Friday, February 24, 2006

Dharamsala Mesh -- This article first appeared in .net Issue 145 - January 2006

Setting up the Dharamsala mesh was a feat of technology, innovation and endurance. Oxblood Ruffin gives a personal account of his experiences of working on this mission to provide communication for a community of Tibetans exiled since 1959.

Death trap taxis, ochre-robed mendicants, Silicon Valley pilgrims, cows running interference – these are just a few of the elements of Dharamsala, India. I have returned to this strange and wonderful place after my first introduction to it just over six months ago.

It’s difficult to describe the colliding congruity, as contradictory as that might sound, of the Dharamsala region. There are many different religious groups and cultures that somehow manage to live well together, added to which, there is a constant stream of international travellers passing through.

Yet somehow, things run smoothly. This is mainly due, I believe, to the Indian spirit of tolerance and generosity. And, I think, in no small measure because of the influence of one man – Tenzin Gyatso, the present and fourteenth Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama, or His Holiness, as he is more frequently referred to, has been living in Dharamsala since 1959. He fled here with his retinue and, over time, over one hundred thousand of his fellow countrymen after Tibet was invaded and occupied by the People’s Republic of China.

From ‘Little Lhasa’ as many call this Tibetan enclave in India, His Holiness presides over the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGiE) and provides spiritual guidance to his community and the wider world.

When he isn’t travelling his days are filled with receiving a steady stream of dignitaries and ordinary folk. Last week, I had breakfast with the former President of El Salvador who had come for an audience, and the day before Jet Li had visited to pay his respects.

These kinds of things have become quite ordinary up here.The Tibetan political struggle plays out in Dharamsala along with the normal requirements of daily life. Schools and hospitals have been built to deal with the influx of refugees over the years, and in spite of high unemployment, there is a lot of creative industry and most people manage to get by; some even prosper.

Small, small world

What was once far and foreign has come crashing into this distant place, mostly through television and increasingly, these days, over the internet. Yet, as small as the world seems to have become, it still takes some doing for digital information to get here.

This is very difficult and mountainous terrain that is not densely populated. The high cost of infrastructure development guarantees that true broadband will never arrive here.

Not just here, the same challenges face all of rural India, as well. Fortunately there is a local movement afoot to defy the odds and stack them in favour of the locals. It’s called the Dharamsala Community Wireless Mesh Project.

Wireless mesh networks have become quite popular in the UK, North America, Europe, and Japan. Essentially wireless mesh networking is implemented over a wireless LAN. This kind of internet infrastructure is decentralised, inexpensive to deploy and quite reliable.

They're also quite flexible since each node in the network has only to transmit data to the next node. The nodes act as repeaters and pass along data like a controlled rugby team. If one node drops out, then another is able to pick up the signal and passes it along until it reaches its final destination.

As a result, mesh networks can cover large distances and are well suited to difficult terrain, especially the mountains that surround Dharamsala, which act as natural towers, far better than the excrescent eyesores that local telcos might puts up elsewhere.

The mesh project

Yahel Ben-David, an Israeli ex-pat who has been living in the region for the past eight years, leads the Dharamsala mesh project. This venture forms a unique intersection of many of his interests: computers, ham radio, networking, security, and climbing.

His previous career, which includes working as a CTO for a large and profitable Linux service organisation, taught him how to throw together secure networks on the fly. Looking for new adventures he travelled to Dharamsala to visit an Israeli friend who had come to India to study philosophy.

Soon he was hooked and moved here with his wife. From then until now Yahel has been volunteering his technical know-how to the TGiE and local, non-government organisations (NGOs).

In 2001 he began his quest to bring better connectivity to the region. Radio networks appeared to be the best solution for network development, but the cost of licensed solutions was prohibitive. Add the fact that Wi-Finetworks were illegal in India until August 2004 – and then only became legal indoors – and the problems begin to mount up.

Putting his past experience in ham radio networks into play, Yahel began looking at every kind of access point and router technology he could find. He knew that cost would be a factor, and began looking at, and tearing apart, every kind of SOHO (small office/home office) networking device he could get his hands on that ran Linux.

