Surrogate homeland

Surrogate homeland

Drawn by the universal appeal of Dharamsala, it is easy to forget that the Himalayan town serves a purpose higher than mass tourism: Little Lhasa is a sobriquet that aims to preserve the Tibetan identity, write Mukul & Shilpa Gupta

In reverence Tibetan Buddhist women spin the prayer wheel while circumambulating, called ‘Ling Khor’.

Maybe this is what Tibet looks like. Hilly and hardy, pristine and dusty in parts. Lego houses of tin, rock and timber festooned with colourful Buddhist prayer flags. Figures in traditional clothes walking purposefully with prayer wheels and rosaries through streets where everybody knows everybody. Islands of red-robed monks and nuns fasting-feasting at cafes. And the ubiquity of the young and old engaged in countless full-body prostrations.

Or maybe this is only an idea of Tibet, an imagined land. After all, most residents, born in exile, have never seen the country of their forefathers; for the rest, the fraying memories have not matched pace with elapsed time.

Then again, it may merely be an evocation of Tibet, a lost homeland desperately needing to be recreated and protected.

The truth — along with its versions — probably lurks in the blurred overlap of all three. But sitting in a bustling cafe, all we get to see is Om. It is everywhere: on the walls, above the entrance, on the pillars. It appears as a kaleidoscopic painting, in the form of a few 3D stickers randomly affixed, and even as a framed mural. Seated against one wall on a makeshift dais of a thick mattress, a 30-something Russian sitarist in a cream polo-neck jersey ends his rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ with the words, ‘This was actually a Bengali number that had inspired The Beatles.’

In attendance Dalai Lama at Gyuto Monastery. Photos by authors
In attendance Dalai Lama at Gyuto Monastery. Photos by authors

Universal bonds

Somebody lets out a whoop. There’s a chuckle followed by a muffled cough from another corner that almost seems to say ‘Excuse me?’. Then, as the musician proceeds to play ‘Jaane Kahan Gaye Woh Din’ (‘O, Where Have Those Days Gone?’), the audience of different vintage and nationalities — Israeli, Korean, American, German, Turkish — breaks into a hearty applause. It is a popular yesteryear Bollywood song that speaks of broken promises and a love lost.

The lyrics seem apt in the surroundings. We are in Dharamsala, a colony of Tibetan refugees who have lost it all: hearth, haven, homeland. Carved out of fecund mountains of pine, fir and rhododendron, the sleepy town that had come close to becoming the summer capital of the British gained renown when the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists, adopted it as his seat-in-exile after escaping Chinese persecution back home.

A woman prostrating in revernce.
A woman prostrating in revernce.

The year was 1959. From a few houses and a quaint shop called Nowrojee & Sons that has now been around for 160 years (‘General Merchants House and Estate Agents Auctioneers,’ the board outside the idling store announces), the town has grown to encompass north Dharamsala, called McLeodganj. Literally meaning ‘spiritual abode’, Dharamsala aspires to capture the Tibetan Buddhist zeitgeist.

If actor Richard Gere is a regular here, we never get to pap him. However, we do meet another foreigner who has seen merit in Tibetan Buddhism: Elena from Italy. It’s hard to picture the soft-spoken, rouge-robed woman as a self-confessed rebel capable of such stated debauchery — multiple lovers, wanton sex, a punk lifestyle, an aimless existence. “Shocking, no? But that’s what Tibetan Buddhism did to me. It gave me hope. It gave me peace. It gave me,” Elena, rechristened Lobsang Kunsang, now a Tibetan Buddhist nun studying in Dolma Ling nunnery in downtown Dharamsala, pauses to stress, “meaning.”


In Dharamsala, ‘meaning’ seems to be a commodity everyone is either looking for or hawking. This is where those in search of nirvana — real, notional, earthly or heavenly — descend. There are seekers of quick-fix exotica in rudraksh beads and Buddhist prayer wheels. Foreigners are lured by the prospect of a spiritual epiphany. Scholars hope to decipher the meaning of life through texts, yoga, vipassana. Honeymooners in red-and-white choodas (bangles) desire breaking into a passionate conjugal life in hip settings. Apart from meditation, yoga and reiki, peddlers of exotica offer therapies galore that promise a cleaner, calmer, better you — su jok, chakra cleansing, ecstatic dancing and meditative singing. There’s even a ‘clairvoyant course’ on offer. Everyone heads here for a reason, some of which has to do with the pleasant weather (Dharamsala is in the shadows of the mighty Dhauladhar ranges), some with the vibe, and a tad bit with the appeal. Some come here to escape, others come to arrive, and for some it’s the culmination of a quest. ‘Meaning’ is different things to different people in a town where tourists outnumber pilgrims.

A child in traditional clothes.
A child in traditional clothes.

Finding meaning

For nun Lobsang, meaning came from Tibetan Buddhism, of course. The oldest of three daughters born to Christian parents in a loveless marriage in Italy’s La Spezia, she gave up non-veg food at 15 (“It just didn’t seem right … killing another being for my pleasure.”) and rebelled soon after. “When you have everything but satisfaction, you start to reject the ways of society,” she says. As she began to wonder what freedom really constitutes, her German boyfriend dumped her, but not before leaving the kernel of a new thought: “Alone, you cannot change the world; you must change yourself.” Those words turned her life around. Influenced subconsciously by her mother’s youthful desire to herself be a Tibetan Buddhist nun and mindfully by her boyfriend’s profound wisdom, her search led her to a centre for Buddhist studies in Tuscany. Two years later, she ordained as a nun, taking on the name, identity, robes and life of a Tibetan Buddhist nun: “I realised that suffering comes from attachment. I wanted to get rid of attachment.”

