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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Exiles keeping Tibetan identity alive

March 8, 2009

By Eleanor Thomas
BBC Radio 4, Dharamsala
March 6, 2009

Ever since the Dalai Lama fled into India in 1959, Tibetans have been making the same perilous journey by foot over the Himalayas into exile.

Today there is a large Tibetan community in India, many of whom have clear memories of their homeland before the Chinese took control.

One such is Kesang Takla, now minister of information and international relations for the Tibetan Government in Exile (GOE), based in Dharamsala.

"I suppose you could say I was born on the roof of the world - in a small town called Puri, high on the Tibetan plateau," she said.

"I remember annual picnics, festivals and visits to the monasteries, horse-riding; it was very close to nature."

Mrs Takla's father had a shop in Lhasa and he frequently travelled to India for trade. In early 1959, as things became increasingly difficult in Tibet, he brought her and her brother to India where they made the transition to an entirely different life.

"As small children I remember the journey. We were on horseback, it was like a palanquin [litter]," she said.

"Once we arrived in India suddenly everything changed. We travelled by car from Sikkim and I didn't like the smell of the petrol but it was also strangely exciting."

Soon after the three arrived in India they received a telegram giving them news of the uprising against Chinese troops in Lhasa.

Some of the family were still in Tibet and for months they were left waiting for news. Gradually they realised that they would never be able to go back.

"I've been trying for a long time to get a picture of the old home but I think it is unrecognisable now. As an exile I suppose in a way I have never felt I have a home anywhere," she said.

'Walked by night'

Today there are over 120,000 displaced Tibetans living all over the world. Many of the refugees are young people who left Tibet without saying goodbye to their families.
Some came into exile after serving prison sentences for protesting against the Chinese government.

Others come to pursue their studies in India, which ironically is the only place they can officially receive teaching in their own language, study traditional arts and learn about their history.

Oser, a monk, left his nomadic family behind in the Kham part of Tibet to travel to India.

"My parents knew about Tibet before 1959, of course, but they could not talk about that. Only one time do I remember my father talking about life before the Chinese occupation," he said.

"In my house we kept His Holiness [the Dalai Lama's] picture secretly behind a shutter."

Oser was a shepherd, but like most Tibetans he dreamt of meeting the Dalai Lama. At the age of 17 he spent one month crossing the mountains, dodging military patrols, to Nepal.

"The Tibetan newcomers' journey is very difficult; not only for me but for all refugees," he said.

"We walked by night, we had no food for five days, and some of the people got sick on the way so we had to leave them behind on the mountain."

When he arrived in India he studied philosophy and two years ago he graduated from his monastery. He has not seen his family for 12 years and believes he would be imprisoned were he to return.

Path closed

The close exile community retains a strong sense of responsibility to their families back home.

There is a dilemma; these are modern people but their roots are firmly planted in their homeland and their ancestors' beliefs and traditions.

As newly-arrived refugees testify, Tibet is changing forever and to what extent Tibetan identity evolves is very much a concern for the new generation.

The Tibetan Children's Village is a school in Dharamsala which houses children coming from Tibet, often without their parents.

Tashi left Tibet with her sister when she was eight years old.

"When I was in school in Tibet our school principle was Tibetan but she could only speak Chinese. That is one reason why our parents sent us to India; in this school we are learning about our history and also Tibetan language," she said.

"And now I am in India I am also learning Chinese. I think going back to Tibet will be very difficult but if I can go back in the future I think I should know Chinese."

Tashi is pragmatic about her studies but she also holds a shared hope for Tibet's future.

"I want to see Tibet as an independent country and all the Tibetans can welcome His Holiness inside the Potala [Dalai Lama's palace in Lhasa] with a great joy. Most of the time that is what I dream about," she said.

Historically 2,000-3,000 refugees have left Tibet each year to find sanctuary in India, but since last year's unrest this number has been reduced to a few hundred.

"India never stopped any refugees from entering into India, but the only way is through Nepal," explained GOE Prime Minister Professor Samdhong Rinpoche.

"In the last 12 months not only have there been increased restrictions in Tibet but there have been increased restrictions on the border. And therefore there is no way for them to escape," he said.

As nomadic existence is outlawed, transport links are forged and Han Chinese migration into Tibet increases, the Tibetan culture and way of life is increasingly endangered.

If the only route into exile is also endangered there is a real fear that there will be no options left to Tibetans in their fight to preserve their identity and Buddhist traditions.

Eleanor Thomas travelled to Dharamsala to make A Tibetan Odyssey: Fifty Years in Exile, part of the Radio 4 Archive on 4 series. It will be broadcast on Saturday 7 March at 2000 and Monday 9 March at 1500.

* China says Tibet was always part of its territory
* Tibet enjoyed long periods of autonomy before the 20th Century
* 1950: China launched a military assault
* Opposition to Chinese rule led to a bloody uprising which began on 10 March 1959
* Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled a few days later and crossed into India on 31 March 1959
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