At the time Wi-Fiwas so illegal that even wireless enabled laptops brought into India could get their owner arrested. So Yahel returned frequently to Israel for all of his development and testing, and finally on 28 January, 2005, India joined the more enlightened legislators in the world.

It deregulated a small radio band that allowed ‘any person to establish, maintain, work, possess or deal in any wireless equipment, on non-interference, non-protection and shared (non-exclusive) basis, in the frequency [deregulated] band’.

The next day Yahel was able to put up the first node of the Dharamsala Community Wireless Mesh Network. Over the next eight months many test nodes were attached to trees, fastened to roof top railings on restaurants, TGiE buildings and NGOs, and very tall poles that Yahel took great delight in climbing. The testing was always rigorous because it had to be. On top of the difficult terrain, the weather can wreak havoc on any technology that isn’t built to take a beating.

And, of course, there are the monkeys. Like some of their human cousins, they really enjoy tearing apart new things that show up in their environment because they don’t understand them. Although very unique hardware was constructed to meet the challenges of the environment, the most demanding work was in the software that ran it all.

802.11 protocols were tweaked for collision avoidance and hidden node problems, and state-of-the-art bandwidth management and security policies, among other attributes, were implemented to give as much control over the mesh as possible.

On 4 October, 2005, the Dharamsala Community Mesh Network was launched. The planning and enterprise doesn't stop there, however, as there is still the matter of its future development to consider.Word spreadsUntil recently only the local geeks knew about the mesh since they were involved in its development. Now that it has been officially launched, however, and has made the national media in India, there is increasing local demand to join the network.

Since there are only so many poles that Yahel can climb himself, he’s partnered the project with Upper TCV, a Tibetan educational institution, to form a non-profit technical centre for training IT experts to build and install more network nodes. Fortunately the scalability issues (ie the way the mesh will develop as demand for it increases) that plague networks in places like New York do not apply here.

The population isn't as dense in the mountains as in Manhattan, nor are there the same problems with ‘noise’. Even when scalability does become an issue, it will be possible to develop multiple, overlapping meshes that don’t interfere with each other. It will all just be part of the cutting-edge possibilities of multi-in, multi-out (MIMO) networking technology.For me there’s always been something very endearing about this project. Some true, technical innovations have taken place in the middle of the Himalayas, driven by modesty and need, and not in the pursuit of profits for yet another predatory IPO.

And the people who will profit most will be the refugee school children, local business people, and the exiled Tibetan community as a whole. If things unfold in the best possible way, the Dharamsala Community Mesh Network will serve as a model for many more community networks to come.

Rural India could be linked with the country's great urban centres and remote regions around the world could finally benefit from the internet. Anything is possible, but one step at a time. At long last things are beginning to happen here in Dharamsala that are making the possibility of broadband connectivity a reality. The foundations have been laid, and there is a whole generation of local talent that could lead the world in wireless innovation.

And why not? This is a place where strange things happen and interesting people converge.

Only in Dharamsala could local Hindu merchants throw a party celebrating Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, for the legions of Israeli tourists. In the first two-week period I was here I experienced my first earthquake, went to a Tibetan music festival, and met an amazing array of local folks and visitors from just about every corner of the world.

India is a real masala. In the midst of it all is this unbelievable mesh: visitors suddenly find themselves in the middle of nowhere, but it doesn’t matter because computers and networks can move things along at a breakneck speed.

Just as I was thinking this I took a break from installing some encryption software in the Dalai Lama’s private office. I looked outside into the courtyard to see an elderly monk having his head shaved by a young man. Some things change, others are timeless.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

HHDL Keen on Talks with China

By Peter Foster, South Asia Correspondent -- Feb 11, 2006

Hopes for warmer relations between China and the Dalai Lama have been raised by news that 200 Chinese nationals attended a prayer meeting in India with the exiled Tibetan ruler.

Tibet's government-in-exile, based in the Indian hilltown of Dharamsala, confirmed yesterday that China had issued a growing number of visas to ethnic Chinese and Tibetans over the last two to three years.

Since 2002 representatives from Beijing and the Dalai Lama have held four meetings as part of a slow-moving process of rapprochement. A fifth meeting is expected later this year.

