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Indian town `more Tibetan than Tibet'

January 14, 2008 - Travel - Indian town `more Tibetan than Tibet'

January 10, 2008
Jade Hemeon

Special to the Toronto Star

McLeod Ganj, India-At an altitude of almost 2,000 metres, the little 
hill station of McLeod Ganj huddles in the shadow of the enormous, 
snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. But as home of the Dalai Lama and 
seat of the Tibetan government in exile, it is an important and 
unusual place.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and Tibet's Buddhist spiritual 
leader, has lived in McLeod Ganj (also called Upper Dharamsala) since 
1959, when he escaped from Chinese-occupied Tibet. Since then, 
thousands of Tibetan exiles have settled in the town, creating a 
Tibetan world in India with restaurants and businesses, homes, 
monasteries, meditation retreats and schools. Everywhere you go, you 
see people with their Tibetan clothing, smell the Tibetan foods and 
view the curled-up rooftops of the Tibetan temples, rows of prayer 
wheels and lines of prayer flags.

"Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj are now more Buddhist Tibetan than Tibet, 
where the religious traditions and cultural history have been 
destroyed in the name of the Chinese cultural revolution," says our 
guide, Vipul Bansal.

"The Tibetans in exile have recreated their traditional way of life 
in India."

Next door to the Dalai Lama's house is the main Buddhist Temple and 
monastery. The inner sanctum of the temple is colourfully painted and 
adorned with thankas, silk wall hangings intricately painted with 
Buddhist icons. The temple also houses a giant carved and painted 
image of the Buddha as well as the 100-armed deity Avalokitesvara.

Our arrival coincided with the Dalai Lama giving a public audience. 
We joined hundreds of red-robed monks and Dalai Lama followers, all 
rushing to find a spot to sit on the temple floor.

The Dalai Lama was to speak in Tibetan, but the shops along the way 
sold transistor radios for those who wanted to tune into an English 
station to hear the instant translation. I picked up a radio and 
earphones. At the gates, an enterprising family had staked out a spot 
for a breakfast stand, and was busy selling tea and deep fried 
Tibetan dumplings and pastries.

Everyone was searched before entering the temple. No cameras or 
recording devices were allowed. I found a spot with a view through 
the open windows of the inner sanctum where the Dalai Lama was 
speaking, but the room only held what looked like a couple of hundred 
people and there were many more in the outside corridors. The Dalai 
Lama's message was that a meaningful life revolves around benefitting 

"Helping others is what we are supposed to do. That's what this life 
is meant for. It makes sense out of your life and gives meaning to 
your life," he said with an impish smile.

During the talk, monks would come by with giant tin kettles and fill 
our cups with soothing Tibetan tea - salty and fortified with melted 
butter. They also served dry pancake-like Tibetan bread.

Local restaurants have names that reflect the Buddhist - and hippie - 
influences of the town, such as the Om Restaurant, Café Shambala, Yak 
Restaurant, Moonview Café and Rising Moon Restaurant.

They serve traditional Tibetan dishes, such as Tibetan thali, a kind 
of sampler, as well as delicious noodle or Tibetan momo (dumpling) 

Below the main temple, a steep road leads to the Tibetan Library of 
Works and Archives, also a study centre for Buddhism and the Tibetan 
language. There's also the Kangra Art Museum which has artifacts from 
the local Kangra valley dating back to the fifth century. The 
Norbulingka Institute just outside of town was founded to promote and 
preserve Tibetan culture in exile and promotes the study of 
traditional arts and literature.

We spent a day visiting the Tibetan Children's Village, established 
on the outskirts of McLeod Ganj in 1960 by the Dalai Lama's sister, 
Tsering Dolma Takla, to care for the many orphans and destitute 
children that result from the continuing Tibet migration.

It provides a Tibetan-style upbringing and education and a family 
atmosphere - children are placed with foster parents in group homes 
on the property. Many children grabbed our hands to show us their 
bedrooms; each one has a clean, neatly made bed, with its own stuffed 
animal. The school is partially financed by sponsors from around the 
world who "adopt" individual children.


DHARAMSALA is in the state of Himachal Pradesh, in the Kangra Valley. 
The nearest airport and railway station are in Kangra,15 kilometres 
away. There is a daily flight between Kangra and Delhi. It's a 14-
hour bus ride from Delhi.

WEBSITES: (Tibetan Children's Village); 
(maintained by the Tibetan government in exile); (a 
website on Buddhism in India).
Exiles recreate traditional way of life in Himalayan village

Jade Hemeon is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Her trip was 
subsidized by G.A.P. Adventures.
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