India 2008: The Dalai Lama Lives Here

Red-cheeked, with turquoise in his ears and around his neck, thick hair falling down his back, a refugee from eastern Tibet walks to the front of the rickety KhanaNirvana café and delivers a haunting, full-throated rendition of a traditional song from the Himalayan plateau. As soon as he’s through, a fellow nomad from Tibet’s Amdo Province gets up—it’s the regular Monday open-mike night—and belts out a perfect a cappella version of “Hotel California.” An Israeli girl goes next, performing a song in Hebrew. Danish drummers, Russian folksingers, a Japanese mother of two share offerings from their own cultures, while Buddhist monks, New York psychologists, and dreadlocked Swedes munch on vegan specialties. The brightly colored room could be in New Mexico.

In truth, it’s in the dusty, British-built settlement of Dharamsala, under 15,000-foot Himalayan snowcaps and five hours from the nearest reliable airport. And yet, here at KhanaNirvana, all the globe’s villagers assemble—for Shabbat services on Fridays, talks by former Tibetan political prisoners on Sundays, and occasional screenings of documentaries.

When we speak of globalism in India today, it’s usually about glittery fashion shows in Mumbai, high-rising suburbs around Delhi, international brands like Oberoi Hotels and Jet Airways, or (too often) call centers in Bangalore, where Indians identifying themselves as Brad and Jen answer your needs regarding that flight to Sheboygan. Yet every time I fly into Delhi and take the wonky combination of overnight train or plane plus a long, long taxi ride up to Dharamsala, I am reminded that there is a different kind of globalism at play in India, having to do with what is old and what is invisible.

Dharamsala proper is an everyday town about 300 miles north of Delhi, sheltered in the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh. But the Dharamsala that the world seeks out is a cluster of crooked, unpaved roads a few miles up from the town, in what is called McLeod Ganj (a perfectly mongrel name that mixes the memory of a 19th-century lieutenant governor of Punjab with a Hindi word for “neighborhood”). The British alighted on the area 150 years ago as a refuge from summer heat, building cottages with names like Ivanhoe and Eagle’s Nest. Lord Elgin, famous for carting off the Parthenon marbles, rests eternally amid the pines around the Church of St. John in the Wilderness.

For the past half century, this bumpy encampment has also been home to Tibet’s government-in-exile. Emptied out by an earthquake in 1905 and having lost most of its population with Partition in 1947, Dharamsala was a forgotten place when Prime Minister Nehru offered it to the 14th Dalai Lama and his people after they fled Tibet in 1959. Today it’s the closest thing there is to a living incarnation of the Tibet long known as the Forbidden Kingdom.

Whenever I go—I first visited the Dalai Lama in his yellow cottage at the end of Temple Road in 1974 and have spent three of the past five springs staying across the street—I feel as if I’m seeing a globalism that is rooted in the heart, the imagination, and the conscience. On one side of town is Namgyal Monastery, where monks practice debating and celebrate rites as if still in the Potala Palace in Lhasa; on the other is a Hindu temple and the Third I restaurant, which offers “Origenal [sic] Tibetan, Israeli, Indian, Chinese, continental, pizza” as well as “Marmite/Vegemite toast” and mocha shakes. Signs along alleyways announce dreamland and lost horizon, and flyers invite you to a Shiva Full Moon Party. At certain times of year half the population of Upper Dharamsala consists of young Israelis who, having finished their obligatory military service, come in search of cheap lodgings, easy drugs, and a free-floating sense of community.

In a curious way, the pell-mell internationalism honors the area’s ancient history: Inscriptions from around 2,000 years ago mentioning a Buddhist monastery were found in Kangra Valley below, and when the Chinese traveler Hsuan Tsang passed through, 635 years after the birth of Christ, he reported seeing 50 monasteries and 2,000 monks. The name Dharamsala means “a place of shelter,” usually for pilgrims.

In losing his home, the Dalai Lama wrote recently, he gained a new and more inclusive home in almost every corner of the world. “Our greatest mistake, our worst mistake of old Tibet,” he once told me during the series of conversations we’ve been conducting for more than three decades, was being too isolated. Now when he offers a two-week series of teachings every late winter, as many as 8,000 people crowd into the courtyard outside his home, listening through earphones to translated versions of his explications of ancient texts. Tibetans from around the world gather for these talks, along with Mongolians (longtime followers of Tibetan Buddhism) and, increasingly, visitors from Osaka and Seoul and Beijing. But there are also students from Atlanta and attorneys from Los Angeles, faces you recognize from Hollywood blockbusters, and honeymooners from newly affluent Delhi, sitting through days of rain and security checks.

Step into Chonor House, the elegant inn run by the Tibetan government-in-exile, and you’re likely to bump into editors from Vogue, UN workers from Romania, and Nobel Prize–winning scientists, all here to offer their services to the Tibetan cause. It’s not hard to recall that the Dalai Lama, born in a cowshed in one of the remotest places on earth, has become one of the most persuasive champions of connectedness, interfaith dialogue, and globalism.

The first thing I notice when I go into a place like the KhanaNirvana café is how Tibetans are singing “Californication,” while bearded hippies from Woodstock respond with songs about bodhisattvas and the dharma. The second is that if you close your eyes, you can’t always tell where people are from. At its best, Dharamsala and other communities like it across India remind us that our ideas of East and West exist only in our heads.

Pico Iyer is the author of numerous books. His latest, The Open Road, chronicles 30 years of conversations and travels with the Dalai Lama.