A Travellerspoint blog

Encounters with Tibetan Politics

Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay, Vigil, March 10th, Tenzin Tsundue

Some of the events discussed here are very old, some less so. I’m trying to figure out how not to be too pedantic and also how to make these a little more personal than before, though I’m afraid my balancing act just resulted in a very long post. Comments are appreciated on the format—more posts like this are on the way.

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Being “Tibetan” in India is complicated, but one of the most important identity markers is participation in political activity. Lots of academic ink has been spilled about this and several of my classmates’ research incorporates this idea, for the simple reason that it’s everywhere. Of course, we are talking about political refugees, after all. All of this came as quite a surprise to me—I’m used to talking politics, voting, and occasionally signing a petition, but to get a day off school so all the children can join the protest march (commemorating “Tibetan Uprising Day,” a failed revolution)? Or deriving a sense of identity in wearing traditional clothes, not just because that was your ancestor’s custom, but because doing so is seen as sign of political defiance? (More on that one later) Whoa.

This is the first thing you see when you enter the gates to the complex that houses the main Temple, the Dalai Lama’s residence, Namgyal Monastery, and IBD:


Lobsang Sangay

Early in our time at Sarah, we Emory folk had the opportunity to meet Lobsang Sangay, the Kalon Tripa or “Prime Minister” of the CTA. His election was important for a number of reasons:
- After slowly guiding the Tibetan community, often against its wishes, towards a more democratic system, the Dalai Lama announced in his March 10 speech last year that he would give up all of his own political authority to the newly-elected government; LS is therefore the first person to lead the Tibetan government other than a Dalai Lama since the Fifth Dalai Lama took over in the 17th Century.
- The office of Kalon Tripa had been democratically elected for only 10 years (2 terms), both of which went to Samdhong Rinpoche—an eloquent scholar I’ve never met but about whom I hear many good things—who had been in government for a while, was a monk, and even more, a Rinpoche[i] (reincarnate lama). Lobsang Sangay, in contrast, is young, went to Harvard Law School, has never been to Tibet, and had lived in the US for the 16 years leading up to the election.
- Lobsang Sangay was the first person in Tibetan history to actually campaign for votes, travelling around the settlements in India and arranging debates with the other candidates. He won by a landslide. When I asked him about the election, my roommate and homestay parents gave pretty similar answers—the other candidates are good men, but voting for Lobsang Sangay was an no-brainer because he’s smart, can speak well, and generally looks like a real candidate.

For our meeting, we prepared with our time-honored method of brainstorming questions as a group, voting to get 5, dividing into clumps to figure it out, and appointing someone to ask them. I don’t remember them all, but the questions were all over the map—some about future plans, some about methodology of nonviolent activism, some about the HHDL-turned-CTA official “Middle Way Policy” of seeking greater Tibetan autonomy within China vs. [i]Rangzen “Freedom” which here means independent-nation status for Tibet. Mine was about future trends in secularization of the CTA—I was hoping to get him to talk for/against the 10 seats in Parliament that are given to representatives from the major religious traditions of Tibet, voted on by the monks and nuns of those traditions, which also effectively gives monastics a second vote in Parliament.

The “Three Dharma Kings” of Tibet looked on from behind where he spoke to us. Secularization, here? Not likely

As a true politician, Lobsang Sangay took our questions at the beginning and proceeded to speak at us for an hour while deftly avoiding providing any firm answers. Honestly, I don’t blame him—as he said at one point, what options does he have to resolve the Tibet Issue, other than to take care of his refugee community (he’s personally taken over running the Department of Education, an unprecedented move) and promoting the cause on the international stage? Not much, though I haven’t decided if it was brave or amateurish for him to have admitted such.

In other ways, though, I was significantly impressed, not just (as always) that this busy man would set aside such time for us. I can see why so many Tibetans voted for him, and in there shoes I would have too—he’s articulate, perceptive of the issues, and speaks perfect English. He and his people are in a huge bind and he knows it, so he’s doing what he can. He’s made lots of public appearances outside India to boot, though I’m afraid he’s not exactly a household name.


