Nestled in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas sits the small town of Dharamsala. Surrounded by majestic conifers, and with an awe-inspiring backdrop of towering snow-topped peaks criss-crossed with glistening streams, the town has become a popular base for travellers preparing to tackle the soaring Indrahar Pass.
Of course, the town isn’t just popular with seasonal hikers looking to take in the breathtaking scenery. For decades, campaigners and lawmakers from across the globe have come here to meet with Dharamsala’s most famous resident–the Dalai Lama–and to see for themselves his followers’ refuge and their Government in Exile.
But as this government–not officially recognised by any country in the world–marks its 50th year, its residents are growing increasingly concerned that a town once meant only as a temporary resting place on the journey back to their homeland of Tibet is taking on the feel of a more permanent residence.
Granted the right in 1959 by India to settle here, Tibetans fleeing Chinese domination now see an uncertain future as their hopes of returning to their homeland begin to recede.
‘Life is good as long as we don’t think about our country,’ says Jamphel Kalsang, who was born in exile in Dharamsala and owns a coffee shop in the centre of town, just a few minutes’ walk from the Dalai Lama’s residence. ‘But when I do my heart sinks.’
I take a walk with Kalsang around the town’s crowded streets. She has studied with Indian students and speaks very good Hindi. She tells me that although the exiles dream about returning home, more and more people are seeking out a home in exile. ‘Being born in exile, I don’t have much of a sense for Tibet, and I don’t have any problems being here,’ she says. ‘But yes, I suppose a homeland is a homeland, and I always hoped to go there.’
Yet Kalsang says she is pessimistic about the prospects of the exiles securing a globally recognized homeland. ‘They [the government in exile] are trying their best to fix us up in a better place,’ she says. ‘But I don’t think it will work.And I’m more Indian since I was born here. It’s not my true home, but it’s home.’
Kalsang’s co-worker, 24-year-old Chemi Dolkar, was also born in exile. But although she does the daily Kora (holy walk) she has her eyes on a career that will take her far from her exile home –she has just completed a training course in Delhi to become a flight attendant. Like many educated young exiles, Dolkar has one eye on the modern world, and she says that although she believes it is good that exiled Tibetans can find here the freedom and education she says are lacking in Tibet, she personally has no interest in politics.
Dharamsala has two distinct sections. Most exiled Tibetans live in Upper Dharamsala, or McLeod Ganj. Known affectionately as Little Lhasa, it is home to the Dalai Lama, who lives just opposite the Tsuglag Khang central cathedral.
Lower Dharamsala, meanwhile, is a few kilometres down the hills and has a very different feel from Upper Dharamsala, with nearly 20,000 people–almost all Indians–living in and around the area.
But although Little Lhasa is home to about 12,000 Tibetans and permanent Western residents who together have placed their cultural stamp on the town through the construction of monasteries, schools, refugee camps and education centres, some residents say the town is becoming ‘more Indian.’
For the exiles, this Himalayan refugee settlement is an experiment in which the Dalai Lama and the people around him are trying to incarnate a ‘new Tibet’ far from the original–a Tibet 2.0–that aims to be both traditional and modern, and more ethnically diverse.
One of the most prominent exiles in the town is Lhasang Tsering, a Tibetan writer, activist and former president of the radical ‘Free Tibet’ movement, the TYC-Tibetan Youth Congress.
‘There hasn’t been any progress [on the Tibet issue],’ he says, adding he believes China’s efforts at a dialogue are just its way of playing for time. ‘This is the most successful refugee settlement in the world. We’ve tried our best to live our own lives. And now it’s a success story. But that was never our aim.’