March 20th, 2000, McLeodganj, Upper Dharmsala, India
In the upper reaches of Dharmsala, perched on a steep slope backed by snow-capped mountains, lies the town of McLeodganj. Little remains of its colonial days as a hill station; it is now the home of Tibetan leader Tenzin Gyatso, the His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. After ten years of uneasy coexistence with Communist China, his dramatic escape over the Himalayas in 1959 inspired thousands of his countrymen to follow him into exile.
The flavour of the town is very much Tibetan; hundreds of hastily built houses seem to slide down the hillside, prayer flags draped across their roofs like washing lines. Burgundy robed monks wander between modern monasteries, uniformed school children potter home after class and older folk thumb prayer beads, lost in a murmur of prayer.
A vast number of westerners are drawn by its Buddhist people and culture. Every day, Lama teachings, meditation courses and conversation classes with newly arrived refugees provide a way of learning about this way of life. Book shops brim with related paperbacks, cafes double up as information centres for the Tibetan plight and handicraft stores are stacked high with winter woollens. From cooking up delicious 'momos', to watching documentaries on Tibet - walls plastered with flyers announce the latest activities. And every once in a while, the Dalai Lama himself offers teachings and audiences, drawing yet more Tibetans and westerners to the town. This hubbub of life reflects a freedom of speech that would inevitably result in certain imprisonment within Tibet itself.
Having cycled here from Lhasa, McLeodganj seem to embody the life that Tibet is lacking. In terms of natural beauty and solitude, the Dhaula Dhar range may pale in comparison to the Tibetan plateau, but the town itself is alive: children study in their own language, monks are immersed in the teachings of the Buddha and the smiling face of his the Dalai Lama adorns every shop window, home mantlepiece and Enfield number plate. To the Tibetans, religion is interwoven into culture and the Dalai Lama, the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, is the essence of their belief.
This Tibetan pocket of India is a world far removed from the reality of Tibet today: the imposing Potala Palace is little more than a money spinning museum, monasteries are few and far between, and the Tibetan people live under a state of constant oppression.
Travelling around this country that offers a concoction of experiences, I find myself drawn to this distinctly un-Indian town again and again. I've rarely found such a sense of calm in than is conveyed by its peaceful people. The Tibetan greeting, 'Tashi Delek', is always met with a smile; Tibetans are never at a loss for humour and warmth. The older generation exude a sense of compassion. Their faces are cracked and worn, criss-crossed with lines that recount epic tales of life on the 'Roof of the World.' Many of the younger generation are born in India; every so often, refugee children arrive, their faces ruddy and blotched red from the high altitude plateau that is no longer their rightful home.
A stroll around the 'kora' is the perfect end to the day, a clockwise path etched into the side of the mountain that passes colourful inscriptions of the mantra 'Om mani padme hum.' Locals, young and old, gather at the temple and spin a line of prayer wheels at dusk. Ancient pilgrims bent double with age, stylish teenagers in labels, young monks in 'Airwalks', women in traditional dress, men in oversized sunglasses sporting 'Free Tibet' baseball caps, all converge to offer prayers for world peace and a solution to the situation in their homeland. It's a time in the day that brings the whole community together beneath a multitude of prayer flags that flutter in the wind, whispering Buddhist mantras over McLeodganj and beyond.
For all the awareness that McLeodganj promotes, the reality of the situation is bleak. The very fact that the Dalai Lama is no longer asking for independence but full autonomy within China seems to reflect this. Cynics may say that many Tibetans, under the cloak of tourism, are better off in India than they would be in Tibet - but I cannot imagine that there can be any real doubt as to where they would rather be.