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Preserving Tibetan Culture In India

TV report transcript

Tibetan activists say they must counter the effects of 50 years 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. VOA's Patricia Nunan recently visited the school in the northern Indian city of Dharamsala.

This art student is putting the finishing touches on a Thangka painting. It's a traditional form of art in Tibet - the student's homeland, although he's never actually been there.

"During the invasion, he says, all of the art we had in Tibet was destroyed. So I want to preserve that, and to restore what we can."

The 1950 invasion marked the start of China's eventual annexation of Tibet. Along the way, activists charge, Chinese troops destroyed thousands of Buddhist monasteries and the statuary, woodwork and paintings they contained.

In the invasion's aftermath, tens of thousands of Tibetans fled what they describe as China's systematic abuse of human rights and political repression for the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, where Tibet's exiled government has been based ever since. Now, students at the Norbulingka Arts Institute are studying Tibetan art as a means to preserve it. Thupten Tsewang is a spokesman for the school.

"I studied in Tibetan schools, but we don't have any arts class or arts awareness projects till my college years. I have never seen anyone working on a Thangka painting or a woodcarving or a statue by myself. It's only when I came here, I realized how deep it is, how important it is to preserve."

In addition to producing art, the Norbulingka school is open to tourists. It's hoped that many will buy Tibetan art, which helps and raise awareness of its unique qualities, and the struggle involved in preserving it.

Wood Crafter
"I hope I can fight with the woodcraft. We're saving our culture, this is our culture too."

Saving that culture is becoming ever more challenging. Tibet's government in exile charges that China is trying to further dilute Tibetan culture by encouraging tens of thousands of ethnic Han Chinese to migrate to Tibet, setting up businesses, and ultimately assimilating Tibetan culture into that of China.

It's a policy that may ultimately prove more effective than decades of political repression. Thubten Samphel is the spokesman for Tibet's government in exile.

"The policy of using brute force to resolve political dissent is being used less. I believe they are using the market and market forces to somehow integrate Tibet more firmly in the Chinese mainstream economy. So this integration has also political implications."

Tibetan officials admit there is little they can do, except to continue lobbying foreign governments to pressure China to preserve Tibet's culture, and to urge students to continue their studies and keep producing art. So it doesn't become lost for good.