“When the iron bird flies over us, and horses have wheels instead of
hooves, we Tibetans will be scattered all over the world.” -Milarepa, 9th century saint and poet
KATHMANDU, DHARAMSALA – Thubten wants to have his leech bites treated. He is waiting at the medical office of a temporary camp for Tibetan refugees in Katmandu. The
14-year-old pulls a photograph from his pocket: In it, he is standing
knee-deep in snow, his arms raised in a gesture of victory. He points to
the right side of the picture: “Tibet,” he says. Pointing to the left,
he says, “Nepal.”
A few days earlier, Thubten crossed the Himalayas and thus joined about
130,000 of his countrymen who prefer freedom in a foreign country to
slavery in their own. More than 100,000 Tibetans who now live in India,
20,000 in Nepal, and the rest on Bhutan and in the West.
In 1949, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army decided to deprive the
Tibetans of the quiet life they had been leading. Since then, various
international organizations have cited the drastic abuses of human
rights in Tibet under Chinese occupation and the systematic destruction
of the Tibetan cultural heritage. At present, there is a Chinese
majority in Tibet.
“Tibet is dying,” say those who have just escaped from Chinese
“Tibet lives,” maintain those who escaped years earlier. “It lives in
Nepal, Bhutan, and most of all, India.”
The muddy square in front of the infirmary is crowded. Cupas (Tibetan
dresses), monastic garb and Chinese undershirts. There is a flash of
gold teeth. The people excitedly form a line in front of the cashier.
Money from the office of the United Nations’ High Commissioner for
Refugees will make it possible for them to reach Dharmshala in India –
the Tibetan emigre capital. Departure is scheduled in an hour.
In 1959, after a rebellion against the Chinese failed, the 14th Dalai
Lama secretly left Lhasa and went to India. By his departure, he showed
the direction and method of escape: to the south, over snowy paths and
through the passes of the Himalayas. Every day, hundreds of refugees
crossed the border. They snuck out, pretending that they were gathering
kindling or paying a visit to a nearby monastery.
The refugees still travel by night, when the snow is hardened by the
cold. They sleep during the day. Everyone carries a bundle with food and
trinkets for trading. Their basic food is barley flour, mixed with water
from a stream. When the food runs out, their only hope is whatever they
can beg from a passing peasant. But some of these peasants show them
knives instead of flour, and sometimes the refugees’ savings fall victim
Nepal is afraid to admit that it is helping the refugees. It is a small
country wedged between two Asiastic giants – India and China.
Nevertheless, the Nepalese authorities allow a large number of Tibetans
to stay in their country.
If the Tibetans are grateful to Nepal, what must be their feelings about
India? Granting asylum to 100,000 people and generously giving them land
and money – despite India’s own economic difficulties – would be hard to
place in the category of simple hospitality. The refugees are granted
more freedoms in India than those enjoyed by citizens of many
In 1959, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru did not have the
slightest desire to have disagreements with China over Tibet.
Nevertheless, he took in the refugees. Their first camps were located in
the jungle, but the extreme heat was hard on people who had come down
from the mountains. Diseases unknown in Tibet – choleria, malaria,
tuberculosis – spread like wildfire. The Dalai Lama asked the Indian
government to move the refugees to better conditions. The decision came
– they would work on building mountain roads.
Pasang Tashi worked five years in road building. “It was not easy.
Avalanches, sickness, accidents with dynamite, along with a change in
our way of life and separation from our loved ones. But we were happy
that we could support ourselves,” he says. Everyone worked: men, women,
and even children when they were strong enough to life stone.
Since then, the Tibetan refugees have moved into new, permanent
settlements formed with the help of the Indian government and
international organizations. Former soldiers, monks, and shepherds
exchanged their yaks for tractors and their pickaxes for hoes. Although
everyone was given the use of one acre of land in his own name, the land
is tilled together. The collective decides about the purchase of grain
for sowing, fertilizer, machinery, and credits to be taken; it decides
when to sell the harvest. For a modest fee, its members can rent a
tractor or get a low-interest loan.
At first, the exile government had two goals: to help the refugees adapt
to their new conditions and to restore Tibet’s independence. Soon a
third appeared: to preserve Tibetan culture.
Many Tibetan parents part from their children and send them to India so
the children will get an education. “If I lived in Tibet, I am not sure
that I would send my children to India,” says Tsering Lhamo, a nurse.
