They trudged, climbed over the rugged, mighty Himalayas, scrambling over rocks, through snow and ice, at night. A group of 28, including 10 children, they set out from their homeland, Tibet, to escape the severe Chinese regime which has occupied their country since 1950.
Over a million Tibetans perished in the mass genocide which followed the occupation. In 1959, the 14th Dali Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, led his people into exile. Since then some 100,000 Tibetans, like the group mentioned above, have made this arduous journey to escape Chinese persecution.
During the treacherous 36-day trek, “one of my friends died, two were lost,” Kalsang, who fled in 2006, tells me. He was lucky. “Since 2008, the borders are heavily controlled.”
Kalsang now works as a guide at the Norbulingka Institute, a trust under the chairmanship of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people. The Institute, which is dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture, is headquartered in Dharamsala in northern India, the center of the Tibetan government in exile.
A visit to the town, a former British hill station perched high on a steep slope under the shadow of the snow-capped Dhauladhar mountain range, is fascinating, if not heart breaking. Several thousand Tibetan exiles, including the Dali Lama, live in the town, most in McLeodGanj, the upper part of the town where the institute and the Dali Lama’s home are located. The stories of escape and hope are astonishing, tragic.
“We have hope. One day we will go back,” a young woman said.
The institute sits on a hillside surrounded by lush vegetation and
blossoms. Strings of small, colorful prayer flags add a festive note. Well-fed, friendly dogs wander about. In contrast to the dusty, dirty, noisy, rundown surroundings, it seems like a tiny paradise.
Our tour group visited the Dali Lama’s Buddhist temple. Although at the time His Holiness was in residence, he was not seeing visitors, we were told. We visited workshops where young Tibetans in exile were learning and practicing traditional Tibetan crafts, (scroll painting, embroidery, metalwork, wood carving etc.) Many of their works are for sale at the institute gift shop.
We met many younger Tibetans at the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV). The Dali Lama directed that a center be established for the thousands of orphans and destitute children ravaged by war. Today 1,700 Tibetan children live and study at this village. Most have been smuggled over the mountains from Tibet where the Tibetan culture and language are suppressed, where parents see no hope, no future for their children. They pay for their children’s escape to freedom, knowing they may never see them again.
The children in the village live in small, family groups with foster parents. They are taught both the Tibetan language and English. There are four other villages for Tibetan children, as well as schools and vocational centers in India, under the umbrella of TCV.
A visit to remote Dharamsala is an undertaking. Our group of 12 had to abandon our small bus and ride in three four-wheel drive vehicles for the climb over skinny, scary roads to the shabby town of ugly structures and tacky souvenir shops – but with a breathtaking backdrop, when visible. Having been intrigued about the fabulous Himalayas for years, I was eager for some to-die-for views and photo opps. Not to be. If and when the clouds vanished, it was only for seconds. These mountains have mastered hide and seek, excelling at hiding.
The Tibet Museum in the town is the place to learn more about Tibet, the Chinese occupation and the present situation. Documentation and photographs detail the invasion, treacherous escapes, human rights abuses and present-day realities.
The town’s bazaar, a collection of shops and stalls along the steep main street, is the place to bargain for souvenirs: jewelry, trinkets, scarves and more.
Dharamsala is popular as a center for meditation, yoga and other esoteric retreats. It also attracts those interested in serious mountain trekking and rock climbing.
A writer in the Guardian called the town, known as “Little Tibet,” a “unique place with its mix of Indian hill people, Tibetan exiles and ‘spiritual’ tourists.” It is well worth the effort to visit this unique and alluring place, to experience first-hand the plight and tragedy of Tibet.
For more on the Tibetan Children’s Village, see www.tcv.org.in
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