At the end of the hippy trail
When Elliot Sperling first arrived in McLeodganj in 1971, he was finishing one of the epic journeys of the twentieth century – the overland trail from Europe to Asia. Travelling through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to India was a rite of passage for a generation, but one that their successors can only dream about. Tragically, some of the places on the trail would now be unrecognisable, if you could visit them at all.
Professor Sperling has come back to McLeodganj many times. That first visit sparked an interest in Tibetan history, and he is now on the faculty of the Tibetan Studies Program in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University in the United States. He wasn’t carrying a camera in 1971, but he remedied that oversight on subsequent visits. The photos in the exhibition were taken in 1973, 1974-5 and 1980, and form a valuable record of the early days of exile.
Things have moved on in McLeodganj since those days. What was then a sleepy village served by a single bus is now a thriving town with a population constantly on the move. Trees have been replaced by concrete high rise, and the streets are possessed of a restless energy, jammed with pilgrims, refugees, tourists and spiritual seekers from every part of the world. Tsuglakhang, Gangkyi, the stupa, TIPA Road – all of them are recognisable, but transformed. Even the bus stand has at long last been moved out of the square.
None of this could have been foreseen when McLeodganj was chosen as a safe haven for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1960. Even in the late 1980s, the town had a drowsy air. The Nowrojee shop dominated the square, there was a handful of restaurants and guesthouses, and the crumbling buildings were mostly of stone or wood. Two things changed all that: His Holiness’ Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 put Tibet on the world stage, while less salutary events around the same time propelled a second wave of refugees across the mountains.
The real difference between the McLeod seen here and the town of today is that these pictures depict a community still finding its feet. The process of rebuilding was still in its early stages. If McLeodganj in 2011 is manic, cacophonous and crowded, that’s because Tibetans in exile have been so outstandingly successful – in rebuilding their community and in garnering support for their cause. The bustle of the capital-in-exile is a testament to Indian generosity and Tibetan resilience. For all its faults and frustrations, there’s no place on earth quite like McLeod.