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Wisdom out of the box

February 3, 2010

Lhendup G Bhutia
DNA India
January 31, 2010

Mumbai -- My grandfather is a distant memory.
Tall, dark-skinned, a little hunched, he spoke
only Tibetan and Nepali. We did not spend much
time with each other, but I still remember that
every morning he woke me up and took me to our chausham (prayer-room).

There I was made to clasp my hands and touch with
my head a wooden box, about four feet by two.
After this little act of obeisance, I was free to
go and play. The day he passed away, he did not
have the strength to come and rouse me from my
sleep. But someone else called me in and made me pay my respects to the box.

And then one day, the box was opened. It
contained a bunch of antiquated papers, all
neatly stacked and without any binding. They
featured writings in Tibetan, with tiny drawings
of people in meditation. It was called Lam remd
(roughly translated as ‘stages to a path’) and
contained prayers (to help attain enlightenment).

Unlike most other Tibetans, my grandfather Abo
Kunga did not come to India in 1959, when the Dalai Lama took refuge in India.

He came as a tradesman in 1945 to Kalimpong,
which was then a small hamlet by a river in what
is now northern West Bengal. He made the journey
sometimes on foot, sometimes on mule, carrying
silverware and wool atop 11 mules, traveling
sometimes for two weeks at a stretch, surviving
on yak cheese, dried meat and tsampa (barley
flour that, with a little warm water, could make
for a quick meal). This 10 day long trip that
sometimes stretched to 14 was undertaken every
month, and the trade was so good, he not only
rented a house and a stable, he even brought my grandmother.

And then in early 1950, China invaded Tibet and they could never return.

When news reached of the invasion, I’m told the
first thing my grandmother prayed for was not her
house in Lhasa, nor her relatives, but for the
book of Lam remd she owned in Tibet. But
relatives who sneaked out of Lhasa brought bad
news: the book had been destroyed in a fire. She
did not cry on hearing that; instead she gathered
enough money to travel to Dharamsala, get a
reprint of an original Lam remd, and seek out the
Dalai Lama to bless it. She died when my father
was only 15, and the book was passed on.

When the Dalai Lama stated last year that a
"cultural genocide" was taking place in China, he
could have as easily been speaking about the
genocide of these Tibetan books. Many of them
were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in
the 1960s when monasteries and libraries were
burnt; some were lost while the Tibetans were
fleeing the marching Chinese, and many more were
simply lost in the march of time.

As a matter of fact, there are ten kinds of
Tibetan books, the more important ones being on
Tibetan medicine, Buddhist religion and
philosophy, architecture, grammar (of Sanskrit
and Tibetan), and translated works of Indian
scholars on Buddhist philosophy, mathematics and
astronomy. Their content is invaluable, as Sonam
Topgyel, assistant librarian at the Library of
Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) in Dharamsala
explains. “Some extremely important Indian works
were lost forever when the Nalanda University was
destroyed by the Turks,” says the librarian of
one of the world’s largest libraries containing
Tibetan books. “But these are still available in
Tibetan translation,” he adds. But these works,
till now preserved in Tibetan, now risk being
lost forever, if not lost already.

There is, however, a significant attempt going on
to find these books and preserve them. At the
forefront of this endeavour is a Mormon from Utah
by the name E Gene Smith. He is a leading
Tibetologist, the founder of the Tibetan Buddhist
Resource Center (TBRC) in New York, and the
subject of a new documentary, Digital Dharma
(that has been directed by veteran television and
documentary filmmaker Dafna Yachin) which is
almost ready for release. The TBRC has more than
a 1, 00,000 Tibetan books, making it the largest
collection of Tibetan literature outside Tibet.

Since 1968, Smith has been travelling across the
world, collecting these books for preservation.
And he has also helped reprint them, so that each
one of these books is now not locked up in some
dingy corner awaiting disintegration, but has a
hundred other copies. This way, he hopes, the
culture of a nation will not become a passing memory.

But of late, he has started a new project:
digitising these books. About 8,000 volumes of
these books, ranging from religion to medicine,
have now been uploaded on the internet. “We
reprinted the books so that more people could
access them. But imagine the reach when you
upload it on the internet!” Smith says.

Along with this project of preserving and
maximizing the reach of these books, Smith is
also busy with what he calls a project of "giving back."

Five years ago, the LTWA in Dharamsala, along
with many other monasteries and libraries in
Chinese-occupied Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, India and
Central Asia received a hard disk, containing 300
GB of different Tibetan prayers. That small hard
disk, no bigger than the size of their fists,
contained, to the utter amazement of many monks,
content that could dwarf many a library. But a
recurrent trouble bothered them. “They didn’t get
strong enough anti-viruses, and the computer kept crashing,” says Smith.

It wasn’t the first time Smith had faced a
problem. When he had first started reprinting
Tibetan books, the Tibetans themselves weren’t
happy. "Tibetan books are not like the ones we
use. They are not bound and are long. The first
set of reprints was like our modern notebooks and
centrally bound, and most did not like this. I
rectified this issue, by simply getting them bound from the top,” adds Smith.

Similarly, he solved the problem of the viruses
too. Since last year, these libraries and
universities, 70 till now, have been receiving
brand-new Apple Macintosh computers that are more
virus-resistant and have a storage capacity of
400 GB. Topgyel of LTWA says, “It is so much
easier to use the Mac to read these texts. We
don’t have to go through large libraries to find the relevant information.”

Widely acknowledged as a saviour of Tibetan
culture and literature, Smith believes his task
is still incomplete. "Several thousands of
Tibetan texts are still lost across continents.
What we have accomplished is nothing more than
retrieving a solitary drop from the ocean,” says Smith.

As for me, my parents discarded a lot of old
belongings when we shifted home a few years ago.
But the book in the box still remains. And I
still clasp my hands and touch my head with it.
Not because it is religious, but because it tells
me who my grandfather was and where he came from.
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