This feature was first published in my column for Ekalavyas on April 7, 2016. Click here to read the original piece.
Four thousand seven hundred feet above sea level, enfolded within the giant faces of the world’s mightiest mountain range, and aglow with the blessings of serene spirituality, lies Dharamshala. Home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile, Dharamshala and its neighbouring town of McLeodganj are a simmering pot of Himalayan beauty, Buddhist teachings, Tibetan culture, politics, and some of the best momos known to man.
To an outsider, the region’s equilibrium may sometimes seem like a cultural tightrope. And yet, despite being occasionally at odds, the quest for spiritual nirvana, political activism, or simply, playing host as a summer holiday destination, happen to survive and thrive side by side in a delicate blend. But there is yet another factor that plays a major role in giving Dharamshala its personality, adding a jumpy flavour to that unique cultural blend.
The Tibetan refugee community in India has long held a love affair with the game of basketball, and the cities of Dharamshala and McLeodganj have seen the birth of a vibrant and competitive hoops culture. While Dharamshala does have the HPCA Cricket Stadium, it hardly has enough flat space to provide more options for those seeking to play cricket and football. Basketball, with its compact space, team-spirit, and capacity to produce flair, has become the town’s natural sporting addiction.
For nearly two decades, the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress (RTYC) has been holding a basketball tournament for Tibetan community teams – in both the men’s and women’s divisions – in Dharamshala. With interest and passion for the game growing every year, the RTYC finally upgraded and renovated the Gangyi Basketball Court in Dharamshala a year ago. Last October, this newer, better version of the court got its first chance to host the Martyr’s Memorial Tournament; the results, as expected – both on and off the court – produced fireworks!
In 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled Chinese occupation in Tibet to exile in India. Soon after, scores of Tibetan refugees followed him in the hazardous journey from Tibet south into the Indian borders and settled in several colonies cross India. The Dalai Lama eventually settled in McLeodganj, where he turned 80 last year and still lives by his famous, eponymous temple.
Estimates record that there are about 94,000 Tibetan’s living in India. As the birthplace of the Buddhist religion, and the current home of the Dalai Lama, India was an easy attraction for the refugees hoping to start a new life. Each year, about 2,500 Tibetan refugees make the month-long, dangerous and illegal journey out of China. Children and adults cross dangerous glaciers, trek through mountain passes, and walk in the safe blanket of night to avoid detection by Chinese authorities or spies during the day. They crossover to Nepal where they are received at a refugee reception center. From there, many go to New Delhi to get registered and are rerouted to Dharamshala/McLeodganj or other parts of the country.
In Dharamshala, the refugee community has set up the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the government of the people in exile. And a casual stroll down from the CTA is the newly-renovated Gangyi Court. It is here that many Tibetans – young, old, men and women – come together to socialize, shoot some hoops, and play in an iconic basketball tournament.
“We play basketball so much in Dharamshala because, surrounded by mountains, there is no room for bigger games,” said Tsetan Tenzin, 30, an assistant at a Tibetan Herbal Medicine clinic and a long-range shooting threat for ‘Example Team’ at the Martyr’s Memorial Tournament, “Tibetans love the NBA. My favourite player is Stephen Curry, because I love to shoot from outside.”
“In Tibet, people play a lot of basketball too, especially in school,” Tenzin added, “So it’s normal for refugees to come [to India] and continue playing.”
Dharamshala and McLeodganj are vibrant little communities, where Tibetan refugees, volunteer NGO workers, foreign tourists, Buddhist monks, and the local Indian population live in relative harmony among the snow peaks that surround them. Outside of basketball, any trip up to these Himachal towns should include visits to the Dalai Lama Temple, monasteries, nunneries, treks, and the quest to find the perfect momo.
