January 16, 2012
The following is a four-part journal written for Radio Free Asia (RFA) by freelance correspondent Maura Moynihan and documented by one of the most gifted photojournalists in South Asia, Thomas L. Kelly. Thanks to RFA and special thanks to Thomas for granting me permission to use unpublished photographs.
PART ONE: Pilgrims Converge on Bodhgaya
Tens of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from around the world traveled this week to Bodhgaya, a town in northern India, to hear exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama give the "Kalachakra" religious teachings.
At least 9,000 Tibetans traveling on Chinese passports, along with an estimated 1,200 Chinese Buddhists from the mainland, are among those who have registered with the event authorities.
“We suspect that there are many more from Tibet and China who have not registered with our Kalachakra office,”said a Tibetan exile government official waving his hand over a sea of humanity overflowing from tents onto patches of earth and concrete, trees, and rooftops to hear the Dalai Lama speak.
“There are over 400,000 people here. Just look!,” the official said.
At the start of each teaching, the Dalai Lama ascends a throne under a vast tent as Buddhist masters from East and Southeast Asia recite prayers in Pali, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. An adjoining tent is filled with computers, microphones, and technicians providing simultaneous translation in 16 languages.
Loudspeakers and video screens disseminate throughout the site the Dalai Lama’s voice and image, together with images of monks and lamas gathered on the stage.
The Dalai Lama is a living symbol of the Buddhist faith, and a Kalachakra blessing—the 32nd he has given in his lifetime—conducted in this pilgrimage town is an event of great significance for Buddhists, especially Tibetans.
Kalachakra, which means “Wheel of Time,” is an ancient Buddhist ritual in which devotees are reborn as the lama’s child to obtain rebirth in Shambala, a celestial kingdom that is prophesized to vanquish the forces of evil in a cosmic battle that is said to come within 300 years.
Here in Bodhgaya, in India's Bihar state, a human prayer wheel spins night and day around the Mahabodhi Temple and its holy pipal tree, where in the 6th century BC, Prince Siddhartha is said to have defeated the demon Mara, attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, the “Awakened One.”
“I flew in from Boston with my wife and three children,” says Jamyang, a U.S. citizen for over 20 years.
“All Tibetan exiles are very, very upset about the wave of self-immolations in Tibet, about the future of our country,” he said, referring to the dozen incidents in which Tibetans had set themselves on fire to vent their anger over Chinese rule.
“We’ve made it a priority to come to this Kalachakra, to unite with our brothers and sisters in Tibet, and to affirm our identity, which the Chinese communists want to destroy,” Jamyang said.
“It’s a very hard time for us.”
After Deng Xiaoping became China's paramount leader in 1978 and launched an era of “Reform and Opening Up,” his regime issued several thousand visas for pilgrims from Tibet who also made the long trip to Bodhgaya.
“I will never forget the Kalachakra given here in 1985,” says Sonam, a Tibetan now living in Australia. “I was going to school in South India, and my parents told me I had to go because my uncle was coming from Tibet.”
“It was very emotional. So many people were crying, because we learned about who had died and who had gone to prison. We thought it was the start of a new era and that things would get better.”
“But the situation in Tibet just keeps getting worse now. That’s why I made the effort to come here again.”
This year the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Tibetan Women’s Association have set up tents, together with free health clinics and medical dispensaries, to assist the devotees coming from Tibet.
Most pilgrims from Tibet are afraid to have their photos taken. Some traveled to India without passports, and some obtained passports on the black market.
One man from Tibet’s northeastern region of Amdo applied for an Indian visa in Nepal with an Italian passport, insisting he was an Italian national, and was eventually given a visa.
Said an Indian official who asked not to be named, “He wanted to go so badly, we just gave up.”
Bodhgaya, like most Buddhist sites in India, was virtually abandoned for centuries after Buddhism was vanquished by invaders from Central Asia who began raids into India in the ninth century A.D. Tibetan refugees, led by the Dalai Lama, have brought India’s Buddhist heritage back to life.
