Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Tibetan Buddhism's Permanent Home

April 14, 2009

Saransh Sehgal
Asia Sentinel
April 13, 2009

With hope of return to Tibet diminishing,
Dharamsala takes on the trappings of permanency

After 50 years of exile and an uncertain future
at best, this Indian hill city of Dharamsala in
the North Indian state of Himal Pradesh is
increasingly looking like the last stop for the
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, who can often be seen on the
streets, 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 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 30,000 Tibetans slowly taking
over. 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 a refugee. "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.

Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in
Dharamsala, India who can be reached at
info@mcllo.comThis e-mail address is being
protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank