The Road to McLeod Ganj

Kay Larson travels to McLeod Ganj in northern India for a firsthand look at the challenges facing this Tibetan exile community.

By Kay Larson

Photo by Dave Kleinschmidt

The Dalai Lama has said that in the short term he has no hope at all, and in the long term everything changes. The dharma messages embedded in that pithy observation roll around in my head during an extended sojourn in Dharamsala, northern India, seat of the Tibetan government in exile, where out of necessity the Tibetans have been practicing the social engineering of wisdom and compassion for some five decades.

I’ve come at the urging of the Dalai Lama’s youngest brother, Tenzhin Choegyal, and Tenzhin’s wife, Rinchen Khando Choegyal. I met them at a dressy art-world event in Los Angeles, the opening of an exhibition of contemporary art focused on the Dalai Lama. Witty and serious, comfortable as international travelers, evidently at home on the road, they seemed emblematic of educated Tibetan citizens of the world. They were adamant: Come see what it’s like.

My reporter’s nose itched—a condition I’ve never yet cured. I gathered my husband, Andrew Pekarik, and after the usual melodramatic traverse of India’s anarchic roads we found ourselves drinking tea on the balcony of a hotel overlooking the Dalai Lama’s Namgyal Monastery and temple. This sprawling complex of white buildings wraps itself around a knoll at the lower end of McLeod Ganj, the old British Hill town perched some thousand feet above Dharamsala.

You reach the ridge by twisting up a single-lane road that mysteriously serves as two lanes for cars, buses, bikes, lorries, and scores of people walking. The settlement lies in an earthquake zone and was leveled by quakes sometime before the Tibetans arrived. When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, Nehru gave him the ridge, which sits in front of one of those Himalayan mountain ramparts that drop from the sky like shower curtains. The land is leased to the Tibetans for 99 years, and the time is half up.

Tibetans are still pouring daily into India. They escape the Chinese occupation of their homeland by hiking across trackless snow passes (often in Chinese-made tennis shoes), evading soldiers and extortionist border guards, and negotiating the tricky Nepali and Indian travel-permit system. They are issued papers in Nepal, assuming they make it that far, and are sent to Delhi, which directs them to one of the Tibetan communities in India. For those who arrive in McLeod Ganj’s narrow streets, their next-to-last stop is the Tibetan Reception Center, a modest pile of concrete with no sign, across from the post office.

Andy and I climb a set of blackish concrete steps to the office of the director, who says his name is Dorjee. He gives us numbers: most Tibetans coming over the passes are teenagers or young men, but a few are ten years old or younger, and some are sixty or seventy. Women find the trek hard. Babies often make it over in the arms of someone other than their parents, who stay behind so their families won’t be harassed or tortured.

Dorje leads us up more dark stairs to the roof, where a Tibetan refugee and a Western volunteer have been teaching an art class for children. He points to a bulletin board tacked with drawings. One poster-sized sheet resembles an old map of the known world, with white snow mountains ringed by sawtooth blue borders. A line of black figures crawls toward a pass. Green figures fire rows of dots and a black figure falls. Around a red stupa are tents and a cluster of red figures, one holding a red blob that Dorjee says is a video camera.

Before we left home, the news of a Chinese army assault on Tibetan refugees at Nagpa Pass made the New York Times and the international news agencies. According to the Chinese government, the Tibetans attacked the soldiers, but that version was challenged by the Romanian climbing team who captured the event on video. The Romanians wore Western expedition clothes in bright colors like red and orange; the Chinese were in green uniforms. Dorjee says that two Tibetans, a nun and a twenty-three-year-old, were shot. Thirty-three Tibetans were arrested and forty-two escaped. He points to a black square that he says is a cook tent. Curled up inside is a small black figure: a boy who survived the massacre and who made this drawing in the reception center art class.

Dorjee, whose face is set in a seemingly immovable sadness, reminds us that the only open border out of China is the one in Nepal. Tiny Sikkim has already been gobbled up by the Indians, who keep a strict border. Fragile Bhutan, justifiably terrified of the Chinese, will not accept Tibetans (although earlier waves of Tibetan monks and lamas have filled Bhutanese monasteries for years now). The Chinese lately have been pressuring Nepal to close the Tibet office and reception center in Kathmandu, says Dorjee. I recall the long, ruinous Maoist insurgency in Nepal, its recent “accommodation” with the government, and I suddenly see the possibility of a closed Nepalese border and Tibetans with nowhere to run.

