Although I’ve visited India several times, I’ve never been to Dharamshala before. This cramped but beautiful city, which shot to international fame as a community for Tibetans, is home to a cozy new café called Café129. This beautiful establishment is under the stewardship of journalist-turned-restaurateur Yeonsuk Ka, who in the short span of less than three years has carved out a unique space inspired by Indo-Korean friendship and her own ties to India.
Yeonsuk and I first met in 2017, at the 15th Sakyadhita Conference in Hong Kong. I remember getting acquainted with her as a photographer and media professional first, but I did not yet know that she had deep roots with Tibetan Buddhism and India. Born in South Korea to a Buddhist family, Yeonsuk grew up immersed in Buddhist culture and earned an MA in Applied Buddhism at Dongguk University. By the time she had her first encounter with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, she was an experienced journalist and able to bridge contacts between diplomatic bodies and the liaising channels of the Dalai Lama’s office.
It was in 2010 that she had been assigned to cover the Dalai Lama and publish a series of reports while also shooting a documentary with her team. She was granted an audience with the Dalai Lama himself, and her conversations with him and his activities became the content of her news reports. During this time, a deep spiritual bond developed between them, and she became his disciple, receiving the Tibetan name of Tenzin Norgyun.
“Dharamshala is a unique space in the body politic of India, sustained by support from the international community and Buddhist donors. The Dalai Lama always wanted to see how there could be more collaboration between Indians, Koreans, and the Tibetan community,” she says. “Some Korean Buddhists, who had followed His Holiness for many years, and a Korean monk called Ven. Jinok formed the idea of founding a café devoted to the friendship and love between Koreans and Tibetans. Due to my ties to the Dharamshala community, I was asked to spearhead this project and I accepted, mindful that this would be quite an interesting challenge.” Yeonsuk formally began the project in March 2018.
“If you’ve been to Dharamshala before, you’ll notice that there are many cafés and restaurants already. Tibetans and Indians alike love their coffee and public salons. An early challenge from the outset was the question of defining a unique identity for this café, and what could be unique about it,” notes Yeonsuk. A multi-pronged approach was drawn up, starting with a plan that would benefit the local community. “This is where the Cafe129 name came into being, actually. We had been working with the Tibetan Street Vendor Welfare Society, which had just become a legally registered union. We chose to name the café after the number of members of the union, which at the time totalled 129.”
So far, this has been nothing less than a vocation for Yeonsuk, who has invested significant personal time, effort, and money into Café129. She shuttles back and forth between South Korea and India, and is constantly based in Dharamshala as she takes on basically all of the managerial roles that the café depends on her for—from being owner to supervisor of staff.
The café, after all, is not simply a business; it aims to support Tibetan vendors in the city, who depend on tourism and often struggle. Earnings go to the Tibetan Street Vendor Welfare Society. In the Indian government’s eyes, members of the community-in-exile are effectively foreign refugees, even after decades of residence. The vast majority remain legally foreigners with no Indian passport. As such, many of the approximately 150,000 Tibetans living in India hope to return to Tibet someday.
The establishment of Café129 had its share of difficulties. “We spent three months on sorting out the legal documentation for purchasing the space for the café. It’s also important to take into account cultural differences, and we have to be mindful that we are all working toward the same goal,” Yeonsuk tells me.
There have also been advantages, however. “I’m very proud of how Tibetans admire Korean culture. We especially have a good image among young people in Dharamshala,” she says. “Tibetans love K-Pop, they watch K-Drama, and they follow our fashion and cultural trends. So to some degree, I’m hoping that Café129 can share Korean culture in a positive way, through the way Korean food shares a platform with Tibetan and Indian food.”
Recalling the Dalai Lama’s observation that all beings seek happiness, she believes that her unique position at the crossroads of Indo-Tibetan-Korean encounters can help her develop the restaurant as a “middle way point” for people from diverse cultures to nourish both mind and body—since pilgrims to Dharamshala come to listen to the Dalai Lama’s lectures or teachings from other Vajrayana masters.
Her hope is that Café129 can therefore serve as a gastronomic center for cross-cultural friendship, providing a channel for Korean Buddhists who visit Dharamshala and are concerned for the Tibetan diaspora in India. “It’s all about healthy, mindful food, tea, and coffee,” she says happily. “A resting stop for Koreans, Tibetans, and others who want to learn more about each other, and who want to be Dharma friends with one another.”