Himalayan blend

The exodus from their homeland resulted in Tibetans establishing their own schools in India, which strive for a balance between their native traditions and the culture of their adopted country. Adi Bloom reports from Dharamsala

"They used to ask me, how many baths do you take a year?" Jamba Choezin says. "People think that, in Tibet, you take one bath a year. They think you cannot see cars everywhere, or aircraft, and that Tibetans eat only tsampa porridge."

When Jamba was 10, his parents sent him alone across the mountains from Tibet to India, so that he could live near the Dalai Lama. Now, 10 years later, he sits in a classroom in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala.

"People who were born here just consider Tibet a very backward place," he says. "Very undeveloped, like in 1959. The real situation is that the Chinese built railways and roads and big buildings."

In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Chinese-occupied Tibet for Dharamsala. In the years that followed, tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees made the arduous journey across the Himalayas to join him. Since then, waves of Tibetan immigrants have settled in India - the majority in Dharamsala - and made lives for themselves. Half a century later, their children, and their children's children, are Indian born and raised, and have never set foot in their hereditary homeland.

In fact, the first refugees had barely removed their yak-skin boots when it became clear that raising and educating children in exile was going to be a complicated issue. Sending Tibetan children to local Indian schools would suit neither the Tibetans, who wanted to retain their own identity, nor the Indian government, which wanted to show the Chinese that it was not offering the Tibetans a permanent home. And so, in 1960, the Dalai Lama established the first Tibetan school. That same year, his sister set up the Tibetan Children's Village (TCV) in Dharamsala. A network of TCV schools across India now educates 15,000 children.

"We call it the Tibetanisation programme," says Thupten Dorjee, principal of the Dharamsala TCV, an 1,800-student all-through boarding school on the banks of a holy lake. "Children born in exile have never seen Tibet. They have only what their parents or their elders tell them. To grow up Tibetan, they should know the geography of Tibet, the mountains of Tibet, the monasteries of Tibet. Not just the Indian curriculum."

The influx of refugees to India continued through the 1980s and 1990s, rising to about 3,000 a year, including 800 to 900 children. Many, like Jamba, were unaccompanied, traipsing over 5,000m-high Himalayan passes, in search of a freer, if lonelier, life on the other side.

Since 2008, however, tighter border controls have meant that the steady flow of refugees has become a sporadic trickle. In recent years, only about 20 children a year have been crossing the border.

A dual identity

Students like Jamba, therefore, are now in the minority. In a damp classroom at the top of the TCV campus (at TCV, as everywhere in Dharamsala, quantifying distance mostly involves "up" or "down"), Jamba sits next to his Indian-born classmate, Tenzin Dawoe. Tendrils of monsoon mist drift in through an open window. Outside, visibility is about 3m.

"When I was younger, the only things I heard about Tibet were from my grandmother," 17-year-old Tenzin says. "So I had no idea what Tibet looked like in the 2000s. Around here, they describe it as a land of snow, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and huge pastures."

"I feel Tibetan-Indian," avers 14-year-old Tridhe Naga. On the other side of Dharamsala, Tridhe is sitting in the science lab at Mewoen Tsuglag Petoen School (too much of a mouthful, even for native Tibetan speakers, to refer to as anything other than Petoen). A portrait of the Dalai Lama smiles down from above the whiteboard; in the corner, a one-legged skeleton droops over a microscope.

"I am a Tibetan, and I've been living in India my whole life," he says. "At home, I have Tibetan habits. In the morning, I say prayers and offer water bowls to the Dalai Lama. We eat tsampa - tsampa is one of Tibetans' most delicious foods - and drink salt tea. But when I go into society, I have to go into Indian society. Therefore I'm Tibetan-Indian."

The same, it turns out, is true for most of his teachers. "I was born here, I was raised here, now I'm serving here," says Tenzin Dorjee, principal of Petoen. "Most of my teachers and staff were also born here." He, too, sits under a large portrait of the Dalai Lama, draped with a yellow ceremonial khata scarf. On his desk is an Indian flag. In the playground just outside, teenage boys kick around a deflated football. Nearby, prayer flags flutter against a backdrop of pine-covered Himalayan foothills.

"I believe that the culture and the tradition that we have in Tibet is a product of India," Tenzin Dorjee says. "The Tibetan alphabet comes from the Indian alphabet. Buddhism flourished in Tibet but came from India. I can say that I'm a Tibetan, but I'm an Indian as well."

Cultural heritage

Petoen was set up specifically to ensure that teenagers such as Tridhe do not drop "Tibetan" from their self-definition. The school was established in 2005, after extended consultations with Tibetan, Indian and overseas educationalists.

