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Tibetans in Exile Struggle to Keep Cultural Legacy Alive


Tibetan rights activists say they must counter the effects of Chinese rule over Tibet, where cultural traditions are being lost under the majority Han Chinese. The responsibility is falling to the large Tibetan exile community in India, where the Norbulingka arts school is teaching traditional arts and crafts to preserve the culture of a region most of the students have never actually been to.

In one room, students chisel meticulous floral designs into tiles of wood. In another, they sit on the floor to paint intricate renditions of the Buddhist cycle of life onto canvas stretched between wooden frames. In still another, women stitch tiny pieces of colored fabric that form part of cloth mosaics, also depicting sacred Buddhist images.

Located in the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, the Norbulingka Arts Institute was set up in 1989 to teach traditional Tibetan arts. The student body is a mix of Tibetans who were born in exile in India and others who left Tibet to attend the school.

Thupten Tsewang, the Norbulingka Arts Institute's spokesman, explained why they come here to learn.

"Because Tibet right now is under Chinese occupation, and you don't have any freedom. Even you can't talk about any Tibetan political issues. So that's very difficult to them," he said. "So that's why to get a chance to study different education or different art, they come here."

China invaded Tibet in 1950 and, activists say, destroyed thousands of Buddhist monasteries - home to statuary, woodwork, religious paintings and tapestries called thangkas.

In the decades since the invasion, China has begun a program to send ethnic Han Chinese to Tibet in an effort to economically develop and assimilate the region as part of the country. As a result, activists say, traditional architecture has given way to modern Chinese shop-houses and buildings to accommodate the influx of migrants who set up businesses.

Tibet is supposed to have autonomy within China, but it has not been borne out in practice. The region has been subjected to political and religious suppression, which has pushed tens of thousands of Tibetans into exile in India, including the revered spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Exiled Tibetans fear their entire culture will be lost, especially now that China is building a railroad from the city of Golmud in Qinghai Province to the Tibetan capital Lhasa. It will be completed in 2007.

"This will be the means for more Chinese settlers coming into Tibet and that will reduce and diminish the identity of the Tibetan people, will really marginalize the Tibetan people. So that is of great concern to us," said Thubten Samphel, the spokesman for Tibet's government in exile, based in Dharamsala.

Mr. Samphel admits there is little the exiled Tibetan government can do to save Tibet's culture beyond international lobbying to press China on the point.

"The only thing we can do is to bring our concern to the attention of the international community and to various important governments with which China has a lot of trade dealings," said Mr. Samphel.

But students at the Norbulingka Arts Institute are doing their part by maintaining Tibet's cultural identity as distinct. For some, like a woodcarving student who has never been to Tibet, studying art is a form of activism in the struggle for Tibetan rights.

"I hope I can fight with the woodcraft. We're saving our culture. This is our culture too," he said.

The school's Mr. Tsewang says he is confident the Norbulingka Arts Institute will accomplish one of its main goals: importing Tibetan culture back to Tibet.

"We want to preserve it here so that it can't get lost. … So, yes, of course, when we get the freedom we'll go back and take all the art we have learned here, all the students, and they can contribute back to Tibet," said Mr. Tsewang.

Tibetan activists admit there is a certain irony to the fact that Tibetan art and culture may be best preserved and spread outside of Tibet. Still, they say, it is a campaign they must continue to wage, to keep centuries of tradition alive.

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