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Recreating Tibet Outside: Early Years of the Refugee Community

A photo journal of the early years of the Tibetan community in India, Nepal and Bhutan exhorts fresh generations of Tibetan exiles to sustain their legacy

books Updated: Jun 23, 2017 19:06 IST
Thubten Samphel
The Dalai Lama at the official reception in Bomdila, Arunachal Pradesh. He is flanked by PN Menon (former Consul-General of India in Lhasa from 1954-1956) and Sonam Topgay Kazi (who served as the Interpreter for the Indian Mission in Tibet from 1949 to 1955), who were sent by the government of India to receive him.
The Dalai Lama at the official reception in Bomdila, Arunachal Pradesh. He is flanked by PN Menon (former Consul-General of India in Lhasa from 1954-1956) and Sonam Topgay Kazi (who served as the Interpreter for the Indian Mission in Tibet from 1949 to 1955), who were sent by the government of India to receive him. (Courtesy Exile)

Going through the pages of Exile, one is amazed by the generosity of India and how this generosity has enabled the Tibetan refugees to re-construct Tibet outside of Tibet. Lobsang Gyatso Sither, the compiler and editor of the photo journal, focuses on four key efforts of the Tibetan refugees in the re-construction of their community in exile. These efforts include the rehabilitation of the refugees in farming settlements, education of the refugee children, strengthening the exile administration and resurrecting the core elements of Tibet’s cultural heritage.

The early years were the most challenging. Many escaping Tibetans dropped like flies while negotiating the treacherous Himalayan passes. They also succumbed to malnutrition, tuberculosis, and the searing heat. Those who successfully escaped Tibet and safely landed in India felt they had not crossed one country to another but had left the medieval world of old Tibet behind and emerged in the bewildering complexity of the modern world. To them everything was new and strange except the selfsame earth and sky.

The escape routes of Tibetans covered the whole of northern India from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, Nepal and Bhutan. We are told that those Tibetans living in south-eastern Tibet adjoining Yunnan escaped to Burma. In all some 87,000 Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959 and the following years and found sanctuary in Nepal, Bhutan and India. The answer to how the Tibetan refugees scattered across this vast swathe of land was bound together into a cohesive community lies in the inspirational leadership provided by the Dalai Lama and their own tenacity and the hospitality of the governments of India, Nepal and Bhutan. In those days the Dalai Lama re-energized the exile community by providing them with the rallying cry: hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

20 years later, the Tibetan refugees were able to successfully re-establish themselves in exile. With the active assistance of the host governments and guided by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan refugees established separate schools for their children and build compact farming settlements serviced by hospitals and health clinics. The refugees re-constructed in exile monasteries destroyed in Tibet to educate and train future spiritual masters, the torch bearers of Tibet’s cultural heritage. The Central University of Tibetan Studies, based in Sarnath, educate young Tibetan scholars in Buddhist philosophy and sciences. The traditional Tibetan medical system nurtured in exile has a world-wide clientele. In the 1980s, the Tibetan carpet industry started by Tibetan refugees generated more income and employed more workers for Nepal than the country’s own tourism.

Tibetans at Missamari Transit Camp, 1959 (Courtesy Exile)

Having guided his community to establish itself firmly in exile, the Dalai Lama travelled outside India to engage the world on Tibet. The reach and the diversity of the Dalai Lama’s, and by default the Central Tibetan Administration’s, engagement with the world was at its peak truly astonishing. Even before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Dalai Lama was the guiding light in some unique international institutions like the Allied Committee that brought Mongols from Inner Mongolia, Manchus, Uighurs and Tibetans to make common cause. The Unrepresented People’s Organisation (UNPO) brought together people without a seat in the UN to create an international platform to speak up for their collective rights. The Tibet Support Groups, the worldwide Tibet movement, remain the most sustained non-violent movement in the world. All the while, the Dalai Lama was engaged with the Chinese government in his efforts to persuade it to formulate a tolerant policy to the Tibetan people. At the same time, he has reached out to Chinese students and scholars to explain to them the Tibetan people’s struggle is neither anti-China nor anti-Chinese but pro-justice. And they have responded with sympathy and support, amplifying Tibetan voice to the Chinese public.

Some of the first Tibetans arriving at Missamari Transit Camp, May-June 1959. (Courtesy Exile)

Little commented on is how the present Dalai Lama has provided and continues to provide spiritual ministry to the traditional parish of the Dalai Lama’s of Tibet. From Mongolia and the republics of Tuva and Buryatia snow-bound deep in the tundra of Siberia to Kalmykia (the only region in Europe where Buddhism is the dominant religion) strung along the Caspian Sea to the whole of the Buddhist Himalayan belt, the Dalai Lama has given guidance, encouragement and hope. In this way, he has sustained Tibet’s Buddhist civilization and made this ancient heritage of India immediate, relevant and critical to how we lead our lives.

Lobsang Gyatso Sither, who has compiled and edited Exile (Courtesy the author)

Exile is a testimony to the generosity of India and how the Tibetan refugees responded to that generosity. Lobsang Jigme Sither’s painstaking re-creation of the early days of the Tibetan refugees is a timely reminder to the new generation of Tibetans born in exile the hard work and dedication that their parents and grandparents put in to create a productive and cohesive community. Exile, in moving photos and concise text, is a wake-up call that this legacy is not to be frittered away. It is an exhortation to fresh generations of Tibetan exiles that this legacy must be sustained with the same energy and hard work of the first generation of Tibetan refugees.

Read more: Book review: The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong is gripping

Thubten Samphel is the director of the Tibet Policy Institute and author of Falling Through the Roof