Being here makes the dharma lessons seem even more urgent. The Tibetans carry with them a thousand years of intensive Buddhist practice. Now it’s being applied to a distressingly difficult set of choices. I ask myself, what if my enemies were implacable and their weapons beyond my resources? If I were tricked, betrayed, surprised, and hurt, forced into a permanent alarm and alert? Enticed by rage and grief? Demoralized and exhausted? How would I fight back? Would I fight back? What does “fight” mean? Is this only a Tibetan problem? Or could Americans, obsessed with the harm brought on us by 9/11, have something to learn here too?

The Tibetans have straggled in, sick and traumatized, in small groups, over the last half century. When they arrived, they had two choices: either fall apart altogether or devise an organized social welfare system intent on ensuring their continued existence as a culture and a people. In 1960, still recovering from his dangerous escape, the Dalai Lama asked his sister Jetsun Pema to begin a school for traumatized refugee children. The boy who survived the assault at Nagpa Pass, for instance, might be sent from the Refugee Center to one of the schools of the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV).

At the upper school, where orphaned grade schoolers are educated, giggling youngsters throw themselves into our arms and scream with delight as we twirl them. A chorus of warbling song emerges from a concrete-block meeting hall. We ask a young woman in attendance what she is doing there, and she tells us that she is a TCV graduate who got an education degree so she could come back here and help. Most of the children, she says, are sponsored by Western donors.

At the lower school, a boarding school for Tibetan children whose parents can afford the modest tuition, we are shown classrooms where students lean over old wooden desks, like those in American schools a century ago, and copy equations and geometry lessons from blackboards. I am startled to hear a burst of perfect British English from a tall Tibetan teacher. I’m told that he actually speaks no Tibetan. Born in Britain, he came to TCV as a volunteer to teach students English drama. He and several students are busy rehearsing a production of Romeo and Juliet.

In the library, which doubles as a computer center, Dhargyal La, the librarian, shows us racks of Penguin Readers, English texts so heavily used they are flaking apart like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Overwhelmed, we offer to find replacements. The impulse to help is powerful.

In the adult school, the director has such a stalwart military bearing that we ask his history. He explains that he was one of the CIA-trained operatives dropped into Tibet after the Chinese invasion. He looks as though he would have no trouble handling the demands of teenage and adult refugees, for many of whom school is a strange new universe.

Somewhere along the line, TCV makes assessments of the refugees and their capabilities. Unschooled teenagers or young adults coming directly from Tibet may do best in vocational training. Others will get a basic education and choose to go back over the mountains to live in Tibet near their families. Those who are sufficiently motivated receive assistance to go on to higher education. Tibetans are hoping to found their own university in southern India (and are looking for donors), but for now they send talented Tibetan children to Indian colleges, often with the help of yet more sponsors. Refugees who are too old or too inflexible for academic challenges are given a tiny plot of land or cash to start a small business. I look anew at the stalls that line Temple Road, run (usually) by older Tibetan women selling handmade jewelry and shawls made in a local cooperative. I can only begin to imagine how these not-so-nimble elders got here.

It occurs to me that the suffering of the Tibetans is both a challenge and a teaching, which holds up a question about compassionate action. I remember the posters I saw, tacked to walls and trees in the courtyard of one of the TCV schools, quoting the Dalai Lama: “Never give up, no matter what,” said one.

Although the Dalai Lama is both guide and inspiration, the Tibetans have been obliged to govern themselves within the immense complexity of the Indian bureaucracy. The government in exile has made a decision not to ask for Indian citizenship, which would allow Tibetans to drive cars and participate in other ways in Indian social systems. Indian citizenship might suggest to Tibetans still at home that Tibetans in India have given up hope of returning. Instead, Tibetans—wherever they live around the world—pay taxes to the Tibetan Secretariat and participate in elections for the government in exile.

In the meantime, the schools, the monasteries and nunneries, the study centers (which give Geshe degrees, the Tibetan monastic equivalent of a Ph.D.), the Internet cafes (where Tibetans reach out to each other through cyberspace), and the refugee aid programs all serve as best they can to keep Tibetans together and invested in the future. Tibetans envision their social-welfare survival experiment as enlightened action, which is being subjected to a familiar set of international pressures. But Tibetans are also receiving help from the international community.

