Between worlds: 60 years of the Tibetan community in India

By Vidya Vankat  June 20, 2018
Sitting in Dekchang’s Koko Restaurant in Majnu ka Tilla, a Tibetan resettlement colony, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the middle of New Delhi. Everything about the place evokes nostalgia for a lost homeland, from the serene Buddhist chant playing to the walls adorned with paintings capturing everyday scenes from rural Tibet — middle-aged men and women bent over their barley fields, Tibetan prayer flags fluttering atop a temple pagoda flanked by tall mountains — except that, as its Tibetan owner says nonchalantly, “I have never seen Tibet…”

Tenzin Choden, the restaurant’s owner, like most other second and third generation Tibetans in India, was born and raised in one of the refugee camps here, Doeguling, in Mundgod near Hubli in Karnataka. “Every time I hear stories of Tibet from my parents, of their carefree, self-sufficient life there, I feel the urge to return, but I know it’s not safe anymore,” he says. Choden arrived at the Delhi colony five years ago to start this restaurant. “Surviving in the city is not easy, rent is high and the business is competitive, but I’m scraping through somehow.”

Sixty years ago, when Tibetan refugees started arriving in India after the Chinese invasion, they came literally empty-handed. In his autobiography, Freedom in Exile, the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso recalls those early days, when in the sweltering heat of the Indian plains where the Tibetans had camped as refugees, many toiled as daily wage labourers in road-laying and construction sites to make ends meet, and many died. Today, the estimated 150,000 Tibetans in exile across India have come a long way, rebuilding their lives from scratch.
Karten Tsering, president of the Majnu ka Tilla Residents Welfare Association, chuckles: “I am more Indian now than Tibetan I have a ration card, I vote, I even have an Aadhaar card.” The yet-unauthorised colony has 362 registered houses and a mobile population of 4,000 Tibetans. They come from other camps across India for jobs in Delhi.
“My own children who are studying abroad now talk about returning to this colony to convert it into something like London’s Chinatown, a mini-Tibet in the middle of Delhi,” he says. Does he ever think of going back? Tsering is realistic, “There are no facilities for our people to develop there; it’s also become dangerous due to government repression. In fact, people in Tibet have been sending their children to India for decades now in the hope of a better life here.”

