Features | Society | South Asia

No Place Like Home?

After decades in exile, some Tibetans are beginning to question whether the breathtaking location in India that has served as their temporary residence might, despite their best hopes, be taking on the trappings of a more permanent home. Saransh Sehgal meets the exiles living in Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama.

By Saransh Sehgal for

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.’

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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.’

Sipping tea with Tsering at an attractive garden restaurant close to his home, he tells me about his frustration with the current arrangements. ‘The pain of being an exile is that you don’t belong where you are, but you can’t go back to where you belong,’ he says. ‘I don’t feel patriotic. And I don’t have any purpose or meaning in my life. This is an increasingly common frustration among young people here…If I could have one last wish, it would be to die in Tibet.’

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I ask him what he thinks of Western policy on the Tibet issue, and specifically US President Barack Obama’s decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama during the monk’s recent visit to Washington. ‘US thinking on this is misinformed and short-sighted,’ he says. ‘It changes depending on who’s in power. I thought Obama was disgraceful.’

But he adds: ‘In a way, though, it was good for us politically that Obama didn’t meet the Dalai Lama because it made clear how strong China is. Our leaders should learn something from this.’

Beijing’s tough stance toward the exiles, and what is seen by many as its repression of the nearly 6 million Tibetans in China it calls separatists or sympathizers of the Dalai Lama, is making it increasingly unlikely that any exile will ever return to Tibet. Indeed, an estimated 2,000 Tibetans risk their lives crossing the treacherous Himalayas to escape Chinese control every year.

In all, an estimated 140,000 Tibetan refugees are scattered across India and Nepal. Some of these are located on the plains of south India in Bylakuppe–the second-largest Tibetan settlement after Dharamsala with 10,000 Tibetan residents and numerous monasteries, nunneries and temples (including the famous Lugsum Samdupling and Dickyi Larsoe monasteries, which look like they were transported brick by brick from Tibet.)

Another estimated 80,000 Tibetans are believed to have settled in the West, including the United States, where Tibetan temples have sprouted up even in remote parts of northern California and New York State. Scores of other small Tibetan communities, meanwhile, are thriving all over Europe.

Thirty-something Yonten Gyatso currently lives in Dharamsala’s refugee centre. He says he crossed the border with the help of a guide and trekked through the mountains for more than a month before reaching Nepal, where he was kept in a Tibetan refugee centre before being sent to the one in Dharamsala.

‘I miss the traditional goings on in the village back in Tibet,’ he says. ‘And I especially miss the family parties on the mountain where we used to cook food and do traditional dances.’ Looking down uncomfortably, though, he says: ‘But living under Chinese rule was very difficult–we weren’t even allowed to keep photos of the Dalai Lama. Those who do what the Chinese tell them are OK. But most people don’t want to, and so they have a hard life.’

Gyatso adds that although he misses many family traditions, living at the refugee centre is better than being in Chinese Tibet. ‘India is a free country, and I have our Dalai Lama here. I think I’ll be staying in India forever–it’s a very free country. Even if I go back to Tibet, under the Chinese I won’t feel as free as I do here.’

As home to the Dalai Lama, the Karamapa Lama (third in line to succeed the Dalai Lama) and other high-ranking Lamas and monks, Dharamsala is the heart of Tibetan exile life, and the hills are adorned with Tibetan prayer flags.

The town, where monks and nuns outnumber tourists, is also thronged with small cafes, and bustles with activity as monks perform their daily routines and teach courses in Buddhism while locals engage in community activities such as volunteering as teachers.

But attention has of late been turning increasingly toward the Kalon Tripa [prime ministerial] election scheduled for 2011. Already, discussion among the Tibetan diaspora, much of it Internet based, has turned to potential candidates. The incumbent Kalon Tripa, Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, will be completing his second term in 2011, and under the charter of the Tibetans in exile he is barred from seeking a third term. Indeed, Rinpoche himself is on record as saying that the Tibetan people should anyway be looking toward someone new, and ideally younger.