I think of the forty-something Tibetan-born Buddhist nun I met in Dolma Ling, a Tibetan nunnery on the road outside Dharamsala. Her dream was always to be a nun, she told me. In Lhasa she was denied a place in a nunnery because she was “political”—that is, she joined public protests against the Chinese presence in her homeland. The third time she demonstrated, she was caught, arrested, and put in prison. When she got out, she pasted “Tibet is a Free Country” stickers around the streets and borrowed money to pay a guide to lead her to Nepal. At the border, Nepalese police arrested her group and demanded bribes. When they said they had no money, the police sent them back into Tibet. The guide found another pass and led them across.

When she arrived in Dharamsala in 1993, Dolma Ling was under construction, and most teaching took place in tents. Now this set of buildings is finished and another large nunnery complex is being built a couple of miles away. The Tibetan Nuns Project is run by three women directors acting jointly: Rinchen Khando Choegyal; Tibetan nun Lobsang Dechen; and a Canadian, Elizabeth Napper, who travels home just long enough to renew her visa and return. Every nun is sponsored; that is, her expenses (about $30 U.S. per month) are paid for by someone else, usually from the West, often an individual, and sometimes an NGO. In the lobby of Dolma Ling are two wall-sized appliquéd tapestries, each depicting a tree, its leaves inscribed with the names of donors. It is clear from the style of each tapestry that the second one had to be added after the first one filled up.

As a former political prisoner, the nun has advantages now, such as special computer training and the option of settling in Australia. She teaches computer skills at Dolma Ling. She also has a chance to debate and study Buddhism, as the monks do. In Tibet, in the old days, nuns weren’t educated, and the poverty of Tibetans in their occupied homeland means that they often still aren’t. “Buddhist debate is the essential way to sharpen the mind,” she explains. She holds my hand softly, smilingly, with a warmth that vibrates in my arm bones. As we leave, we walk out into deafening chaos, the halls filled with clapping hands and shouts. In the time-honored tradition of Tibetan monastic debate, red-robed young women point, clap, and yell; point, clap, and yell. Halls and courtyards are jammed with red-clad figures debating; the whole place is bouncing.

The world that flows through Dharamsala is complex and interwoven. The Buddhist teachings on samsara seem tailor-made for McLeod Ganj’s narrow streets, shared by hungry dogs, garbage-eating cows, cars, buses, lorries, motorbikes, Nepalis, Tibetans, Indians, Westerners, lepers, beggars, merchants, monks, nuns, pilgrims, Hindus, Buddhists, and hippies.

In Dharamsala I run into Westerners who have been here so many times they essentially live here, and others who have come on a brief mission just to do whatever they can. I’m walking up Temple Road one day when an American, in blue jeans and a black Patagonia vest, his springy black hair streaked with gray, says, “Excuse me.” He’s manning a small folding table by the side of the road. “Can you help?” he asks. He explains that he is hiring unemployed young Tibetan men to clean up the roadsides. Behind him, a youth brigade fills up black plastic bags. I give him the few rupees in my pocket, sorry that I couldn’t do more. The next day the brigade is gone.

English and European languages are the mainstay of the local restaurants. So many people meet so casually here that McLeod Ganj sometimes has the air of a college town on spring break. I’m in a café that serves good cappuccinos when I hear an Australian couple explaining at length—to the two young Tibetan men who own the place—about the difference between “sunny-side up” and “over easy.” It occurs to me that young Tibetans face changes of sometimes quite a subtle nature.

My husband and I are sitting in the fine little café of Namgyal Monastery, awaiting an excellent thin-crust pizza, when two Canadians and a Tibetan monk ask if they can occupy the empty chairs next to us. We learn that one of the Canadians, Shakti, is a retired teacher who volunteers at Dolma Ling, speaking English with the nuns, who have been trained by books and seldom get conversational experience. Mohan, her son, has struck up a friendship with a shy young woman who works in the office at Dolma Ling. He shows me a packet of her poems, including one she calls a “love song to the Dalai Lama,” which includes the lines:

Wind flicker, water flicker
Trees move, flower blossoms
Air cools people, wind swept by
Your moving nature touches all

“This is not Shangri-la,” warns an information officer with the government in exile. “The image of Tibetans as cuddly teddy bears does harm to the Tibetan people.” The pressures of a distant world can be felt sometimes like the sharp edge of a rusty can. One day I walk up Jogiwara Road, eyeing the shops filled with hand-sewn bags, brightly colored woolen shawls, jewelry, and religious artifacts, some made locally by Tibetans, others imported from Indian village artisans. I’m thinking of nothing in particular, when I turn into the town’s small plaza and discover that the street is filled with silent, kneeling Tibetans, many of them monks and nuns in red robes lit to fiery hues by the sunlight.