“Parents do not realize the pain these children go through. I see it up
close. In winter there are often incidents of such terrible frostbite
that their arms or legs have to be amputated. Some of the babies die on
In Dharmshala, new school-age refugees end up in an orphanage called the
Tibetan Children’s Village, which has several branches throughout India.
Each of its 10,000 children receives something they could not possibly
get in Tibet – a Tibetan education. They also get a metal bed and a
communal “mommy” to supply them with family warmth.
The government in exile devotes half of its budget to education.
Nevertheless, since there was no universal education in Tibet, to this
day six out of 10 emigrants cannot read or write. The Tibetan school
follows the curriculum of Indian schools, but the Tibetans can take
extra courses to learn about their own history, culture, religion, and
The town of Sarnath, where Buddha preached his first sermon, now boasts
the first college devoted entirely to Tibetan culture – the Institute of
Advanced Tibetan Studies. This is where the idea of the “independence
movement” was born, aimed not so much at Tibet’s independence, but
rather at forming an economically strong emigre community. For some, the
goal has been largely achieved.
Today, for example, Pasang Tashi is no longer a nomad, nor is he
building roads. He is a businessman. In Dharmshala, he owns a grocery
store, a cafe, and three craft shops.
But few Tibetan emigres can be called rich. A visitor from far-off
lands, deceived by the Tibetans’ traditional hospitality, may fail to
notice their slender means. On every occasion he will be offered a cup
of tea and a plate of crisp cookies. There is, however, a shortage of
toilets, drinking water, and heating at the settlements. Tuberculosis is
common. But no one complains. “Recognize the insignificance of these
things,” teaches Buddha.
Our hostess fills a row of silver bowls with water, pours melted butter
into a chalice, and lights the lamp wick. “We burn only one lamp because
we are poor,” she says. She and her husband earn $35 a month, on which
they must support themselves and two children. They live in one small
room. The kitchen is a dark cubbyhole with a pail. There is no running
But they have an altar – a must in the home of evry Tibetan. The piece
of furniture is two yards long and reaches from the floor to the
ceiling. The sandalwood is covered with delicately carved Buddhist gods.
Behind the glass door sits a baby-sized Buddha surrounded by four
smaller figures, all glittering with gold. The altar cost $1,175 – the
family income for almost three years.
It must be added that the material situation of the average Tibetan does
not look so bad when compared with Indian poverty. Sometimes this
provokes jealousy. There were violent outbreaks recently at one of the
settlements in southern India. The local newspaper laid the groundwork
for the unrest when it printed an article entitled, The Dalai Lama Must
Go. The spark for the outbreak was provided by a hot-headed monk who
stabbed and wounded four Indian peasants.
Any point of contact between two different cultures is a breeding ground
for such conflicts. The situation here is even more complicated. There
are three cultures: the Tibetan, the Indian, and the British. India
passes on to the Tibetans what it has learned from the West. And some
emigres complain that the young people copy Western clothes and
hairstyles and are losing their Tibetan identity.
Tensing is 19, sports a leather jacket and a motorcycle, and considers
himself a patriot. “Those who speak about a lack of Tibetan identity no
longer wear sheepskins and eat raw meat themselves. The world is
changing; we are not living in the Skansen Museum,” he says.
Tensing does not speak about the situation in Tibet with his friends,
but about sports, movies, and music. He watches television and uses the
language of the Indian soap opera stars, mixing Tibetan with English and
Hindi words. Lighting a Camel, he admits that he would like to live in
the United States: “It is better to be a refugee in a rich country than
in a poor one.”
“Perhaps in our previous lives most of us Tibetans did a lot of bad
things, and now we all have to suffer,” says monk Saldem Kunga. “We have
lost our country, our enemies have destroyed our homes, and we are
suffering in exile.” Kunga is the secretary of the Namgyal monastery in
Dharmshala, one of 200 that the refugees have managed to reconstruct in
India and Nepal.
“Many people bow, circle the stupa, recite the mantras,” says Kunga.
“But I don’t know if they are religious, because I don’t know what they
feel inside. Religiousness in Buddhism means a purity of heart. It is a
question of love, gentleness, and compassion.”
Pasang Tashi handles the beads of his wooden rosary. “All my life I
hoped that in two or three years Tibet would be free. Now I pray that my
children should live to see it,” he says. And if that happens, Tashi
says, “We’ll go back immediately. We are all sitting on our suitcases
here. There will be a new, better Tibet. It will be educated,
democratic, open to the world. Without violence or atomic weapons. It
will respect the natural environment and human rights. It will be free
of the faults that enabled China to conquer us.”
World Press Review, July 3-4, 1998