Explained: How is Dalai Lama’s birthday celebrated in Dharamshala, why it will be different this year

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, turns 86 on July 6. It has been over six decades since he started living in India. He calls himself a “son of India” and somebody who has lived the longest in India as a “guest”. His birthday celebrations, each year, in Himachal Pradesh’s Dharamshala had always been one of the biggest events for the Tibetan community.

However, due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, this year the festivities shall not be held in Tsuglagkhang (popularly known as the Dalai Lama temple/ monastery) in McLeodganj, Dharamshala. Rather, the Kashag (Cabinet) — the highest executive office of the Central Tibetan Administration — has asked people in an advisory not to hold any congregations at all. VARINDER BHATIA explains how the birthday celebrations this year for the Tibetan spiritual leader shall be different

How was the Dalai Lama’s birthday in pre-Covid times?

The Dalai Lama’s birthday is celebrated as one of the grandest events of Tibetan community. In Dharamshala, where the Dalai Lama lives, thousands of people from across the globe used to reach for being part of the birthday celebrations. Central Tibetan Administration, dignitaries from Tibetan Government-in-exile, Government of Himachal Pradesh officials, representatives from the Government of India, and various eminent global personalities often took part in the festivities.

“Each year, there used to be a group from Mongolia. People from all over the Himalayas, Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh used to perform dance, songs. Prayers were held for the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama”, says Tenzin Tsundue, a renowned Tibetan activist, writer, and poet. Tsundue was also among a group of Tibetans recently detained by Delhi police for holding a protest outside the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi on July 1 this year — the day marking 100 years of the Communist Party of China.

Tsundue adds, “Local Indian groups used to perform the Gaddi dance. A three-four hour programme used to be held in the morning and then in the afternoon a cultural programme used to be presented by Indo-Tibetan Friendship Society in the Tsuglagkhang courtyard. Artistes from different parts of India used to give performances for which they prepare months in advance. Local Gaddi food, Dham (rice and curry), used to be served to the entire gathering”, Tsundue adds.

In Ladakh, there is a place called – Shiwaye-Tsel (a palace in Leh). There the celebrations used to go on for three days to mark the Dalai Lama’s birthday. People from border areas would come and participate in a horse race; dance performances are held by artists from Kargil, Nubra, Zanskar, and Leh. Similar celebrations are also held in Arunachal Pradesh as well.

Was the Dalai Lama present in-person for all the events?

No. The Dalai Lama was not always present for all the events/ performances that were held in the courtyard of Tsuglagkhang on his birthday. Tsundue recalls, “It is not necessary that he is present. But, people used to reach there to be part of the celebrations that is a festival for Tibetan community.”

How is it different this time?

The Kashag has issued an advisory for the 86th birthday of the Dalai Lama. “In accordance with Himachal Pradesh government issued guidelines and SOPs for social gatherings with restriction up to 50 people, Kashag Secretariat directs all monasteries and settlements to avoid congregation of public and instead, mark the day as per traditions: offering of the mandala and white scarves to the portrait of His Holiness the Dalai Lama”, the advisory reads.

It adds, “Most importantly, all Tibetans are urged to recite the Chenrezig mantra, Om Mani Padme Hung, over 1000 times, or at least 10 rounds of the rosary. The six-syllable mantra is associated with the Bodhisattva of compassion and the patron saint of Tibet, Chenrezig. For Tibetans, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the human manifestation of Chenrezig. Every year, Trungkar is celebrated with grandeur, glory, and festive spirit. This year also, the day will be celebrated with the same fervour, but in a Covid-appropriate manner.”

In view of the ongoing efforts to curb the Covid-19 pandemic, CTA will broadcast the official Trungkar celebration via Tibet TV for all to join virtually from the safety of their homes.

“Due to ongoing Covid-19 pandemic safety protocols issued by the Government of Himachal Pradesh, Tsuglagkhang is closed for visitors. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, since last February 2020 has cancelled all his public engagements. Since May 2020 he has been giving weekly public talks and discussions with scientists, scholars. Last year, over 60 million people had watched these events, public talks that were translated into 14-16 languages,” says Tseten S Chhoekyapa, Secretary, Dalai Lama’s private office.

Tseten adds that there shall be a message released by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on July 6.

How is it going to impact the hotel industry in Dharamshala?

No celebrations on Dalai Lama’s birthday will also severely impact the hotel and restaurant industry in Dharamshala. “Each year, in July, it used to be an affair of 8-10 days for us. Foreign delegates, tourists from across the globe used to visit. This time, it is not happening.

Similarly, during his teachings in February-March and September-October, too, thousands of tourists used to visit Dharamshala, which also is not happening due to Covid-19 this year. Roughly, the hotel industry is staring at a total yearly loss of around Rs. 5-6 crore for this year iN Dharamshala,” says Ashwani Bamba, president of hotel association, Dharamshala.

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