Vigil for the Immolators

Classes ended early for us a couple days later so that, if we chose, we could accompany our roommates up to McLeod Ganj for a prayer vigil for the self-immolations inside Tibet. There were twenty-something at the time, although now more than thirty people, largely monks, who have set fire to themselves in protest of Chinese policies inside Tibet. In a big shift, these immolators aren’t from Lhasa or the recognized Tibet Autonomous Region, but from the outer Tibetan regions that are part four Chinese provinces—indicating that residents of these regions increasingly see themselves as part of the same Tibetan identity as those in TAR or Exile.

After a hair-raising, overcrowded bus ride to Dharamsala (which, amazingly, now seems routine to me), my roommate and I found floorspace around the Temple. Tibetans have a remarkably long attention span and ability to sit on floors for extended periods, and while it was nice to be fed tea and pa-le (flattish Tibetan bread) by the monks from nearby Namgyal, and to join in the (few) prayers and mantras I knew in Tibetan, this was a rather trying time for my classmates and me.

Following the prayers, everyone gathered in front of the temple to hear Lobsang Sangay speak, first in Tibetan and again in English. Here’s the man himself (please pardon the poor-quality zoom):


Then came a couple songs, including the soon-to-be-familiar Tibetan National Anthem. That's Dimey in the yellow scarf.


As you can see, we all had our candles out by now. I helped this little boy light his, with his mother’s permission. This particular image is one of the reasons I’m so glad to have had my camera—on the one hand, he’s just adorable, and the simple optimism of this image of the future belies the weight of the situation we were all in. On top of that (sorry for the pun) is this hat… in English. He’s growing up into this crazy life where his personal identity is largely defined by being born into this narrow political box. We in America have the freedom to make up our own political identities and to hold ideas and ideals very different from those of some of our neighbors. While democracy and free speech are centrally important in India and the Tibetan Exile community, as a Tibetan refugee, there are some things you just can’t choose.

And this man helped him when his candle blew out. Another one of my favorite pictures:


After that came the march, for one or two loops around McLeod Ganj—as long as our candles lasted. What I didn’t know at the time is that the standard protest song is one of the handful of prayers I know in Tibetan by heart—a prayer for all beings to have bodhicitta, the special kind of perfect compassion that is the ultimate motivation for reaching complete enlightenment. That knocked me for a loop; both as an American and out of personal preference, I work hard to keep my religion and politics as separate as possible, and here was a prayer from my own daily practice being used on a protest march! Ok, technically it wasn’t a protest march, it was a prayer vigil for national martyrs… around here, the distinction is pretty fuzzy.


Then it started snowing and I got squished in the backseat of a taxi full of monks who were throwing snowballs at their friends we passed along the way. I’m not going to talk about what the roads were like.

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March 10

That wasn’t the last time we saw Lobsang Sangay speak in front of the Temple. He also delivered the annual March 10 address, their State of the Union equivalent, on the day that commemorates the ill-fated and tragic March 10, 1959 Tibetan uprising against the Chinese, then recently come to Tibet. This was the first time someone other than the Dalai Lama had given this speech, and indeed it was at last year’s 3/10 that His Holiness had announced his stepping-down from political authority.

Nothing particularly interesting was said, but again it was in both Tibetan and English and Lobsang Sangay-la did at least as well as we’d expect of our polished, professional politicians in the West. As often happens, the crowd was the most interesting part of the show. On stage were a number of representatives of the Italian Parliament who came to show their support of the Tibetan Exiles—you’d never see American congress(wo)men doing that. In the crowd were a few lost-looking foreigners, but almost all Tibetans; I felt almost more like one of the latter because I’d come with my homestay family, with whom we were staying at the time.

