By Vijay Kranti
Relations between India and Tibet date back to the eras when the concept of modern political nation state had yet to emerge; history was remembered only by events and had yet to start to be recorded in terms of dates. The geographic contiguity of India and Tibet remained subordinate to the cultural integrity for eons as Tibet hosted India’s most revered God couple of Lord Shiva and Uma (Mother Parvati). Lord Buddha traveled to this homeland of the Devas (Gods) for his Varshavas (annual stay/retreat) and used to visit Lord Shiva for his daily Bhiksha (food alms).
For Tibetans too, India has been the ‘Phagyul’ (Holy Land) since ages. For Indians the Mount Kailash and Mansarovar have always been the ultimate destinations for peace and nirvana. In days following the bloodiest war of Indian history the Mahabharata, which left Kauravas as losers and Pandavas as winners but not a single sole happy or elated over victory, the winner Pandavas walked across the snow laden Himalayas to Tibet to seek peace and Moksha (Salvation). Some of the Indian kings who had fought on the side of the looser Kauravas and survived the war, migrated to Tibet as they had no courage to face their people back home. That is why Tibetan legend connects many Tibetans’ ancestry to India.
Since past many centuries too, no Tibetan needed a visa or had to show his/her passport ever to visit Bodh Gaya, Rajgir, Nalanda, Sarnath or any other place in India where Lord Buddha put his holy feet. Barter trade too was common and unhindered since time immemorial across almost every walkable pass of Himalayas that connected Indians and Tibetans along the entire India-Tibet borders. But this oneness lasted only until China occupied Tibet in 1951 and China replaced Tibet as India’s new communist neighbor.
In recorded history of over 3000 years before 1951, not a single inch of land along nearly 4000 km long Himalayan borders of India in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan or Arunachal (erstwhile ‘NEFA’) had a common border with China even for a day. Nor did the border posts all along this border hosted a single Chinese soldier, a Chinese post office, a Chinese business Counselor or even Chinese currency for a day in the past innumerable millennia. That was so because Tibet separated the two countries by a distance of over a thousand kilometers width as a buffer, from any point on the India-Tibet borders. That explains why the India-Tibet border had the distinction of being the most peaceful border in the world.
No surprise that common Tibetans refer to India as ‘Gyakar’ (White or Holy Land) and China as ‘Gyanak’ (Black, Unholy or Manhoos i.e. ominous land). Interestingly, this public practice continues even today, rather has further perpetuated inside and outside occupied Tibet despite seven decades of harsh Chinese colonial rule that has witnessed severe communist indoctrination, brain washing and physical dominance of Tibetan population.
One of the strongest bonds which binds Tibet and India together is their common Buddhist heritage in all its spiritual, philosophical, academic and other disciplines which include fine arts, music, medicine, astrology, handicrafts and architecture. Although Buddhism spread out from India to many other countries, including China, much earlier than Tibet yet, thanks to its geographic seclusion and harsh environment, it survived and thrived in Tibet in all its fine and most authentic dimensions as compared to any other country. The main credit for this goes to the wisdom of Tibetan kings like Trisong Detsen and Songtsen Gampo who decided to choose India as Tibet’s root source of teachers and Buddhist texts and Sanskrit as the root language to develop Tibetan script and language for translation of entire range of Buddhist literature. They also had another neighbor China as an alternative source for the same Buddhist wisdom because of its much easier geographic approach and more convenient climate as compared to India. Buddhism had arrived in China from India long ago and quite a few Chinese scholars and Chinese translated texts were already available there. But despite difficult and treacherous journey through snow laden mountains and extremely hot and hostile weather conditions for its scholars, these kings decided to send scholars to universities like Nalanda and invited top ranking Indian scholars like Acharya Shantrakshit and Guru Padmasambhav because they did not want to adopt a ‘second hand’ version of Buddhism.
