Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Himalayan Blend: Feature

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Himalayan Blend: Feature

Article excerpt

The exodus from their homeland resulted in Tibetans establishing their own schools in India, which strive for a balance between their native traditions and the culture of their adopted country. Adi Bloom reports from Dharamsala.

"They used to ask me, how many baths do you take a year?" Jamba Choezin says. "People think that, in Tibet, you take one bath a year. They think you cannot see cars everywhere, or aircraft, and that Tibetans eat only tsampa porridge."

When Jamba was 10, his parents sent him alone across the mountains from Tibet to India, so that he could live near the Dalai Lama. Now, 10 years later, he sits in a classroom in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala.

"People who were born here just consider Tibet a very backward place," he says. "Very undeveloped, like in 1959. The real situation is that the Chinese built railways and roads and big buildings."

In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Chinese-occupied Tibet for Dharamsala. In the years that followed, tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees made the arduous journey across the Himalayas to join him. Since then, waves of Tibetan immigrants have settled in India - the majority in Dharamsala - and made lives for themselves. Half a century later, their children, and their children's children, are Indian born and raised, and have never set foot in their hereditary homeland.

In fact, the first refugees had barely removed their yak-skin boots when it became clear that raising and educating children in exile was going to be a complicated issue. Sending Tibetan children to local Indian schools would suit neither the Tibetans, who wanted to retain their own identity, nor the Indian government, which wanted to show the Chinese that it was not offering the Tibetans a permanent home. And so, in 1960, the Dalai Lama established the first Tibetan school. That same year, his sister set up the Tibetan Children's Village (TCV) in Dharamsala. A network of TCV schools across India now educates 15,000 children.

"We call it the Tibetanisation programme," says Thupten Dorjee, principal of the Dharamsala TCV, an 1,800-student all-through boarding school on the banks of a holy lake. "Children born in exile have never seen Tibet. They have only what their parents or their elders tell them. To grow up Tibetan, they should know the geography of Tibet, the mountains of Tibet, the monasteries of Tibet. Not just the Indian curriculum."

The influx of refugees to India continued through the 1980s and 1990s, rising to about 3,000 a year, including 800 to 900 children. Many, like Jamba, were unaccompanied, traipsing over 5,000m-high Himalayan passes, in search of a freer, if lonelier, life on the other side.

Since 2008, however, tighter border controls have meant that the steady flow of refugees has become a sporadic trickle. In recent years, only about 20 children a year have been crossing the border.

A dual identity

Students like Jamba, therefore, are now in the minority. In a damp classroom at the top of the TCV campus (at TCV, as everywhere in Dharamsala, quantifying distance mostly involves "up" or "down"), Jamba sits next to his Indian-born classmate, Tenzin Dawoe. Tendrils of monsoon mist drift in through an open window. Outside, visibility is about 3m.

"When I was younger, the only things I heard about Tibet were from my grandmother," 17-year-old Tenzin says. "So I had no idea what Tibet looked like in the 2000s. Around here, they describe it as a land of snow, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and huge pastures."

"I feel Tibetan-Indian," avers 14-year-old Tridhe Naga. On the other side of Dharamsala, Tridhe is sitting in the science lab at Mewoen Tsuglag Petoen School (too much of a mouthful, even for native Tibetan speakers, to refer to as anything other than Petoen). A portrait of the Dalai Lama smiles down from above the whiteboard; in the corner, a one-legged skeleton droops over a microscope.

"I am a Tibetan, and I've been living in India my whole life," he says. …

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