The Tibetans Bring Big Bucks And Tension

Although he may not have intended it, the Dalai Lama has spurred a tourist industry in India. Every year, about 35,000 foreign travelers make their way to visit Dharmsala, a remote town in the Indian foothills of the snow-capped Himalayas, to drink in the sights of the Tibetan community that flourishes around the Buddhist spiritual leader and his government in exile. Tourism has transformed the quiet village into a prosperous outpost.

A glimpse of the Dalai Lama is what many travelers are seeking in Dharmsala. A few lucky ones might get an audience, but most will have to content themselves with the pictures of the Buddhist leader that are in every shop window. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is a best-seller in local stores, and "Free Tibet" T-shirts are popular. The local information center offers an exhibit on Chinese atrocities in Tibet, while meditation classes--some last hours, others days--are available in the dozens of local monasteries.

Backpackers spend about $3.5 million a year in Dharmsala, and the Tibetans have a knack for catering to Western tastes. Homesick travelers can get apple pie at the Chocolate Log or banana pancakes at the Dreamland Cafe. Several "movie theaters" (a dozen rows of chairs facing a 19-inch TV and a VCR) show decades-old films from the West. "When we came here, it was a ghost town, and now Dharmsala is on the international map," said Tempa Tsering, chief spokesperson for the Dalai Lama.

MONKS IN SHADES. It's easy to forget Dharmsala is in India. The 7,000 Ti-betan refugees living here have kept their culture intact. Old women in traditional garb spin prayer wheels. Pictures of the Dalai Lama are in every window. Buddhist monks stroll in long burgundy robes.

The monks may be holy men, but they don't lead cloistered lives, particularly the younger ones. Wearing sunglasses and digital watches, they can be found drinking tea in local cafes--or at a nearby waterfall, splashing about while one monk snaps photos with an expensive-looking camera.

Tenzin Gyatso was declared the 14th Dalai Lama, or spiritual leader, at age 2, and became Tibet's political leader at 15, in 1950, just after the Chinese invaded the country. He fled to Dharmsala in 1959 and has tried ever since to negotiate China's withdrawal from Tibet. While he has not succeeded, he has managed to capture the attention and respect of world leaders for his efforts to expose Chinese violations of Tibetans' civil rights. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But all is not peaceful in Dharmsala. The Tibetans' prosperity, with their guest houses, restaurants, and handicraft shops, has bred resentment among the Indians in the village. And unlike Indians, young Tibetans--with their Western clothes and hip hairdos--mix well with foreigners. The Tibetans need to reach out to the Indians, says Rakesh Narayan, secretary general of the Indo-Tibetan Friendship Society. "The problem is that young Tibetans have become arrogant."

RAISING HACKLES. In April, this resentment came to a boil after a Tibetan youth killed an Indian in an argument. Indians responded by looting and burning Tibetan stores. The Dalai Lama, concluding that the Tibetans and foreigners in Dharmsala had become too conspicuous, considered moving his headquarters either to New Delhi or to Bangalore in southern India.

In the end, he decided to stay, largely in response to the pleas of Indians, who realized that they were dependent on the Tibetans and the tourists they attract. Although most of the businesses that cater to foreigners are Tibetan, some of them--such as taxis--are owned by Indians. If the Tibetans were to vanish, so would many locals' livelihood. In some ways, "the riots were a good thing," says Pintu Sharma, the Indian owner of the Malabar Restaurant. "[They made] the Indians realize that if it hurts the Dalai Lama, it hurts the Indians, too."

For now, an uneasy peace reigns. Leaflets circulate throughout Dharmsala warning Tibetans they should leave. But the Dalai Lama remains, and the pilgrims and tourists continue to come.

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