"We're very encouraged to see more and more Chinese coming to India to make pilgrimage to Buddhist sites and explore their growing interest in Buddhist spirituality," said the Dalai Lama's secretary, Tenzing Takla.

It is also estimated that 10,000 Tibetans attended the Kalachakra, an initiation for Buddhists in Amravati, south India, last month.

Officials in Dharamsala stopped short of describing the numbers of Chinese visitors as a breakthrough but agreed it was encouraging.

The Dalai Lama was forced into exile in India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Communist rule, imposed in 1950 after a Chinese invasion. Visa restrictions for Chinese nationals wanting to visit India were lifted in 2003.

Despite that, the majority of Tibetans loyal to the Dalai Lama, instead of Beijing, continue to be denied passports. Last November the Dalai Lama said talks with Beijing so far had done little to ease a "very repressive" atmosphere in Tibet.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Chinese Lawyer Bravely Hits Out at Regime

Defiant human rights activist Gao Zhisheng warns that Europe must not 'honeymoon' with a state that murders millions

Sunday January 29, 2006 -- The Observer.

France, Germany and other states that have coddled up to the Communist dictatorship in Beijing will one day have to answer to the Chinese people, one of the country's leading civil rights activist has told The Observer.

Gao Zhisheng, a firebrand lawyer who has defended hundreds of victims of torture and persecution, said the Communist party was responsible for more deaths than the Nazis, but Western governments turned a blind eye because they were desperate to trade with the world's fastest growing economy.

"When the Nazis slaughtered Jews, the outside world condemned them," he said. "But the Communist party has taken the lives of 80 million people, 13 times more than the death toll among the Jews, yet the world says nothing."

Gao's comments are particularly remarkable because he still lives inBeijing, where he is vulnerable to retribution. He says his phone is bugged, his 12-year-old daughter is followed to school and more than 30 agents monitor his every move.

Last month, his law firm's licence was revoked and last week he was warned he faces arrest. Ten days ago an unmarked car attempted to run him down. But he is defiant.

Already one of the most prominent lawyers of his generation, Gao, 41 has taken a public stand - via the internet - in favour of the most oppressed groups in China: democracy campaigners, victims of religious persecution, mine accident widows and peasants who have had their land seized by the authorities: "The Communist party has done too many evil and cruel things. So I must fight them."

His office is a small, sparsely furnished flat in a giant residential complex in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, a familiar location to those in China with a cause or burning sense of injustice. So many come to him that the guards on the gate need no prompting to direct strangers to "that lawyer".

It is below zero outside, but Gao says that does not put off his state security minders. What does make them flinch is his video camera.

"They bug me, but I don't care. They are the ones who are afraid of exposure. When I point this camera at them, they try to conceal their faces. They know one day they will be called to account."

Turning his enemies' weapons against them is a typical Gao tactic, as is pushing a situation to its limits. Last year, he went to investigate the government's confiscation of private oil wells in Shaanxi province. On the way, he heard the authorities were waiting to detain him, so he drove to the police station and confronted the commanding officer.

"I told him I had saved him a lot of bother so the least he could do is pay for my transport costs," he says. "He reimbursed me my car rental fee and arranged for a police car to drive me home."

His visits to China's provincial badlands do not usually end on such a light note. Last month, Gao slipped his minders to investigate claims of police torture and sexual abuse in Changchun, the provincial capital of Jilin.

The alleged victims were practioners of Falun Gong - deemed by the state an illegal religious organisation. By the time, he arrived, Gao said many were already dead.

"A mother and son died in police custody within 10 days of each other," he says. "Police told the boy's father he had committed suicide by jumping from a window, but they wouldn't let him see the scene of death or the body. They still have the corpse more than a month later. It is disgraceful."

He has written a series of open letters to Chinese president Hu Jintao and the prime minister, Wen Jiabao. "I advised them to leave the Communist party. It is not capable of reform. History teaches us that no dictatorship can last forever. One day, those with blood on their hands will face apeople's trial."

His grim analysis has a lot more takers now than in 2003, the year Hu and Wen took power amid hopes of reforms to bring the political system in line with the dramatic changes in the economy. But if anything, the crackdown on liberals, journalists, internet dissidents and lawyers has intensified since.