These kings and Tibetan scholars had an additional wisdom of developing the Tibetan language exactly on the lines of Sanskrit script and grammar so that the Indian literature could be translated in its most authentic form, both in matters of content as well as vocabulary and syntax. The main reason behind this exercise was that the Tibetan leaders of that time did not want Tibetan scholars to risk the ordeals of journey to India or to waste their precious years in learning Sanskrit before going ahead for taking teachings in Buddhism in Indian universities. The scientific rules developed for translation from Sanskrit into Tibetan lead to evolution of such a huge bank of authentic Indian literature which does not exist today in any other language of the world. It is also natural that this centuries long interaction left a deep influence on Tibet’s fine arts, performing arts, handicrafts and sciences like Ayurveda medicine, astronomy etc.
Just to give an idea of the methodology involved in the translation exercise, no Tibetan scholar was permitted to translate a Sanskrit text into Tibetan language unless he was supported by an Indian Sanskrit Pandit (scholar) as his team member. After the completion of each translation project too, a specially chosen Parishad (committee) of scholars of that subject would certify the authenticity of the translation before it was accepted for studies in Tibet. This policy has shown some interesting results during past six decades of Tibetan refugee life in India.
It was one of those rarest events of human history that precious books formed the main baggage of many Tibetan escapees, especially the monks and scholars who formed a substantial chunk of the fleeing Tibetans. It may be difficult for many people to realize that a microscopic refugee community of just 150 thousand and odd can today boast of at least two institutions in India which have been formally recognized as a University or a ‘Deemed University’ by the University Grant Commission of India.
During past few decades one of these institutions viz. the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies (CIHTS) at Sarnath near Varanasi, has recreated over two hundred such important Sanskrit texts which were believed to have been lost forever in India since ages. CIHTS has resurrected them in original Sanskrit, English and Hindi from the Tibetan translations which had survived in Tibet over centuries. What a remarkable ‘Guru Dakshina’ (a student’s tribute to the teacher) from Tibet to India?
In 1959 Tibetan people’s uprising against the Chinese occupation failed and the massacre of Tibetan people at the hands of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forced Dalai Lama to escape to India. About 80 thousand Tibetans followed him to take refuge in India, Nepal and Bhutan. Since then their total number has grown to around 150 thousand. In rough figures, about 30 thousand have migrated to about two dozen countries — a majority of them to Europe and North America. About 90 thousand today lives in India and the rest in Nepal and Bhutan.
Thanks to the wisdom and generosity demonstrated by Pandit Nehru, the erstwhile Prime Minister of India, almost all Tibetan refugees were rehabilitated in over a dozen well organized and exclusive camps established by the Government of India in many part of India. Modern education, occupational rehabilitation through agriculture and traditional Tibetan handcrafts production centres and exclusive Tibetan environment in these camps have helped the Tibetan refugee community to resurrect and preserve their social and cultural life in these camps over past six decades.
Reflecting the traditional Tibetan wisdom, the young Dalai Lama (just 25 years old in 1959) focused on reorganizing the available talent among his fellow refugees to revive and preserve almost all aspects of Tibet’s religious, cultural and social life in these camps. Over past six decades the Tibetan refugee community has successfully evolved a wide chain of monasteries, institutions of higher learning, music and theatre troupes, centres of both religious as well as secular fine arts, medical institutions and handicrafts cooperatives where almost every aspect of Tibetan culture is thriving in its original shape. CHITS is one such institution.
Soon after entering India Dalai Lama established ‘Central Tibetan Administration’ (CTA) on 29th April 1959 in Mussoorie which practically functions as the ‘government in exile’ of Tibet. Later in May 1960 he and CTA shifted to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh. Thanks to his exposure to the modern world during his exile years, the Dalai Lama has gradually piloted the Tibetan political system from a deep rooted theocracy to a democratic one. Starting from a handpicked and nominated Parliament and the Kashag (Cabinet of ministers) in September 1960 he has slowly converted it into a fully democratic system where Tibetan refugees, spread across the world, elect their representatives through secret ballot.
