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Tibetan Odyssey Part II: There's No Place Like Home - But Tibetan Exiles Make Do in Dharamsala
May 20, 2000

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This young man takes a break from spinning prayer wheels to smile for the camera.
How can I even begin to explain to you the magic of Tibet, its culture and people? I hardly grasp the glimpse that I have had. Tibet's history is almost as ancient as the mountains in which their country is nestled, and their culture as rich and diverse as any you could hope to find. Tibet, the Land of Snows, is very well known these days, but the tragedy lies in that their biggest claim to fame is that they are being systematically destroyed.

I am now in Dharamsala, northern India, where the government-in-exile of Tibet is located. How can the government of one country be located in another one? That story is where the sadness begins, about half a century ago.

In 1949, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) invaded Tibet and began their methodical program of destruction and genocide. The tragedy continues today. Back in 1949, Tibet's 8,000-man army was no match for the 40,000 Chinese troops that invaded, and despite international protest, the Chinese occupation of Tibet began.

The next year, 1950, a fifteen-year-old boy named Tenzin Gyatso, but better known to the world as His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, assumed full political authority as Head of State in Tibet. (My next dispatch will introduce you to His Holiness).


nestled - curled up, located
genocide - wholesale destruction, extermination
uprising - revolt, insurrection
irreparably - beyond repair
exorbitant - excessive, outrageous
annihilation - destruction
reverent - solemn, serious

Basically from this time, the Chinese took over Tibet. Since the Chinese have a Communist government that does not allow freedom of religion, they decided to crush the religion that they found in Tibet. Tibet's culture is based on their religion, Tibetan Buddhism. This fact one can easily see from the fact that H.H. the Dalai Lama is not only the political leader of the country, but most importantly, the spiritual leader. (Lama means high spiritual teacher.)

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Tibetan woman and her baby stroll the streets of Dharamsala
The Tibetans had many monasteries and nunneries all over the country, but most of them were closed or destroyed by the Chinese army. In fact, within about ten years of the initial invasion, out of 6,267 monasteries and nunneries in the whole of Tibet, only eight remained undestroyed. Can you imagine the destructive power that would cause this? That's about 98% of all religious institutions devastated.

In 1959, ten years after the PLA arrived in Tibet, the situation became so bad for the Tibetans that they had a small uprising. The PLA crushed the uprising, and killed 87,000 Tibetans in the process. In order to save their lives, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, along with about 80,000 other Tibetans, escaped across the mountains to India.

In time, His Holiness and the Tibetans set up their government in exile near the town of Dharamsala, in northern India. It is the beautiful mountain town from which I am writing. It has snow-covered peaks in the distance, huge valleys with magnificent birds swooping through them, and hills in every direction as far as the eye can see. It is a beautiful place to be exiled. But it is not home. So let's first look at life for Tibetans in Tibet today.

The Chinese occupation of Tibet has resulted in no less than the destruction of Tibet's national independence, seriously compromised the Tibetans' cultural and religious identity, and irreparably harmed the environment. (China disposes its own and other countries' nuclear waste in the mountains of Tibet.) They have completely undermined the basic human rights of its people. The fact that the Chinese government is consistently breaking international laws in their dealings in Tibet doesn't seem to phase them. And so it continues today.

Just what is reincarnation? Reincarnation is a Buddhist belief that we are born and re-born many times. That is, once we finish with this body, and we "die," we are re-born into another body. We are continually born, die, and are born again until we become perfect beings, and then we go to a place called nirvana, which you might think of like Heaven. And when you are re-born, that might be as another person, or even the body of a cat or a dog! His Holiness the Dalai Lama talks about a dog that he once knew, who he is certain was a monk in a former life. "I often thought that he must have been a monk in a previous life, perhaps one of those who died of starvation as many did. I say this because on the one hand he showed no interest in the opposite sex, but on the other, he was most enthusiastic about food: even when he must have been completely full, he could always find room for more. Also, he was extremely loyal to me."

What about the children living in Tibet? Their story is particularly brutal. They have no protected rights to education or health care, and they have no rights to liberty or freedom of expression. What can the Chinese authorities do to the children if they speak out against their situation? Plenty. There are at least twenty-five known juvenile political prisoners in Chinese jails in Tibet. They are kept in adult prisons, denied legal representation, cut off from contact with their families, and forced to do the same hard labor that the adults in prison perform.

The youngest prisoner of conscience is Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. He was six years old when he disappeared from his home in May 1995. This was just days after H.H. the Dalai Lama had proclaimed him as the reincarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama. For one year the Chinese authorities denied that they had the boy, but finally admitted that they were holding him "for his own protection." However, to this day, no government body, concerned organization, or independent observer has been allowed to see the child. China has sustained this particular gross abuse of human rights for more than five years.

Your Turn!!!

How would you feel about being sent into exile, away from your family, to receive an education?

Share your thoughts
and see what others wrote!