Many in the outside world argue that political liberalisation will follow automatically with increased affluence. One is Tony Blair, who said there was 'unstoppable momentum' towards greater political freedom.

Gao said such an argument was just an excuse for the west to trade with a human rights violator. But he reserved his fiercest criticism for the two European countries that have done most to build close relations with Beijing: "Many Chinese people think the governments of France and Germany are as terrible as ours. They are only acting in their self-interest and making a fortune out of the misery of the Chinese people. There will be a price to pay one day for the so-called civilised foreign governments who are honeymooning with the Communist party. I want people in the ouside world to understand the situation in China. We face a party with millions of troops. I have dozens of plainclothes police around my home. It is hard to use words like understanding and forgiveness with them."

The fact that Gao is still free is perhaps the government's best defence against the lawyer's most strident accusations. Twenty years ago, such an anti-government tirade would have quickly resulted in imprisonment or death.

Gao believes he has been left at semi-liberty because the authorities are worried about domestic protests and an international outcry if he is arrested.

"They threaten to arrest me and I say, "Go ahead,"' he says. '

"I am a warrior who does not care whether I live or die. Such a sacrifice will be nothing to me if it speeds the death of this dictatorship."

HHDL: Ghandism, Spiritual Growth a Must to Defuse Tension

The Tribune, India -- Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Pathankot, January 30 - The Dalai Lama said unrest and tension was increasing in the world today in the age of information technology and spirituality was the only path to solve modern problems.

Speaking on the occasion of martyrdom day of Mahatma Gandhi here today, the Dalai Lama said while China and India were emerging as two most powerful economic powers in the world, India can learn from China in producing cheapgoods, which were becoming popular globally. Similarly, China could learn to promote spirituality from India.

He said, India should not deviate from its ancient spiritual tradition and continue to practice it with the materialistic progress and development in the 21st century.

He said the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi were more relevant today and more and more people globally were finding his gospels of truth and non-violence more conducive for harmony and peaceful co-existence in the world.

He added that while communism and capitalism models of governments had not been able to live up to the expectations of the people, Gandhism was still relevant for solving today's problems.

Former minister and BJP MP Vinod Khanna said without inner peace there could not be any real progress in the world and the Dalai Lama was one of the most respected religious leader who had been not only instrumental in defusing global tension among the countries.

Students and political leaders thronged Prasthan Ashrama, venue of the congregation.

A Diverse Journey Through Dharamsala

A puffy little travelogue that represents a tourist view of Dhasa as "Disneyworld in the Himalyaya" but i thought worthwhile to republish here . . . see other articles on this blog that talk a little of the exile life many of those in Dhasa are leading. -- mw

By Chiang Mai City Life, Thailand, January 31, 2006

Each year throngs of travellers roam the world in search of answers to the most sacred of questions - questions like, "How can I find happiness?" and"Why are we here?"

Spiritual seekers check out of their normal routines for a while, sometimes for years, in order to investigate life's many mysteries,and with any luck, to attain some level of spiritual enlightenment along the way.

Perhaps the world's most popular destination for such quests is India, to which no trip would be complete without a stay in Dharamsala. Perched on the edge of the great Himalaya Range, the steamy plains of India stretched outbelow, Dharamsala offers an incredibly diverse range of religious and spiritual experiences to be explored.

The hub of everything is the village of McLeod Ganj, a former British military hill station, and now home to spiritual seekers, missionaries, and pilgrims from all over the world. The village itself instills a sense of wonder, stretched out through pineforests, laced with footpaths leading to waterfalls, framed by the snowcapped peaks in the distance.

McLeod is best known for being the location of the exiled Tibetan government and the home of the Dalai Lama. Since his escape from the wrath of Communist China in 1959, thousands of Tibetan refugees have followed the Dalai Lama into India, and still more arrive every day, contributing to the village's rich spiritual energy.