It’s a big deal in the house, but everyone seemed to have ample practice. Breakfast felt like the beginning of a major holiday, and Pa-la in particular was pretty excited. For the memorial to the failed revolution against an occupation that continues to the present, the atmosphere was surprisingly jubilant, an indication that March 10th has become more about being Tibetan than anything else. My little sister Dekyi was also caught up in the excitement, and kept yelling “Pö Rangzen! Pö Rangzen!” (“Freedom for Tibet!”). Then Lobsang, our neighbor-friend whom I’d been helping with his French homework, joined us, Pa-la took the big Tibetan flag off the wall and draped it around his shoulders, and the two men alternated carrying Dekyi on their backs as she waved a little flag and Ama-la tried to make sure we all got where we needed to go as we threaded through the alleyways of the shortcut to the temple.

Remember, this is what the wall looks like:

I got separated from them at our destination and joined the march to lower Dharamsala with some Emory classmates I ran into. Deciding not to stay for the longer speeches at the arrival point, we stopped for lunch before hopping in a shared taxi back up the hill.

Whoa. If I’d entertained doubts about attending the vigil march, this was even stronger, but I ultimately couldn’t refuse the opportunity to have this kind of experience. I honestly don’t know how I feel about the whole event, other than that I newly appreciate the fact that, for me, politics is a choice, not an obligation resulting from an accident of birth.

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This last part isn’t about an event so much as a person: Tenzin Tsundue, a major Tibetan activist and friend of Tara-la’s who came and spoke to our class, and whom I saw with many of my classmates at a poetry reading (where the photos below are from). Born in India and never having stepped foot inside Tibet, he organized a high-profile “March to Tibet” (dozens or hundreds of Tibetans trying to walk from Dharamsala to the border) during the protests in 2008 which both Tara-la and our TA Matt joined for parts of the program. Matt and Tara-la had both left by then, but the whole crowd was inevitably arrested by the Indian police and sent back. I mention this as one of a great number of things Tenzine Tsundue has done for the Tibetan cause, though now he’s a major leader in the cultural resistance movement (i.e. using traditional Tibetan dress, clothing, language, etc. itself as a form of resistance).
He always wears a black Tibetan-style shirt, malas (prayer beads), and a red bandana which he says he’ll keep wearing until Tibet is free (for him, this likely means complete nation-state independence for all three regions of Tibet). The Dalai Lama makes a joke about the bandana every time they see each other, along the lines of “Do you ever wash under there?”
In any case, whether or not you agree with his positions—and in many cases I don’t—Tenzin Tsundue still has a unique presence that really sets him apart. He’s clearly very bright and insightful both intellectually and emotionally. But what struck me was the very single-pointed determination he has for his cause. When one of my classmates asked whe he’d do if Tibet became free, he said, “I’d still keep going to jail”—but this time for protesting against his own Tibetan government.

Seeing this example of someone who’s neither settling nor settling down, as it were, but just working with 110% of his energy for what he sees to be an important cause—that put meeting Tenzin Tsundue-la up there with the other major highlights of the semester.

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So those were some of the politically-relevant highlights of the trip, but every day there was some reminder of the political situation. For one, this was hanging during the annual Tibetan Opera Festival:

And images of the immolators are everywhere. These were hanging near the entrance to the boy's dorm at Sarah, though they're literally everywhere. I included the second picture to tell it like it is--the Tibetans are much more willing to post the image of a corpse in public than we are in the States, particularly when that photo was taken on a cell phone and smuggled (physically or electronically) out of China.

TRIGGER WARNING: If you don't want to see a corpse, don't look at the second photo.



Posted by cageissler 20:00 Comments (0)

Hong Kong? Again?

Out of India, but not out of posts!

Dear readers,

I haven’t been posting much and I’m sorry about that, but research has been taking its toll on my time, and then packing, and then we were in a beautiful guesthouse in the mountains without Internet.