It is intended as a model for other Tibetan-exile schools, offering a modern education that is nevertheless steeped in traditional Tibetan culture. All lessons are delivered in Tibetan. Students are taught Tibetan music and dance, and Buddhist scholars are invited to deliver talks.

Lobsang Tsering, who crossed the border alone at the age of 11, is one of the few Petoen teachers actually born in Tibet. "Before I left Tibet, I always had a romantic vision of India," he says. "I watched the films; I knew that the Dalai Lama stays here. But when I arrived, the place, the people, the country were totally different. It seemed to be very poor, not very clean. Why was I here?"

He stands in the school dining hall, watching students spoon Indian dhal and rice on to large thali plates. "When I first came over the border, they served me rice and dhal," he says. "I asked, `Where's the veg?' I didn't eat properly and I had diarrhoea. And I was not accustomed to the weather, so I had lots of rashes and skin problems.

"Eventually, I got used to it. But, absolutely, I wanted to go back. Whenever I saw pictures of Tibet in magazines, I wanted to go back there. Then, gradually, I was assimilated into life here. Slowly, I accepted that I would stay, and that I would study."

But Tsering says he always felt somehow apart from his Indian-born classmates. "The same as me having a romantic idea of India, students who were born in India have a romantic notion of Tibet," he says. "They don't see how you're mentally tortured under the Chinese, on a daily basis."

There are other, more subtle, differences. "I love to listen to Tibetan or Chinese songs," Jamba says. "I like to see Chinese and English movies. I don't usually like Hindi films, because most of them are love stories, or their action is too much exaggerated."

"It's quite the opposite for me," chips in Indian-born student Tenzin. "I watch Hollywood and Bollywood movies. And I'm more influenced by Western music - the popular songs that I hear on (US cable television network) VH1 - and also Hindi songs. I like Tibetan songs, but I don't listen to them as much as songs in other languages."

Fellow student Lobsang Dorjee also sees clear differences between native and Indian-born Tibetans. "When I came here, I had just one idea: to study," he says. "I told myself, you have to study. You've come across the mountains with one purpose. I had to study, earn proper money, buy clothes. Sometimes, for a whole winter, I didn't have proper shoes to wear.

"Students born in India aren't ambitious in that way. After class, they go and play. I would study, seek help from teachers and elder students. Students born in India aren't worried about anything. It seems that nothing matters to them."

How, then, to decide what it is to be Tibetan, to calibrate it and deliver it in lesson-sized chunks? At TCV, the language of instruction for primary students is Tibetan. This changes to English at secondary level. Social science lessons include study of the charter of the Tibetan government in exile and an examination of the Tibetan diaspora. Only in 10th standard, two years before they finish school, do students switch to the Indian curriculum, in order to sit Indian exams.

"For our children, it's as important to know where Lhasa is as it is to know where Mumbai is for Indian children or London for British children," TCV principal Thupten Dorjee says. "We want to inculcate a sense of learning your language or culture."

But Tenzin Dorjee, in the principal's office at Petoen, believes that many of the elements of the Tibetanisation programme - the Tibetan-medium education, the Buddhism lectures, the geography lessons - are actually beside the point.

"When I was a kid, I was never told, `You should become a doctor or engineer, make lots of money, be rich,'" he says. "I was told, you need to study hard, work hard to serve your country and give something back.

"Becoming a doctor or engineer, it's OK for personal growth. But, if you can, you should serve society. Not just Tibetan society - society as a whole. The biggest example is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. As a Tibetan, he's serving Tibet, but as a human being, he's serving human beings.

"Our students say that they want to serve society. They want to become a doctor, so that they can serve the poor, or come back to school and teach other children. This thinking says that they're Tibetan."

Tenzin Dorjee pauses. "Frankly, if someone gave me a wish that, now Tibet is a free country, you can go to Tibet, I would think about whether I should go or not. I'm 37; I started teaching in 1999. I've spent the best part of my life serving the Tibetan kids. That's the best gift, and I can cherish it all my life."

Back at TCV, Jamba has similar ideas about service. He wants to be a political activist, campaigning for a free Tibet. Fellow student Tenzin, however, has a different ambition. "My aim is to reach Hollywood, become a film-maker," he says. "My ultimate goal is to win an Oscar some time."

He stops and thinks. "It might be hard to maintain Tibetan tradition, because you're surrounded by people from another country. But as long as you have the will to serve your motherland, I think it won't be a problem.

"Right now, we don't have a land to claim as our own. We only have identity and culture. Even if I go to another country, even if I get citizenship of another country, my blood will still be Tibetan."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you