Bodhgaya now has a sleek modern airport with direct flights from Delhi and other cities in India, large hotels, temples, and monasteries belonging to Buddhist communities in Thailand, Japan, China, Sri Lanka, and other countries.
“The 1985 Kalachakra people slept in tents or in monasteries,” said Thupten, a Tibetan businessman based in Kathmandu who travels often to Tibet and India.
“Now, this is a boom town. When I was in Lhasa in June, everyone was talking about going to this Kalachakra. So I booked my room at the Mahayana Hotel, the best in town, six months ago, and I’m glad I did.”
On Wednesday night, a group of exhausted Europeans was seen flashing hundred-euro notes around the Mahayana lobby hoping to obtain lodging, but to no avail.
Thousands of pilgrims from Tibet and the Himalayan belt have rented tents in fields, where young actors and musicians stage concerts and theater performances every night, mixing Tibetan classical music and dance with disco and rap.
And everywhere are Indian citizens who have also come to Bodhgaya.
“This is as great a pilgrimage center as any on earth,” said Sunil, a Bengali who recently moved to Bodhgaya with his family to open a guest house which is filled with Western travelers.
“This might be the greatest Buddhist pilgrimage event of the 21st century. As Indians, we feel blessed to have the Dalai Lama here. We look to him for guidance.”
“That’s why I moved here with my family,” said Sunil. “And business is good, too.”
PART TWO: Beijing's Pilgrim “Flexibility” Puzzling. The Chinese government allows up to 10,000 Tibetans pilgrims to travel to India to see the Dalai Lama at the 'Kalachakra' ritual.
When the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya opens to the public each day at 4:00 a.m., the pilgrim queue already stretches out for half a mile. Through a sheath of grey winter mist, the ground pulsates with the motions of thousands of Tibetans, praying and prostrating on planks of wood, blankets, and wet grass.
The chubas, hats, shoes, and jewelry from Amdo, Kham, and Utsang, reveal the beauty and variety of Tibetan culture at this vast congregation of pilgrims who have come for the Dalai Lama's ancient Kalachakra ritual in the Indian town believed to be the place where Buddha attained enlightenment.
But amid charges that China is intensifying its assaults on Buddhism inside Tibet, and as more monks and nuns are driven to self-immolation, everyone here is wondering: why has the Chinese government allowed up to 10,000 Tibetans pilgrims to travel to India to see the Dalai Lama?
Tenzin Tsundue, the renowned poet and activist who is volunteering at the Tibetan Youth Congress tent, says: "The majority of people who have come from Tibet are over age 55. No one has come from Qinghai Province, where most of the self immolations are happening."
"Most are from Utsang, a few from Yunnan, Sichuan, and Gansu, some from Western Tibet."
"Many have told us that they have been under extreme surveillance for a long time and do not have a record of engaging in any political activities; that is why they got permission to come."
"The Chinese Communist Party assumes that these people will not be affected by what they see and learn from meeting with the exile community, [or by] the level of freedom that exists in India. The Party is stuck in a rigid, colonial mind set, which treats its citizens like children who cannot think for themselves."
Around the corner from the Kalachakra grounds, Tibet's exile government, the Central Tibetan Administration, has set up a large tent with photos documenting the history of Chairman Mao's invasion of Tibet, the flight of the Dalai Lama to India, and the creation of his exile universe.
The Gu Chu Sum Society for Tibetan Political Prisoners also has a tent with photos showing the methods of torture that Chinese security forces allegedly employ on Tibetan protesters and activists. Pilgrims from Tibet pass through the exhibit every hour, studying the photos and taking books and pamphlets in English, Tibetan, and Chinese.
Tibetan and Indian media report that China has sent more than 1,000 spies to the Kalachakra. On Jan. 8, the Times of India reported that Indian security officers had arrested several alleged Chinese agents who had plans to disrupt the Kalachakra and cause harm to the Dalai Lama.
"We know that we're under surveillance here" says Jampa, a businessman from Shigatse, who left his Chinese passport in Nepal and travelled to India overland. "It's something we Tibetans just learn to live with."