Here’s a general view of what I’ve been doing and how the next couple weeks will work out:

- May 12-15: End-of-program retreat at a guesthouse up the mountain from McLeod Ganj. Hiking, reminiscing, feelings.
- May 16: Fly out of Delhi at 2:35 a.m. Currently in Hong Kong
- May 17-29: Australia time!
- May 30: Arrive back in NJ
- May 31: Birthday!
- June 3-ish: Back to Swarthmore, start work in the linguistics department on 6/4.
- August 1: Research paper for Emory due.

Unfortunately, this schedule means that I’m going to be somewhere over the Arctic while Swarthmore’s Commencement is going on, the first and only as a Swarthmore student. : ( But still, three continents in two hemispheres (either way you slice it) in two weeks! And a lot of data processing for my paper—as of this writing, I have 98 interviews (though that may be it), each with roughly a hundred words to deal with… but that’s another post.

Speaking of posts, I’m thinking of putting together posts on the following topics to give me something to do on the plane and after. Here are some ideas I’ve been stewing over, and I’m happy to take suggestions:

- Food, glorious food!
- Research process/mishaps/shenanigans
- Interesting flora and fauna
- Outdoor excursions
- Tibetan Politics & Religion
- Visiting His Holiness the Karmapa (!)

For now, though, I enjoyed a remarkably quick ride back to Delhi in a solo taxi (the only way to make the times work) with a Tibetan driver who unfortunately didn't speak much English, and just sat next to a wonderful Indian (Punjabi) fellow who's returning to Vancouver, his home base for the past 28 years. It feels like each layer of the communities I've been in is sending someone after me to see me off and I'm enjoying it. I also enjoyed flying into Hong Kong on a relatively clear day and looking out at all these little bits of city surrounding green mountains/hills strewn along different islands and peninsulae.

I'm so excited to see my folks in Australia! This is going to be great.

Posted by cageissler 23:28 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

A day in the life

And a really good one at that!

I started thinking this afternoon about how much I’d enjoyed today. And I have some free time because I’ve been pretty productive lately. So, as my chemistry-inclined friends would say,

Excitement + Time → Blog post

A chronology:

- Shower. Always a good start. Really enjoying having a geezer (water heater) in my bathroom at the guesthouse.
- Running a little late to make myself oatmeal or sit down for breakfast, so I stop at Lhamo’s Croissants for yesterday’s half-price chocolate croissants. Have a nice chat with the owner, an Amdo Tibetan, about languages that leaves me 10 minutes late.
- Hop in a taxi. Turns out the driver is Kartar, an old friend of Tara-la’s who was the one we called to get us to Amritsar (he sent two co-workers of his with us but charged reasonably and was very nice). Nice conversation there too.
- Get to Sarah. Complete 25 interviews in the day, which added to the 30 I got yesterday, brings me to 55. My goal is between 40 and 600, so I’m set. And there are still two weeks left! More on my research saga later, but suffice it to say it’s going swimmingly.
- Lunch at Sarah (veg and tofu on rice, but better quality than usual. Or I’ve been away for a while), sit with Kelsang, a really wonderful fellow and a classmate’s roommate. At various points in the day, see and/or interview various other Sarah friends.
- Keep interviewing. This afternoon was a “holiday,” so I was gently kicked out by the administrator who wanted to lock up the office.
- Feeling, well, kicked-out, head over to my roommate’s room with the thought of squeezing in another interview. Get him and his roommate, as well as the three friends he ran out to find for me. First he said, “Have you interviewed an Amdowa yet? I’ll get you an Amdowa [brings an Amdowa]. I know! How about a Himalayan [brings two].” After a while, he came back to say, “I asked my other friends, but they already saw you!” He then refused to let me leave without taking some of the treats the students had all been given at the end of the year, which explains the bottle of Indian cola and unidentifiable citrus fruit sitting on my table.
- Run into Palden (Sarah friend) while running for the bus. Don’t get to chat, but I’ll probably see him again. He was one of the three or so roommates who pretty much integrated into our Emory group and was one of the two who even came with us to Amritsar.
- Ride Indian bus, always an adventure. Meet nice fellow from the village of Sarah and ask him for recommendations for a sweets shop in Lower D. He ends up showing me to his favorite place (bonus! It’s clean!), where I get an impressively large box of things for 30 Rs and my new friend buys me a delicious sweet-milk-with-gloppy-stuff thing without my consent before helping me find the right bus to take to McLeod (harder than it sounds).
- Get to guesthouse to find most of my classmates elsewhere or not yet hungry. Go by myself to the good dhaba (where I ran into shoe-fixing-man Sanju the other day) and end up chatting with an eccentric semi-retired British woman who lives mostly in India and travels around Asia when her visa expires.
- Enjoy Indian sweets I picked up in Lower D (with [some] sharing). In retrospect, feel unusually, perhaps excessively social. Write blog post.
- [Note: I wrote this entry yesterday; today, after our weekly group brunch at Illiterati, the café/bookshop where our friend Amber Jade cooks, a bunch of us walked down to Lower D for lassis at Patrick’s favorite place and more sweets from this “sweet” shop. Yum. As someone said, “It’s like taking a half hour walk to India!” which sums up this area pretty well.]


