Hippies kick back in Dharamsala

Home to the Tibetan government in exile, global travelers have headed to the Indian hill town, a cosmopolis of yoga practitioners, espresso drinkers, and Web-surfing monks.

GLOBAL ENTREPRENEURS: Michael Ginguld (l.) and business partner Yahel Ben-David (r.) founded a wireless Internet network in Dharamsala.
Dharamsala, while the seat of the Tibetan Government-in-exile, has also become a global collecting place and a magnet for Tibetan refugees, counterculture hippies, Buddhist pilgrims, trekkers, and social workers.
The McLeondganj area of Dharamsala, India, a Himalayan hill town. Dharamsala is a global node of counterculture that blends Tibetan heritage with pilgrims, hippies, and backpackers.

Emily Scott sits at one of many roadside cafes along the steep ascent into Upper Dharamsala, preparing for her two-week yoga retreat – two-hour sessions, occasionally three times a day.

Fuzz-headed Buddhist monks in magenta robes and Converse All-Star high-tops amble by, chatting animatedly on their mobile phones. At a nearby table, Israeli Ofra Gan remarks on how much the village feels like her kibbutz – intimate and friendly.

This Himalayan hill town, home of the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government in exile, is a global node of the counterculture diaspora that blends its Tibetan heritage with pilgrims, hippies, and backpackers.

Drawn here by the inscrutable wisdom of the Dalai Lama and scenery straight from the leaves of fantasy, the eclectic crowd that throngs Upper Dharamsala has made this town a unique ecosystem – a cosmopolitan town of espressos and Web-surfing monks, condensed into two streets along a Himalayan ridgeline.

As with many others, Michael Ginguild was originally lured here by the idea of doing good. An Israeli backpacker tripping through Tibet in 1989, he became an accidental eyewitness to the last major riots in the region and was later invited to Dharamsala to brief the Dalai Lama on what he saw.

Mr. Ginguild's initial motivation in moving here to help the government in exile has in recent years morphed into a quixotic quest to build the largest wireless Internet network in South Asia – in a town of 20,000. He and his business partner want to bring the Internet to rural areas worldwide, and Dharamsala is an ideal laboratory for rural research and design, while offering the character of a city, he explains.

Ginguild's partner begs to differ. It is revisionist history, he says. The desire to come to Dharamsala came first, and everything else has emerged from that impulse.

It is a common theme: artists, social workers, and intellectuals coming to this tiny town for a few weeks and staying years – or a lifetime. It is an ethos that emanates from the compound of the Dalai Lama and has permeated the ridge-top part of Dharamsala where he lives, a former summer retreat of the British Raj.

The sojourners who stay have helped make Dharamsala a global collecting place – a sort of permanent human sit-in against a world perceived to be materialistic, power-hungry, and violent.

It is this quality that makes Ms. Gan of Israel feel at home thousands of miles from her kibbutz. "The feeling is that we are together," she says.

That is what brings people back year after year to volunteer or just absorb the atmosphere, says Wendy Brown, a native of Shropshire, England.

And the Dharamsala set has generally been most everywhere. They are not the air-conditioned bus-tour type. Frenchman Stephan Leguillaux, swathed in rainbow-colored clothes, talks with nonchalance about 10-hour public-bus rides through India that take hairpin curves at full speed, tilting ominously along cliff-tops.

Those who come, however, encompass both earnest seekers and "charlatans," says Ginguild. "When people seek to liberate themselves, sometimes they seek to liberate themselves chemically," he says, delicately referring to the relative ease of finding marijuana here.

The connection goes back decades. In 1962, poet Allen Ginsberg famously offered the Dalai Lama some LSD on a visit. His Holiness politely declined.

More than any of the crowds that he has attracted to his home in exile, the Dalai Lama himself is what many visitors say makes Dharamsala unique by imbuing the town with an underlying substance.

"You cannot deny that Dharamsala has something to it," says Ginguild. "It does something to you, and over the years you begin to realize what it does to you – and it's a good thing."

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