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Dharamsala’s ‘Man in the Box’ Dies

July 1, 2011

He was Dharamsala’s best-known resident after the Dalai Lama. Ask any Tibetan in Dharamsala and they’ll tell you he had been living there – in a box – for longer than any one of them has been in India.

Most estimate he had been living in a bed-sized tin container in the Himalayan town for over 50 years. No one knew his name, he was just known as the “Man in the Box.” He passed away, in his box, June 19. He was estimated to be in his late 60s.

“He had been living in this box all his life …This is why we call him Man in the Box,” says Lobsang Wangyal, a 42-year old Indian-born Tibetan.

His mental condition, which some say may have been a form of acute autism, meant he never spoke. Despite the communication barrier, over the decades the Man in the Box became a fixture in Dharamsala.

“I have been living here for 15 years and I saw him every day,” remembers Mr. Wangyal. “Although he didn’t make friends with people, people made friends with him.”

He spent almost all of his time in his box, which was last parked next to a Buddhist temple in McLeod Ganj, a Dharamsala suburb that has grown in global importance ever since the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet in the late 1950s and made it his new home. Since then, the town’s Tibetan community has swollen, attracting throngs of Buddhist tourists, including the odd Hollywood celebrity.

Over time, the sleepy mountain village has become a popular destination not just for crimson-robed monks but also for mountain enthusiasts, who seasonally crowd the town’s many cafés and budget guest houses. While residents grew accustomed to the Man in the Box, most first time visitors couldn’t help notice the man huddled in a tin box as they strolled down one of McLeod Ganj’s two main roads.

The Man in the Box passively experienced the town’s transformation from his box. “I remember him being in a box ever since I was a little boy, in the early 1980s,” recalled Tsering Thundup, the director of a local Tibetan charity. “He was part and parcel of life in McLeod Ganj: Every time anyone went up or down the street, he was there,” he added.

Mr. Thundup’s charity had been taking care of the Man in the Box since last winter, when his health started deteriorating. Mr. Thundup did not know the exact cause of death, but said the Man in the Box suffered frostbite, among other ailments, and had been recently hospitalized.

What is perhaps most extraordinary about the Man in the Box is that he survived this long with just a tin box to shelter him from Dharamsala’s bitter winters. The support of the local community helped. Residents and visitors became fond of the Man in the Box, supplying him with food, warm clothes and even beedis — leaf-wrapped Indian cigarettes — of which he was an avid smoker.

He does not appear to have family in the Dharamsala area so little is known of his pre-box days. Pintu Sharma, who runs a restaurant in McLeod Ganj, said his parents remember him arriving in town in the 1960s as a teenager in the company of a woman.

“She left, but he stayed,” said Mr. Sharma, who said his parents found him in a shelter and “offered him tea and chapati.” For the following 40 years, Mr. Sharma said his parents helped take care of him. As a result, many thought the Man in the Box was related to the Sharmas, something their son denies. “We had no idea where he came from, he never spoke,” said Mr. Sharma who added that at the time many suspected he was a Pakistani refugee. They had no way of proving otherwise.

During his lifetime, his box was upgraded a number of times and shifted from one side of the road to the other to make room for a restaurant. His box, now empty, is still there. His body was cremated.

The Man in the Box had an unlikely counterpart in Brian Haw, a peace protester famous for having camped out in front of London’s Parliament Square for the past 10 years. Mr. Haw died hours before the Man in the Box.

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