LHASA: The capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region looks, at first glance, similar to so many other cities in China. As the train from Beijing halts at a modern terminus, the space around the station is filled with skyscrapers, with more being built. But closer to the city centre, more and more of those walking on the totally “swachh” pavements are holding prayer wheels, while others clutch prayer rosaries. There is a large Muslim presence in Lhasa, even a mosque catering to the half-million inhabitants of this largest of Tibetan cities. More and more Chinese are turning to religion, with Buddhism in the lead together with other traditional faiths such as Daoism, while those drawn to the western world are in significant numbers embracing different versions of the Christian faith. And in Lhasa this adherence to faith is openly demonstrated, with many chanting in soft tones and very often, devotional music issuing from within storefronts rather than the jazz and other raucous tunes favoured by so many shopping malls in India. The Communist Party of China (CCP) has wisely been making its peace with matters of faith, and Buddhism in particular, thereby not standing in the way of the desire of several of the PRC’s people to turn to the spiritual, of course almost always in tandem with the material.
The centre point of Lhasa is not the imposing town hall as it is the Potala Palace, a red and white structure that has in its different avatars lasted a millennium. Atop a mountain in a city already more than three thousand metres above sea level, it is impossible to ignore what was constructed as the abode of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet, and which has now become a museum to all of them except one, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the XIV Dalai Lama of Tibet, who in 1959 took the decision to change his place of stay from Lhasa to Dharamshala in India. Although there are no visible signs left of him ever having been anywhere in Tibet, yet it is clear from the number of Tibetans who speak Hindi that there are more than a few who cross over to India for a glimpse of the Monk in Exile and return back home. In the St Regis hotel, which is so western that room service, when asked by a guest could not serve Chinese red wine (it was not in stock), but only a French version of the drink.
Although successive governments in India have recognised Tibet as an integral part of China, they have also allowed not just His Holiness the Dalai Lama to settle down in India but also a “Government in Exile”, including a “Prime Minister”.
However, many of the waiters speak Hindi perfectly and are delighted to serve guests from India. There has been a huge geopolitical price that has been paid as a consequence of Jawaharlal Nehru’s decision to give asylum to the present Dalai Lama, but the plus side includes the goodwill towards our country of several Tibetans.
Although successive governments in India have recognised Tibet as an integral part of China, they have also allowed not just His Holiness the Dalai Lama to settle down in India but also a “Government in Exile”, including a “Prime Minister”. This does not seem to have gone down particularly well in Beijing, and perhaps a city in the US or within the EU would be a more natural home for such a construct, given the more encouraging approach of such locations to the stated objectives of this “government”. Over the more than five decades since HHDL’s change of address, much has taken place in Tibet, but it would be difficult to argue that any of the changes that have been made are due to the wishes of either himself or his entourage. Certainly HHDL has made more than a few friends globally with his wisdom and his charm, but the positive impact of this on the people he left behind has been minimal.
This columnist admires the present Dalai Lama as a spiritual master of epic proportions, but regards those who claim that his continued exile serves the Tibetan cause better than would his presence in Lhasa as mistaken in the extreme.
As Official India notes, Tibet has indeed become a part of China, and it is fantasy to believe that this could be reversed by the activities of numerous groups working for a restoration of conditions in Tibet to what they were before the 1950s.
The strength of the Tibetan people is the influence of their Buddhist faith, and were HHDL to return to Lhasa, perhaps even to the Potala Palace, which is now open to all in contrast to the centuries when only a few had ingress, not only the people in Tibet but across China would very soon feel the pull of the great faith of which HHDL is the most potent symbol. Having the Dalai Lama in their midst will do more for the Tibetan people than any number of Hollywood or Bollywood admirers and honours from different countries that have as little effect as the baubles purchasable in a bazaar. It is time for His Holiness to return home.