A Walk in Dharamshala

Sanctuary for Tibetan Culture
  |  Gorp.com

A smiling young monk walks slowly up the cobbled street, fingering wooden prayer beads beneath his maroon robe. When we pass, I hear him muttering mantras under his breath. A refreshing morning breeze sweeps down from the mountains, making the prayer flags flap crisply around me. I wind my way down Temple Road to the monastery.

To my right, an aged, wrinkled nun takes baby steps around a holy gompa. She reaches with arthritic effort to spin a prayer wheel. The red and black Tibetan script blurs as she moves on to the next wheel. The smell of incense wafts into the street, and I overhear rumors that His Holiness the Dalai Lama may make a public appearance tomorrow.

No, I'm not in Lhasa, though on occasion over the past few weeks I've felt as if this were the ancient capital of Tibet. This is Dharamshala, in northern India's Himachal Pradesh state—home of Tibet's government in exile for the past 40 years. With China's ongoing policy of cultural annihilation, Dharamshala has also become the last enclave for Tibet's unique culture. The name means "Place of Prayer."

As a young man, the Dalai Lama escaped Tibet in 1959, and was welcomed by the Indian government, who established the young leader in this former British hill station, secure from their common enemy. Tens of thousands of refugees have since followed His Holiness into exile, and with international attention drawn to Tibet over the last decade, Dharamshala has become a popular travel destination.

Westerners come for many reasons: to study Dharma (the teachings of Buddha), to learn about Tibetan culture, to volunteer with Non Government Organizations and the Tibetan Government in Exile, or just to relax. Courses are offered in meditation, Yoga, Reiki, massage, visualization, Shiatsu, and other spiritual practices. Many expats have found in Dharamshala a place to escape from the noise of the world.

The town isn't like the rest of India, which assaults your senses and can overload your circuits. Jill and I came here two weeks ago to escape Delhi, where a 120-degree heat wave had left 250 people dead. The streets were oppressive, filled with beggars, lepers, con-men and cows. Hindus were exuberant over the recent detonation of the bomb and cared nothing about economic sanctions or global condemnation. They would challenge us, "What right do you, with your many bombs, have to tell us what to do?" Amidst the lunacy and fervor, we caught a bus north.

Walking along the narrow street, I watch Tibetans mingle with expats and Indians. There are book shops with titles in many languages, booths with old women hawking Tibetan crafts, and restaurants selling momos, tsampa, Tibetan bread, and sodas. I have just been to the government Reception Center to interview a pair of recently-arrived refugees. Confronted with their story I wander the streets for some fresh air and perspective. They had completed a month-long journey by foot across the Himalayas from China. Ngima, a 23-year-old nun, had left because the Chinese had expelled her from her nunnery and disrobed her for not denouncing the Dalai Lama. And Dadon, a 12-year-old girl, was sent by her parents so she could get an education in her own culture, history, and language.

During the escape, their group of 30 refuges was caught in a blizzard at the top of a pass not far from where Jill and I were trekking last month. Ngima ended up carrying a nine-year-old girl who had been lagging behind, but the child died on her back. With no other choice, they left the girl and the bodies of four other children in the waist-deep snow.

Dadon, like most refugees, crossed the mountains in tennis shoes, carrying her few worldly possessions in makeshift bags. She lost all her toes to frostbite. When I met her, she wanted nothing more than to meet the Dalai Lama. (Through the Reception Center, every new arrival is granted an audience with His Holiness before being placed in a school, monastery or nunnery.) The Dalai Lama would be leaving soon for Europe, so if Dadon didn't meet him in the next few days, she would have to wait another month. While we were talking, an officer told her she had been granted an audience on the following day. Her shy face lit up with hope, the same hope that must have carried her for 28 days over 5,000-meter passes.

I see a Westerner talking with a monk. Lugging a heavy rucksack, he seems to be asking directions. The clean-shaven monk with close-cropped hair takes the backpacker by the arm and leads him down the road. Many visitors here find accommodation in monasteries, people's homes, or out-of-the-way hostels. Yellow and orange houses are stacked amid the rolling hills of Dharamshala. The architecture is distinctly Tibetan: square lines, flat roofs and large windows—good for morning prayers in the four sacred directions. The refugees have made a home for themselves here; and in Dharamshala they can pray without persecution.

Tibetans pass me on the street and smile. I return the smile and salute them with a "Tashi Deleg." Life in Dharamshala is relaxing and full of opportunity for the exiled Tibetans; if they can make it this far, they will suffer no more.

I wonder if they have become comfortable enough to want to stay where they are. For those born here, Dharmshala is the only home they've known. And among the faces in the crowds it's easy to distinguish the ones born in exile: they wear jeans and Chicago Bulls t-shirts. Would these Westernized youths and their prosperous parents choose to return to a free Tibet should the opportunity arise?

I am nearing the monastery. The streets are filled now with monks and nuns in maroon robes and with shaved heads. The bass tones of chanting catches my ear, like foghorns in the morning mist, intermingled with gongs, bells, and melodic prayer.

The monastery is a replica of those once found in Tibet, right down to the pillars, high ceilings, and ornate carpets. Inside and out, the devout sit cross-legged with closed eyes. Some twirl hand wheels inscribed Om Mani Padne Hum. In their draping robes, novices glide across the hardwood floors, filling bowls and cups with tea poured from long curving spouts. Pious lay people walk clockwise around the temple in bare feet, spinning prayer wheels, sending mantras down the hills. The wind carries the prayers, and the entire valley seems purified—more holy.

In an ante-room, two silent monks fill oil lamps with yak butter. Many sacred religious objects, having been smuggled out of Tibet, are used in daily practice in this temple. On a table are about five hundred small silver bowls. The two men beacon me inside.

"Come in brother," one says. "Where are you from?" The Tibetans are gentle people, outwardly simple and welcoming of strangers.

"America," I say.

"Oh, you are missing the Freedom Concert in Washington," says the younger one. They are also well informed about how the world is reacting to their plight.

"It is better that he is here," the older says, lighting lamps. The room fills with the oily scent of butter. On the wall, as with most walls in town, hangs a picture of the Dalai Lama. I ask them my question about Tibetans in exile: "Are they too comfortable to return?"

"Most of us want to return," says the younger.

"We can never forget that inside Tibet, our culture is disappearing." The older one adds.

This echoes something I've heard many times over the past few weeks. The issue is not whether Tibetans want to stay or return—they are willing to risk their lives for their country and their leader. But they are desperate for more than just lip service from abroad. While heartened by Clinton's pro-Tibet comments on a state visit to China, they don't expect much to come of it. Time is running out for Tibet, as the culture is slowly assimilated, and many anxious exiles are calling for action.

I go to a window in the monastery and look back at the town perched above. As much as it feels like it, Dharamshala is not Lhasa. I breathe deeply the air of freedom but think that as purified as the air is here, it does somehow feel stale, like the inside of a display case housing ancient religious artifacts.

Until the next time,
Tashi Deleg.

All Original Material Copyright © Dan Kaplan. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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