McLeod Ganj: Home of His Holiness The Dalai Lama & Tibet’s Struggle to Freedom

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In all honesty, I admit I knew very little about the struggle Tibet has been going through for the past 50 plus years. I didn’t know how China relentlessly took over this homeland region inhabited by peaceful Tibetans and other ethnic groups. I didn’t know how Tibetan Buddhists are forbidden to openly practice or voice their beliefs. I didn’t know the simple act of owning anything pertaining to or symbolizing His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (birth name Tenzin Gyatso) can entail severe penalties including imprisonment, torture and death. I didn’t know how deep and dangerous the situation is.

I didn’t know until I went to McLeod Ganj.

 

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I certainly won’t pretend to be an expert on this very complex matter but, as a result of my visit to McLeaod Ganj, I will attempt to shed a bit of light on the subject.

McLeod Ganj is a small town located in Northern India with the Himalayas mountain range acting as an unofficial border between India and Tibet. As early as 1959, Tibet was independent of China until this powerful empire forcefully took over its land and its people. Prior to this invasion, the Tibetan plateau throughout the centuries was governed by Dalai Lamas – Buddhist monks highly regarded and revered as teachers/mentors/gurus believed to possess immense wisdom and understanding.

Following the undertake of Tibet by the Chinese government, the then and now presiding Dalai Lama (the 14th in the lineage), had to escape Tibet to avoid imprisonment and probable death. He and many others fled with, quite literally, nothing but the clothes on their backs. This hurried escape meant taking the only clandestine way out of the Tibetan plateau – crossing the mighty Himalayas. Enduring deadly snowstorms, temperatures way below the freezing point, dangerously high elevation, starvation and vicious frost bite claiming hands and feet, Tibetans left behind their beloved land and the only home they ever knew.

The fortunate ones (many succumbed to death due to the harsh conditions) including His Holiness made it across the Himalayas and found themselves in a foreign land called India. Unable to control the hundreds of Tibetans that were making their way to Northern India every week, every month and every year, the Indian government, out of sympathy and as an act of humanitarianism, established and developed McLeod Ganj as a town for Tibetan refugees to pursue in complete freedom their religious beliefs, traditions and customs. Until this very day, more than 50 years later, Tibetans still continue to escape the horrors of Tibet by making the treacherous and often deadly journey to a safe and welcoming haven known as McLeod Ganj.

 

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Since the late 1950’s, Tibetans have been engaged in an ongoing fight to regain control of their beloved land and, most importantly, to regain their freedom on every possible level. Tibetans living in the Chinese-governed region live in constant fear of being arrested, tortured or, worse, killed for refusing to abide by laws that prevent them from practicing their Buddhist faith – a most fundamental human right. Most, if not all, native Tibetans are strong followers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and continue to be faithful even under governmental oppression.

Some – men and women of all ages – go so far as to demonstrate their unequivocal faith by becoming martyrs and setting themselves on fire in the streets of Tibet in a desperate attempt to draw attention to this unbearably inhumane situation while others choose to intentionally end their lives of misery and utter hopelessness.

 

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The museum in McLeod Ganj is dedicated to highlighting the ongoing struggle of Tibet and its victims – a number which continues to increase day by day. The very graphic images are heart-breaking at the most and thought-provoking at the least. It’s here that I learned that children in Tibet have been completely stripped and deprived of their heritage. Chinese Mandarin is the main language taught in schools with Tibetan as a second language but the younger generations hardly know how to speak their native language. Despite the numerous schools built by the Chinese government, illiteracy in Tibet is the highest in all of China. Tibetans have limited access to schools and hospitals which are prohibitively expensive and are located mostly in major cities far away from the rural areas where most Tibetans live.

Tibetans are forced to deny their roots and are ruthlessly expected to assimilate without question to Chinese culture all the while being neglected and abused as China continues to dismantle Tibetan villages in favor of urban development and, in turn, of the Chinese population. Tibetans are considered second-class citizens if at that.

 

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Wanting to raise as much awareness as possible, entrance to The Tibet Museum is free of charge with a very minimal fee of 10 rupees for the viewing of the documentary film shown every day. If ever you go to McLeod Ganj, take some time to visit the museum and to educate yourself (as I did) on the dark history, the gloom present and the uncertain future of Tibet and its people.

For more in-depth and up-to-date information visit: Free Tibet

 

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The Tibet Museum is conveniently located on the grounds of the Tsuglagkhang Complex where the Dalai Lama lives (though his actual house is not open to the public). The complex consists of the main temple Tsuglagkhang where His Holiness gives lectures and readings (he wasn’t there when we went), Namgyal Gompa Monastery and some dormitories for (novice) monks (and a few puppies). Visitors have access to all the grounds including the temple where shoes must be left at the door. The complex itself is very inspiring and the views of the mighty Himalayas all around make for a stunning landscape.

The days I spent in McLeod Ganj were a highlight of my time in India – its history, the kindness of its people and the palpable hope that lingers in the air all contributed to my wonderful stay.

You can follow His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Facebook.

 

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Young novice monks playing soccer (football)

 

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Any thoughts? 

 

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  • Anita Sane

    Thank you so much for sharing the information about Tibet. As I have interest about China, I knew something. You brought more details to that.

