Karnataka and Gangtok in Sikkim. Bylakuppe is the second largest Tibetan settlement after Dharamsala with 10,000 Tibetan residents, with numerous monasteries, nunneries and temples, including the famous Lugsum Samdupling and Dickyi Larsoe monasteries, which like the Norbulingka Institute and Gyuto Monastery in Dharamsala, seem like they were transported brick by brick from Tibet. Both Dharamsala and Bylakuppe were established on land leased to the Tibetan authority by the Indian government.

Ana, a tourist from Madrid, Spain: “These mountains and Buddhist are veryattractive and give me peace of mind.”
Another 80,000 Tibetans are settled in the West, including Canada and Switzerland. Massive Tibetan temples have sprouted in the remote regions of Northern California above San Francisco and in New York. Scores of small Tibetan communities thrive all over Europe and the United States.

But the heart of exile Tibetan life beats in Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama, the Karamapa Lama, who is third in line, as well as other high-ranking Lamas and monks. Dharamsala has two distinct sections. Upper Dharamsala, or McLeod Ganj, popularly known as Little Lhasa, is where most Tibetans live in crowded streets and where the Dalai Lama has his residence, just opposite the Tsuglag Khang, the central cathedral. The largely Indian Lower Dharamsala, 8 kms down the main road (but which locals navigate using a 3 km steep hill road named Khara Danda), is remarkably different from Upper Dharamsala. Nearly 20,000 people, almost all Indians, live in and around lower Dharamsala, while Mcleod Ganj is home to some 12,000 Tibetans and permanent westerners residents.

Mcleod Ganj’s tiny streets are packed with tourists, mostly westerners, but also domestic visitors on weekends. Lower Dharamsala, by contrast, is a typical Indian hill town, reflecting pahari (Himachali) culture and crowded bazaars, which Tibetans and Westerners frequent for grocery and household supplies. The semi-nomadic Gaddi, the locals, once the dominant ethnic group, have struggled to hold on to their culture and language. At first poverty-stricken and jobless, the Tibetans have slowly swamped the local population with their rich and colorful cultural traditions, religion and the Dalai Lama, attracting the attention of the world and thousands of enlightenment seekers who swarm the Tsuglag Khang — the main temple just opposite the Dalai Lama’s residence. Tibetan monasteries, schools, refugee camps and education centers in Mcleod Ganj have put their distinct architectural and cultural stamp on the town.

Tibetans protest on the 50th anniversary in exile 

The Little Lhasa section of Dharamsala is a unique ecosystem of Tibetan schools, monasteries espresso cafes, guesthouses, Web-surfing monks and tourism related industries, serving as a global node for pilgrims, backpackers and Tibetan Buddhism seekers. Tibetan prayer flags flutter atop homes and in the hills, and maroon-robed chanting monks and other symbols of Tibetan life are visible everywhere. The town seems like a throwback of another Lhasa, where monks and nuns perform their daily religious duties and other Tibetans remain preoccupied with their daily lives, some working for the Central Tibetan Administration, while others work in Internet cafes and other tourism sectors. Tibetans in Dharamsala seem to sustain a tourist economy simply by being Tibetan for the benefit of nearly 350,000 foreign and an equal number of domestic tourists every year.

Says Rachel Bubu, a journalism student from Quebec, Canada, who has been volunteering at the Tibetan Women Association (TWA) Center in Dharamsala for nearlytwo months: “This place is very different. Dalai Lama’s Dharma teachings in the snow-capped hills makes it so special. The mix of Indian and Tibetan culture makes it so special. Here it’s not like a vacation, but like a place where one loves to stay for long.” Ana, a tourist from Madrid, Spain, adds, “These mountains and Buddhist are very attractive and give me peace of mind.”

 Tibetan activist Tsering

Chavi Chamish, a backpacker from Tel Aviv, Israel, who is staying in the Bhagsu section of Dharamsala, which is popular among Israeli backpackers and hippies, many of who are taking tabla, yoga and Hindi classes, says: “Dharamsala has so many colors. It’s a place for living and learning. There is no doubt Tibetans have made this tiny town a heaven with international presence and a home away from home.”

There is surprisingly little animosity between Indians and Tibetans, notwithstanding their religious and cultural disparity, even among the Gaddi, the local tribe, who have lived here for generations and seen Tibetans move into a position of economic dominance. In part this is because they too are beneficiaries of the tourist economy, which is powered by the presence of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan culture.

