To go to the webpage containing links to the texts of two Tibetan folk tales (for adults), and commentary, please click here.

Thoughts on Dharamsala as
a "Living Museum" of Tibetan Buddhist Culture
by Dr Eric Miller, Director, World Storytelling Institute
June 2012

Myself and family recently visited McLeod Ganj for approximately two weeks.  McLeod Ganj is a section of Dharamsala, in Himachal Pradesh, North India.  Dharamsala is a home in India of Tibetan people who are refugees from Tibet.  McLeod Ganj is high on the mountainside, and is the place with the most visitors and activities for them.

As a scholar and developer of tourism and museums, I was interested regarding ways in which aspects of Tibetan culture are presented to, and shared with, visitors to the Dharamsala area.

Upon arriving in McLeod Ganj, one sees posters announcing a daily Walking Tour, led by a guide.  To join the walk, one simply comes to the town centre at 10am, and finds the person holding up the Walking Tour sign.  There is a small fee for the Tour.

The Tour is organised by Volunteer Tibet.   This organisation -- like numerous others -- also has signs up around town, requesting volunteer  leaders of daily English-language conversation sessions.

On the morning of our first full day in town, we took the Walking Tour.  And from that afternoon onwards, I volunteered to lead conversation sessions.  In both cases, the process of joining is very easy, and free of red tape.

About twelve days after my arrival, I and others (teachers and students) at Volunteer Tibet told traditional stories (for the public) about Uncle Tompa, a trickster hero in Tibetan folk tales.  Commentaries about the stories are here, links to the texts of two of the stories are here (these stories contain adult themes, and should be read by adults only), and photos of the storytelling event are here.

All-in-all, I found the Tibetan people in Dharamsala to be developing excellent "Living Museum" practices.  A "Living Museum" is a museum in which the objects on display are still in everyday use, and community members act as guides.

For example, there are a number of places in McLeod Ganj in which one can just walk in and witness people doing traditional weaving on looms.  However, in these places one cannot easily talk to the weavers (due in part to the language barrier), or learn how to weave oneself -- such opportunities for interacton are often present in Living Museums.

One may ask, "What makes a Tourism destination attractive?"  Or even, more basically, "What is a Tourism destination?"  It seems the answer often involves two elements: geography (and weather); and culture.

"Tourism" and "tourist" can be negative terms.  They can imply that a visitor only perceives the surfaces of local people, takes photographs of those surfaces, and purchases souvenirs.   However, if one stays at a "Tourism destination" longer than a day or two, a human need to interact on deeper levels tends to develop in many visitors.

I found that the volunteer English-conversation sessions provided a  wonderful way to interact -- to assist others, and at the same time to help oneself (learning some Tibetan language, making friends, etc).  In my case, I also helped to organise a storytelling session.

One thing we missed in McLeod Ganj was formal opportunities to begin to learn ways of drawing and painting Mandalas, the traditional Tibetan artform involving circles and other geometric forms, and images relating to Buddhism.  It seems that cultural organisations in McLeod Ganj are presently a little shy to offer such instruction to visitors.  This is so in part because there is a belief that if a Mandala might be done incorrectly, this might bring bad luck.  It must be remembered that for Tibetan Buddhist people, drawing/painting a Mandala is a devotional act, and is a serious ritual -- and visitors of course might not fully understand all of these matters.  This kind of issue often comes into play, and needs to be negotiated, in Living Museum contexts.

Norbulingka is a cultural centre some distance from Mcleod Ganj.  Here visitors can take extended courses in a number of traditional arts and crafts.

However, the lack of a drawing/painting centre in McLeod Ganj struck me as a lost opportunity for creativity, teaching-and-learning, and sharing.  Perhaps there could be a centre in McLeod Ganj for teaching-and-learning and praticing drawing/painting inspired by Tibetan art.

There are numerous individuals and organisations in McLeod Ganj and vicinity that offer Workshops in a variety of topics, many of them not even related to Tibet or Buddhism.  These Workshops (in Yoga, Ayurvedic lifestyle, various types of dance, etc) are led by Indians, Tibetans, and others.

In this way, the Dharamsala area -- like Pondicherry/Auroville, Goa, Bali, etc -- has become a global centre for teaching-and-learning a wide variety of arts and life-skills, transcending the local culture that has helped to attract visitors.

I am applying thoughts derived from my Dharamsala visit to the development of two cultural-tourism projects here in Tamil Nadu -- the "Living Museum on Sea-Fishing and Sea-Travel" (projected to be near Marina Beach, Chennai), and the "Living Museum on Tribal Arts and Crafts" (projected to be in the Western Ghats mountains, at a site where Kannagi is said to have started a tribe.)   These two Living Museums would serve as the starting and ending points of the "Places of Kannagi Storytelling Tour".

- Eric
June 2012