DHARAMSALA, INDIA —
The Dalai Lama turned 80 this week and Tibetans around the world celebrated the auspicious birthday.
As the Tibetan spiritual leader visited New York to lecture on Buddhism, Tibetans back in northern India where he lives in exile, discussed what their spiritual leader means to them.
At a celebration of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday in Dharamsala, Tibetan teenagers performed traditional songs and dance at the Buddhist temple.
Music teacher Dawa Tashi led students during months of rehearsals, stressing the imporantce of music and dance for young exiles.
“To [keep] alive Tibetan culture and pass to the younger generations what we have. By culture we show our own identification. People know this is Tibet," he explained. "To [make] students to feel, ‘I am Tibetan’”.
The vibrant cultural display is one of the legacies of the Dalai Lama. He prioritized setting up Tibetan schools in India, where he has lived since 1959.
Tibetan children wait to perform during celebrations for the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday in Dharamsala, India. (Amy Yee for VOA News)
For the Dalai Lama, it has been a long journey from desperate escapee to world-renowned spiritual leader. Kelsang Damdul knows this firsthand. The 89-year-old was head of the group of soldiers that guided the Dalai Lama out of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.
Damdul said anxiety was so high. It was like the world was falling down. He says it was the saddest day because they had to leave their country. But there was nothing to be done.
Today, Damdul lives in a retirement home in Dharamsala. About 12,000 Tibetans live in this hill town, with more than 100,000 spread across India.
A group of children celebrate with the Dalai Lama after he blew out a candle on his birthday cake at the University of California, Irvine on July 6, 2015.
Lhakpa Tsering was 13 when his family fled Tibet. Later he became head of a Tibetan settlement in Mundgod, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
He remembers the Dalai Lama used to visit to check progress and encourage the dispirited refugees.
“He used to keep his hand on my shoulder. We went into the corn field. His Holiness is like the head of the family. He guides in everything,” Tsering recalled.
Today the Dalai Lama is known for his message of non-violence, but tensions in Tibet continue after a Chinese crackdown that began in 2008.
While the Dalai Lama’s birthday is a joyous occasion around the world, many in Tibet could not freely celebrate the milestone.