Postcard From…Dharamsala

dharamsala
Tibetan monks at the main temple on the 50th anniversary of their exile. Photo by Saransh Sehgal.

Dharamsala is the capital of the Tibetan exile community. Thousands of Tibetans fled to this city in northern India and have lived there for the past half-century. Most live in Upper Dharamsala, popularly known as Little Lhasa, where the Dalai Lama has his residence, just opposite the Tsuglag Khang, the central cathedral.

The heart of Tibetan exile life beats in Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama, the Karamapa Lama, who is third in line, as well as other high-ranking lamas and monks. Also in residence is the government-in-exile, with a prime minister and legislature elected directly by exiled Tibetans.

In the hills, Tibetan prayer flags, maroon-robed chanting monks, and signs of Tibet’s diverse culture are everywhere. The town throngs with small Tibetan-run cafes. Volunteers teach young students and monks courses in Buddhism. Protest flags against the Chinese are ubiquitous, along with Free Tibet billboards. Monks and nuns outnumber tourists and revelers, performing hunger strikes on every major holiday in the hopes of influencing global public opinion.

With the Dalai Lama now 74 years old, anxiety has grown in recent months over the future of the autonomous Tibet movement. Once Tibet’s most iconic figure retires or departs, Tibetan Buddhism will change dramatically and the Tibetan cause could fade from the international spotlight. Many Tibetans are resting their future hopes on the third-highest lama in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, 24-year-old Ogyen Trinley, who was born and raised in Tibet but escaped to India in 2000, in a dramatic trek that took him across Nepal to Dharamsala. Although the exiles fear talk about succession, the Dalai Lama himself hasn’t shied from the subject: “If people feel that the institution of the Dalai Lama is still necessary, then this will continue.”

The United States and other members of the international community have sent clear signals to the exile government that they are concerned about developments in the Tibet region, and expect that Beijing and the Tibetan exile community will come to a mutual resolution that respects the wishes of the people of Tibet.

“I hope that you will use that credibility and those relationships to help persuade Chinese officials that the Dalai Lama is not part of their problem but rather part of the solution to the situation in Tibet,” Jeff Bader, a senior director for Asia of the White House’s National Security Council, told a group of prominent Chinese-Americans a few months ago.

The Dalai Lama will visit the United States in October and hopes to meet with President Obama. But Washington has also stressed the importance of its relationship with Beijing, particularly during the global financial crisis. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu warned, “We firmly oppose the Dalai’s engagement in separatist activities in any country under whatever capacity and under whatever name.” So a meeting between the elderly Tibetan and the young American remains up in the air.

In Dharamsala, meanwhile, the Tibetan exile community waits. It has created a new Tibet away from Tibet — a Tibet 2.0 — that aims to be more modern and more internationally connected than the real, existing Tibet over the border.

Saransh Sehgal, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus based in Dharamsala, India, also writes for Asia Times Online. He can be reached at: info (at) mcllo (dot) com.