Tibetan Buddhism's Permanent Home
After 50 years of exile and an uncertain future at best, this Indian hill city in the North Indian state of Himal Pradesh is increasingly looking like the last stop for the tens of thousands of Tibetans who settled here after their 1959 flight to escape Chinese domination.
Many in Dharamsala hoped that 2009 would be a watershed year in which some form of détente would take place with the Han Chinese. But if anything the Chinese have become more intractable than ever over any hint of negotiations. The Dalai Lama himself said recently that: "I have spent most of my life in this hill station. Now I feel like a citizen of Himachal Pradesh."
Given Chinese intransigence, it appears unlikely that many will ever go back. The Chinese believe they have beaten the 74-year-old head of the Tibetan Buddhist religion, and will be able to name his successor, reincarnation or no reincarnation. Thus life in the exile capital has come more into a pattern, with more and more Tibetans coming to consider the old British hill station a permanent base, located as it is in the middle of a populous Hindu community.
At least 125,000 of Tibet's 2.8 million citizens have fled the remote Himalayan kingdom to establish communities as far away as Canada and Switzerland. Massive Tibetan temples have sprouted in the remote forests of Northern California above San Francisco and in New York. Hundreds of Tibetan communities thrive in Europe and the United States.
India's Prime Minister Pandit Nehru gave the Dalai Lama and his government the leftover British Raj palace in Dharamsala, which translated means religious abode, and which increasingly they have translated into a Tibetan community, with Tibetan architecture and Tibetan cultural rhythms.
Dharamsala remains the biggest overseas Tibetan community, with Tibetans slowly taking over and making the town their own. The semi-nomadic Gaddi, once the dominant ethnic group, have struggled hold onto their culture and language. At first poverty-stricken and with no jobs, the Tibetans have slowly swamped the local population with their rich culture and their god-King, bringing with them the attention of the world and the thousands of seekers of enlightenment who swarm the place. Tibetans now outnumber Indians, with Tibetan monasteries, schools, refugee camps, and education centers putting their distinct architectural and cultural stamp on the town.
A second, smaller settlement exists at Bylakuppe in Karnataka state. With some 11,000 residents, it has also sprouted numerous monasteries, nunneries and temples including the huge Lugsum Samdupling established in 1961, and the Dickyi Larsoe, established about a decade later. Both appear as if they were transported brick by brick from Tibet. Both Dharamsala and Bylakuppe were established on land leased by Indian governments to accommodate the refugees who fled in 1959.
Dharamsala itself is actually divided into two urban areas. The first is Upper Dharamsala, or McLeod Ganj, sometimes called Little Lhasa, where most Tibetans live in little crowded streets and where the Dalai Lama has his residence just opposite the Tsuglag Khang, or central cathedral in the Dhauladhar mountains. The second is the largely Indian Lower Dharamsala just kilometers down the road, so different from Upper Dharamsala as to nearly produce culture shock.
Unlike the isolated and severe city of Lhasa in Tibet, where only a handful of tourists ever get to, an eclectic crowd throngs Upper Dharamsala, making it a unique ecosystem, a cosmopolitan town of espressos cafes and Web-surfing monks and mountain lovers. It has become a global node for pilgrims, hippies and backpackers swarming into the city to seek enlightenment through Tibetan Buddhism. Tourism has brought yoga classes and spiritual retreats and the adventure of hiking the Himalayas.
In the hills Tibetan prayer flags, maroon-robed chanting monks and variegated Tibetan life are everywhere. Monks perform their daily routines, with men and women doing daily work in patterns developed centuries ago in Tibet. The town throngs with small Tibetan-run cafes and bustles with activity such as volunteering to teach young students and monks Buddhism courses. Protest flags against the Chinese are everywhere, along with Free Tibet billboards. Monks and nuns outnumber tourists and revelers, performing hunger strikes on every major holiday, hoping against hope that the world will do something for their cause.
However, in a town where Indians and Tibetans share a common platform, life is changing. There seems surprisingly little animosity between Indians and Tibetans despite religious and cultural disparity, particularly the Gaddi, who have lived here for generations, only to see the Tibetans move into a position of economic superiority.
"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 be as a family then only we all live happily)," said Ramesh, an Indian taxi driver in Hindi.
Tibetan children learn both Hindi and Tibetan in school, the first to prepare them for a life in which they may never go back to the homeland they have never seen and are increasingly likely never to.
While daily life appears to be endless obeisance to the Tibetan religion, with prayer wheels spinning endlessly, in actuality many feel they are becoming more Indian.
"I live more like an Indian now, the only difference I see is just my religion, the rest is the same," said Lobsang, a middle-class Tibetan.
Neither Tibetans nor Indians have found themselves completely secure in the mixture of culture and religion. Instances of intermarriage are rare although with the cultures growing together, they are expected to increase.
Dharamsala, the Tibetans say, is not their true home but feel it has a lesson. Tenzin, an elderly monk says: "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."
For the elderly, pride lies in living in one's own country and not as refugees. "We are refugees and one day or another we must go back" said an elderly Tibetan woman who fled to India in the 1960s.
For 50 years both Tibetans and Indians have been living, growing and making their bread and butter from this tiny town. Since the poverty-stricken refugees came to make the town a center of Tibetan Buddhism, it is becoming permanent, adding to India's secularism and making Dharamsala unique by imbuing the town with an underlying substance.
And, in the middle of the country that bills itself as the world's biggest democracy, the Dalai Lama has pledged something no Tibetan knew before the hegira to India – representative government. The Chinese have called the exiles' attempts to bring democracy a cynical ploy by the Dalai Lama. But it appears genuine democracy will take root in the Tibetan community. He has established a government in exile, with a prime minister and a legislature elected directly by the people. That is considerably more than China can say.
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India who can be reached at email@example.com