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'Little Lhasa': Tibetan spirit endures in the Dalai Lama's Indian home

Prayer flags flutter on the hillside below the Dalai Lamas's house in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala, home to Tibetans in exile.

DHARAMSALA, India - The Tibetan faithful hit the trail at sunrise, walking clockwise below the Dalai Lama's house, spinning prayer wheels that send mantras by the millions into the crisp mountain air.

Among them is a stooped, wizened monk who spent years in Chinese prisons before fleeing over the Himalayas to this place of refuge. The monk told the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, that he faced danger a few times during his imprisonment.

"What kind of danger?" the Dalai Lama asked.

"Danger of losing my compassion toward the Chinese," the monk said.

A taste of old Tibet

Politics and religion are entwined here in the small town of Dharamsala in north India. Sometimes nicknamed "Little Lhasa" (after the Tibetan capital of Lhasa), Dharamsala clings to steep Himalayan foothills just as its 8,000 exiled Tibetan residents cling to hopes of returning to their Chinese-controlled homeland.


Dharamsala, which clings to the Himalayan foothills, blends Indian and Tibetan cultures and is home to the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Cultures converge in Dharamsala: Western tourists stroll past Indian sacred cows and Buddhist monks, hoping for a glimpse of His Holiness or at least American actor Richard Gere or another celebrity devotee.

Dharamsala is the focus of the worldwide exiled Tibetan community. Like a space capsule in a science-fiction movie, the town contains the crucial ingredients of a threatened civilization, preserving them in hopes of eventual return to the homeland.

This outpost 250 miles north of New Delhi transports visitors to the Tibet of a bygone era before Mao Tse-tung's troops "liberated" the feudal state on the world's rooftop, causing the Dalai Lama to flee. The low chanting of maroon-robed monks mingles with fumes from yak-butter candles, spreading a mystical calm. Refugee children study their language and history in a school designed to perpetuate Tibetan traditions.

"In their minds," the Dalai Lama says, "the Tibetan spirit is very, very alive."

A spirit of its own

Yet just as Tibet was never the Shangri-La depicted in Hollywood, neither is Dharamsala a replica of Lhasa, Tibet's capital. The Dalai Lama has democratized Tibet's government in exile, whose parliament meets here in simple quarters built to seem temporary. At less than 6,000 feet, Dharamsala's altitude is a far cry from Lhasa's lofty heights and a good deal easier on the lungs. And relations between Tibetans and Indians are downright friendly compared to Sino-Tibetan hostilities back home.

Visitors won't find the breathtaking views here of the Potala Palace or the Jokhang temple, Lhasa's main attractions. But they can see Tibetan Buddhism free from repression; visit the Nechung Monastery, where the Dalai Lama periodically consults an oracle; and, with the right timing, attend a public audience with His Holiness. (Register a few days ahead at the Branch Security Office, near Hotel Tibet.)

Two worlds

By visiting this country within a country, travelers can experience something of both Tibet and India. The pine-forested hills offer a nice respite from India's hot, noisy cities.

The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, smells the flowers in his garden in Dharamsala.


Updated: 23-7-2001

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