Gratitude for their new land reflects in the board that hangs outside the small Buddhist temple right next to the office of the Association, which announces that in the holy month of Saka Dawa starting May 16 (which falls in the fourth month of the Tibetan calendar and is believed to be the time when the Buddha attained enlightenment) the Tibetans in Delhi are praying for the wellbeing of India and its people.
Travelling through the hilly suburb of McLeod Ganj in Dharamsala, an overnight bus ride away from Delhi, one gets the feeling that Tibetans are caught in a time warp. The town is the base of the Tibetan government-in-exile and the office of the spiritual head of the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama, functions out of here.
On a Wednesday morning in late May, at the temple of the Dalai Lama in the Tsuglagkhang complex here, rows and rows of monks sit chanting in unison a prayer to the Buddha of medicine — Menla — asking for the good health of all the people in the world. Many local Tibetans sit around, prayer wheel in hand, joining in the chanting.
A woman worshipper says that at the end of the ceremony, Tibetan medicinal balls will be distributed to everyone and it will cure them of all illnesses. “Does it actually work,” I ask. “If you believe in it, it will,” is her reply.
To the uninitiated such practices may seem like mumbo jumbo, but a small museum at Men-Tsee-Khang, the Tibetan Medical and Astroscience Institute in Dharamsala, seeks to establish the scientific basis of Tibetan medicine. Kelsang Choden, curator of the museum, explains how the medicines — made from herbs sourced from the high-altitude Himalayas and from minerals extracted from rocks such as lapis lazuli — have been proven to cure a wide range of illnesses.
The astroscience, however, is more metaphysical in nature. The Tibetans believe that spirit beings — Nechung (oracle) and Palden Lhamo — act through a human medium, who communicates their predictions in a state of trance. Most Tibetans consult such an astrologer for all auspicious occasions from marriage to starting a new business, as an astrologer at the institute explains.
At the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, over 10,000 manuscripts from the Buddhist religious text Tripitaka have been preserved for posterity. Lobsang Kelsang, a staff member, says some of the wooden manuscripts here date back to 6 CE. “When the Chinese invaded Tibet, the monks feared that these precious manuscripts may be destroyed by them, so the Dalai Lama and his staff brought them to India for safekeeping,” he explains. The museum has murals from now-demolished monasteries in Tibet compiled into a massive book titled Murals of Tibet, by American photographer Thomas Laird.
Education has been another major way to preserve Buddhist cultural values. At the Tibetan Children’s Village in Upper Dharamsala, the principal, Ngawang Lhamo, says the students are taught regular school subjects alongside Buddhist value education. “One whole period is dedicated to teaching secular ethics and human values of love, kindness and compassion.” The non-profit residential school, which originally started in 1960 with 50 children picked up from refugee camps by Tsering Dolma, the 14th Dalai Lama’s older sister, today has 8,000 children across the country in various branches.
“We are preparing our children so that one day when we finally return to Tibet, they will be ready to take over social and administrative responsibilities,” says Lhamo. And how soon does she think that day will come? “Even India took 200 years to attain freedom, didn’t it,” she says.
While many ordinary Tibetans dream of a ‘Free Tibet,’ the official position is one of autonomy for Tibet while remaining within the People’s Republic of China.Lobsang Sangay, 49, is the President of the Tibetan government-in-exile, a Harvard law graduate who has initiated the Five-Fifty Policy that aims to push for genuine autonomy for Tibet within the framework of the Chinese Constitution in the next five years. “If repression of our people ends, we will not seek political separation from China. For that we need to have a dialogue with the Chinese government. At the same time we need a 50-year plan so that we know how to deal with the situation if we don’t gain autonomy soon enough,” he says.
The long-term strategy of the government-in-exile is to maintain political solidarity with their compatriots inside Tibet, while continuing to seek external support from sympathetic nations. “Monks and nuns have come forward to resist the systematic destruction of monasteries in Tibet. There have also been several cases of self-immolation by young Tibetans [agitating] for freedom from Chinese rule,” says Sangay. The Tibetan museum inside the Tsuglagkhang complex commemorates 152 Tibetans who self-immolated in the past several years. “The fact that they are doing this shows their determination and desperation for a better life. Even after 60 years, the Tibetans’ sense of patriotism and longing for the return of the Dalai Lama has not declined,” he says.
However, seeking solidarity from other countries for their cause hasn’t been easy. “I have faced a lot of hostility from representatives of the Chinese government during my foreign tours. My talks have been cancelled and I have faced protests on several occasions,” he says.
Many young Tibetans are convinced that the ‘middle way’ of seeking autonomy within China is not going to bring justice. Some young activists have come together since 2012 to organise the Rangzen (freedom) Conference to arrive at a consensus on how to steer the movement for an independent Tibet.
When I am in Dharamsala, the fifth Rangzen Conference is organised, and Tibetan poet-activist Tenzin Tsundue, speaking on its sidelines, says the effort is to not only push for a Free Tibet but to also help the local community assume political responsibility for liberation, which so far was handled by the office of the Dalai Lama.
“We have been projected as rebels, who are opposed to the political position endorsed by the government-in-exile and the office of the Dalai Lama, but all we are doing is offering a different approach,” he says.
The Rangzen Conference is also aligned with the anti-globalisation movement because, as Tsundue explains, China’s takeover of Tibet ought to be seen from the lens of globally prevalent exploitation of resource-rich countries. He cites the example of Tibet being mined rampantly for lithium to manufacture cell phone batteries in China.
Passang Dolma studies history at Ramjas College in New Delhi, and is here to participate in the Conference. He says: “Though I was born and brought up in India, I know I don’t belong here. Like how you say with pride ‘I’m an Indian,’ I too await the day when I can represent my country and say with pride ‘I’m Tibetan’.”

NOTE: The above article is originally published on The Hindu.

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