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The noticeboard on the road winding up the mountain proclaims: 'Welcome to Mcleodganj, the little Lhasa in India.'

E-Mail this special report to a friend There could not be a more apt description. The little village on top of the mountain houses the Tibetan government-in-exile, the Dalai Lama, Buddhist monks and monasteries, and hundreds of Tibetan people seeking to recreate the aura of Lhasa, now under Chinese rule.

It is also a village that is seeing a phenomenal tourist growth as the West rediscovers the charm of Tibet and seeks solace in unique Tibetan Buddhism.

Mcleodganj village is part of Dharamsala which is about 10 kilometres away and almost 200 metres below. Certainly Dharamsala sounds more appealing, hinting as it does to oriental mysticism, lama, religion, spiritualism and faith rather than the occidental sounding Mcleodganj!

Forty years ago, in March 1959, Tibetans revolted against Chinese rule, resulting in Beijing using massive force to crush the uprising. The then 24-year-old Dalai Lama had to escape to India to seek refuge. Thousands of Tibetans followed him into what was to become their new homeland.

Then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru offered Dharamsala to house the Dalai Lama and some of his people who would start work on both rehabilitating the refugees and working for their country's freedom.

The location was ideal. Up in the lower Himalayas, at a cool 1700 metres, it was ideal for the Tibetans not used to the oppressive heat of the plains. However, the vast majority of Tibetans would settle down in Karnataka where the state government gave them land to cultivate, get used to the heat, and prosper.

When the Dalai Lama set up his office and residence in Mcleodganj, it was just another hill station left behind by the British, who would march up every year in summer. A small chapel, the St John's Church in the Wilderness, was mute testimony to their presence in a bygone era.

"It was all jungle then, trees after trees and very few people," said Tsultrim Palden, head, environmental desk, Tibetan Central Administration, the official name of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Few people visited the place, and the Tibetan government in exile was still working overtime to gain legitimacy and acceptance in the eyes of the world. Tourism to India was still not very big, and the little that did come preferred the better known hill stations of Kullu Manali in Himachal Pradesh.

Mcleodganj was a Tibetan locality, with most Indians preferring the main town of Dharamsala. Tibet's unique culture, language, and lifestyle continued as it had for centuries on the high Tibetan plateau -- in splendid isolation, cut off from the rest of the world. They thrived.

Then, from the mid-1980s onwards, Tibet and Buddhism became causes celebre! The David against Goliath China, lambs massacred by Communist wolves. Artists, celebrities, politicians (usually the ones out of power), you name it, all spoke of Tibet. And of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama winning the Nobel for Peace in 1989 only fuelled the drive. Big names -- Richard Gere, Goldie Hawn, Roberto Baggio -- converted to Buddhism and proclaimed the Dalai Lama their spiritual guru.

The interest sparked off a stream of visitors to Dharamsala to catch up with the craze for Tibet. The high location, the splendid backdrop of snow-capped mountains, and the cool climate were added factors to lure tourists tiring of the Kullu Manali or the Mussorie-Dehra Dun travel circuit. Today tourists can be seen throughout Mcleodganj. It also changed the profile of this once sleepy village, with the people cashing in on selling Tibetan culture and making a fast buck.

Take a walk down the main road. Every third shop is either a restaurant or selling Tibetan/Buddhist curios and handicrafts. Names such as Hotel Tibet, Lhasa, Snow Lion stand out, promising the wayfarer delicious fare at reasonable prices. Lamas in their deep maroon robes rub shoulders with European or American and Indian tourists.

The growth of tourists also saw a correlated increase in the number of shops and services to be offered, bringing up a fresh stream of Indian businessmen, from the shopkeeper to the travel agent.

Incidentally, almost every shop owned by an Indian invariably prominently displays the Dalai Lama's portrait. "We keep his photograph out of respect for the Tibetan people's sentiment, not because we believe in Buddhism or in the Tibetan cause," said a shopkeeper. A statement reiterated by two other shopkeepers spoken to.

The Tibetan cause is difficult to miss. Stickers ('Free Tibet' and 'Boycott Chinese Goods'), wall hangings (the colourful Tibetan flag, Buddhist motifs) and posters shriek loud enough for the deaf to hear and the blind to see (save the government of India!). It is almost mandatory in every hall and on every wall to speak on behalf of Tibet.

A visit to the Namgyal monastery of the Dalai Lama is also a must (a site advertised in the Himachal Pradesh tourist brochure) though a meeting with His Holiness requires a three-month notice. However, every year, the Dalai Lama holds classes on meditation in the month of March, and hundreds land up in Mcleodganj only to hear him.

"There is no doubt that the interest of these tourists is what has given the Tibetan case so much interest worldwide and we welcome it," said a Tibetan Central Administration official. Many of the Western tourists are in one way luckier than the Tibetans whom they meet in Mcleodganj: they have been to Tibet which most Tibetans find impossible to do, given the reluctance of the Chinese embassy to issue visas to them.

It is this interest in the Dalai Lama, Buddhism, and Tibet (not necessarily in that order) that keeps alive the Tibetan dream of seeing their country acquire freedom from the Chinese yoke and of their triumphant return. And if and when that happens, Mcleodganj will always be revered for the small role it played in keeping alive Tibetan culture and for popularising it throughout the world. It will be a debt of gratitude owed by succeeding generations of Tibetans.

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

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