  • Louiela

    Like you, I have less idea about Tibet, not until I have read this post… Great that you have traveled to McLoed Ganj and you were able to share these truths to us… Thank you

  • Adriana K Smith

    Wow! Thank you for sharing the history of Tibet, it’s people, and the continued struggle that they still face. I appreciate your experience because it sheds light on more than traveling for fun but as traveling to learn about a culture. Now I’m interested in learning more. Thanks again!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Thank you so much Adriana! I’m so glad my blog post has sparked an interest in such a controversial (and sometimes little known) subject. 🙂

  • Matt Hulland

    Thanks for sharing and summarising the Tibetan struggle. Like yourself before visiting I am aware of the situation but not fully, visiting a place such as this must be quite a sobering experience. I hope when I visit India I get to visit McLeod Ganj as part of the trip. The way you describe your visit reminds me of the feelings I felt when I visited Cambodias Killing Fields and the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh, it’s shocking what humans can be capable of.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      It’s difficult to understand how such horrendous acts of hate took place in the past and are still happening nowadays. I hope you get to visit McLeod-Ganj not only for the history attached to it but also for the genuine kindness of its people. 🙂

  • Sara Bernard

    When I visited China I met a Chinese young guide who believed Tibetans were terrorist, which was a huge shock for us! Now that you write about this, I don’t want to sound harsh (it is not my intention) but this is not only happening in Tibet which at least they were “loaned” with some land by the Indian government (which brings me hope for others and all my respect), others are fleeing from their homes into no-man-land and it is terrifying. Hopefully those situations will change, thanks for sharing, enlightening and making us think about the world’s situation

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Sara! Thank you so much for your input. Very interesting about your Chinese guide. It’s scary to think that this type of “brainwashing” is still prevalent and possible in today’s world. Hopefully one day all this will stop and freedom will be made available to all.

  • Adrianna Vogel

    Wow thats a sad story! I actually never heard that before so thank you for sharing it! I love the view behind you at the last photo! looks wonderful !

  • James Smith

    I was here about 10 years ago, the situation was the same then as it is now. I can’t see the Chinese giving Tibet back, they’ve put too much money and infrastructure into it. A touching place, thanks for the photos!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      It would definitely be difficult to bring Tibet back as it once was but I think the most important is for Tibetans to have their freedom back. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Susan McNulty

    Thank you for sharing your experience! I didn’t know much about Tibet’s struggle, but I knew the basics of what China had done. It’s heartbreaking to think of the current struggles people and children in Tibet go through now, even in 2016. I’m going to have to check out the links you’ve shared to learn more.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      It’s hard to believe this type of “ethnic cleansing” is still going on (not only in Tibet). Glad I was able to shed some light on the subject. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  • I really didn’t know all the heartbreaking history of Tibet either until Scott shared it with me. He got to see the Dalai Lama twice, that lucky guy! I learned even more about the history from your post, it truly is sad to learn what people had to go through and still are going through. You would think this was all in the past, but its still going on.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Lucky Scott! The Dalai Lama wasn’t there when I was in McLeod-Ganj but it must be very humbling to meet him. It is very heart-breaking knowing how freedom for some people just hangs by a string. 🙁

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Christina! It’s fascinating how a whole country can be intimidated into total ignorance. I’ve never spoken to any Chinese about Tibet but I would be very intrigued to know what they think. Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    I’m glad to hear someone else’s opinion on McLeod-Ganj. We also met some Tibetans recounting their stories and it was heart-breaking. 🙁

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Yes it’s crazy that Tibetans are still choosing to cross the Himalayas and facing so much danger in lieu of staying in Chinese-governed Tibet. But McLeod-Ganj is an amazing place and Tibetans were so warm and welcoming!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Natasha! It really depends on how much time you have in India. It’s a huge country with so much to see. McLeod-Ganj was amazing and beautiful and so different from the rest of India. Also, I really wanted to go for the history it holds. You can read all about my trip to India here: http://lifeuntraveled.com/i-n-d-i-a/. Enjoy Mother India – it’s a fascinating country!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Ivy! I felt compelled to share what I had learned. It’s extremely sad and frustrating that these things are still going on in many countries for different reasons. Freedom shouldn’t be selective. 🙁

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    It was very emotional. I tried to hold back my tears but reading about all the injustices and seeing the violence was heart-breaking. On the other hand, Tibetans were so welcoming and friendly; they made our stay in McLeod-Ganj very enjoyable.

  • Delaine Mária

    I had no idea about Tibet’s past, though I’ve seen that picture of the burning Buddha. I’ve never considered visiting Tibet too, but I think I should now. I want to get to know more about this country & its people.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Tibet is indeed a very intriguing region. I would definitely consider going although I think it’s become much more “Chinese” and, sadly, there isn’t much Tibetan culture left. 🙁

  • One of my favorite parts of travel is experiencing the world’s controversial history via another perspective. I’ve read wildly different accounts of Tibetan history from various sources. It’s so hard to know what is fact and what is propaganda.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Meg! I agree, it’s often difficult to cut the crap from the truth although, like you said, different people can have widely different perspectives. We spoke to a few Tibetans in McLeod-Ganj and, of course, they said that what was happening to Tibet was awful. I’m sure the Chinese have a completely different opinion. But I’m hoping the Dalai Lama is being truthful in his accounts.

  • Interesting story. I’ll never forget the educated Chinese woman we spoke to a few years ago. For some reason(I can’t remember) Tibet came up and we mentioned the Dalai Lama. “Dalai Lama, who is that?”. She continued feigning ignorance when we explained exactly who the Dalai lama was. Just left us shaking our heads…

    Frank (bbqboy)

    • Lydia

      Hi Frank! That’s fascinating! I’m curious to know where exactly did you meet her?