July 15, 2020
Looking for Little Lhasa

I’d expected to find dreadlocks and Free Tibet T-shirts at the seat of Tibet’s government-in-exile. But Western ’70s culture had practically obliterated traditional Buddhist life.

It seemed as if Little Lhasa, as Indians call this seat of the Tibetan government in exile, was lost, drowned out by dreadlocks and the stench of infrequent showering. For the transient/resident population of hippies, Israelis, and Israeli hippies, the fact of the Dalai Lama’s residence here in McLeod Ganj was a sideshow to the arts of holistic healing and yoga.

As we began our two and a half journey into the mountains, on snake-like, lightless roads, our driver, Mr. Joshi, pulled over for a steaming cup of spiced chai.

“People, who, you know!” He raised his eyebrows and imitated the motion of puffing a joint, then broke down laughing.

But I was glad to be there. I rolled down the windows, breathing clean, crisp air for probably the first time in the seven months I’d been working in India. In the night, the moon shone and reflected light off the snow-capped peak of Hanuman Ka Tibba, the highest in the Dhauladhar Range.

Travelers come here to Dharamsala visit Buddha Hall, the holistic healing center and hostel where we stayed. Buddha Hall was owned by a transplanted Indian woman named Usha, a friend of a friend. Most of the summer the hostel is booked with travelers who wake at sunrise for yoga on the roof, and learn hypnotherapy and crystal healing. Some stay for months on end. The hot water runs out at 10 a.m., and in the evening the sounds of casual guitar strumming prick the hallways.

My travel companions Bryan and Brian and I have come to see the Buddhist temples. Like everyone else, we also hope to sneak a peek at the Dalai Lama (every once in a while, a lucky visitor is granted an audience).

In March 1959, when Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled over the Himalayas and into India after the failed Tibetan uprising against the Chinese, the Indian government offered him refuge in this region. A year later, he established the Tibetan government-in-exile on these snowy slopes. He still lives a few minutes walk down the mountain.

McLeod Ganj is cold for much of the year, the air noticeably thinner, allowing the relocated Tibetan population to continue many traditional practices. In May the temperature was often a scant 55 degrees F (compared to an average of 110 degrees in New Delhi). The snowline is just a two-day hike away.

India is home to a diaspora of some 100,000 Tibetans, with more fleeing by foot across the treacherous peaks of the Himalayas every year. But I had lived in New Delhi for nearly five months before I met any Tibetan. In the city, many live in Majnu Ka Tila, near the decrepit Yamuna River. There are few reasons for Delhiites to visit the area, unless they’re studying at the leftist Delhi University nearby, or living in Delhi’s Tibetan refugee camp.

Unfathomly, Majnu Ka Tila is free from the noise, dirt and smells that even the nicest Indian establishments fail to keep out, and it became my sanctuary from the insanity of daily Delhi. It was easier to breathe, and none of the infamous Indian beggars harassed me for change.

Maybe that’s why I came to like Tibetan culture best, of all the ethnic Indian cultures I learned about. Seeking a better understanding (and momos, the amazing Tibetan dumplings), Bryan, Brian and I ascended into the Himalayas to experience the epicenter of Tibetan culture.

I was disappointed. I had expected a certain amount of dreadlocks and Free Tibet movement T-shirts that became so popular in the 1990s. But Western ’70s culture seemed to dominate the town: outside the confines of the understated Buddhist monastery complex, housing the Dalai Lama’s temple and most of the important Tibetan government offices, it was as if the ’70s had never died.

Sitting in on the stoop of the Tibetan Museum, a Tibetan institution plastered with photographs of a young, bespectacled Dalai Lama making his way over the Himalayas and plastic-encased, blood-soaked garments of Tibetan protestors injured in riots, I wondered how it was possible that a few alleyways in the bustling general chaos of Delhi seemed more authentically Tibetan than the neighborhood where the Dalai Lama himself lived and worked.

Inside the serene monastery were quite a few Nikon-wielding tourists, to be sure, but the fluorescent flyers for yoga classes and film screenings kept a fair distance from the Free Tibet stickers around the monastery. All signs of the Tibetan resistance: the brightly-colored Buddhist prayer flags, the monks in draped in burgundy robes — were confined to the monastery area.

On one side of town, every afternoon, monks engaged in lively debates about the texts and teachings of Buddhism, energetically clapping each time an opponent made a point.

On the other, twenty-somethings learned tarot reading and smoked out, or picnicked along the mountain trails, above the streams where monks came to clear their heads and take a dip.

As we walked along the steep, trinket-cluttered roads of Bhagsu, a tatty tourist enclave a quarter mile down the road from McLeod Ganj, a young man in cutoffs and a fraying wife beater addressed me in Hebrew and handed me a flier.

I stared at the flier, and then at him. Puzzled, he tried again in English: “Jam session tonight at Cafe Haifa. Come?”

This sort of thing was happening every day.

The man was one of hundreds of young Israelis, fresh from military service, staying here in the warmer months of the Himalayan summer.

After four days in the Himalayas I’d eaten the best falafel since my travels in the Middle East. The Indian populations of the area all speak, read, and write Hebrew, and local establishments have names like Hotel Zion and Cafe Haifa. We’d long before given up looking for momos or thukpa, a Tibetan spicy noodle soup.

Eclectic backpacker culture peppers many of the Himalayas’ hill stations. Backpackers go Manali to hike, or Rishakesh, where the Beatles first met their guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yog. They infuse the local communities with hemp and granola.

The Tibetans have surely added to the colorful, rich cultural life in Dharamasala, expanding the calendar of Indian festivals with events like Losar (Tibetan New Year), and the Dalai Lama’s birthday, celebrated on July 6 with much pomp. But here, tourist culture overshadowed what we’d come to experience.

On our last evening, as an Indian cafe waiter explained the Israeli dish shakshouka to me (apparently, eggs in tomato sauce), Bryan struggled to play chess with a silent bearded Israeli and speakers pulsed ambiguous-sounding rock music. The notes drifted out into the night, assaulting the serene quiet of the imposing white ridges above.

Learn more

Regional music
Tibetan throat singing
Tibetan language
The Tibet Railway
Dharamsala info

One comment about “Looking for Little Lhasa”

  1. Big World Magazine » The Last Vacation says:

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