The dream trip began with my first stop in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. When I say Dharamshala, I actually mean the villages of Upper Dharamshala, that being McLeod Ganj, Dharmkot and Bhagsu. What took me there was a fantastic 5 day yoga course that I’ll write about in my next post. The subject of this post is actually something that occurred initially as a side interest in the area, but I hadn’t understood how impactful it was until I was there.
McLeod Ganj is the Indian home since 1960 to the exiled 14th Dalai Lama and Central Tibetan Government. Amongst many things, it features monasteries, a replacement temple complex to one in Lhasa (Tibet’s capital) the Tsuglagkhang, a number of NGOs, and a library holding some salvaged important archives. I had planned to go Tibet on this trip but limited access only via pricey tours meant it was out of my budget. After visiting the Tibetan Museum I was really surprised at how little I knew about Tibet’s situation.
McLeod Ganj is home to not only the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Government, but also thousands of refugees. This contemporary tale begins in the tail end of the 1940s when the Chinese Government took control of Tibet, a formerly independent nation. Over a number of decades this caused severe disruption, violence, and oppression. The people of Tibet are predominantly Buddhist and practice non-violence, but Chinese rule of the area banned outwardly practice of the religion, destroying and devaluing key religious buildings, statues, shrines, and scriptures. It’s even banned to own a photograph of the Dalai Lama for personal use; such is the oppression of this rule. Violations of these rules beget aggression, imprisonment, kidnapping, and killings. This extends beyond religion to political and economic oppression. Dissenters are not welcome. Tibetan natural resources are being exploited and the landscape is very different to the Tibet of 70 years ago, and due to price fixing Tibetans have little economic opportunity. The stronghold is so tight that the Tibetan language has been completely replaced by Mandarin in all educative institutions.
Of particular note is the kidnapping of the religious second-in-command after the Dalai Lama, the 11th Panchen Lama. At age 6, he was announced to hold this title by the 14th Dalai Lama in 1995, and mere days later was kidnapped by the Chinese Government and has not been seen since.
In the decades that have followed Chinese rule of Tibet, many have sought religious and political refuge. McLeod Ganj is home to thousands of Tibetan refugess, a number of whom came by foot over the high passes of the Himalayas to avoid fatal encounters with Chinese border patrol. A significant number who made that treacherous journey died along the way, or lost appendages due to frostbite – the price to pay for the freedom to live the life they were entitled to.
The most moving part of the Tibetan Museum was its close. At the time the video production was made (I’m not entirely sure but the latest date within it was 2 years ago), 90 Tibetans underwent self-immolation. Setting oneself on fire is a form of protest, and for Tibetan Buddhists who practice non-violence, a way to send a serious message without undermining their religious duties. A number of those who self-immolated were monks who were protesting religious oppression; for them a life where one could not practice their religion – their purpose in life – was certainly worth protesting, and worth death. There were also prominent writers, promising students, and loving family members; the oppression is wider than religious, it is cultural, societal. Self-immolations were the number 1 underreported news story in 2011. This is a very recent trend that flies under the radar of international news.
The story of this society is a heartbreaking one. It now comes as no surprise to me that that is why I can only take a Chinese Government approved tour of Tibet.
But the story also shows the strength and solidarity of a united culture, even under the most harrowing of oppression.
Tibetans are welcome with open arms to Dharamshala, and can be seen drinking masala chai with locals at a view point over the valley, at lessons, in discussion, or debating in the Tsuglagkhang, and wandering around town. They are warm, friendly, and peaceful. Tibetan society lives in exile and refuge in hope that they can return to a Free Tibet.