"We have to keep our heads down. We can only do small actions, like not eating in Chinese restaurants or listening to Chinese music."
"If we are caught with even a small photo of the Dalai Lama we can go to jail," Jampa says.
"But people keep them anyway. I've bought lots, and I'm taking them back to Tibet. The Chinese government just cannot understand our culture, our devotion to the Dalai Lama."
Another Tibetan who lives in Chengdu says: "After the uprising [in Tibet] in 2008, the Chinese launched a nationwide anti-Dalai Lama campaign. Millions of Chinese had never heard of the Dalai Lama before; now they are curious. There is a revival of Buddhism in China now, that's why there are more Chinese Buddhists coming to India now. The government campaign backfired."
Many say that China is also trying to save face after causing a diplomatic blunder in November 2011, when it ordered the Indian government to block the Dalai Lama from attending an international Buddhist conference in Delhi. International delegates at the conference were outraged by China's interference, and the Indian government let the Dalai Lama speak as planned.
"The Chinese agents here want to decode the magic of the Dalai Lama's work, for a larger strategic picture of our exile community and how it works, why it draws so many people from around the world" says Tenzin Tsundue.
"Let them see it. There is a strong Indian security presence here. The Indian people love the Dalai Lama. We welcome Chinese pilgrims here. They are learning the real history of Tibet."
This is a special Kalachakra for Namgyal Lhagyari, the daughter of the last descendant of the ancient Dharma Kings of Tibet. Namgyal's father was arrested in Lhasa in 1959 after the flight of the Dalai Lama and spent 22 years in Drapchi prison for the crime of "bad class status."
Namgyal was born in India and recently won a three-year court case to obtain Indian citizenship.
"Today, I've started a Walk of Faith for Peace and Freedom in Tibet," Namgyal says. " I've heard much about what happens in prison, my father's stories of the pain he suffered, so I'm going on this walk for him and all political prisoners."
"I want to get tired and cold and hungry, to feel a tiny part of the pain they've gone through. I'm going from here to Lumbini where Buddha was born, for those who never had the chance"
Like most Tibetans in exile, Namgyal believes that Tibetans inside Tibet are being driven to self-immolate by what she calls Chinese repression of Tibetan religion and culture.
"The Chinese are trying to kill Tibetan culture," she says. "They are terrified of Tibetan unity. But their violence is making us stronger as a whole."
Fifteen Tibetans have set fire to themselves since March 2011 to protest Beijing's rule over Tibetan areas. A sixteenth, a monk named Tapey, set himself ablaze in 2009.
Chinese authorities have blamed the Dalai Lama for the fiery protests, accusing him of encouraging the self-immolations which, they say, run contrary to Buddhist teachings.
The Dalai Lama has denied the charge, blaming instead what he described as China's "ruthless and illogical" policy toward Tibet.
Lhundup, a monk from Tibet's northeastern region of Amdo who recently escaped to India says, "The self-immolations are the ultimate act of defiance. It's a warning to the Chinese government that the situation in Tibet will soon explode into a war zone if the Chinese keep torturing people for practicing Buddhism."
"We will not go down without a fight."
PART THREE: Tibet’s environmental crisis and Asia’s future
Each day in Bodhgaya, as the Dalai Lama bestows the Kalachakra teachings, the hotels, lanes and parks fill with exhilarating celebrations of Tibetan culture that has survived in exile as it is threatened by Chinese rule in Tibet. On the night of Jan 9th, the Tibetan Women’s Association hosted an event where a panel of experts presented alarming research on a matter that threatens not just the survival of Tibet, but the whole of Asia: China’s control and exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources.
Entitled “Tibet: The Third Pole and its Impact on Asia’s Future”, speakers presented photographs and videos with alarming evidence of how Chinese development is damaging Tibet’s pristine ecosystems. The Tibetan plateau is a unique geomorphic entity; its 46,000 glaciers comprise the planet’s third largest ice mass. This “Third Pole” is the fount of Asia’s 10 largest rivers the primary source of fresh water for through eleven countries, where population growth and industrial output is projected to double within 50 years. Scientists predict that most Tibetan glaciers could vanish by 2035 if present levels of carbon gas emissions are not cut by 80%.
