‘’This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.’’ – H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama.
Centuries of spiritual tradition wrapped up in glass protected scrolls. The teachings within blowing in the winds that weather and shape the timeless landscape of the mystical trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh.
The wanderlust had been steadily growing and no number of National Geographic magazines or documentaries could cure my itchy feet. I’d just finished my cultural anthropology master’s at the University of Cape Town and couldn’t wait to get onto a plane and go on another adventure.
My second trip to India, a place that had captivated me five years ago when after having done a stint of English teaching in Nepal, I headed for the mountains to go climbing. Shoestring, solo adventures have been a definitive thread of my life since I left high school and while part of my mind implored me to slink into a steady job and get my career going, the explorer in me was like, ‘’What the hell are you waiting for?’’
Tibetan Buddhist Diasporas in India
Traveling with my ear to ground and for a keenness to learn something about the people and history of the place I was in I couldn’t but be absorbed by the eerie story of Tibetan forced displacement, genocide and ethnocide.
China invaded Tibet in 1950 during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, declaring the People’s Republic sovereignty but granting Tibet ‘autonomy’. An estimated 1 million Tibetans were killed.
Following the Tibetan Rebellion of 1959, an exiled government was established in Dharamsala under the leadership of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyastso. Mao clamped down even harder as he implemented state collectivization of Tibetan land and vicious pogroms on Tibet’s local peoples.
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, roughly 6000 Buddhist monasteries in Tibet were razed to ashes. While millions of native Tibetans were massacred and literally starved to death by Mao’s invincible Red Army, hundreds of thousands have fled across the precarious Himalayan frontier lands into India over the last 40 years.
Currently known now as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), the Chinese have – despite liberalization of its economic and political structures – assumed near total control of what was historically a vast conglomeration of theocratic kingdoms guided by Buddhist Lamas in the land of snows.
The ancient capital, Lhasa, is barely recognizable, laid over by voracious capitalism and mainstream Chinese politico-cultural structures. While the pain of Tibet is impossible to bear, the redemptive spirit of its peoples is truly something to behold.
In Dharamsala I met Onlay, an 84 year-old survivor of the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Forced to flee with her four younger siblings without her parents after their village had been set alight and ransacked, Onlay embarked on a death-defying journey enduring freezing temperatures and little food for months until they reached in the safe-haven of the official Tibetan government in exile.
Tragically, one sister and two sisters of hers succumbed along the way. Onlay has since lived an unassuming life making beautiful traditional jewellery, blankets and pottery and caring for her grandchildren, whom she cherishes as the diamonds of her life. In the wake of waves of sadness, present-day Tibetan diasporas are finding ways to live with joy and continue the rich tapestry of spirituality and art built up over millennia before them.