During our recent trip to South Asia, we spent several days in Dharamsala in northern India–the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the focal point of Tibetan exile life.
Nestled in the steep foothills where the plains of the Punjab meet the Himalayas in northern India, Dharamsala is a former hot-weather vacation spot “hill station” from the British colonial era which has been the home of the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1960.
There are over 25,000 exiled Tibetans settled in the area, and more continue to arrive, fleeing from their Chinese-occupied homeland.
There are constant reminders of the struggle for Tibet, such as a clinic that advertises “treatment for torture victins.”
The central focus of the area is actually in the small crowded streets of the village of MacLeod Ganj, which sits further up steep roads above Dharamsala, and has shops, craft centers, temples and trekking companies; the streets are filled with foreign and Indian tourists, local Kangra people and, of course, many Tibetans. We shopped there and bought loads of Tibetan stuff for our store.
We stayed in the Norling Guest House at the Dalai Lama’s Norbulingka Institute, which is just outside Dharamsala and which was established to help keep Tibetan culture and values alive. Since 1988, older Tibetan craftsmen and artists have taught young Tibetans there in a wonderful setting of gardens, classrooms and the impressive Deden Tsuglagkhang temple. (http://www.norbulingka.org/).
One day of our stay, the tranquility
of the setting was wonderfully disrupted by a “Bollywood” film crew filming a scene for the big-budget movie, “Rock Star”, starring Ranbir Kapoor. While hundreds of extras (Tibetan monks and students) waved Tibetan flags and “Free Tibet” signs through numerous “takes”, the movie star and his rock group played the song “Sadda Haq” which voices the Tibetans’ struggle for freedom.
We also had a task to carry out while in Dharamsala. The sister of our friend Tenzing in Kathmandu was studying the Tibetan language, Buddhist religion and culture in the Lamsang nunnery. Enrolled as a student rather than as a nun, his sister loved her studies, but missed food from Nepal. We hand-carried a parcel of Nepalese goodies to her one day and were able to visit the nunnery. The beauty of the place and the devotion of the people were amazing.
We also visited another nunnery near our guest house and were shown around by one of several western volunteers we met during our stay. Shakti, a retired school teacher from Victoria BC (near our shop on Whidbey Island), has been a volunteer teacher at this nunnery for about six years during most of the year.
Visiting her was another Canadian, a retired mental health nurse from Tofino BC who was busy agitating for the release of a Tibetan film maker in prison in China. The dedication to Buddhism and to the Tibetan cause exhibited by Shakti and other volunteers and activists was amazing to behold.