Ajay Sharma, a businessman who runs a money exchange shop in Mcleod Ganj, says, “Currently there is nothing much we both communities complain about and it should remain like now, where both earn mutually, sharing hands.”

A monk read the Dalai Lama’s message at the 50th anniversary 
Dharamsala recently opened a new international cricket stadium overlooking the snow-capped mountains, which residents hope will drive further economic growth in the region. Says Ramesh, an Indian taxi driver in the city, “Hum sab aage badh rahe hain, sabko saath chalna hoga ek ghar ki tarah hai tabhi sabh kush hai (We all are growing, all of us have to proceed together, like a family, then only will we all live happily).”

Tibetans revere the Dalai Lama and most credit him for keeping their culture and identity alive. They support his initiatives for a dialogue with China and his advocacy of compassion and non-violence, which has made him an international diva. When at his exile residence in Dharamsala, he is preoccupied with public and private meetings and his tight schedule of pujas and other religious duties as a monk. The Dalai Lama dismisses his global celebrity: “I am just a simple Buddhist monk — no more, nor less.” But even after 50 years in exile, he remains a tireless advocate of a Tibetan homeland: “My body and flesh is all Tibetan. I remain committed to the Tibetan cause.”

In recent years, the Dalai Lama has steered a “middle way” for an autonomous Tibet within China. “I constantly look back at the last 50 years. I always feel I made the right decision,” he said in his the 50th anniversary exile speech. He remains optimistic about returning to his homeland and takes comfort in the fact that the Tibetan cause remains alive and is even finding growing support among the international community. “Seen from this perspective, I have no doubt that the justice of Tibet’s cause will prevail, if we continue to tread the path of truth and non-violence.”

Dolma, an elderly Tibetan exile who fled to Dharmasala in the 1960s with her family, embraces the Dalai Lama’s approach: “Tibetan people’s resistance is not against Chinese people, but to display their desire to protect the legitimate rights of the Tibetan people and their rich and valuable culture. Everyone knows His Holiness is the Gandhi of our time and we accept his approach of non-violence. We are refugees and one day or another we must go back.”

 Woman praying in the streets.

Woman praying in the streets
Her sentiments are shared by Tenzin Delek, an elderly monk: “We Tibetans have left our homeland in search of freedom and the desire to live our lives as we see fit. We did so to avoid political oppression and religious persecution. Living in exile has strengthened the resolve of Tibetans to regain their homeland.”

Adds Gompu, a Tibetan born exile, “No matter where I live now, but if you ask me my true home it will always be Tibet. ”

However, over the past decade fissures have developed in the community over the Dalai Lama’s approach toward China. Most elders agree with his “middle way” strategy, which seeks an autonomous region of Tibet inside China. But many youth are growing impatient with the lack of progress and are rallying instead for rangzen, or full independence, and have begun targeting the Bejing government with public protests in India as well as in the West, provoking complaints from Beijing. There is a general sense that many of the young radical Tibetans in exile, such as those represented by the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), are presently constrained because of their reverence for the Dalai Lama, but they may feel freer to pursue more drastic action once the Dalai Lama, who is aging, passes away.

“This is the time for uprising, to raise the issue of Tibet at the international level,” says a young Buddhist monk. “The people of the world support us because we have true injustice.

Yonten, a young Tibetan who fled to India in 2000, is equally impatient: “I now dream of my homeland every day. Fifty years are enough, its time for us to get back to our home.”

TYC president Twesang Rigzin says:”No doubt, no one will be able to replace the Dalai Lama and we Tibetans won’t be able to repay him. But we are struggling for an independent nation and our struggle will continue.”

Tibetan monks debate at the main temple
But the exiles have seen their free Tibet hopes flicker and die countless times. Protest flags against the Chinese and Free Tibet posters are everywhere in Dharamsala. Monks and nuns outnumber revelers, performing hunger strikes on every major event, hoping to bolster world opinion to their cause. Tsering, a young Tibetan, says: “I feel the same as other Tibetans born in Tibet. I am eager to see my homeland, meet my people and glimpse the stories told of our old people. As a Tibetan born in exile I have more responsibilities to make every effort possible to help my people back in their own homeland.”

Meanwhile, Tibetan children learn both Hindi and Tibetan in school, the first to prepare them for a life in which they may never go to the homeland they have never seen and likely never will. While daily life embraces endless obeisance to Tibetan religion, with prayer wheels spinning endlessly, most Tibetans have begun assimilating with their Indian identity. Although presently there are few intermarriages between Tibetans and Indians, given the proximity of the two communities, these will no doubt grow.

