McLEOD GANJ, India -- Nestled amid forests of deodar and rhododendron, the North Indian hill station of McLeod Ganj, home of the Tibetan community in exile, is perched upon a foothill. Towering above, the jagged Dhauladhar Himalaya rises to more than 18,000 feet; far below, the Kangra Valley stretches to the horizon.
In 1959 Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, was granted political asylum in India after being forced to flee his country by the increasingly oppressive Chinese occupation. In the months that followed, more than 80,000 Tibetan devotees followed him into exile. A year later, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru relocated the Tibetans to McLeod Ganj, a former British Army base that had been mostly abandoned since 1905, when an earthquake razed all of the town's buildings. The temporary home, with its mountains and sparse population, was thought to be a perfect environment for the Tibetans.
Since those early days, McLeod Ganj has grown from a tiny hamlet into a world center for the study of Tibetan Buddhism and culture. Monasteries, nunneries, a library of Tibetan works, retreat centers, and even a Tibetan institute of performing arts are among the buildings in the surrounding hills and forests. These days McLeod Ganj is a cultural crossroads, as much a destination for backpackers, hikers, and students of Buddhism as it is an adopted home for the Tibetan people.
As is the custom in India, drinking chai (tea) is a priority when arriving in a new place. The ''chaiwallah" was ladled from a huge steaming pot as we new arrivals sat on flattened cardboard boxes neatly laid out on unused doorsteps. Nearby, fliers on a notice board fluttered in the wind. The entire population of McLeod Ganj, it appears, is engaged in some form of mind-body activity. Courses offered included everything from Vipassana meditation, Tarot, and tai chi to shiatsu massage, yoga, and belly dancing.
McLeod Ganj is richly enhanced by a procession of people: A maroon-robed monk blocked the path of a runaway goat intent on entering Shiva's Internet Cafe, while the turbaned shepherd placidly led the rest of his flock along the bustling street. Wandering through the crowded bazaar I smiled at the haphazard collection of guesthouses, Tibetan and tourist restaurants, handloom and handicraft shops, street stalls, Buddhist bookshops, and multicolored prayer flags blowing in the wind. Animated conversations were everywhere; people laughed and greeted each other in the three local languages, Hindi, Tibetan, and English.
Tibetan students will happily exchange words and phrases in their native language for informal English lessons, which can provide wonderful insight into their community. Even a few spare hours of teaching are appreciated -- though most people will end up lingering much longer, as I did, swapping stories of yak racing and making Tibetan dumplings, and laughing long into the evening.
For the more serious student, there is Gangchen Kyishong, the library of Tibetan works and archives, which offers daily courses in Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy. The inexpensive classes range from basic drop-ins to nine-month programs taught by renowned teachers. The library contains 70,000 texts in Tibetan and more than 10,000 volumes in English and other languages on Buddhism and Tibetan subjects.
On Jogibara Road, the village's main street, a lively crowd gathered outside a makeshift moviehouse: a ramshackle hut equipped with a huge TV screen, DVD player, and chairs crammed into what appeared to have once been a bedroom. The village premiere of a Richard Gere movie provided the occasion for such a crowd. In these parts the renowned Tibetan Buddhist and regular visitor has become a local celebrity.
Though the wonderful eccentricities of McLeod Ganj enchanted me, the landscape sharply took my breath away. The majestic 16,000-foot Mun (Moon) Peak dominated the sky, drawing my imagination toward its paths and trails. The Dhauladhar Range (known also as the Outer or Lesser Himalaya) provides exceptional hiking opportunities: Dharamkot village, with its terraced fields and traditional farmhouses, makes for an enjoyable short walk. Farther explorations lead to hidden valleys, waterfalls, and dense forests clinging to the cliffside.
For longer, more strenuous hiking, an assortment of outfits will arrange guides, porters, food, and basic equipment. The plateau of Triund is about a four-hour hike from the village and at almost 10,000 feet provides magnificent views of the Himalaya and the valley below. As a young man, the Dalai Lama himself used to go there to walk in the mountains and spend days meditating in the caves. For those more adventurous, there is the Indhara Pass at a staggering 14,850 feet. Beyond lie the remote Chamba Valley and the ancient hamlet of Kuarsi.
But in McLeod Ganj, standing engrossed in my own thoughts, three Indian women in tattered saris suddenly surrounded me, intent on extracting compassion in the form of a few rupees. I escaped into an inviting-looking restaurant, Khanna Nirvana, which acts as a kind of collective conscience for the area, organizing environmental and social projects. A collection of photographs and biographies on the walls starkly told the bleak history of the local beggars. After reading them I stepped out into the street and offered a food donation to the three women.
The undulating Temple Road leads down to Namgyal Monastery and the Dalai Lama's residence. His bungalow is behind guarded security gates, but a private audience can be organized four months in advance. Public audiences are held twice a month.
Within the monastery complex, the Tsuglakhang temple houses some of the rarest and most beautiful Buddhist statues outside Tibet. On Buddha Purnima, the celebration of the birth-death and enlightenment of the Buddha, tens of thousands flock here to pay homage, chanting and spinning prayer wheels as they circle the temple. Another important date on the monastery's calendar is the Monlam, or great prayer festival, 10 days of teaching by the Dalai Lama to celebrate the Tibetan New Year. The event draws a huge international audience.
As daylight ebbed, the monastery's courtyard came alive: Groups of monks argued and shouted. While I wandered back toward the village, dozens of people swept the narrow street and decorated its borders with painted stones in preparation for the Dalai Lama's return home the following day. Though generations of young Tibetans have been born here, the majority still cling to the hope that one day they will return home.
Later that night, Mingma, a young student and former nomad, admitted that after studying English he does not want to return to the nomadic life. ''Coming here has changed me, introduced new languages and the influence of different cultures -- this is true," he said, ''but it has also brought me closer to my own people. I have learned more about Tibetan culture in McLeod Ganj than I could ever have hoped to in Tibet."
Contact Terrence Moore, a writer in Nelson, British Columbia, at firstname.lastname@example.org.