By Abhinav Seetharaman
Wild and woolly Dharamshala is as picturesque as it gets. As the winter capital of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, it lies amongst the mighty Dhauladhars of the lesser Himalaya range. From hiking trails to paragliding, it is a haven for travelers, backpackers, and adventurers alike. But all of this represents only one side of the town. There is a religious and cultural side to it, and it is filled with Hindu and Buddhist temples on virtually every street corner. The town has the highest Tibetan-in-exile population in India and is known as ‘Little Lhasa’ for a reason. At the same time, it represents a perfect nexus between Tibetan and Indian culture. It’s quite a sight to see both cultures so beautifully coexist, so much so that one can see Indian vendors selling momos (Tibetan dumplings) and Tibetan shopkeepers selling Indian masalas, in a finely juxtaposed masterpiece. Dharamshala’s multifacetedness explains why one is likely to meet so many different kinds of people during any particular visit, any time of the year.
It was my second time in Dharamshala, and I arrived on May 25th. I wrote my senior thesis on the implications of a recent Delhi High Court ruling from last year—stating that all Tibetans born in India between 1950 and 1987 are eligible to apply for Indian citizenship—on Tibetans-in-Exile. And now I’m back in the hilly haven, here to conduct follow-up fieldwork and look into the specific challenges that Tibetans face while applying for Indian passports.
But let’s fast-forward to May 30th, because that’s what we’re really here for.
8:15am. I’ve reached the Temple of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and locate a large group of Tibetans crowded around the temple entrance. I make my way towards the crowd, with the appointment confirmation in one hand and passport in another. It’d be easy to spot me in this queue; you’d just find the one blue suit amongst the nearly hundred traditional Tibetan outfits. A temple employee signals for me and asks if I am here to meet His Holiness. I nod my head, and he leads me inside the gates to a waiting area a few minutes later. The surroundings are so peaceful. Monks with maroon robes swiftly walk past me. There are flowers and plants that have been so neatly pruned. There seems to be orderliness in everything I see around me. It’s nature’s harmonious order at its finest. And I finally realize that I am in the garden of His Holiness.
9:00am sharp. I see His Holiness walk out of his home, surrounded by a few other trusted monks and bodyguards, and immediately clasp my hands together to offer my salutations. With a smile on his face, he offers a clasp of his own as he makes his way toward the main entrance of the house. I am awestruck, and watch as he sits down on a wooden chair on a series of steps outside his driveway. I hear my name being called, and am at a total loss for words. Also unsure if I’m actually shuddering or not. The entire experience until now has been just surreal, and now I’m supposed to actually talk? To the Dalai Lama? To one of the world’s most prominent living icons? I somehow manage to snap out of my daze, and explain to His Holiness my thesis work, mentors, and my desire to do good for the greater Tibetan community. He intently listens to every word I have to say, and with his ever-inquisitive mind, even asks me a few follow-up questions. After a few minutes of conversation, he proceeds to deliver the quickest crash course on violence and non-violence I’ve ever heard.
“You see, non-violence is just compassion in action. Does that mean we should sit in silence and do nothing? No! One should have a principled approach to enacting change by standing up for oneself while recognizing the rights of others.”
Before I leave, His Holiness encourages me to continue doing good for Tibetan society. He wishes me all the best with my endeavors and gives me a small prasad. At that very moment, I feel like the most fortunate person alive.
One of the primary subcategories in my thesis was Sustainable Development Goal 16: Peace, Justice, and Institutions. And as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, His Holiness surely embodied inner peace, outer peace, and world peace. That one man has played a major role in easing relations between India and China over the last five or six decades is truly extraordinary. In fact, a significant chunk of South and East Asian relations has been cordial because of his peacefulness alone!
In retrospect, the entire experience was a blur. From the moment he arrived, I tried to contain my excitement and awe, only to see both ooze out of me. His Holiness’s uncanny ability to break down life’s complexities into simplicities helped put things into perspective; as stressful and tiresome as our daily lives may be, it is equally important to tap into our own inner peace and constantly remind ourselves that compassion and altruism lead to a healthier and more prosperous society. Symbiotic relationships between humans should be rooted in harmony and goodwill so that we can continue to uplift ourselves and others simultaneously.
His Holiness seems to carry a constant light around him; a light of intellectualism, of knowledge, of curiosity, of playfulness, of calmness. It’s this light that seems to rub off on so many, that allows tens of millions to develop minds and hearts of purity. Meeting him reminded me that we all are carriers of this light, in some way or the other, despite our differences. And we should continue to spread this light to others, so that they may be reinvigorated to make our world a brighter, more radiant place.
Abhinav Seetharaman is a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development.