Written by Sammy Loren
The first sign that welcomes visitors reads, "Caution: Children at Play." Back in the West, a sign of this sort wouldn’t even cock an eyebrow, but up in the Himalayas, it stopped me dead in my tracks. Indian street life is defined by chaos. Clogged with cars and cows, lepers and beggars, roads are forged like white water rapids, not splashed in like puddles. Yet, I’m visiting the Tibetan Children’s Village, a residential school for underprivileged Tibetan refugees.
Located in McLeodgunj, a hill station in the northern state of Himachel Pradesh, the village is a mix between a playground and a monastery. Prayer rooms convert into hacky-sack circles. The alleys between cabins and classrooms turn into dodge ball courts, and the assembly area decocts into a cricket field.
"This isn’t just a school, but it’s also their home," says Leema, a counselor who watches over a bunk of 32 children and withheld her last name and age. Stout, with face round like a plate, we meet as she relaxes in her home, a bunk adorned with photos of the ever-smiling 14th Dalai Lama.
Tibet has been under Chinese domination since 1950, when the People’s Liberation Army invaded the "land of snow" under the pretext of reunifying Tibet with China and ‘liberating’ its masses. Though in the 1950s Tibet was still largely a feudalistic society, many Tibetans argue that development would have occurred organically without Chinese intervention. Most Tibetans reject the claim that the plateau nation was ever part of China, pointing to their rich tradition of Buddhism, language, and distinct cultural identity.
The Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV), nestled on a bluff in the Himalayas, cascades down the terraced mountain side. Evergreens dot the hills and bordering the school is the chai
(milky Indian tea) colored Daal Lake. Lorded over by snowcapped peaks, the hamlet feels like a summer camp where kids learn math and Buddhism, literature and life skills.
"The children start each day with cleaning their living area: sweeping, making their beds, washing the bathrooms," Leema says with pride. "Then they go to six classes throughout the day. Mixed in are breakfast, lunch, assembly, and prayers."
It’s obvious the village’s role extends beyond mere education, and becomes a surrogate Tibetan family. Each bunk’s counselor, like Leema, cooks meals, supervises over bedtimes, study times and free times, and shares their living space with the children. As we speak in the bunk’s foyer where the students eat, play, and pray, a young girl brushes Leema’s black hair like a daughter does to a doll.
"If students misbehave," she laughs, "then I make them sweep the eating room. But there are few problems here."
All classes are taught in Tibetan, most teachers are Tibetan, and the school hopes to impart a strong Tibetan identity and sense of nationhood on the young exiles.
"My kids are aged six to sixteen. This way it will be like a real home, with many brothers and sisters."
Moreover, a formal family is what most lack. "The students are either orphans, very poor, or their parents still live in Tibet," she says.
In 1959, under increasing threat to his life, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled to Dharamsala, India. The mountain town has been home to the government-in-exile and India’s Tibetan refugee community ever since. Many parents risk sending their children to Dharamsala and once here, can make only minimal contact with them. Many travel by foot via Nepal and upon landing in Katmandu, an office there shuffles them to Delhi for processing, and finally up to the Village.
In exile, however, the Tibetan community has certainly flourished. The Dalai Lama has injected democracy into their political structure, women hold many positions of power, and their struggle has mushroomed into a world wide movement. Leaders envision a future Tibet as a demilitarized "zone of peace."
Meanwhile, the Chinese government has continued extirpating Tibetans from Tibet. Since the occupation began in 1950, the Government-in-exile claims that nearly 1.5 million Tibetans were either killed or disappeared. China organizes population transfers in an effort to make Tibetans a minority in their own country. Rich in natural resources, Beijing deforests the region and uses it as a site to dump nuclear wastes. During the ‘cultural revolution,’ nearly 6,500 temples and holy sites were destroyed by Maoist gangs. Only a handful of historic temples, forts, and palaces remain and are exploited as tourist attractions.
The Dalai Lama and other recently exiled Tibetans founded the Tibetan Children’s Village in response to these developments in 1960.
"The school is based on Buddhist teachings: compassion, sympathy, and peace," explains Leema, as some of her pupils scamper about their bunks.
A look around McLeodgunj and Dharamsala, the heart of the exile Tibetan community, attests to the Village’s success. Even with all the budget backpackers clucking around India, the town has a distinctly Tibetan flavor. Momos
, steamed dumplings, and thukpa
, a hearty stew, both Tibetan staples, appear on almost every menu and street corner. Rather than Hindi, Tibetan is the vernacular. Free Tibet stickers splatter every wall and multicolored Tibetan freedom flags flutter from shops and homes. This corner of northern India, at least, belongs to Tibetans.
If the Tibetan freedom struggle has achieved one major success, it has been its internationalization. Most anyone with a pair of ears has heard of Tibet and thanks to their commitment to non-violent struggle, few support China’s position. This internationalism is apparent at the Children’s Village. Most of the structures were built by foreign aid organizations and, "many of the 2,000 children have foreign sponsors who pay $35 dollars a month to send them here," adds Leema.
Moreover, as the Beijing Summer Olympics near, the Tibetan freedom struggle has shouldered a new urgency. It’s been nearly 60 years since the original Chinese occupation and little has changed. Inside Tibet, population transfers continue, peaceful activists are silenced, and the Chinese government continues to deny the Tibetan people legitimacy. The Olympics, though awarded on the condition that China improves its human rights record, has done little to tame the People’s Republic’s penchant for beating, jailing, and torturing dissenters.
Movements can only trudge forward for so long. It seems that China’s greatest weapon is its ability to sit on the issue, to wait another 60 years until Tibetan identity assimilates into Chinese or another foreign culture.
As the Dalai Lama and the first generation of exiles age, it’s obvious that the children who graduate from the Tibetan Children’s Village will be the movements’ future custodians.
"I went to school at the village," explains Leema, gazing over the campus. "And when I had children, I sent them here, too." Photo from Tibetfund.org