When the Dalai Lama escaped Tibet and began his life in exile in 1957, numerous Tibetans followed him. Fleeing Chinese oppression, they took refuge in India who accepted them. Faced with a massive influx of refugees, India resettled them around the country. One such settlement was Dharamshala, where the Tibetan government in exile is located. The city has become a popular tourist destination for both Indians and foreigners alike who wish to see the Himalayas, the Dalai Lama temple and experience Tibetan culture. So many foreign tourists come to Dharamshala that they have created their own enclaves in the nearby towns of Dharmcoat and Bhagsu. Head to a restaurant/café there with a reputation for being a place where westerners who visit Dharamshala to experience eastern spirituality hang out and you will find pretty much what you expect.
When I planned to go to India I never intended to go to Dharamshala. My original plan had been to go to Darjeeling, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas known for its tea plantation. My habit of always reading the news however led me to learn that there was unrest in Darjeeling. The government of West Bengal had recently mandated that Bengali would be a mandatory subject in schools in Darjeeling. The people in Darjeeling are Indians, but ethnically Nepali and thus speak Nepali. They responded to the government of West Bengal’s imposition of them with protests, which turned to riots. An indefinite strike was called, troops were sent in and the internet was cut. Although West Bengal backed down, making Bengali an optional subject, the movement to make Darjeeling and the ethnic Nepali areas of India a new state, which has been periodically demanded since the partition seized, the opportunity to make their demands with an already motivated population. As the conflict continued, the elected government of the semi-autonomous authority that governs Darjeeling resigned. As of this writing the conflict has still not been resolved. Reading about all of this in the paper and contacting the person who was to hosting me in Darjeeling who confirmed what I’d read, the other SiSA fellow I was to travel there with, Caroline, and I decided to go to Dharamshala instead. The situation can be succinctly explain as someone said to me, “you can’t take people’s identities away from them.”
In Dharamshala, Caroline and I met up with another SiSA fellow, Addi, who was teaching English to Tibetans through an NGO named Lha. Meeting up with Addi, Caroline and I headed with her to the Dalai Lama temple, where she had seen the Dalia Lama, to see the statues there. (You can read about Addi seeing the Dalai Lama here: https://sisa2017.ii.lsa.umich.edu/what-do-we-want-from-the-dalai-lama/. He wasn’t in town when I was there so I never got the chance to see him.) Addi explained to us that part of what she did was to have conversations with Tibetans as a part of teaching them English and that we could join and have a conversation with a Tibetan. Caroline and I eagerly volunteered. That day however we couldn’t find the place where the class was in time. I made it in time for class the next day although Caroline fell ill and wouldn’t recover until the day before she was to leave.
Having made it to class on time this time, I had my heart set on talking to a monk. I had a number of questions that I wanted to ask about the viniya, the rules for monks and nuns, as well as other subjects related to Tibetan Buddhism. Addi told me where to sit to talk to a monk and I was able to speak to monk one on one. I learned that he had been a nomad in Kham, the southeast region of Tibet known for its rugged terrain. He became a monk at the age of 17 and had been a monk for 20 years. He answered all of my questions, yet what stood out to me was how he spoke about situation in Tibet. He asked me if I knew about the self-immolations in Tibet. I said that I did and he simply replyed, “it’s unfortunate.” I found this a dramatic understatement.
The day after my conversation with the monk was the Dalai Lama’s birthday, he turned 82. I joined Addi and some friends that I made through Addi in going to the Dalai Lama temple for the celebration. The Dalai Lama however missed his own party as he was celebrating in Leh, Ladakh. He was probably too cool for us. We still had fun watching traditional Tibetan dances and performances, eating laddu and drinking butter tea. I can only describe butter tea as tasting like drinking a butter cookie. There was of course cake and even though the Dalai Lama wasn’t there, I ate cake at the Dalai Lama’s birthday party. No one can tell me otherwise. After the dances and performances different people gave speeches. They of course spoke in Hindi, which only one of my friends knew so we simply talked to one another. I asked one of the Tibetans that I had made friends with about the Khata, a traditional Tibetan scarf that is given on certain occasions often white in color. Eventually, the rebirth of the Dalai Lama came up. He has said that he would not be born within Chinese control, that he might not be born again and that he might be reborn as a woman. He hasn’t really given a definitive answer on the subject. As we talked another person was called over to help answer our questions. The person who was called over explained to us that the Dalai Lama would most likely be reborn because the Tibetan people need him and that the Dalai Lama is more powerful than he has ever been. What stuck with me the most from the conversation however was when they said, “the people who burn themselves are taunting the Chinese. What can your guns do when I can burn myself alive? Nothing.”
The next day I and some of my friends decided to see the two waterfalls near Dharamshala. Caroline felt well enough to join us, albeit after a visit to the hospital and with a bottle full of oral rehydration salts in tow. The first waterfall proved easy to get to. There were steps as it was a popular tourist destination. To get to the second waterfall we took what was supposed to be a short cut. We hiked up hills moving toward the second waterfall we wanted to see. At one point, we encountered a mule on the path who decided we weren’t to pass by almost kicking one of our group. A man came out of his house and one of us asked him something in Hindi. He looked back baffled and relied, “It’s very strange to just get up and the first thing I am asked is do I speak Hindi?” We managed to get around the mule although later a cow almost decided it wanted to run into me with its horns. Footage exists that shows how close it came to me but I haven’t seen it. The path to the second water fall was comprised of rocks and dirt on the side of a hill with a metal pipe guiding the way that we would grab on to for balances when needed. As we neared the water fall it began raining on us, the second time that day. Fortunately, there was a small café at the water fall. I bought a box of cookies and gave everyone one to celebrate our achievement. We waited out the rain and took our pictures.
On the way back, I talked to a monk who had joined us on our hike. He became a monk at 4 years old and had been a monk for 20 years. He told how he wished to go back to Tibet so he could visit his grandmother. He was hopefully his request for a Chinese passport would be approved so he could go back and live in Tibet, although his request had been denied once already. I also asked him about the history of Tibet, although we had some trouble with the language barrier. Caroline left Dharamshala the next morning and I left the day after her, each of us continuing our journey through in India. I made a number of friends in Dharamshala and I miss being able to spend time with them, as well as the wonderful Tibetan community, Tibetan food and wonderful cake. I highly recommend the cake.