Monuments of Exile
Just before I came to India, I met someone who said that his family is Tibetan, but he grew up in India. I remember that it didn't really make sense to me at the time why a Tibetan would live in India, but I stored that information in the back of my mind and moved on from it. And then in June of 2018 I visited Dharamshala, a small hill-town in the North-Western state of Himachal Pradesh and learnt all about the huge Tibetan Diaspora based in the North-West of India.
I suppose Tibet is something that I should have known about, but I really didn't. I'm not sure if I could have placed it on a map, although I think I knew that it shared a border with China. So let me share with you some of the things that I learnt about Tibet while visiting the hometown of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and of the Dalai Lama.
Tibet is now classified as a district of China, in the South-Western area bordering India. Tibet is the highest country in the world, with an average elevation of 4 900 metres. Parts of Mount Everest, the highest place on Earth, are in Tibet. Tibet declared independence in 1913 after a long history of being governed by different dynasties, but was incorporated into China in 1951. Its former capital was Lhasa. Following its incorporation into China, many Tibetans fled from violence and persecution, mostly opting for the dangerous trek over the Himalayas into India. I don't want to get into the politics of it, because I really don't know any more than some basic reading, but I also wanted to share some of the encounters I had with this little bit of history while visiting Dharamshala.
In 1578, the title 'Dalai Lama' was first officially given to the spiritual - and often political - leader of the Tibetan people. In 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled Tibet and crossed the Himalayas into India. He ended up in Dharamshala, where he set up the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, and effectively, the core of the Tibetan Diaspora. In 1960 he built the Namgyal Monastery, where he resides, which is the holiest Tibetan-Bhuddist shrine outside of Tibet. Today several thousand Tibetan refugees live in the villages surrounding Dharamshala, especially McLeod Ganj.
McLeod Ganj has a distinctly Tibetan feel to it. Traditional Buddhist prayer flags line many of the lanes, and the people look ethnically Tibetan. Stalls sell Tibetan delicacies like momos - sort of like a fried wonton stuffed with different things, from yak cheese to chopped cabbage to fried chicken to Nutella. Many of the signs are written in the distinctive Tibetan script instead of Hindi, and different cultural organizations are set up around town, from organizations focussed on revitalizing traditional Tibetan art forms to resettlement offices offering skills training and employment services to new refugees. In many ways McLeod Ganj has become the new Lhasa, and serves as the core of the Tibetan Diasporic community.
But what is a Diaspora? It's a word that so many Jews are raised with from a young age, but which I've found that many non-Jews are unfamiliar with. The dictionary defines it as "the dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland". Which seems to be an alright definition, except that it seems that most people aren't just dispersed from their Homelands. The Jews were forcibly exiled. Tibetan refugees fled barefoot across mountain ranges. It seems to me that Diasporas aren't simply a product of dispersion.
After the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, the Jewish people were exiled, as a whole, to Babylon. They lived there for 70 years, and we read stories of their distress (and hear Boney-M singing about their weeping by the rivers and yearning to return to Zion). Yet at the end of 70 years, generations had been born in Babylon and the people who were physically torn from their land were giving way to a people who grew up and thrived in Babylon. When King Cyrus of Persia gave edict for the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, he specifically made note that not all of the Jews would want to give up their material lives in Babylon, and while many returned to Jerusalem, some people stayed as well. The centres of Judaism slowly shifted from Jerusalem to different Diasporic communities around the world.
At the bottom of McLeod Ganj (the whole town is set into a rather steep hillside) there is a foot path encircling the Namgyal Monastery - the central shrine of Tibetan Buddhism and the residence of the Dalai Lama. It's a Buddhist tradition to walk in a clock-wise circuit of a Temple. The path goes down through the monkey-filled deodar forests surrounding Dharamshala, and provides a welcome respite from the bustle of the main market. The path is lined with thousands of coloured prayer flags, representing the five utterances that Buddhists believe will bring enlightenment. There are also many prayer wheels - rows of large decorated containers filled with papers containing the five utterances, most constructed and installed by individuals as a means of personal service. Buddhists believe that spinning the wheel 100 times is equivalent to saying the utterances thousands of times.
Halfway along the two kilometre circuit is a memorial wall with the names and photos of over 140 Tibetans who have set themselves on fire since 2009 in protest against the current political system. While the Dalai Lama has spoken out against this form of protest, it continues to happen.
While I'm always wary of making Holocaust comparisons, the framed photos lined up on the wall, stretching high above my line of vision, reminded me of the rows of photographs of political prisoners lining the hallways of the barracks of Auschwitz. The rows of prayer flags, strung up by individuals amidst the trees, reminded me of the mass graves I visited in Poland, isolated amidst the forests, and lined with the stones and memorials placed by group after group of Jewish pilgrims commemorating their losses. These are the scars of our Exiles, the testaments to our people's suffering and displacement from our physical and spiritual Homelands.
The Jewish people have been through so many tragedies. The Shoah is a very recent example, but throughout history hundreds of major and minor calamities have shaped the Judaism that we practice today. While these memorials to our tragedies are very important, I think it's also important to think about the way we build monuments and memorials that celebrate our vibrancy.
I've spent the past few years working specifically in small Diasporic Jewish communities (as opposed to one in Israel, or in a major Jewish centre outside of Israel). I've chosen to work in such small and removed communities because I believe in building monuments to the vibrancy of the Jewish people all over the world. And I believe that these monuments are built in one-room community centres in Mumbai and in the interactions we have with each other and in the ways that we choose to live our Judaism every single day.
Even in my first few days in Glasgow I've met a remarkable number of people who have chosen to make Scotland their home. Sumeera in the wool shop regaled me with stories of her native Kashmir and how she feels so far away from the current political situation. Sultan at the Pakistani restaurant shared memories of eating street pakoras back in Islamabad. Shabbat Day I mingled with young Jews from Hungary, America, New Zealand, Brazil, France and Israel (and surprisingly none from Scotland). We all find ourselves on this little island, making homes so far away from where we're from, but connecting still back to our home cultures.
One afternoon I was sitting by the large front-window of a quaint cafe in McLeod Ganj, enjoying a vegetarian Tibetan soup called Thukpa. The street outside the cafe window was full of Tibetan women selling souvenirs. The woman directly in front of me was knitting a scarf to add to her selection of wares. I was also knitting. It stated pouring outside, the sort of heavy monsoon rain that drenches everything. The woman crouched in further to the cafe window from the outside, and shielded herself with an umbrella. She continued knitting. It struck me that this woman and I were not so different from each other in a way. In many ways we were completely different. I wondered if she had been born in Dharamshala or if she had fled Tibet herself, crossing the vast and freezing Himalayan mountaintops by foot. She was forced to sit in the rain, knitting scarves for probably less than I had paid for the ball of yarn I was knitting from or the cappuccino I had just ordered.
Yet at the same time, we're both products of exile. We're both living outside of our Homelands. We're both marked by the scars of Exile, and yet both living with the responsibility to carry out the work of memory and resilience. And we're both living our lives everyday, building dynamic communities both inside and outside of our Homelands.