For Tibetans, this is a place of crushed hopes and cherished dreams, a sanctuary far from the Chinese who now rule their homeland and close to their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, himself an exile for 30 years.
High in the Himalayan foothills of north India, with big brown monkeys scampering across slate roofs and shaggy little terriers yapping in muddy streets, Dharmsala is a way station for Tibetan activists who fled from the Chinese, a storehouse of Tibetan culture, a shrine for Buddhist pilgrims and a center for plotting political strategies.Sonam Tobgyal, a 47-year-old man with hard eyes and a network of scars across his thumbs and knuckles, left Tibet six weeks ago because he thought the Chinese were on the verge of arresting him for pro-independence activities.
It was not fear of prison that made him leave, he said, but fear of torture that might cause him to betray others for organizing demonstrations or slipping information to foreign travelers.
"I was getting known by the Chinese. One of my friends was arrested," he said, seated in the sunshine on a rooftop terrace. "I had to escape."
Tobgyal said he knew about torture from the 11 years he had already spent in Chinese prisons in Tibet. Speaking through an interpreter, he said the scars on his hands were the result of beatings with wooden clubs and iron bars and being suspended by his thumbs from the ceiling for 15 minutes to an hour at a time.
He said he was released from prison in 1979 and started peddling from village to village, a job that enabled him to spread news of upcoming anti-Chinese demonstrations.
Dekey is an angelic-faced 2-year-old who hugs strangers exuberantly and demands to be cuddled.
She was brought to Dharmsala from Lhoka, a town in southern Tibet, a year ago by a mother who returned home to the rest of her family and may never see Dekey again.
Dekey is one of 1,449 children between the ages of 5 months and 18 years who live in the stone bungalows at the Tibetan Children's Village on a ridge above Dharmsala. Some are orphans. Others have parents, either in India who for reasons of health or poverty are unable to care for their children, or in Tibet who smuggled them out so they might be raised in the Tibetan culture they say is stifled by China.
The children's village, like so many things in Dharmsala from the Tibet Memory Restaurant to the Dalai Lama's Namgyal Monastery, is dedicated to preserving Tibetan identity and - above all - the struggle for a Tibetan nation.
The Tibetans say they were never part of China, which invaded the Himalayan feudal theocracy in 1950 and annexed it a year later. China maintains Tibet has been an integral part of its territory for centuries.
Three decades ago a Tibetan uprising failed. The Dalai Lama, fearing he would be killed or captured and his people left leaderless, slipped out of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa on March 17, 1959, and fled across the Himalayas to India, where 100,000 Tibetans now live.
He formed a government-in-exile in Dharmsala, home to about 7,000 of his fellow refugees.
In June, he offered China control over Tibet's foreign policy and the right to keep troops on Tibetan soil in exchange for allowing Tibet to become "a self-governing democratic political entity in association with China."
The Chinese rejected the proposal but said they were willing to talk to the Dalai Lama, although formal negotiations have not begun.
It is a measure of Tibetans' faith in the Dalai Lama that many people still believe he will win total freedom for Tibet, although the Buddhist leader has said repeatedly, as he did again in an interview last Thursday: "I am trying to find a middle way. We are not insisting on complete independence."
Nima Assae, a 51-year-old former resistance fighter who was captured by the Chinese in 1961 and imprisoned for nearly two decades, is one of the believers.
"I have full faith that the Dalai Lama will gain our independence. The Chinese will not be able to terminate the Tibetans," he said.