“The preservation and management of the Tibet, Asia’s water tower, will be one of the most critical issues of the 21st century” said Indian photographer and Tibetologist Vijay Kranti. “ In 2000 China launched Xi Bu Dai Fa, or, ‘Opening Up of the Western Regions’, a huge industrial development scheme to extract Tibet’s resources for Chinese industry. China has done this without consulting the nations of South and Southeast Asia. It is a looming catastrophe that is going underreported.”
Tenzin Norbu, director of Environmental Research in Dharamshala, gave an overview of damage to permafrost, glaciers and forests. In 2006 the Xizang railway was competed, connecting Lhasa to Xining, which has brought over 250,000 Chinese engineers into Tibet and facilitated swift transport of minerals, stone and lumber to mainland China.
Michael Buckley, the noted travel writer and photographer, screened his ground-breaking documentary film “Meltdown in Tibet”. “Look what’s happening in the South China Sea: China is claiming it as their own,” said Buckley. “That’s how they view Tibet’s water. In the 1990’s China refused to sign the UN treaty on transboundary rivers. China is also mining all over Tibet, polluting the rivers at their source.”
“You can see all of these dam on Google Earth,” said Buckley, who captured rare footage on trips to Tibet and updates his website www.meltdownintibet.com with current news and satellite photographs of Chinese dam construction across the Tibetan Plateau. When asked what downstream nations could do to hold China accountable, Buckley replied: “Aside from barring all trade with China, future scenarios look bleak. China owns Tibet, so China holds all the cards.”
“People think you can’t kill a river, but you can” said Buckley. “The Yellow and the Yangtze are already failing to produce enough fish and drinking water for China, now that’s going to happen to Tibet’s other rivers.”
Tenzin Dorjee, director of Students for a Free Tibet, spoke about China’s resettlement of Tibetan nomads. “Many people who have come here from Tibet are noamds,” Dorjee noted, “The nomads have been the stewards of the grasslands for thousands of years, but the Chinese government is now saying that the nomads are the cause of ecological degradation, so they must be resettled into concrete encampments. It is an excuse to make way for Chinese engineers to bring in Han migrant workers for mines and dams.”
Tibet’s pre-Buddhist Bon religion regards lakes and mountains as sacred abodes of nature deities, thus mining and damming are not merely offensive, but dangerous; they disturb the Nagas, the snake spirits who rules lakes and rivers, and the Ri-Lhas, the mountain gods who rule the snow peaks. Dorjee said here have been some victories, where local Tibetans stopped mining of holy mountains.
Later that evening, Alo, an elderly nomad from Kham, his hair tied into long braids and red tassels in the traditional nomad style, sipped tea near the Mahabodhi temple, as he summoned memories of his childhood in old Tibet. “We heard thunder and saw wild explosions in the sky, our local lama was crying. We asked him what was happening, he said there was a terrible war in the God realm, the Chinese gods were winning and soon they would seize Tibet. Our lama told us that an oracle said if the Chinese armies ever captured Tibet, the snow mountains will turn grey and the rivers will turn red.”
Tsetan, another Khampa elder who fled to India during the Cultural Revolution, observed: “As long as the Tibet crisis is framed as a merely human rights issue, nothing will ever change. The basic facts about Tibet’s size and natural resources are not well known, but when you show a map of mines and dams all across Tibet, then people understand why Tibet matters.”
“There’s an old saying; He who control Tibet controls the world.”
PART FOUR: Tibetand culture in the 21st Century – Youth, Music and Nationalism
On the final day of the Kalachakra, the Dalai Lama presided over a grand ceremony that spanned centuries of Tibetan civilization. The day began at 6 AM, as His Holiness completed the initiation, “wang” in Tibetan – wherein he blessed the sangha with the seal of Vajra Master, followed by a “tenshuk” a Long Life ceremony, a procession of Tibetans carried offerings up to their leader, who smiled warmly as he touched heads and Buddhist scriptures, rice, thankas, flowers.