“I live more like an Indian now, the only difference I see is just my religion, the rest is the same,” says Lobsang Dundrup, a middle-class Tibetan in his mid-30s, who runs a local café.

The Dalai Lama established a democratic government in exile, with a prime minister and legislature elected directly by exiled Tibetans in a bid to create enduring social and political institutions for exiles (see box). Tibetan exiles receive a renewable two-year residency permit from the Indian government, which, after securing visa clearance from the Foreign Registration Office in Lower Dharamsala, also permits them to travel overseas.

There is growing, unspoken anxiety over the future of Dharamsala and the Tibetan independence movement after the Dalai Lama, who is 74. There is no question that once Tibet’s most iconic figure retires or departs, Tibetan Buddhism will change dramatically and the Tibetan cause could fade from the international spotlight. Many Tibetans are resting their future hopes on the third highest Lama in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, 23-year-old, 17th Karmapa Lama Ogyen Trinley, who was born and raised in Tibet, but escaped to India in 2000 in a dramatic trek that took him across Nepal to Dharamsala.

Hopeful monks await their God-king Lama
Alhough the exiles fear talk about the succession, the Dalai Lama himself has not shied from the subject: “If people feel that the institution of the Dalai Lama is still necessary, then this will continue.”

He has speculated about the possibility of appointing a new Dalai Lama during his lifetime or even a female Dalai Lama, both of which will break tradition. But the Dalai Lama said: “The point is whether to continue with the institution of the Dalai Lama or not. After my death, Tibetan religious leaders can debate whether to have a Dalai Lama or not.”

There is widespread apprehension that when a new, reincarnated Lama assumes the position of the 15th Dalai Lama he may be targeted by China as occurred with the Panchen Lama, the second highest Lama, who was kidnapped by the Chinese government in 1995 shortly after he was named to the post by the Dalai Lama and whose whereabouts still remain unknown.

The uncertainties over Tibet and their future notwithstanding, Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala have managed to more than survive: they have created a mini Tibet in exile, which in many ways is more Tibetan than the occupied homeland that eludes their grasp.

Photos: Saransh Sehgal

 “It looks like Tibet”

Chamiywangde, a 38 year old Tibetan monk born in Kham province, fled Chinese-controlled Tibet to study Buddhism with other monks in India. Sitting inside the main temple in Dharamsala, Chamiywangde recalls in broken English that he was only 14 when he crossed the high mountains and roads: “I come from Chamdo Kham province inside Tibet. I flee in 1985, first in trucks from Lhasa to Tashi Lumbo and crossed the borders by walk. It took 15 days to reach Nepal and then it was easy reach India.” He lives in a monastery in Bylakuppe, near Mysore, and is currently in Dharamsala for additional learning.

On Indian support for Tibetans: “I thank the Indian people and the Indian government for making us survive. I’m very happy being in India. Tibetan people inside Tibet won’t be much happy as Tibetans in India. Even as I’m in India I feel like I am in Tibet and with hills around Dharamsala. it looks more like Tibet.”

On the prospect of returning: “I won’t go back to Tibet alone. When our mighty God Dalai Lama will return, then I will return.”

His apprehension on succession: “At present, it would be difficult to tell, but as monks we fear this a lot.”

Will the Karmapa Lama take over from the Dalai Lama? “It is for the Dalai Lama to make his successor; so it is for him to decide. I’m sure he will decide taking in view the best for the Tibetan people inside and as well outside Tibet.”


 “I dream of it almost everyday”

 Sonam Guards
Sonam Gyaltsen 27, who provides security outside the Dalai Lama’s residence and often travels with him, was born in Darjeeling to parents who fled Tibet and settled in Darjeeling. He says, “I have not seen Tibet in real life, but living close to the Dalai Lama I dream of it almost every day.”

Life After Dalai Lama: “ I fear talking about the afterlife of Dalai Lama. I know one day I won’t be guarding him, but I always hope of returning and if we go back I would be more happy to guard my Lama inside Tibet … or even guard the next Dalai Lama.”

Western appeal of Dalai Lama: “ He’s a living God. His attraction is so beyond, and the reason I see is because Buddhism is exploding very much.”

India: “It’s like our own country now. Since I am born here and my parents died here, my affinity is more.”

