Dharamsala: A City Of Refugees


On a dusty street in Lhasa, Tibet, a demonstration has gone bad.
A monk has been shot and killed. Amid the panicked confusion, a young man races to his side before the body is trampled. He’s trying to drag him free of the melee when he’s hit twice in the left arm by rifle fire, and the world turns to blood and dust. It’s 24 March 2008. Tibet is aflame as the ghosts of the 1949 invasion rise up in anticipation of the global spotlight on the Beijing Olympics.

Sixteen months later, the young man has found himself upstairs in a quiet reception centre in Himachal Pradesh in northern India, relaying his story to six Australian parliamentarians and their guides and associates. Three young monks, also recent arrivals, listen with eyes downcast.

Through a translator, he carefully sketches a strand of a human and environmental tragedy now into its third generation. Badly wounded and delirious, he was rescued by his brother and dragged away from the chaos in the streets. They went underground for six months in a neighbouring village. With no possibility of medical assistance, his left arm began to rot. He is brief in his description of the nightmarish passage to Nepal across some of the most hostile terrain on earth, and eventual arrival here in Dharamsala, the city of exiles.

The reception centre is one component of the infrastructure of trauma and survival that we have been privileged to encounter over the past six days. It is here that new arrivals are processed and referred for medical help, counselling or short term accommodation. It is uncharacteristically quiet here now, we’re told. In the aftermath of the unrest last March, the Chinese Government has tightened border security and the flow of exiles and information has been reduced to a bare minimum. For the time being, this is a refuge virtually empty of refugees.

Dharamsala is a capital without a country; home to the Central Tibetan Administration and the Parliament in Exile, the Tibetan Children’s Village, and key cultural institutions including a National Library, Museum and Institute of Performing Arts. Built into the steep forested hillsides high above the northern Indian plains, the township of 20,000 is a busy tangle of narrow, high-walled streets lined with tiny souvenir stalls, tea houses and net cafes. Travellers from all over the world mingle with monks, nuns, motorbikes, cattle and cars in the alleyways which occasionally reveal glimpses of the impossibly steep mountain ranges inscribed with ice far above.

Dharamsala is many things: a refuge, a time capsule, a seedpod, a living archive and seat of an active democracy. At the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts we’re treated to an hour of flamboyant performance art on the night of our arrival as the spectacularly costumed troupe invokes traditional dances from the roof of the world. At the home of the Parliament, the Speaker gives us a wry insight into the world of Tibetan democratic intrigue as we try out the seats and get our heads around the complex politics of the Diaspora.

We meet the Prime Minister in exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, who is genial and reserved in the maroon robes of the Sangha, and we are introduced to several of his Ministers. Collectively, they are responsible for the flesh-and-blood operations of this hill city and the émigré communities scattered around the globe. Each of them also holds responsibilities for the six million Tibetans who stayed behind, people whose absence lies behind every conversation we have during our time here.

Against the relentless burning and bulldozing of monasteries and five decades of "patriotic re-education" in Tibet, Dharamsala represents a priceless and defiant store of cultural artefacts and living world heritage. The Tibetan Museum holds an extraordinary collection of paintings, statuary and documents smuggled out of the country in advance of successive waves of deliberate and systematic destruction. Our delegation watches as Ngawang Yeshi, the urbane Secretary of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, unwraps a sheaf of soft paper inscribed with elegant Tibetan calligraphy. How old, one of our party asks? "Twelfth Century," he replies, flipping back a couple of the pages so that we can take a closer look at the spidery characters inked by human hands more than 800 years ago.

These texts — the library walls are lined with hundreds of them — describe the Buddhist underpinnings of society here: part science, part philosophy, part religion. We met a number of senior monks including the Nechung Kuten, the Venerable Thupten Ngodup, also known as the Oracle of Tibet. At specific times he is taken into a ritual trance to help divine answers to particularly intractable questions.

We also visit the Tibetan Children’s Village. Not sure what to expect, we alight and enter a courtyard and experience one of the highlights of the trip. This is Dharamsala’s main school, tending to children from infancy through to primary school. It is part-orphanage, part-school, and we pass there at once the most cheerful and the most tragic hour of our visit. The underlying cultural and human devastation of Tibet is most starkly seen through the eyes of children smuggled out of the country into the care of the Government in exile, with one or both parents remaining behind.

Dharamsala is, of course, the home and headquarters of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

In 1959 the young sage fled Tibet as the first convulsive waves of unrest were being settled with live ammunition and mass arrests. Fifty years later, he’s still here, in the place he founded with the help of the first Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1960.

It is impossible to describe the reverence and trust in which the Tibetans hold the Dalai Lama. He stands at the centre of overlapping worlds of Tibetan political leadership, civil administration, international diplomacy and spiritual guardianship. In Dharamsala, his portrait — aging gracefully across five decades — smiles at you in every chai shop and on the dashboard of every taxi. In Tibet, possession of these images is prohibited and will earn you jail time or worse.

We are gifted with an hour and a half with this gentle, incisive, careworn man, who somehow manages to establish instant and genuine rapport with each of us during this brief encounter.

At issue is what happens now: dialogue between Dharamsala and Beijing is frozen, Tibet lies under virtual martial law, and an unknown number of political prisoners are still paying an unspeakable price for their part in the ongoing unrest. The situation is as bad as it’s ever been with world attention momentarily elsewhere as Xinjiang ignites and Tibet fades from view.

Still, there are hopeful signs. The global movement to free Tibet has never been stronger and we’ve been given a number of useful ideas for how we can help in Australia. There are even intriguing signs of a debate on the Tibet "question" within China itself.

Despite the absence of any formal diplomatic status, we have already drawn several sharp warnings from the Chinese Embassy in Australia to stay out of China’s internal affairs. The fact that the Chinese Government’s hard-line stance on Tibet is precisely the cause of its status as a global issue seems to have been lost in Beijing but the cross-party group has returned with a new determination to work with goodwill and constructively engage with all sides of the debate.

Our delegation visited Dharamsala at the invitation of the Government in exile, working to a painstaking schedule assembled over many months by the Tibetan Parliamentary Secretariat and the Australia Tibet Council. It is the first time an Australian cross-party delegation has ever visited, and hopefully won’t be the last.

One day, Tibet will be free.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.