But when the Martyr’s Memorial Tournament returned to the Gangyi Court in October, all of Dharamshala was abuzz with talk of the tournament among the Tibetan youth, the monks, working men and women alike. It was bringing different people in the community – those with different political intentions, spiritual inclinations, different generations, or different jobs – together. RTYC, the tournament’s organizers, think of basketball as a way to keep the community tied closer together.
“The main purpose of this basketball tournament is to remember the Tibetan Martyrs who have sacrificed for their country,” said Wangden Krab, the RTYC office in McLeodganj, “Most Tibetan youth are now born in India or come here very young, and they forget what is happening in Tibet. In this tournament, we want to remind them of their martyrs. We want to bring youngsters together and unite them.”
The Tibetan Youth Congress is the largest Tibetan NGO of Tibetan exiles, formed mostly of young Tibetans in hopes to initiate their struggle for Tibetan independence. They have around 80 chapters around the world and over 20,000 members. The TYC regularly lobbies to governments and Human Rights organizations around the world.
“We are still fighting for complete independence for Tibet,” Krab added, “We report to the UN about the critical situation in Tibet, including issues like losing freedom of speech and fighting for human rights.”
Krab added that, although football is truly the favourite sport of most Tibetan refugees, the infrastructure and organization of basketball has made it an easy option to rally the youth behind.
“Football needs more space,” said Krab, “In Tibetan schools here, all types of players – tall, short, good, bad – stop and try and their hand at basketball, and our eager to learn. It is a more ‘freestyle’ sport than cricket. There’s less structure, and has rules that more people can understand.”
“There are no limits to basketball. Everyone can come to the ground and play!”
On the day of the finals, the atmosphere was electric and the entire hillside – from shawl-sellers and momo-makers to monks and tourists – caught basketball fever. Young hoop-heads wearing NBA T-shirts and basketball kicks intermingled with monks in orange robes and enthusiastically cheering girls in traditional Tibetan chupas. Tibetan flags and Buddhist prayer flags flew freely. During time-outs, stray dogs strolled casually on the court and were chased away.
The girls’ final was won easily by Men-Tse-Khang (Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute) – dressed in Miami Heat colours – over Sarah College, who were the ‘Chicago Bulls’ for the day. The boys’ teams – both wearing practice jerseys that say slogans like ‘Free Tibet’ or have the faces of the Dalai Lama – stepped out next.
Before the boys’ game tipped off, both teams took centre-court to greet each other with traditional Tibetan presents of white scarves to show respect. The young men – mostly in their 20s – stepped out to cheers as local superstars.
The last two remaining teams were ‘Dhasa’, comprising mainly of second-generation Tibetans born to refugee parents in India, and ‘Nomads’, featuring 20-somethings who had escaped from China over the past five or six years. The action on court immediately became faster and more athletic. On the concrete ground, each hard fall took a little longer to recover from. There were no dunks, but athletic lay-ups with the ‘and-one’ foul calls prevailed.
Eventually Nomad broke open the close contest with a barrage of irrational yet successful three-pointers. They won the final by three points and the crowd rushed the court to celebrate with the victors. Nomad players were lifted on shoulders and drenched with water under a flurry of happy prayer flags.
Sport merges different cultures – North Indian, American, Tibetan, European, Chinese – into one. There is little in common between me and the refugees, but in Dharamshala, I repeatedly fell into an abyss of long NBA and basketball conversations, even with Buddhist monks who had denounced most material distractions for a life of spirituality and meditation.
“Monks get angry, too,” said Thakpa Kunga, a young monk who also played in the tournament, “But we know how to control it. Basketball is like meditation for me on court. Sometimes, I played just to clear my problems and tensions. When you play basketball, there are no problems.”
I reflected on a sense of incompleteness among the refugees, who face cultural displacement and a double consciousness of identity between heritage and nationality. Many of them are stuck in the strange new world, but at least they have their community, culture, and spirituality to accompany them.
But thanks to Gangyi – and the numerous other courts in the region – this new world is blessed with basketball, too!