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Fifty Years of Exile
WSJ[Friday, March 20, 2009 11:48]

Dharmsala, India -- Samdhong Rinpoche fled Tibet in 1959 but he still remembers his homeland vividly. "My memories of my life in Tibet are more clear than my memories of yesterday," says the 70-year-old prime minister of the Tibetan exile government in this northern Indian hill town. "I remember the colors and shapes of the trees in our monastery and the friends we debated with," he recalls with a wistful smile.

opened on March 10, does just that, documenting how Tibetans have carved out a vibrant life in exile since they fled to India, now home to 140,000 Tibetans, in the footsteps of the Dalai Lama. (The exhibit will be in Dharmsala until March 21, and then in Delhi March 26-30.) Another photo exhibit by the Tibetan Women's Association highlighting the role of women in the Tibetan freedom struggle is touring this year, hitting Delhi, Bangalore and New York, among others.

Tibetan women protesting at the 1995 U.N. Women's Conference in Beijing. (Photo: Tibetan Women's Association)
Tibetan women protesting at the 1995 U.N. Women's Conference in Beijing. (Photo: Tibetan Women's Association)
"Tibetan culture has spread to all corners of the world. His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] is respected all over the world," says Mr. Rinpoche. "These are great achievements. We have not wasted the last 50 years."

Tibetan Buddhism abroad has certainly grown from humble beginnings. One black-and-white image in the Tibet Museum exhibit shows the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India established in 1959 in the backwater state of Bihar. The grainy photo depicts a simple shack-like structure in a scrubby landscape. Another photo from the 1960s shows a youthful Dalai Lama observing monks debating in the middle of what looks like a patch of dirt.

Contrast that with today: In India alone there are now 230 monasteries with 35,000 members—far more than in Tibet itself. A photo taken last year of the prayer hall of Drepung Monastery in Mundgod in southern India shows a sprawling four-story building with majestic gold rooftops. Thousands of red-robed monks stand outside—remarkable considering that the original Drepung in Lhasa today has only 300 monks.

Another photo shows the exquisite grounds of Norbulingka, an institute near Dharmsala devoted to Tibetan arts and culture, and named after the Dalai Lama's summer palace in Lhasa. Waterfalls course past brightly painted Tibetan-style buildings where artisans make thangkas (Tibetan scrolls and paintings), sculptures, furniture and clothes. An artist with a delicate brush meticulously paints the eyes of a golden Buddha statue.

Ironically, those images are displayed in front of a panel from the permanent exhibit that includes a 1979 photo showing fragments of Tibetan Buddhist sculptures stacked up like a massive pile of rubbish. Another photo from Tibet shows a ruined, headless Buddha statute destroyed by the Chinese military.

The enormous risks taken by escaping refugees are starkly illustrated in a 1996 photo that shows a Tibetan father and his young daughter climbing a 5,700 meter pass in the Himalayas. The girl, who looks about six years old, scrambles over snow-covered rocks in a land so barren it looks like a moonscape. Each year hundreds of children brave the grueling trek from Tibet so they can receive a Tibetan education in exile.

Tibetan women have also undertaken a remarkable journey since their historic protest against the Chinese occupation, known as Tibetan Women's Uprising Day, in Lhasa on March 12, 1959. In the display at the main Buddhist temple in Dharmsala, a fuzzy black-and-white photo captures the image of thousands of women gathered at the foot of the Potala Palace. This public protest was unprecedented for Tibetan women who were traditionally considered "the precious jewel at home."

Since then Tibetan women have played an important role in Tibet's resistance. The Tibetan Women's Association today counts 17,000 members, young and old, who regularly protest alongside Tibetan men in India and beyond, as shown in dozens of images in the exhibit. In a 1996 photo, a young Tibetan woman winces as blood is drawn from her arm at a demonstration in India; she is preparing to sign a United Nations petition in her own blood.

Resistance and hope burn inside women like Tsering Deckyi, a stooped 70-year-old who comes to the Dharmsala's Buddhist temple every day to pray and prostrate. Ms. Deckyi was just 20 when she participated in Tibetan Women's Uprising Day in 1959. A decade later she witnessed the execution of the nun Thinley Chodon in Lhasa.

Ms. Deckyi's grief is so fresh that tears start rolling down her deeply wrinkled face when she recalls the repression in Tibet. But she still manages to find optimism. "With the presence of His Holiness I'm not at all depressed," says Ms. Deckyi, after wiping tears from her wizened face. "I have not lost my hope."

Ms. Yee is a journalist based in New Delhi.
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