By ZARNI MANN
DHARAMSALA, INDIA — Nestled between curving mountain roads and steep hillsides, Dharamshala is a peaceful city. Unlike New Delhi, it's pollution free—fresh air, a clear blue sky and many trees and flowers.
A busy street of Dharamshala, a city in Northern India, home of many Tibet exiles and their leader Dalai Lama (Photo: The Irrawaddy)
Located in Himachal Pradesh State in northern India, this mountain city was offered as a shelter to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people in 1959 by the then Indian prime minister after Tibetans fled from China, fearing religious and social persecution by the Communist government.
People often call the town “Little Lhasa” after Tibet's capital. It's divided into three parts—an upper area called Mcleod Ganj; a middle area, Kotwali Bazar; and lower Kacheri.
Most Tibetans live in Mcleod Ganj, which is home to the Tibetan government in exile and also the home of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader and a Nobel Peace Laureate like Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. They share the same fate of true leaders of their people who have been denied their rightful roles by oppressive regimes.
The streets around Mcleod Ganj Hotel are crowded with restaurants, gift shops and Tibetan women kniting clothing and craft items. Strolling around, foreigners, wearing traditional Tibetan dress, often stop Tibetan monks to talk.
A Tibetan woman, Sharab, who participated in the Tibetan protests in Lhasa against China told me that life here is free of the stress found in Tibet.
“We couldn't live in Lhasa anymore because we worked for peace, democracy and independence in Tibet,” she said. “I have been here for 23 years. This is a very peaceful place. There's no repression, and we don't need to worry about anything.
Asked if she knew my country, Burma, she said “no,” so I asked if she had heard of Suu Kyi.
“Of course, I know her,” she said. “She is our hero. She really is a woman hero. Are you from her country, how is she, has she been released?”
Sharab said she wished Suu Kyi well and would pray for her health and freedom. She said Tibetans think of Burma as “Suu Kyi's country.”
“When I saw monks on TV chanting the 'metta sutra' while they marched in the streets and were shot at and beaten by government thugs, it reminded me of Tibetan monks and nuns who were beaten, forced out of monasteries, arrested and jailed by the Chinese Communist government in Lhasa,” Sharab said.
With tears in her eyes, she showed me a picture of Lhasa. She said she prays for peace in Tibet so her people can return home.
Tourists and trekkers regularly come to Dharamshala for its magnificent views of the mountains, waterfalls and nearby lakes. The town depends on tourism as its major source of revenue.
The Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government have established a Tibetan cultural library and documentation department in Mcleod Ganj to promote Mahayana Buddhism (the Great Vehicle) and the history, politics and culture of the Tibetan people.
Many Tibetans come to Dharamshala to receive a higher education.
Ahshi Dayan told me that she left her village with her older brothers to study English here, and then she plans to return to her village to help educate the children.
She and her brothers were detained for two weeks by Chinese border guard who found two photographs of the Dalai Lama in her brother's shoulder bag.
Finally, she was released but her brothers were not allowed to leave Tibet. They encouraged her to continue her journey, to accompany the other girls she was traveling with.
Asked if she wanted to study abroad, Ahshi Dayan said, “I don't have any desire to go. I will just try my best to study English here. Then, I 'll go back home and be a school teacher. Children in my village don't have proper access to school. The Chinese government holds us down because it fears we'll become educated. I want the childern in my village to be well-rounded.”
Ahshi Dayan said she burst into tears of joy when she had a chance to pay her respect to the Dalai Lama in person. Tibetan people venerate the Dalai Lama as a living Buddha.
Unfortunately, during my visit he was traveling abroad , and I couldn't pay my respect.
The exiled Tibetan government provides financial assistance to young people like Ahshi who are eager to study and also offers scholarships to study abroad. It also helps the poor and elderly and provides them with vocational training and assistance.
About 7,000 Tibetans live in Mcleod Ganj. While in Dharamshala, I realized that Tibetans support their exiled government because it's democratic and develops programs to help the people.
Acharya Yeshi Phuntsok, a parliamentarian in the exiled Tibetan government, said: “It's very rare for Tibetans to resettle in third countries. There is no resettlement program for us. We have been blocked since 1965. Most of the people are now settled here and not too many want to go abroad.”
As I left Mcleod Ganj, I was struck by the peacefulness of the people and by their committment to help each other and to return to Tibet. Burmese and Tibetans have much in common.
As Tibetan and Buddhist flags swirled in the wind, I thought of my fellow Burmese exiles. One day, both Burmese and Tibetans will have their countries back.