Dispatches from the Tibetan Front: Dharamsala, India

Dharamsala, India. Photo by Litia Perta.

A nearly vertical path cleaves to the side of a mountain in India, connecting the town of Dharamsala with the village of McLeod Ganj. The Tibetans who slowly claw their way up this rocky incline call it a shortcut and prefer it to the car road that snakes around the mountain, often overwhelmed by bleating, speeding traffic. This is where I am one afternoon, sitting with a friend in the silence and in the sun, waiting to catch my breath after the steepest part of the climb, when the sound of children’s voices cuts through the stillness. They shout their own protests, miming the familiar chants of their adult counterparts: Tibet for Tibetans! Free, Free Tibet!

The syllables are the same but the voices are pitched higher and through them courses the unmistakable sound of children’s glee. As the group rounds the bend and comes into view, we see that there are only seven or eight of them and that most cannot be older than ten. As they approach the incline that had forced us to sit and recover our breath, these children continue to shout just as loudly—even as the mountain itself tries to silence them with its steepness. Each carries a homemade Tibetan flag, carefully drawn on white paper and colored in with crayon—now taped to a stick and waving in the air. As has become the norm during these days of intense and continual protest. As the band passes us, we do not let them walk alone, and so follow into step behind them.

Each of the children’s faces on that day was uncommonly brown, and each had flaking, scaly skin at the apples of their cheeks. The teenager that led their chanting was badly disfigured by burns on his face, neck and arms. All of their fingers were caked with dust from the road and sap from their sticks; their clothing, stained with dirt and sweat, was far too heavy for the heat. They wore quilted sweat pants, woolen jackets and boots: as if preparing for a phantom winter that would not come. No adult accompanied them and my friend, smiling like a mother, explained that the group was on its way to the main Reception Center in McLeod Ganj. These children had only just arrived in India—they had just made it across the range from their homeland in Tibet.

In an instant, their clothes, their chapped skin and their smiles took on a new aspect. My friend’s smile did too: she made the journey across the mountains twenty years ago on the back of a monk, when she was only ten. No family accompanied her and none awaited her arrival. Like so many here, the women who worked as “ammas” or house mothers in her school became her family. Despite the suffering that she eventually grew used to, she proudly absorbed the Buddhist philosophy and prayer that her parents had sent her here to learn. These days, she is the family that welcomes her own young relatives to India, visiting them every weekend, doing her best to let them know that they are not alone. The children on the path that day likely never imagined being able to shout their dissent so openly. On a hillside facing all of southern India—no pain or sadness in their faces—they waved their flags high for all the world to see.

The infrastructure of escape is elaborate. It takes one month of moving at night and hiding by day to cross the great Himalayan range. Groups with children or those that are forced to travel in the colder months take considerably longer. Guides demand a hefty sum to move through the forbidding mountain passes that the Chinese soldiers, in nearly fifty years of occupation, have not yet discovered or been able to climb. If you make it to Kathmandu, an elaborate support network, tirelessly maintained by the Tibetan government in exile, awaits you. Reception Centers with special training in frostbite, trauma and starvation are the destination points inside Nepal. Eventually, buses move the escapees into India and to the Reception Center in McLeod Ganj.

If you are fortunate enough to be under eighteen, you land a place in one of the many Tibetan Children’s Villages (T.C.V.) that speckle the Indian subcontinent. Here, you may share a twin bed with another student and suffer from knowing the house mother who cares for you is not your own. But you will learn Tibetan, English, Hindi, Buddhist philosophy and prayer—only part of the education you will receive, one of the most rigorous available in all of India. Those between the ages of eighteen and thirty are placed in the Tibetan Transit School which offers the basic life skills required to acclimate to life in India. Since this is often the first formal education many Tibetans receive (Chinese school is prohibitively expensive), instruction is available in Tibetan language and literacy. As every Tibetan here will tell you, as an escapee, you also have free access to information, the right to protest and, above all else, the ability to be near to and receive teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Here, far away from their homes, they can be guided through this life by the man they all regard as their own spiritual teacher, leader, and friend.

The word refugee has two meanings: a person who seeks asylum and one who flees from home. Neither quite fits the people I have met here. If asylum is taken to mean legal protection from right of seizure, India cannot offer it. The Tibetans who come here have no papers, must fabricate birth certificates claiming they were born in India in order to obtain even the Tibetan passport; they do not vote in Indian elections and so they have no say over this land that they are living in, supposedly only temporarily. Even those Tibetans who were born here, in political exile, do not have the rights of Indian citizens. This life they are living can be “seized” at any time. Similarly, no one here is “fleeing home.” On the contrary, they are dreaming, seeking, praying for home literally all of the time. Few men and women, regardless of age, walk the streets of McLeod Ganj without fingering prayer beads and muttering the mantras that are said to radiate blessings out to living beings everywhere. These people have not fled home as much as they have fled an occupation that relentlessly attempts to transform the home they hold in their hearts into something unrecognizable to any Tibetan.

Many weeks ago, when the mood here was still calm, a young girl sat down next to me in the temple. We had been grinning at each other for days, each too shy to approach the other but on this day, she had decided to come and say hello. Her name was Tsering Dolma, she was fourteen and she spoke the best English I have heard in India—learned at the T.C.V. school in neighboring Gopalpur. When I asked her what her family name was, she seemed confused. It was Tsering that first explained to me that Tibetans do not use the patronymic, believing in a lineage of masters and teachers that extends far beyond this life and so, far beyond the bloodlines that brought the body here this time around. It was also Tsering who introduced me to what it means to be a child living in exile. She told me her father had brought her here on his back when she was six years old. He dropped her off at the Reception Center, turned around, and went home to Tibet. This is common practice for many Tibetan parents: they risk their lives and the aching of their hearts to give their children the opportunity to learn the traditional Tibetan culture and the Buddhist way of looking at the world. In the sunny light of the temple on that day, as I looked into Tsering’s small face, I was ashamed that tears had started streaming down my own. She smiled at me warmly and put a hand on my shoulder, this child comforting me: Yes, she said, it is a difficult situation.

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Litia Perta

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