The New Tibetans

Sumit Dayal for TIME
Sumit Dayal for TIME
A view of the Namgyal Monastery in upper Dharamsala, near the residence of the Dalai Lama.

The world is filled with millions of exiled peoples, whose plights are as obscure as they are tragic. But the exiled Tibetan community in the Indian hill station of Dharamsala, which coalesced five decades ago after Beijing exerted its control over the high plateau, is an exception. Its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is far more famous than any living leader in China, the country that rules repressively over Tibet. From dilapidated offices with slow Internet connections, this displaced populace has orchestrated a Free Tibet cause that has turned what might otherwise have been a forgotten ethnic struggle into a chic crusade worthy of Hollywood’s concern. In August, photographer Sumit Dayal and I traveled to the scruffy Himalayan foothill settlement to meet some of the 150,000 Tibetans who live in exile worldwide and who have turned Dharamsala into a Little Lhasa.

For Dayal, the trip was a homecoming of sorts. An Indian whose family is originally from Kashmir, Dayal grew up in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, where his playmates included the children of Tibetan refugees. (Nepal has a Tibetan exile population of around 20,000.) Dayal’s grandmother, it turns out, lives just down the hill from the Tibetan community in Dharamsala. By the end of our stay, we joked that every time we turned a corner—there are not many in this tiny town, and the monsoons kept us huddled under the same cover—we would run into someone we knew. Even the dogs gave us familiar sniffs through the rain.

But despite its small size, Dharamsala is the nerve center of a remarkable operation to publicize the Tibetan campaign. The trouble is, no one quite knows how to change the bleak reality back home or how, even, to return. Generations of Tibetans have been born in exile, such as Lobsang Sangay, the new Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile. To them, Tibet is as distant as it was to the Western romantics who considered it Shangri-La.

Some of the recently arrived refugees we met had been jailed back in Tibet; each had a perilous tale of escape to India through Nepal. A good proportion of the newest arrivals are children, whose parents sent them through paid guides to Dharmasala for a good education—even if they know this means they may never see them again. Their gamble is this: for a proud Tibetan, life in an Indian hill station where sacred yak-butter sculptures melt in the heat, may be better than home.

Sumit Dayal is a freelance photographer based in New Delhi, India. More of Dayal’s work can be seen here.

Hannah Beech is TIME’s China bureau chief and East Asia correspondent.

Related Topics: , , , ,

Latest Posts

The henna is a pre-nuptial cerimony celebrated in Moroccan or Yemenite families where the soon-to-be bride is dressed-up as a Queen with flowers and jewels and she is inivited to dance with her girl friends to say good-bye to celibacy and life as a single young girl. During the dance cerimony, the Kallah, the bride-to-be's hands and feet are painted with henne`, the red pouder from India. This welcomes fertility and happinesses within the marriage. Meah Shearim, Jerusalem, Israel. July 2012.

Finding Faith and Beauty in the Lives of Orthodox Jewish Women

For four years, Italian photographer Federica Valabrega has photographed the everyday lives of Orthodox Jewish women around the world

Read More
A suspected migrant runs back to Miguel Aleman, Mexico after being pursued by agents near Roma, Texas. Oct. 8, 2014.

Photojournalism Daily: Nov. 26, 2014

Stephen Waddell

Off the Radar: Jeff Wall Puts the Spotlight on Stephen Waddell

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 19,379 other followers