The backdrop to this pre-election anticipation, though, is an increasingly anxious exile community that is worried about what will happen to the autonomous Tibet movement after the Dalai Lama, 74, is gone. Many fear that the loss of the movement’s most iconic figure will change the face of Tibetan Buddhism irrevocably, with the Tibetan cause fading from the international spotlight, in turn meaning a loss of the funding that has kept it alive.

Many Tibetans are therefore placing their future hopes on the 24-year-old who is the third-highest Lama in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, the 17th Karmapa Lama Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who was born and raised in Tibet, but fled to India in 2000 in a dramatic trek that took him across Nepal to Dharamsala.

Looming over the centre of the town is Tsuglag Khang, the central cathedral where monks, nuns and other Tibetan come almost daily. There, I approach an elderly monk, Thupten, who has just finished praying in front of the Buddha statue. He tells me that when he was younger, he was part of a group of 15 monks who fled from Latho.

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Monastery in Eastern Tibet to India to learn about Buddhist philosophy and authentic Tibetan culture. However, he tells me that after 50 years in exile, he doesn’t believe a free Tibet is possible. ‘There are more Chinese in Tibet than Tibetans,’ he says.

Khang, like many locals, is reluctant to talk about the issue of the succession, but says: ‘If the Dalai Lama goes back, I’ll go back. I’m still hopeful for the return of all Tibetans and the well-being of Tibet. But Tibet has only one Dalai Lama. If the Dalai Lama is finished, then so is Tibet.’

The issue of identity is complicated by the huge generational differences in perception over the issue of return. Most elders agree with the Dalai Lama’s ‘middle way,’ which seeks an autonomous region of Tibet inside China. But many young people are growing impatient with the lack of progress and are rallying instead for rang zen, or full independence. They have also increasingly been targeting the Chinese government through public protests in India and the West.

Many believe therefore that it is only reverence for the Dalai Lama that is keeping such passions in check, and that his passing will prompt young radical Tibetans in exile, such as those represented by the Tibetan Youth Congress to pursue more drastic action.

Speaking with some of these young exiles, I get a clearer sense of their frustration, but also how they are torn by their respect for the Dalai Lama.

‘The clash of ideologies between the young and old exiles is natural–I don’t expect it to change,’ says Rinchen Tenzin, who was born in Kham province in Tibet. ‘Older exiles think the old way and might try for independence after they gain autonomy. But younger people are getting more impatient every day.’

Tenzin says he doesn’t personally hate the Chinese, arguing that they, unlike their leaders, actually also want a free Tibet. But although he believes Tibet issue will slowly recede from international attention, he says he is convinced that Tibetans are still born lucky, and that they are blessed to have a leader like the Dalai Lama. ‘Tibet is now in every country–everybody knows about Tibet,’ he says.

Tenzin says he is also sceptical about what the future would hold if he ever did return to Tibet. ‘If I go back to Tibet, it will be hard for me. Maybe I would have to learn Chinese. It would be difficult to start life over again.’

But despite a sense of drift, frustration with China’s perceived stalling tactics and a feeling by some that the West has failed to exert sufficient pressure on China to soften its stance, officials of the Tibetan government in exile I spoke with were still supportive of US efforts on the issue.

‘The US Tibet policy has strong grassroots support and the US Congress is deeply involved in the Tibet issue,’ says Samphel Thupten, secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations for the exiled government, who also notes there has been widespread international support for the Dalai Lama’s middle way.

However, he warns that in the meantime, there are growing problems for Tibetan refugee settlements as educated young people leave in search of jobs. He says the government in exile is doing its best to improve education and administration, but has limited resources.

And while US efforts are broadly appreciated, some worry that China’s efforts to keep Tibet off the international radar could be bearing fruit, concerns that were exacerbated by Obama’s decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama.

Obama has, for his part, pledged that he will raise the Tibet issue with the Chinese leadership when he visits there next week. But questions remain among exiles in Dharamsala and elsewhere about how hard the administration will push as it also seeks better ties with China. In the meantime, Tibetan refugees are left waiting, and hoping, as they have been for 50 years.