Like many other women from across the globe, Lobsang joined Dolma Ling a year after moving to Dharamsala in 2013. Dolma Ling is one of many institutions in Dharamsala that strive to preserve the religious and cultural ethos of Tibet.

Main square at Mcleodganj.
Main square at Mcleodganj.

In the town’s main square is the Namgyalma Stupa, a memorial to Tibetans who died fighting for a free Tibet (unaware of the fact, many tourists take the psychedelic structure to be only of religious significance even while pausing to eat momos from one of the many vendors next to the prayer wheels surrounding the Stupa). Down the road on its left is the Tsug La Khang with the hallowed Kalchakra Temple and the Namgyal monastery, next to which stands the Tibet Museum, a testimony to the indomitable will of fleeing refugees who survive atrocities, extreme weather, treacherous mountains and debilitating frostbites to make it across. The complex has a heartrending installation that enshrines monks, nuns and laypersons who perished by immolating themselves in a desperate bid to call the world’s attention to the cause of Tibet.

Everywhere you look in Little Lhasa, or Dhasa as Dharamsala is called, the need to preserve — and perpetuate — the ethnic identity is conspicuous (writer Pico Iyer even calls the town’s design a Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala, a wheel with six spokes jutting out). You’ll spot Tibetans silently performing Ling Khor (circumambulation) around the Dalai Lama’s house, the meditation trail punctuated by fluttering prayer flags, chortens of stones and pebbles, and rocks on which the chant of ‘Om Mane Padme Hom’ is carved in technicolour. Periodically, the soothing tinkle of bells pierces the stillness as giant prayer wheels are spun around, releasing, it is believed, the goodness of Buddhist scriptures into the environment.

The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives is a repository of ancient cultural objects and manuscripts from Tibet. Its museum, among the finest in the world, is a beacon of dharma. Secluded among the deodar and pine trees right below the town, the Dip Tse Chok Ling Monastery is a reconstruction of the eponymous 18th-century monastery in Dip, near Lhasa, that was destroyed by the invading Chinese army in the year of the mass exodus. The Men-See-Khang “preserves, practises and promotes” the ancient Tibetan system of medicine, astronomy and astrology called Sowa Rigpa.

Ironically, though the Tibetans of Dharamsala are considered refugees, they don’t enjoy the status of either a refugee or an Indian even when born in India; they are considered foreigners. Tsering Dorjee, aka Snow Lion, an artist in his 20s who fled to India from Tibet several years ago, shows us his Registration Certificate. “This is my identity,” he says sardonically. The RC is mandatory for all those above the age of 16 and has to be renewed periodically.

Monks posing for a photograph at Norbulingka Institute.
Monks posing for a photograph at Norbulingka Institute.

Focus on preservation

Refugee or not, there is an almost urgent need to preserve all things Tibetan, cultural as well as historic, in Dharamsala. The Norbulingka Institute, set amid Zen-like gardens, is designed after the Dalai Lama’s summer palace in Lhasa and imparts training in traditional Tibetan arts and crafts like thangka painting, idol-making, sewing and woodwork.

The Tibetan Children’s Village is a residential school with several branches in India that provides education to refugee children. The old aren’t forgotten either and the Jampaling Elders’ Home focuses on their well-being. There’s the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts that trains in Tibetan opera, dance and music.

A comprehensive museum is coming up in Gangchen Kyishong (the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration, the government-in-exile) and several monasteries and nunneries dot the landscape. A quick glance through Contact, a free monthly magazine brought out by the Lha Charitable Trust, reveals the painstaking effort that is being pumped in to enunciate the causes of both Tibet and the Tibetans. There are websites labouring to strengthen expat Tibetan communities.

Of course, compromises have been made along the way. Women’s chuba, though traditional, is not made of the thick material used back home, but of cotton to cater to the Indian weather. Most youngsters have adopted Western clothes and Western music (the western world has a special fascination and most young Tibetans, though born in India, aspire to migrate abroad).

A poster on the street.
A poster on the street.

Mixed Fare

Dharamsala’s restaurants—from hole-in-the-wall fixtures to decent eateries and cheerful cafes—serve up an international menu. As expected, Tibetan cuisine is par for the course. Head to Tibet Kitchen for authentic Tibetan and Bhutanese food. Or try Hummingbird, the café at Norbulingka Institute. Himachali food figures prominently too; the thali at Moonpeak is a good initiation. Street-food aficionados must try the textured la-phing, a spicy snack, though the purple-coloured blood sausage is only for gastronomic bravehearts. The Bhagsu cake, an innovation of one of the German bakeries near Bhagsu waterfall, falls in the realm of must-try. For the full spectrum of sweet delights, there’s Tibet Quality Bakery. The two biggest surprises though are Lung Ta which is good for Japanese fare and Seven Hills of Do-kkae-bi, a delightful Korean restaurant.

Fact File 

There are daily flights to/from Delhi and Kangra Airport in Gaggal, 12 km from Dharamsala. The nearest international airports are in Chandigarh and Amritsar, 244 km and 200 km away respectively. The nearest rail junction is Pathankot, 86 km. There are also daily overnight buses from Delhi (474 km, 12 hours).