Parts of McLeod have become a 'Little Tibet'. Prayer wheels line the streets, monks in robes roam about, and visitors can attend Buddhist pujas at the residence temple of the Dalai Lama, now the hub of the entire Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

There are a lot of opportunitiesto learn: the Tushita Centre, located in nearby Dharamkot, offers 10-day introductory courses in Buddhism, and at the Tibetan Library as well as several local monasteries, high Tibetan lamas offer lessons and interpretations on the dharma on a daily basis.

Additionally, Dhamma SikharaVipassana Centre offers 10-day meditation courses in the Goenka tradition. Aside from the obvious Buddhist influence in McLeod Ganji, the other major religions of the world are strongly represented here as well. As would be expected inIndia, Hindu presence is evident, and each weekend pilgrims walk through town on their way to visit nearby Bhagsu village's Shiva temple and cold springs.

Dharamsala's close proximity to Kashmir has brought in a sizable population of Islamic practitioners, who own many of the shops in the area, and can be seen bowing down towards Mecca in prayer five times aday. The former British colonisation in the area introduced Christianity to the region, and is still represented at nearby St. John of the Wilderness Church and amongst many European and American tourists visiting the area.

Surprisingly, Judaism is strongly represented in Dharamsala as well. Each year hordes of Israeli holiday-seekers gatherin the surrounding villages to relax and enjoy. In fact, their presence is so strong, that in some areas signs and menus are in Hebrew! Jewish holidays are celebrated in several 'Jewish Houses', staffed by rabbis from Israel.

Apart from major world religions, the real diversity of McLeod'sopportunities begins with the metaphysical and less traditional types of spirituality. The streets are billed with posters advertising all kinds ofexperiences, like past-life regressions, crystal healing, spiritual massage, reiki, pranic healing, soul realisation, tai chi, meditation, and several different types of yoga, taught in the ashrams that dot the surrounding hillsides.

Religious pseudo-sects, such as A Course In Miracles and Jehovah's Witness offer free lectures and informational sessions. Alternative medical practioners have set up shop, including clinics offering acupuncture, Asian bio-energetics, Tibetan medicine, chakra balancing, and Ayurveda.

Certification courses are available in almost everything. Combine all these opportunities with fresh air, gorgeous scenery, and cheap accommodation, and a spiritual mecca for travellers from the all over theworld is established!

Tourist infrastructure in McLeod Ganj and the outlying villages will suit the needs of any traveller. Located 12 hours drive north of Delhi, India's capital city, Dharamsala is served by numerous buses in varying classes, and is accessible by train via a station at Pathankot.

The dining options inMcLeod Ganj are among the best in all of India. Restaurants serve cheap and delicious food from all over the world. From streetside thali to Japanese sushi, popular cuisines from all regions of the world are ready and available - a welcome relief after travelling through other parts of India.

Many travellers spend their evenings chatting about their latest spiritual endeavours over a cup of chai at one of the many stalls lining the streets, such as Sunil's Sunrise Cafe, or even over a beer at McLlo's Beer Bar.

Accommodation options are numerous and varied, ranging from charming Western-style hotels down to dorm rooms with shared cold-water showers, the cheapest starting at 60 rupees (about $1.25 US) a night.

Visitors can choose whether they would like to stay down in the hustle and bustle of the village or if they would rather seek out some solitude in a more isolated spot up above on the ridge. But fear not, no matter what price you pay or where your guesthouse is located, your room is sure to come with an epic view.

Dharamsala is a place where people generally make it their business to be kind and compassionate to one another. It's incredible the diversity that exists in such a small area. And everyone gets along just fine. More than fine, actually. This is a place where strangers make eye contact and smile. A place where people make helping one another a priority. In short - a place full of faith, acceptance, and appreciation.

When you first arrive in Dharamsala, try to not be overwhelmed by the huge range of spiritual opportunities that are available. Rather, spend some time settling down and let the right ones come to you. Truly, atheists aside, there's something for everyone in Dharamsala, and it is near impossible to not learn something new about the nature of yourself and the universe during your stay. But even a non-believer would find comfort in the beautiful energy of the Himalayas on a day's trek to the ridge overhead or in watching sun sink into the dusty plains below.

So if you are looking for a little inspiration, some good conversation, a bit of nature, or an unpredictable journey of spiritual exploration. next stop: Dharamsala!