While styled as the Tibetan government-in-exile, the Dalai Lama and his senior aides operate out of a small compound of ageing wooden chalets and buildings staffed mainly by monks in crimson robes. For all its importance to the Tibetan community, this "seat" of the government-in-exile has the air of an Swiss mountain resort that has long seen better days.
And yet since 1959, this quiet community has served as both a gathering place for Tibetan refugees who have escaped across the Himalayas into India and as a collection point of information about those still living in their homeland. Interviews with refugees along with telephone calls and emails to Tibetans in Tibet are collated and the information on human rights abuses and political suppression is dispatched to the wider world.
Today, almost 50 years after the Indian government under the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru provided a refuge for the Dalai Lama and his followers, Dharamsala is home to more than 1,000 monks and many thousands more ordinary Tibetans. India is home to an estimated 100,000 Tibetans in total and the government-in-exile – properly known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CAT) – runs schools, health services, cultural activities and economic development projects for the Tibetan community. It also provides welfare services for the hundreds of Tibetans who continue to arrive in India each month. While the CAT is not formally recognised by any government, it does receive funding from a number of countries and international organisations.
Dharamsala is divided into the Indian lower section and the Tibetan upper section, known as McLeod Ganj. In the upper section the Tibetan community has built schools, temples and monastaries. Given its look and feel and the importance it represents to the Tibetan communty, the town is sometimes known as "Little Lhasa". While many of those attracted here are drawn by the cause of a free Tibet, the town has also become a tourist desintation in its own right. Hotels and restaurants are booming and there is a thriving economy in tourist agencies and internet cafes. This week, Tibetan civilians and monks have marched through the streets, carrying banners and flags as foreigners have either joined in or else sat and sipped coffee from stylish cafes that line the main narrow street.