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Fifty Years of Exile

March 23, 2009

The Wall Street Journal
March 20, 2009

Dharmsala, India -- Samdhong Rinpoche fled Tibet
in 1959 but he still remembers his homeland
vividly. "My memories of my life in Tibet are
more clear than my memories of yesterday," says
the 70-year-old prime minister of the Tibetan
exile government in this northern Indian hill
town. "I remember the colors and shapes of the
trees in our monastery and the friends we debated
with," he recalls with a wistful smile.

opened on March 10, does just that, documenting
how Tibetans have carved out a vibrant life in
exile since they fled to India, now home to
140,000 Tibetans, in the footsteps of the Dalai
Lama. (The exhibit will be in Dharmsala until
March 21, and then in Delhi March 26-30.) Another
photo exhibit by the Tibetan Women's Association
highlighting the role of women in the Tibetan
freedom struggle is touring this year, hitting
Delhi, Bangalore and New York, among others.

"Tibetan culture has spread to all corners of the
world. His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] is respected
all over the world," says Mr. Rinpoche. "These
are great achievements. We have not wasted the last 50 years."

Tibetan Buddhism abroad has certainly grown from
humble beginnings. One black-and-white image in
the Tibet Museum exhibit shows the first Tibetan
Buddhist monastery in India established in 1959
in the backwater state of Bihar. The grainy photo
depicts a simple shack-like structure in a
scrubby landscape. Another photo from the 1960s
shows a youthful Dalai Lama observing monks
debating in the middle of what looks like a patch of dirt.

Contrast that with today: In India alone there
are now 230 monasteries with 35,000 members—far
more than in Tibet itself. A photo taken last
year of the prayer hall of Drepung Monastery in
Mundgod in southern India shows a sprawling
four-story building with majestic gold rooftops.
Thousands of red-robed monks stand
outside—remarkable considering that the original
Drepung in Lhasa today has only 300 monks.

Another photo shows the exquisite grounds of
Norbulingka, an institute near Dharmsala devoted
to Tibetan arts and culture, and named after the
Dalai Lama's summer palace in Lhasa. Waterfalls
course past brightly painted Tibetan-style
buildings where artisans make thangkas (Tibetan
scrolls and paintings), sculptures, furniture and
clothes. An artist with a delicate brush
meticulously paints the eyes of a golden Buddha statue.

Ironically, those images are displayed in front
of a panel from the permanent exhibit that
includes a 1979 photo showing fragments of
Tibetan Buddhist sculptures stacked up like a
massive pile of rubbish. Another photo from Tibet
shows a ruined, headless Buddha statute destroyed by the Chinese military.

The enormous risks taken by escaping refugees are
starkly illustrated in a 1996 photo that shows a
Tibetan father and his young daughter climbing a
5,700 meter pass in the Himalayas. The girl, who
looks about six years old, scrambles over
snow-covered rocks in a land so barren it looks
like a moonscape. Each year hundreds of children
brave the grueling trek from Tibet so they can
receive a Tibetan education in exile.

Tibetan women have also undertaken a remarkable
journey since their historic protest against the
Chinese occupation, known as Tibetan Women's
Uprising Day, in Lhasa on March 12, 1959. In the
display at the main Buddhist temple in Dharmsala,
a fuzzy black-and-white photo captures the image
of thousands of women gathered at the foot of the
Potala Palace. This public protest was
unprecedented for Tibetan women who were
traditionally considered "the precious jewel at home."

Since then Tibetan women have played an important
role in Tibet's resistance. The Tibetan Women's
Association today counts 17,000 members, young
and old, who regularly protest alongside Tibetan
men in India and beyond, as shown in dozens of
images in the exhibit. In a 1996 photo, a young
Tibetan woman winces as blood is drawn from her
arm at a demonstration in India; she is preparing
to sign a United Nations petition in her own blood.

Resistance and hope burn inside women like
Tsering Deckyi, a stooped 70-year-old who comes
to the Dharmsala's Buddhist temple every day to
pray and prostrate. Ms. Deckyi was just 20 when
she participated in Tibetan Women's Uprising Day
in 1959. A decade later she witnessed the
execution of the nun Thinley Chodon in Lhasa.

Ms. Deckyi's grief is so fresh that tears start
rolling down her deeply wrinkled face when she
recalls the repression in Tibet. But she still
manages to find optimism. "With the presence of
His Holiness I'm not at all depressed," says Ms.
Deckyi, after wiping tears from her wizened face. "I have not lost my hope."

Ms. Yee is a journalist based in New Delhi.
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