What about school? In Tibet, children (or anyone else) do not have the right to learn their own language, history, religion, or culture. Most Tibetan children leave school after a brief period because they cannot afford the exorbitant school fees charged by the Chinese government, and they cannot follow the Chinese language instruction. Ninety percent of the Tibetan children who flee Tibet do so in order to receive a better education abroad.

If you are in or around Manhattan, and would like to learn more about Tibetan culture and people, contact The Tibet House of New York, at 22 West 15th Street, New York, NY 10011. Their telephone number is 212.807.0563. They are very nice and willing to have groups or individuals visit their offices, and can even arrange for speakers to go to your classrooms! They would love to hear from you.

Why would the Chinese government want to repress the Tibetan language? Well, by repressing Tibetan language, culture and history, it seems that they hope to integrate the next generation of Tibetans into China. A people without a language are a people without an identity. As children are the future of any society, Tibet's future promises to be one of loss of identity and annihilation of a culture.

In fact, many Tibetan families in Tibet feel compelled to send their children into exile rather than have them receive no education, or, a Chinese education that will cut them off from their own culture. Therefore, many parents entrust their children to strangers, using their savings to buy them a passage across the mountains, and to freedom in exile. Some are still babies and are carried across the Himalayas on someone's back. In fact, the four-week journey across the mountains is so dangerous that many children die trying to escape, or lose fingers and toes from frostbite. Usually they never see their family again. By 1998, 33% of Tibetan refugees were children, and an astonishing 90% of them arrived without their parents. So why risk their lives?

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Tenzin Takhla, Deputy Secretary to His Holiness, and all around good guy
The obvious advantage to being outside of Tibet is freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to an education and to live as one chooses. Foremost, education is a top priority for Tibetans in exile. In exile 90% of school aged children attend school, as opposed to the 30% in Tibet.

There is so much more to be said for the pathetic conditions for Tibetans in their own country, but let's take a look at the life of Tibetans in exile.

In the forty years since establishing themselves in Dharamsala and many other locations in India and Bhutan, the Tibetans have grieved for those left behind who have suffered systematic abuse from the Chinese occupants. But they are making lives for themselves elsewhere until they can return freely home. There are approximately 134,000 Tibetans living outside of Tibet. 100,000 live in India, 20,000 in Nepal, 8,000 in the USA, 2,000 in Switzerland, and smaller numbers scattered elsewhere throughout the world. To find out more about the lifestyle of Tibetans living in exile, I visited Mr. Tenzin Taklha, the Deputy Secretary to H. H. the Dalai Lama. A handsome man with a pleasant disposition, Mr. Takhla has spent more than half his life in the United States. He is now in charge of the security of H.H. every time he steps out of the gates of their compound. He gave me the low-down on Tibetans in exile.

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larger view
The sweetest thing at the bakery!
H.H.'s Tibetan Government-in-Exile is officially called the "Central Tibetan Administration" (CTA). In 1960 it moved to Dharamsala, where it remains to this day. The CTA spearheads the Tibetan people's struggle to regain their freedom. It functions according to the modern democratic principles of its constitution. This is also known as the Charter of Tibetans in Exile. The charter draws heavily on UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and provides for equality without discrimination. Though H.H. and this body are located in Dharamsala, there are over forty-five settlements of Tibetans in the Indian sub-continent alone, thus the Tibetans find themselves physically divided even though their spirit and community remain impressively together.

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Andrew meets a woman who will give him a whole new wardrobe
Life in Dharamsala is good. H.H. says "the only real drawback to the area is its rainfall, which is the second highest in the Indian sub-continent." The hilltop town is the focus of international attention, and one cannot walk down the narrow streets without seeing people of all ages from all nations. The cafes are filled with people speaking English, Hebrew, Spanish, German, French, Japanese, of course Tibetan, and many other languages. Ninety percent of the residents of Dharamsala are Tibetan, and when one wanders through the streets it feels much less like India than it does what Tibet might be like. Friendly, curious, joyful people make being in Dharamsala all the more rewarding. Monks and nuns with shaven heads are always walking on the streets, in their red or maroon robes. They are not as reverent as you might expect them to be, with their sunglasses, walkmans, DKNY shoes and their Jansport packs on their backs. They are all ages, and from all places. There are many monks and nuns who have come from abroad to study the teachings of the many learned lamas found in the monasteries in and around Dharamsala. It is a wonderful place.

There is so much more to tell you about Tibet and the Tibetans, but please further educate yourselves by checking out the websites I have listed below. As I mentioned, next time I will introduce you to His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. Until then, jela-jeyoung! (Tibetan for "see you later!")


Tibet Government-in-Exile

Department of Information and International Relations

International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet

Tibet Information Network

Tibetan Online Resource Guide (with links to other Tibetan websites)


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Tell Me that You Love Me!
Andrew - Tibetan Odyssey Part I: Honk If You Love Yak Butter Tea
Jasmine - Bundle of Joy... if it's a Boy
Jasmine - Mother, Sister... India
Kavitha - Good For What Ails You
Team - Making a Difference: Beavers Build Them, So Why Shouldn't We?

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