A 'Free Tibet' tour of India's Little Lhasa
Arriving in McLeod Ganj from anywhere else in India, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d crossed a national border.
As the road winds up from Dharamsala, the signs start to appear. "Free Tibet” is sprayed across a wall, “Tibet is not a part of China” on a banner at the side of the road, "Let’s get back to Tibet” stuck on a bus window.
The people have changed too.
Gone are the Indians in lungis smoking beedis, replaced by stocky Tibetans spinning prayer wheels and saffron-clad monks making their way to temple.
This is "Little Lhasa," the Tibetans' home from home.
A former hill station, McLeod Ganj is in the Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh. It has become the center of the "Free Tibet" movement and home to not only the Dalai Lama but also the largest population of Tibetans outside their homeland.
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Tibetans first followed their spiritual leader here in 1959 after the failed uprising in Tibet. They have continued to arrive here in steady numbers ever since.
Travelers also flock to McLeod Ganj for the chance to follow spiritual pursuits amongst Himalayan scenery. In recent years, the town has become a major center of meditation and yoga and is a key spot on India's backpacker trail.
Traveling for a cause
But it's the political idealism that makes travelers return. Inevitably, McLeod Ganj becomes a habit for those who support Tibetan independence.
“I first came here as I heard it was a good place to do meditation in the mountains, I had some vague knowledge about the Dalai Lama, but not much else,” says Leona Kittie, an English traveler in her late 30s who first visited McLeod Ganj 17 years ago.
After returning numerous times to the town, Kittie has gained perspective on Tibetan independence.
“The first time I went into the bookshops, the library [in McLeod Ganj] I was shocked," she says. "I didn’t know [the Free Tibet movement] was happening. I feel more connected now. I feel very strongly about the issue.”
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The easiest and most common way for travelers in McLeod Ganj to connect with Tibetan refugees is to teach English. Language exchange is a crucial first step in the exchange of beliefs and political ideology.
Liz Bishop, a 32-year-old backpacker from New Zealand, had been in India for three months before she arrived in McLeod Ganj, where she planned to find out more about Buddhism.
After a few days in town Bishop decided to get more involved and started teaching English to a group of monks and local Tibetans. But she has also been studying the Tibetan language herself.
“I think it’s useful for the locals to learn English, but I wish it was more useful for foreigners to learn Tibetan -- the language is dying," she says.
Choe Dak, a monk who came to McLeod four years ago after escaping Tibet, finds the assistance from foreigners is priceless. Learning an international language helps him become more mobile when traveling in India where he is trying to make a new home.
“English is very helpful for me," he says. "When I’m traveling in India I can read the platform signs in the station. Simple things like this make a big difference. I can spread the Buddhist philosophy better.”
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But most travelers just pass through McLeod Ganj and gain a token appreciation of the independence movement. Choe Dak feels that even if you just wear a T-shirt with the "Free Tibet" slogan, it's "still politics" and it is welcome -- if only symbolic -- support. It is free advertising for the cause, after all.
Dechen Khando is the owner of the Little Green shop, selling bags, T-shirts, badges and wall hangings emblazoned with the "Free Tibet" slogan. They are made by her husband, an art teacher at the local school.
Khando has a lot of time for the tourists who come into her shop. She counts on foreigners' perceived boldness to spread the Tibetan cause.
“Foreigners are different from Tibetans, they like to ask a lot of questions," she says. "So when people see other people wearing my bag or T-shirt, they’ll ask, 'What’s this? Where did you buy this? What does it mean?' This will raise awareness and anything that raises awareness helps us.”
A free Tibet in McLeod Ganj
Meet the Dalai Lama: For a chance to spot or even meet the man known locally as "His Holiness," visit the Tsuglagkhang Complex, down the hill from the center of town. The official residence of the Dalai Lama is here, along with the Kalachakra Temple and the Namgyal Gompa, a great place to see monks debating with all their flourish and hand-clapping.
Public teaching sessions are held in February, March, July and August, depending on the Dalai Lama's schedule. Visitors need to turn up on the morning of the teaching and register at the temple gates.
The Tsuglagkhang Complex is at the bottom of Temple Road, a few minutes' walk from the main square.
Learn more: The Tibet Information Centre, owned and managed by the Central Tibetan Authority, is crammed with pamphlets, leaflets, DVDs and books on the Tibetan situation.
Look out for the Tibetan Bulletin, a magazine on current affairs published bimonthly basis that is the most popular publication.
Manager of the center, Dharsay, has run the shop for the last seven years and seen a steady increase in visitors, especially those from the local community.
“Around 80 percent of my customers are tourists,” he says. “But since the 2008 disturbances and the publicity surrounding the Olympic Games in Beijing, many more local Indians are coming in for information. We even get some Chinese from the mainland, something that never happened before.”
The Tibet Information Centre is on Jogibara Road, opposite the central temple.
Learning and Ideas for Tibet also hosts weekly screenings and talks. Their center can be found at the bottom of Jogibara Road. Information on upcoming events and activities are at www.learningandideasfortibet.org
Live like a monk: The Vipassana Centre in Dharamkot offers full immersion into Buddhist meditation techniques. It's not strictly Tibetan Buddhism, but it's the closest you’ll get to experiencing life as a monk without taking vows.
Set in the mountains above McLeod Ganj, students attending the 10-day course must refrain from speaking, writing, music, intoxicants, physical contact and any type of sexual activity. This is “self purification by self observation” and although grueling, many travelers return yearly to continue their studies.
The Vipassana Centre is located in the village of Dharamkot, a 20-minute walk uphill from McLeod Ganj. More information can be found at www.sikhara.dhamma.org.
Volunteer: Yeshi Lhundup, the director of Volunteer Tibet says: “Different people come in to volunteer, some with free time, others are interested in Tibetan culture and some are really into helping the Tibetan movement.”
Teaching English is a popular activity, with both short and long placements available, and just a few lessons can have a great impact on the life of the students.
Volunteer Tibet can also arrange Tibetan lessons for travelers taught by local teachers.
The Volunteer Tibet office is on Jogibara Road and is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on weekdays,www.volunteertibet.org.in.
Get the look: For that authentic Tibetan look, there are plenty of places around town to pick up woolen shawls, jackets, socks, gloves and everything else needed for those cold Himalayan nights.
The Tibetan Handicraft Cooperative, established in 1964 by a group of exiles, stocks handmade items. There's stuff for kids, purses, bags and T-shirts, all with the option of a "Free Tibet" slogan.
Manager, Nawang Tsering says: “It’s a good thing people wear the 'Free Tibet' slogan, they’re supporting us and showing solidarity. Before we were forgotten, now the whole world knows about us.”
You can watch the clothes being made at the cooperative. If you want a bespoke jacket or waistcoat, the shop can make it in a couple of days.
The Tibetan Handicraft Cooperative is on Jogibara Road and is open Monday-Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Getting There:McLeod Ganj is 582 kilometers north of Delhi and can be reached by overnight bus from the capital. Daily flighs connect Dharamsala, a few kilometers from McLeod Ganj, with the capital.
Buses cost around Rs 900 (US$18), flights start at Rs 5,000 (US$100) one-way.