Can you think of any better way to spend a day?

Posted by cageissler 08:50 Comments (4)



One of our last field trips was to Norbulingka Institute, the Dalai-Lama sponsored school that serves as a training center for the traditional arts and produces the finest thangka paintings, textiles, metal statues, and woodwork in the Tibetan exile community. We arrived, and it was gorgeous—the architect (the same that designed Tara-la’s house…) made the buildings in the Tibetan style but the gardens in his native Japanese tradition:


This little gem is so Tibetan—a water-powered prayer wheel! A


Our first stop was the most impressive—the appliqué thangkas. Each of these takes an insanely long period of time and is made of hundreds of pieces. They’re really expensive, but with reason.

(That's Maitreya, the Buddha of the coming age.)

Our guide showed us the thread—red silk thread wrapped around a horse hair, which gives them strength. In the non-thangka textile section, they substitute the less-traditional fishing wire instead.

(Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha.)

Wood-carving secion! Our guide was slightly less than perfectly helpful, which means I don’t have much to tell you about this secion. They work in pine and teak.


Crosssing campus…


…we came to their temple, in which everything was designed and built/painted by Norbulingka artists, from the 18-foot Buddha statue to the paintings of all the Dalai Lamas on the walls; the last two, since we have photographs of them, were painted in the hyper-realistic style that is beginning to be developed for this sort of occaions:


Also on display: a traditional-format poem written by one of the director-types. I don't know nearly enough Tibetan to understand it, but apparently one can read it in lots of different directions. Tibetan is so cool--this is something you can only do in a language where lots of the semantics happens on the level of the syllable. Some may also provide bonus points.

On the top floor of the temple is a private room reserved for His Holiness when he visits; Sarah College and lots of other institutions have these too. This one we got to visit though!


And this is the staircase to his private meditation room. Seems kinda steep for someone of his age, though maybe since it’s behind closed doors he can use this to practice flying.



View from the roof: lower Dharamsala is just to the left; McLeod is right behind those hills. You can see this place from the Kora route, which is the most outward-projecting part of town. The green roofs belong to “Lower TCV,” a branch of the TCV school system; this one is unique in that most of its students are fee-paying. (TCV is free for refugee, orphaned, and seriously poor Tibetans; others can go to CTA schools for free or pay for private education at someplace like this.) Even though this is about half an hour from McLeod—totally within bussing distance—it’s still a boarding school, which is what most Tibetan parents prefer. Interesting, no?

The crown jewel of Norbulingka is their thangka section.

