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Buddhism boom takes its toll on Dalai Lama's home town

As tourists flock to the home of the Dalai Lama, Dharamshala's meagre resources are at breaking point.

Once the refuge of pious Tibetan monks and a few hippie travellers, Dharamshala in the Himalayan foothills is today a crowded and chaotic town where long-term residents fear for its future.
Once the refuge of pious Tibetan monks and a few hippie travellers, Dharamshala in the Himalayan foothills is today a crowded and chaotic town where long-term residents fear for its future.

DHARAMSHALA // Residents of Dharamshala fear for the future of their city. Once, it was the refuge of pious Tibetan monks and a few hippie travellers - now, it is a crowded and chaotic place.

Home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile - based in the suburban town of McLeod Ganj - it suffers from the same traffic jams, wail of car horns, construction work and stinking piles of rubbish that afflict the country's largest cities.

Dharamshala's scant resources are being stretched to breaking point by a huge rise in visitors as domestic Indian tourists pour into the cramped streets to join pilgrimage groups from across Asia and young western backpackers.

For those who remember the sleepy hilltown where India provided a safe haven for the Buddhist leader and his followers after they fled China in 1959, the modern reality of McLeod Ganj is often ugly and depressing.

"Before, there were virtually no private vehicles, so everyone would walk up and down the steep mountain paths," said Tenzing Sonam, a filmmaker who first lived in Dharamshala 35 years ago. "The town was tiny and there was a close-knit community of the generation who first fled Tibet and their children. Everyone knew everybody.

"The place felt very cut off from the rest of India, and the only visitors were a small number of the hippies and Buddhist-seekers."

As hotels, restaurants and multi-storey car parks increasingly sprout from sites excavated into the hillsides, Dharamshala's image as a sanctuary from religious persecution and a place for quiet contemplation are fading.

"It is hard to be critical, as people benefit from the economic activity - but it is impossible to expand like this on the side of a mountain," said Mr Sonam, 53, whose parents were close associates of the Dalai Lama's family in Tibet.

"Most upsetting is the unplanned and illegal development, with laws about height and position flouted due to bribes being paid. If that is not fixed soon, the place will be destroyed."

Sandal-wearing monks in saffron robes and Tibetan women in long dresses remain a striking feature of the town, but they are increasingly swamped by four-wheel-drive vehicles squeezing past open drains and bars selling beer and pizza.

At Chonor House, a boutique hotel where the Hollywood actor and devout Buddhist Richard Gere is a regular, one sign of Dharamshala's creaking infrastructure is the bath tubs that are being replaced by showers to save scarce water.

"There is so much construction going on," said the manager, Karma, who uses only one name. "All the hotels are booming and water is becoming a serious issue. We need a generator because of power cuts, and the roads are rough here because they get washed away by the monsoon," he added.

The winding route up to the town is crumbling and congested. Pedestrians on the two narrow streets of McLeod Ganj during the busy summer months are assailed by noise and fumes from vehicles.

Waste disposal is also a serious challenge, with much rubbish simply dumped at the side of roads, spoiling the enjoyment of walkers heading up forest tracks towards soaring peaks behind the town.

According to the Himachal Pradesh state tourism department, last year 1.8 million Indians and 99,000 foreigners visited the district of Kangra, which includes Dharamshala, a sharp increase from 10 years ago.

"The new popularity is due to people coming to enjoy the cool climate when the plains are hot, adventure sports such as mountaineering, and religious places of interest," said Ashwani Sood Kangra, the deputy director for tourism.

"People enjoy these things, and we want more visitors to come and experience them too."

The town's new role as a weekend getaway for young people from New Delhi and Chandigarh has been underlined by the Indian Premier League cricket games played each year in the nearby stadium.

After the most recent matches in May, drunken mobs of travelling fans from Punjab state gathered in the tiny main square of Dharamashala, clashing with police and throwing bottles at bars that refused them entry.

Such scenes appalled many Tibetan exiles, who fear that long-standing relations with local Indian communities may be threatened by increasing commercialisation.