In 2001 he introduced direct election for the post of Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister) and in 2012 he handed over all his traditional political powers as the ‘head of State’ to the elected Kalon Tripa and later renamed the post as the Sikyong (President). That marked the end of five centuries old system in which all executive and spiritual powers of the head of Tibetan State rested in the Dalai Lama. These powers were transferred to his reincarnate after death of a Dalai Lama. Following this revolutionary change the Dalai Lama today is only the spiritual head of Tibet, leaving all political decision to a Sikyong, elected by the Tibetan people. This decision of Dalai Lama has, obviously put the Communist Chinese masters of occupied Tibet in confusion as they have been planning to implant their own puppet ‘reincarnation’ in Tibet after the present Dalai Lama passes away. That explains why Beijing government these days is desperately claiming to be the sole authority to select and install the next Dalai Lama in the occupied Tibet.
As far as Tibet under the Chinese colonial rule is concerned, the new communist masters have successfully developed entire Tibet over past seven decades into a front post and a military base along its newly found borders with South Asia. It’s successful attempts in occupying the Republic of East Turkistan (now renamed as ‘Xinjiang’ by China) in 1949, has also extended its geographic excess to entire Central Asian republics of erstwhile USSR. After establishing innumerable army bases, air force bases and nuclear arsenals over entire Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing is currently busy in changing the demographic character of both Tibet and Xinjiang by bringing in and resettling millions of Han citizens from all over China. In my visits to Tibet over past few years I’ve noticed that the local Tibetans have been reduced to an almost meaningless minority in most major cities of Tibet like Lhasa, Shigatse, Lithing etc.
In Xinjiang the common self respecting Uyghurs are resisting this Chinese colonialism in every possible way including public protests and killing the Han occupants with axes and knives. But China is trying to brand all the Uyghurs as ‘terrorists’ and wants the world to remain blind to the arrest and brainwashing of nearly two million poor Uyghur citizens in its barb wired concentration camps. In comparison with the Uyghurs, the Tibetans are a lesser problem for the Chinese communist leaders because their protests are peaceful and non-violent. Near complete silence on the part of the ‘civilized’ world towards self immolation by 153 Tibetans (till writing of this article) over past few years has only emboldened the Chinese communist rulers in perpetuating colonialism in Tibet.
It is strange that in a world where world powers would rush and engage into bloodiest wars in regions like Vietnam, Afghanistan and Kuwait over regional disputes, their reactions to the occupation of as vast and helpless countries as Tibet and ‘Xinjiang’ have remained limited to lip service and hollow preaching on human rights -a popular luxury of nice people and governments, many among whom won’t mind forfeiting this luxury in lieu of some political or trade concessions.
It is shocking to note that a self respecting country like India not only allowed China to gobble up Tibet seventy years ago without caring for its own national security along its Himalayan borders. Unfortunately, it remains nearly as much indifferent even today when China is using the occupied territories of Tibet and ‘Xinjiang’ to further encircle India by developing its military links with Arabian Sea through Pakistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). India has only helplessly watched Beijing using Tibetan territory as its launch pad for attack on India in 1962 or for providing training, arms, sanctuary and other resources to Naxalites (Maoists) and anti-India militant groups of North Eastern India inside Tibet.
All these issues of Tibet, its geographic significance for India’s security, stability and national integrity as well as its close historical and traditional ties with Tibet give us a good reason to rethink Tibet and relocate its position on our national mindscape.
(Views expressed are his own)
The author is a senior Indian journalist, photographer and a keen Tibet watcher for over four decades. He visited Tibet many times on his self assigned learning and photo-expeditions. He was one of the first ever Indian journalist who could visit Tibet without Chinese patronization or control. This piece is part of a series of his memoirs with Tibet and Tibetan people.