Accusation that Dalai Lama spends more time with celebrities than locals: “It’s not that. All the people who come from Tibet, they meet the Dalai Lama and the rest in public as well as private teachings. He likes it more when he meets a Tibetan who comes from inside Tibet and feels their pain.”

 “Getting some leg”

Jamphel Sichoe, 24, owner of the Coffee Talk café close to the Dalai Lama’s temple, was born in Dharamsala and completed his education in India. He says, “This Tibet issue will never end. It’s like a pain within us.”

Return: “I will go back, but do not know how. Middle way or Independence? ”

Life after Dalai Lama: As far as economy is concerned, “probably less western tourists, unemployment both to Indians as well as Tibetans will happen.”

Culture: “Miss Tibet is now kind of global thing. If someone calls it un-cultural it’s his personal statement, not the entire exiles. From Miss Tibet at least one is getting some leg.”

Culture Mixing: “It was to happen, probably being more Indian. Indian + Tibetan culture mixed is also another culture. Both cultures get more rich.”

“Global Cause”

Sonam Tsering, 20, a student at the Tibetan Homes School in Mussoorie, was 3 when he fled Tibet with his mother, reaching Nepal after trekking for 27 days.

Succession: “I’m too young to answer this. It’s about our country, about 6 million people. Who knows who will take the responsibility in exile.”

India: “I’m thankful to Indians and Westerners who support us and even feel our eagerness to return to our homeland.”

Dalai Lama’s Western appeal: “He is doing all this for us. Our cause has been global because of his humanity.”

Tibetan Exile Authority

Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile.
The Dalai Lama serves as the head of state of the Tibetan Exile Authority, which has an assembly and a cabinet led by a prime minister, elected every five years. The exile government generates most of its revenues from the Indian and Western governments, contributions from non profits and celebrities. Roughly 10 percent of its $16.5 million annual revenues come from tax levies on Tibetan exiles.

2009 - 2010 Budget

 Administration  Rs. 336,982,052
 Education  Rs. 157,664,431
 Health  Rs. 102,906,527
 Home  Rs. 163,166,478
 Religion and Culture  Rs. 41,868,875
 New arrivals from Tibet  Rs. 24,443,101
 Total  Rs. 827,031,464
($16.5 million)


 Culture of Tibetans in exile

Fearing Tibetan culture would be lost in exile, the Dalai Lama established many monasteries and educational institutions in his exile base in Dharamsala, as well as other Tibetan settlements. Today Dharmasala has transformed into a Little Lhasa, attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists and devotees worldwide.

Tibetan arts and crafts, multicolored Thankas and singing bowls are now a common sight even in the West and traditional Tibetan dresses have even become a fashion statement.

In Dharamsala, saffron-robed monks and nuns are a common sight, as are Tibetan art, paintings, clothing, trademark curled-up rooftops of Tibetan temples, prayer wheels and flags. Preserving their identity, religion, traditions and culture are articles of faith among Tibetans. Says Lobsang, one of thousands of monks in Dharamsala: “Buddhism came from India. And we Buddhist monks learn more and more each day. The presence and preserving is in our hands.”

Tsering, another monk, welcomes the modern world and even has an e-mail account: “Our culture is our strongness, and even if we be modern, by preserving our culture and religion it would be the maximum a community can look for.”

Tibetan beauties at the Miss Tibet contest 
Tibetan culture is increasingly rubbing up against modernism, reflected perhaps most dramatically in the divide among the youth and elders over the annual Miss Tibet Pageant, which many in the younger generation believe is a symbol of defiance against Chinese rule.

When the contest was first held in 2002, the Tibetan prime minister in exile called it “un-Tibetan” and “aping Western culture,” prompting many participants to pull out under the pressure. The Dalai Lama, with his characteristic humor, was more accommodating: “If there is Miss Tibet, why not Mister Tibet? He could be handsome. Then it would be more equal.”

This year’s Miss Tibet Pageant pit four young women from Dehradun, Dharamsala, Darjeeling and Bir before a cheering crowd at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and featured a swimsuit round, which in past years has stirred a minor storm. 20-year-old Tenzin Choezom from Dharamsala, who was crowned Miss Tibet 2009, said: “From childhood, I always have big dreams for my life, and winning this beauty contest is one of my dreams come true, said the new beauty queen. Being a Miss Tibet for me is like holding an ambassadorial post to represent Tibetan people, and especially Tibetan woman.”