We had the fortune to visit while they were working on a massive series of thangkas for all 14 Dalai Lamas, with scenes from their lives in the background. (The central deity or other figure in a thangka must adhere to very strict conventions, though the background is more flexible). The Thangka Master himself showed us around, including the piece he himself was working on—one of the four thangkas of the current Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Can you can pick out the part where he visited the U.S. Capitol?


Some of the detail on the sketch—the snow lions at the top of the image below are supporting His Holiness’ throne.



In another from that series, His Holiness visits Beijing (upper left), the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya (center) and some Indian dignitaries (lower right). The dark blue feet don’t belong to the Dalai Lama but to one of the deities surrounding him; this image is only the bottom-right corner of this thangka. Each one of those people is about two inches tall.

Steady, steady…

An artist contemplates Manjushri on this coral-colored thangka. Thankgas are usually done one white canvas, though sometimes the color of the deity is used—in the store I saw Green Tara and Medicine Buddha (blue) depictions where the skin of the deity was left as the background color; only the clothes were painted on. Black thangkas are also used, usually for wrathful deities like this one, which might be Yamantaka (a wrathful emanation of Manjushri)…


…but sometimes for peaceful ones, like this Thousand-arm Chenrezig:


Instead of making thangkas factory-style, each artist sticks with one from initial sketch through finishing touches for however many weeks or months it takes.

We ended the day by taking up every unused seat in the studio and trying our hand at copying a sketch of a Buddha’s face. Kinda corny, I know, but actually a lot of fun.


So we started with copying the grid…


and after two hours and some tips from one of the masters on how to draw the eyes, here’s what I made! Everyone’s were really impressive.


Posted by cageissler 02:23 Comments (6)


and Passover too!

Easter happens in India too! It was the Easter of things people have never done before.

The new things started before Easter itself, with a Passover Seder at a new restaurant owned by some friends of the program. Out of the sixteen of us, three staff, one alum who lives in town, and half a dozen camp followers and associated hangers-on, I’m pretty sure six were actually Jewish. This being India, wheat crackers stood in for matzo and various other substitutions were made throughout the meal that I largely didn’t notice because this was (embarrassingly) my first Passover experience. But it counts, and was quite a bit of fun. I had the fortune to sit next to Amalia Rubin, a program alum who’s been living among Tibetans ever since, working as a translator and remarkably successful Tibetan pop star on both sides of the border, though after some time in Chinese prison has been living in India.

In case you’re in town, the restaurant is called Illiterati, and it’s halfway to Gangkyi. The cook is Belgian and has a secret family waffle recipe, and let’s just say it shows..

Following up my first Passover service, I thought it appropriate to attend my first Easter service as well, which meant going to St. John’s in the Wilderness Church, a relic of British rule about a fifteen minute walk outside of town. Lord Elgin is buried out back.


The service itself seemed fine, though my only basis for comparison was the hyped stories I’d heard of the glories of Easter Vigils in the Catholic Church—so I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed by this relatively informal protestant service for an hour or so on a Sunday morning. What an interesting group of people, though! The service was entirely in English (there may have been a separate Hindi service for the other half of the congregation) and the audience was a microcosm of the Dharamsala community: about half Indians, some scattered Tibetans, a handful of East Asian folks, and some lost-looking Westerners. The main sermon was given by a tall, late-twenties, intensely friendly seeming fellow from Denver who spoke in what felt like a US-evangelical-protestant style, while the Indian priest (who spoke good English) only popped up for a short benediction. I noticed the guy from Denver had brought with him two of the young locals who’d tried to convince me to give them money.

I skipped out on the (Indian-food) outdoor lunch to head down to Tara-la’s house for our Easter party! Will and Lindsey had blown out, dyed, and hidden something like sixty eggs and some candy in and around the (gorgeous) garden, of which we found most. It was really fun to watch a few Jews, Tibetans, and a monk hunt on their first Easter Egg Hunt.



Posted by cageissler 02:54 Comments (2)

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