It’s one day before the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, is due in Delhi to discuss “mutual interests” with the Indians. For several days, loudspeaker trucks have been rolling up and down the narrow streets, broadcasting loudly in Tibetan, reminding me of those propaganda trucks that deafen Tokyo with fascist-imperialist, top-of-the-volume sloganeering. In this case, however, young Tibetan activists have been urging a march in Delhi to protest Hu Jintao’s arrival and pressure the Indian government not to give in. The local action is this silent, daylong hunger strike. Around them circle Western photojournalists, expensive cameras swiveling. The protests in Delhi made the English-language Indian newspapers, and the world press snapped them up.

Several days later I’m in the same square, and this time the protests have turned angry and loud. I can’t understand the chants, which are in Tibetan. But I do hear the name of the Dalai Lama, and I’m viscerally shocked to see him used as a rallying point for violent words. The local papers describe several young Tibetan men who have grown impatient with waiting, with the doctrine of kindness toward enemies, and with their second-class status in India. They are tired of making concessions and accommodations, and have adopted a militancy that makes them kin to students in America or France in the 1960s.

Everything changes, and sometimes switches sides. Here I am, an American born in the Midwest, a journalist and dharma practitioner, and I’ve been hooked by the Dalai Lama’s indefatigable compassion. Now I practice nonviolence, decades after my own tear-gas-soaked encounters with American police. Two months before I came to Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama visited New York State, and a full double rainbow arched its brilliant translucent light over the lake outside Woodstock where he was due to speak. The next day he walked down an aisle two feet away from me. I felt him bend space just by the force of his joy. It was enough to change me for life.

So when I learned in McLeod Ganj that he was giving five days of teachings at Namgyal, I changed my flight plan and stayed. My husband took the long road home. I wrapped myself in Tibetan shawls against the cold and joined an international assembly gathered on the concrete platform outside the Buddha Hall at Namgyal. In one zone huddled recently arrived Tibetan refugees, who get special access to the Dalai Lama. In another section sat an enclave of red-robed Tibetan monks and nuns from all over India. A hand-lettered sign told Westerners where to sit. There were people from Australia, Israel, Canada, China, India, South America, Europe, and the U.S. We listened to the teachings over cheap radios broadcasting a simultaneous translation. The Gyuto monks sang the sutras in their awesome overtone rumble. A ceaseless stream of Indian visitors circumambulated in the corridors.

I marveled at the assembly, which could not have been more international. In the Buddha Hall around the Dalai Lama was a convergence of high Mongolian lamas, all of them draped in gold robes, heads topped with exotic conical gold hats. As the Dalai Lama conveyed the tantric practices with their focus on emptiness, relinquishing of attachment, and awareness of the selflessness of phenomena, the Mongolians offered mandalas and their own chants. It was hard to miss the parallels between Mongolians and Tibetans.

The Soviets sacked some seven hundred Mongolian Buddhist monasteries and killed or imprisoned thousands of monks. Once Mongolia became its own state again, the Dalai Lama was invited to visit. He then returned the favor. The Mongolians were in Dharamsala to receive teachings that they could take back to the steppes in their mission to reestablish Buddhism. They had come a long way. So had I. So had we all.

I had an amazing image of interlocking practices, with people from the ends of the earth (all the ends) in one place for one extended moment, all sharing a flow of emptiness and wisdom, each comprehending in his or her own way and own level. What happens next? Who knows? Everything changes, and nobody knows what will come of it, not even the Dalai Lama. He had just returned from teaching in Japan. His website described the mainland Chinese who had traveled hard to hear him there. Some urged him to reintroduce Buddhism to China. They claimed he would be welcomed.

Nehru’s lease has a half century to run, I realized as I squatted with three Hindu bus drivers around a campfire waiting for the overnight bus to set off toward Delhi. To me, the ride down the mountain was a Mad Max experience; to them it was normal life. The seething samsaric surface of India seems to stay the same even as it resembles a riot in ceaseless motion. It’s as though nothing you do will make a difference. Yet in half a century, change has come. From this earthquake-imperiled hilltop, the Tibetan diaspora reaches out and touches the world. The Tibetans pose deep questions for all of us, through their Buddhist teachings and their call for help.

Kay Larson

Kay Larson

Kay Larson is an art critic and the author of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (Penguin Press), an NPR Best Book of 2012.