Tibetans fear that Tibetan culture is at greatest risk in Tibet, where the Chinese government has adopted increasingly repressive policies to subjugate the Tibetan population. The Dalai Lama has said: “The preservation of our cultural identity is a primary concern for all Tibetans. Growing international support for Tibet is a source of much encouragement to us. Still, the situation inside Tibet remains extremely grave. Though we continue our efforts to ensure Tibetan cultural survival.”

 A Day in the Life of The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama sees himself as a “simple Buddhist monk,” who says he devotes 80% of his time on spiritual activities and the other 20% on Tibetan affairs.

Entrance to the Dalai Lama’s residence,opposite the main temple
The Dalai Lama spends only a few days every month at his exile residence in Dharamsala as he travels extensively to advocate for the Tibetan cause. When at his residence, he’s busy performing daily pujas, meeting the public, as well as conducting private teachings at the temple and scheduled interviews with the media. He regularly mixes with new refugees, listening to their stories and feeling their pain. In his public teachings he’s accessible to all nationalities. His public discourses are in Tibetan, with simultaneous English translation, which visitors listen on headphones.

As one of world’s most respected religious leaders, his charm and god-like character is commonly acknowledged by Tibetans, Indians and many tourists. Locals understand that the Himalayan town is thriving because of his appeal and they fear that his passing will be a major setback for the community.

Tourists often get a glimpse of the Dalai Lama, typically when he commutes between the airport and his residence, when the road leading to the temple comes to a standstill as Tibetans, tourists and locals line up for a peek of his ever smiling face as he waves from his car, guarded by a large convoy.

In recent years, his other public appearances have diminished, as with aging health problems he leads fewer prayers at his temple complex. He is more commonly visible at big inaugurations or state functions. Tibetans do not begrudge his accessibility to foreigners, believing it helps him attract Western support, funds and campaigners to their cause.

When in Dharamsala, he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. After his morning shower, he begins the day with prayers, meditations and prostrations until 5 a.m. He then takes a short morning walk around the residential compound. If it is raining outside, he uses a treadmill.

Dalai Lama at the Main Temple in Dharamsala 
Breakfast, typically hot porridge, tsampa (barley powder), bread with preservatives, and tea, is served at 5:30 a.m. Regularly, during breakfast, he listens to the BBC World News in English on radio. From 6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. he continues his morning meditation and prayers, then from around 9 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. he studies various Buddhist texts written by great Buddhist masters.

Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. His kitchen in Dharamsala is vegetarian. However, during visits outside Dharamsala, he is not necessarily vegetarian. As an ordained Buddhist monk, he does not have dinner.

Should there be a need to discuss work with his staff or hold audiences and interviews, he visits his office from 12:30 p.m. until around 4:30 p.m. Typically, during an afternoon at the office one interview is scheduled along with several audiences with both Tibetans and non-Tibetans. Upon his return to his residence, he has evening tea at 6 p.m. He then has time for evening prayers and meditation from 6:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. He retires for bed at 8:30 p.m.

He travels often both within India and abroad. During these travels, his daily routine varies, depending on his engagement schedule. However, he is an early riser and retires early to bed.

The Western Connection

Actor turned Buddhist Richard Gere in the streets of Dharamsala 
The Dalai Lama’s international fame, charm and global profile has thrust the Tibetan independence movement on the world stage and attracted legions of Western followers. Buddhism is the fastest growing Eastern religion in the West and the Dalai Lama is the world’s most renowned Buddhist teacher, whose life has been depicted in the popular Hollywood movies Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet. The Dalai Lama frequently travels to the United States and Europe, where he has met world leaders, such as Nicholas Sarkozy of France, U.S. President George W Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He has attracted a particularly strong following in Hollywood, including the actress Sharon Stone, composer Philip Glass, and actors Orlando Bloom and Steven Seagal.

Many celebrities make short, secret, private pilgrimages to Dharamsala. Some others stick around for several days, visiting Tibetan schools, dining at local restaurants and taking in tourist sites. Until recently, most locals were unfamiliar with many of these celebrities, but in recent years awareness about them has grown and many visiting stars are approached for autographs or photos by locals or other tourists.

Perhaps the best known Hollywood devotee of the Dalai Lama is Richard Gere, who is active in the Tibetan freedom movement and travels to Dharamsala three times a year to attend Buddhism classes, most recently in April, when he participated in a mind and life conference at the Dalai Lama’s residence.


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Magazine | India | July 2009

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