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Posted at: Nov 14, 2015, 12:39 AM; last updated: Nov 13, 2015, 11:31 PM (IST)

Panditji, the Dalai Lama and Happy Valley

Panditji, the Dalai Lama and Happy Valley
Jawaharlal Nehru with the 14th Dalai Lama at Birla House in Mussoorie in 1959. Photo: Courtesy Winterline Trust

Ajay Ramola

Tribune News Service

Mussoorie, November 13

The beautiful hill station of Mussoorie has long been associated with two political giants of the modern times, namely first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru and Tenzin Gyatso, his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Nehru spent the last holiday of his life in Dehradun and Mussoorie a few days before his death in Delhi on May 27, 1964.

The fondness of Motilal Nehru, his son Jawaharlal and granddaughter Indira for both Dehradun and Mussoorie is well documented. Nehru’s sister Vijayalaxmi Pandit had settled in Rajpur in Dehradun and her own daughters and grandchildren, including Nayantara Sehgal, have homes in the area. As for the Dalai Lama, his own relation with Mussoorie remains strong even in the 57th year of his exile.

As is well known, the much-respected Dalai Lama spent the first year in exile (1959-60) at Happy Valley in Mussoorie. Happy Valley still has a large Tibetan community with two Tibetan schools, namely Tibetan Homes Foundation and Central School for Tibetans (CST). Besides, an old people’s home and the much-visited Buddha Temple at the foot of “Dalai Hill”, a windy hillock just west of the CST, is also an important tourist destination. As the name suggests, the Dalai Lama himself opened the temple for prayers when he first came to Mussoorie. The first Tibetan children’s boarding home opened in Happy Valley and is still going strong under the auspices of the Tibetan Homes Foundation.

What is not well understood is exactly why the Dalai Lama made Mussoorie his home before moving to his world-famous base in the Mcleodganj area of Dharamsala. Curiously enough, the explanation lies in Nehru’s own affection for Mussoorie. After all, there were over 50 British era hill stations to choose from. During his many visits, Nehru would stay in various houses or hotels, and was frequently a guest at Birla House in Happy Valley. Nehru and Indira were fond of Birla House, owned by the industrialist and Congress stalwart GD Birla (1894-1983). It is still owned by the Birla family. The house commands a view of the great snow-bound Himalayas to the north by virtue of being on the saddle of a ridge that extends to the present-day IAS academy.

According to experts, when the Dalai Lama reached Tezpur in Assam after escaping from Lhasa, frantic discussions were underway in New Delhi where to house him. A hill station was deemed apt for climatic reasons, one that is not too far from Delhi as the Indian government needs to be in touch with him. Nehru consulted his friend GD Birla, who offered Birla House in Happy Valley. Nehru himself had had many happy stays in Birla House and hence agreed to the offer. The IAS academy had just opened and the Central government’s footprint in Happy Valley was considered strong enough for the Dalai Lama to be safe. Neither Nehru nor Birla even not the Dalai Lama realised that the Tibetan leader’s exile would last so long, as there was a palpable sense and speculation that he would return to Tibet “in a few years”. Indeed, his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama had been in temporary exile in India several times in the early 19th century.

Shantanu Sarkar, a Landour-based environmentalist and history buff, says, “The Dalai Lama has revealed to interviewers that he was quite content in the well-named Happy Valley, and had never heard of Dharamsala when he was asked to move there in 1960. He moved to McLeodganj out of gratitude to the Indian government. In doing so, he made the obscure and tiny hill station of McLeodganj as the most famous hill station in entire Asia, now that the former colonial summer capital of Shimla had faded from the minds of the international community.”

Intelligence inputs took him to McLeodganj 

It is believed that the Dalai Lama was shifted from Mussoorie to McLeodganj following intelligence reports of international premier secret service agencies and that of India that the Dalai Lama was vulnerable to assassination threats in Mussoorie. The Tibetan government in exile was also aware of death threats, believe historians. The Dalai Lama still has Z-plus security. Happy Valley was not considered safe for the Dalai Lama as it could be approached from all four sides by road or by walking trails.  Tourism in the town made monitoring of outsiders difficult.  Hence, McLeodganj was chosen as it was far more defensible and can be approached only through a solitary steep road from Lower Dharamsala.  The forbidding, steep-sloped Dhauladhars to the rear made access hard from all other sides.  McLeodganj was under the Army control, as was the approach road, and there was virtually zero tourism.  It was among the sleepiest of India’s hill stations, though in the recent decades it has hosted everyone from Richard Gere to Desmond Tutu to John Major.  Mussoorie’s loss has been Dharamsala’s gain.


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