dharamsala dreaming

The Himalayan suburb of McLeod Ganj wearing an air of festivity and contemplation on a day celebrating the life, enlightenment and teachings of the Buddha.

Last year a day before Wesak I went to Dharamsala, a town in the far north of India situated at the foothills of the Himalayas.

Wesak or Buddha Purnima as it is called in the land of his birth commemorates the buddhahood or enlightenment of Siddharta Gautama on a full moon day under a fig tree two thousand five hundred and fifty years ago – almost six centuries before Jesus was born.

Once a domain of the semi-nomadic goat-herding Gaddi tribal people, the area now known as Dharamsala was annexed by the British in 1848. Enchanted by its English weather and scenery, the colonial newcomers constructed a cantonment for their Gurkha soldiers and established headquarters there for the surrounding district of Kangra.

Dharamsala soon developed into a popular hill station, attracting people of position and power including the Viceroy of India, the Earl of Elgin who on a visit in 1863 died of a heart attack while swinging across a river on a rope. He is buried in St John in the Wilderness, a small stone church just outside town.

With its heady mix of Himalayan hill tribes, Tibetan exiles and western truth and thrill seekers Dharamsala is a fascinating place for political science studies, photography and people watching.
Despite its conspicuous Tibetan Buddhist population the majority (70%) of people in Dharamsala are from the indigenous Hindu ethnic groups including the Gaddis and Gujjars


High altitude fashion: Himalayan Couture strung up and on display by the roadside


The name Dharamsala came from a religious term in Sanskrit loosely translated as “sanctuary”. It is an appropriate and prophetic name as Dharamsala has become a shelter of sorts for generations of disquieted humans running away from something somewhere.

The refuge seekers included Raj-era Englishmen escaping from India’s heat; Tibetans from Chinese persecution; post-conscription Israeli youths from troubles and tensions in the Middle East; and legions of spiritual tourists of every nationality from society’s contaminating influence and stress.

Perhaps I too was seeking something, tired and anguished by the condition of my then ailing late father. I was drawn to Dharamsala by stories I had heard and news I had read about the hardships and yearnings of its exiled Tibetan community and by the happy and peaceful teachings of their deeply revered leader Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.

I got there just as the sun started to sink slowly behind the stately stands of cedar trees around McLeod Ganj, the town’s upper suburb perched scenically on the slopes of the Dhauladhar Mountains.

With its meditative monasteries, noodle and dumpling shops and high-cheeked sunbronzed faces garbed in maroon robes, McLeod Ganj exudes so much in the manner of Tibet they nostalgically nicknamed it “Little Lhasa”.

Tibetans in Dharamsala are not as harmonious and homogenous as they appear. The community is divided by the region they come from and between the descendants of the refugees who came with the Dalai Lama in 1959 and newcomers who arrived after.
A  proud patrician face of a Tibetan elder in resplendent red tunic
vegetable vendor near the Dalai Lama Temple
Colourful souvenir scarves for sale in a shop in McLeod Ganj.
Noon crowds coming out of the Main Temple after listening to a speech by His Holiness the Dalai Lama


Today’s young foreigners are as drawn to Dharamsala as their predecessors. Large number of Israeli youths fresh from compulsory military service now make the nearby Himalayan villages their second home. Peaceful natural environment, acceptance by the locals, cheap costs of living, and availability of marijuana have been cited as reasons.
The image many still perceive of India
Woman making pan fried momo, the town’s Tibetan street food of choice


There are today around 100,000 Tibetans in India where their status is one of long-term guests of the country and not refugees. Rather than keeping their future in a limbo many young and educated Tibetans are migrating to the west. Such emigration plus the mere trickling of new arrivals from Tibet are the reasons for a potentially falling population.
A slow walk to the hippies hamlet of Dharamkot just 4km from McLeod Ganj


Although without citizenship rights, Tibetans have contributed greatly to the economy of Dharamsala. Their six-decade presence in India has further enhanced the country’s reputation as an accepting, welcoming and freedom-loving civilisational nation.


Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives in Dharamsala. Like Palestine and Taiwan, the Tibet question is emotionally-charged and politically divisive. Chinese view is that Tibet is historically a part of China and that the military invasion in 1950 was to liberate the Tibetan people from medieval subjugation by a slave-owning feudal theocracy.



4 thoughts on “dharamsala dreaming

  1. Folks, I appended an imagined conversation between Najib and Mahathir on the latter’s UN speech, while mentioning the Tibetans and our Penans. It’s a long and meandering one, bear with me!

    Mahathir:- Any comments on my UN speech?

    Najib:- Extemporaneous!

    Mahathir:- Let me google …. I appreciate your cynicism but don’t push it. Go on!

    Najib:- Seriously, your speech was informative and persuasive. Besides your Malaysian accent was a calming balm compared to my deputy’s American twang.

    Mahathir:- I’d swear I found traces of British reserve there. His swan song was hilarious, no? I saved it only as a reminder that our accent is unique and a marketing spiel we should promote rather appropriating garble from the white man’s tongue which some of our DJs have a penchant for, but I am happy they are confined to radio and not asked to make speeches at the UN.

    Najib:- Solid! My deputy won’t be thrilled, though.

    Mahathir:- About my speech, give it to me straight, no ice!

    Najib:- It was boring. You were pushing the door of hypocrisy. You spoke your mind but no matter how careful you were with your words, it will be misinterpreted.

    Mahathir:- Explain!

    Najib:- You carried water for the Palestinians and Rakhines while ignoring the Tibetans and Penans, the elephant in our own room.

    Mahathir:- Explain the Tibetans!

    Najib:- Tibet has a history of a millennium which China is trying to dismantle, while the Palestinians asserted statehood only decades ago, in the aftermath of their beef with Israel.

    Mahathir:- I’m listening!

    Najib:- The unasked question is why do Palestinians who never existed as a nation have a seat in the UN whereas Tibet, a nation in existence for over a millennium, does not. And why does attention on Tibet pale in comparison to the Palestinian issue when proportionately more Tibetans are being killed in their quest for independence than Palestinians in theirs for statehood.

    Mahathir:- The answer?

    Najib:- Terror! Terror galvanized world attention to the Palestinian cause, period. Hypothetically, if Buddhist cultures allowed suicide bombings of innocent civilians and hijacking of airliners in the name of Tibetan nationalism, world attention would have given them a voice in the UN. But thankfully, Buddhist cultures in Tibet are cut from a different cloth.

    Mahathir:- You should have written my speech! Our Penans?

    Najib:- Bruno Manser, believed to have perished, disappeared under your watch. Thing is, it is Manser’s organisation, rather our government, that is unpacking the issue of our displaced Penans.

    Mahathir:- About you writing my speech, I take it back!

    Najib:- Manser’s ghost, literally, is promoting the ongoing fight for the lands of our Penans for thousands of years, and not by extreme measures the Palestinians employ.

    Mahathir:- Your point!

    Najib:- If I had written your speech, I would start with a question, which would earn you a standing ovation, from the Palestinians and Rakhines too.

    Mahathir:- The question?

    Najib:- “Folks, do you want me to wax lyrical about human rights of Palestinians and Rakhines only, or would you rather I be honest about the Tibetans in China and Penans in my own backyard, as well?”

    • Thanks Tom for your insights. World politics is a case of the more you read the less you understand. Ignorance is sometimes bliss.

  2. – what an awesome albeit insightful article and if i was much younger (minus the responsibilities), i would have taken a flight on a whisker
    – the second sattirical conversation was laced albeit littered with wit and mirth all along
    – a blessing indeed brother being on your mailing list and keep the ink flowing / thumbs thumbing away
    – warmest regards

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