The oracles then ascended to the stage, in trance, dancing before the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, Sakya Trinzin, the Chief Minsiters of Bihar and Arunachal Pradesh, and Lobsang Sangye, the new Exile Prime Minister. The event concluded with classical Tibetan songs of rare beauty, sung by young Tibetan students from TIPA, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, the first institution the Dalai Lama established in exile.
This Kalachakra combined Tibetan rituals with those of a classic Indian “mela”, a festival mingling ritual, folklore, music and dance with trade . Every street in Bodhgaya is lined with stalls heaving with religious posters, prayer beads, icons of the Buddha statues and Hindu deities. And everywhere, pilgrims from Tibet selling exquisitely tailored chubas, jewelry, music CD’s, paintings, posters, to pay for their passage back to the Land of Snows.
Refugee Road, a Tibetan bazaar that circles round the Mahabodhi Temple, is lined with Tibetan Sikkimese and Bhutanese restaurants. Mohammed’s, the old favorite with Western pilgrims, Mohammed’s, was the first to serve pasta and cappuccino: it’s impossible to get a table for dinner.
On every corner, TV screens play screening new music videos from Tibet, with Chinese and Tibetan subtitles, videos from Dharamshala with Hindi subtitles, all vivid expressions of a pan Himlayan cultural and ethnic identity. And every night at Sujata Bye Pass, named after the maiden who gave the starving Buddha a bowl of milk and thereby saved his life, four fields pulse with live concerts. A Darjeeling rock bands belts out Hendrix. One Sikkimese troupe specializes in Bollywood song and dance, with elaborate light shows and huge loudspeakers powered by groaning generators. And Tibetan rappers rock a crowd, filled with young monks, wrapped in maroon robes and shawls, laughing and dancing.
“Young Tibetans want to be citizens of the 21st century, we have a lot of professionals, filmmakers, actors, rappers.” says Lobsang Wangyal, who created the Miss Tibet Contest, now in its 10th year, and has sent all winners to international beauty pageants representing Tibet as a country, sparking Chinese outrage and plenty of media coverage. “It’s important to establish our shared Himalayan Buddhist heritage, so this October I’m launching the Miss Himalaya Pageant. We have a website:https://misshimalaya.com/about/. The event is platform for young women from the entire Himalayan region to promote its culture and preserve its environment.”
For decades, TIPA artists have performing original plays depicting Tibetan life under Chinese rule. On four evenings, the Gu Chu Sum Society for Tibetan Political Prisoners staged plays re-enacting the tortures inflicted upon Tibetan prisoners of conscience, monks and nuns who refuse to denounce HHDL at risk of death.
The Alliance of Tibetan Musicians held several concerts to “honor the patriots inside Tibet.” Jhola Techung, a TIPA graduate and international star of stage and CD, said “We wanted to show our bonds with our brothers and sisters in Tibet, with music. As refugees were scattered around the world: music helps keep us united. At this Kalachakra so many people here from Tibet have come to our concerts. I’ve written a new song about our freedom struggle called “Courage” – that is what we Tibetans need when we are up against such powerful, oppressive forces.”
“Tibetan culture makes the Chinese nervous,” said Karma, a 17 year old student who left his home in Kham 6 years ago to join one of the Dalai Lama’s exile school. “We all came to India for education, but of course, we also want to go back Tibet to see our families. One of my friends from my village in Kham is a good singer. He recorded a CD that was only love songs, nothing political, so he would be able to go home to see his parents. But still, he got arrested when he went to Tibet, and spent 3 months in jail.”
Also screened at the Kalachakra was “Tibet in Song”, an awarding-winning documentary by Ngawang Choephel, a TIPA student who won a Fulbright scholarship to Middlebury College, then travelled to Tibetan to record Tibetan music. For this he was arrested and spent 6 years in a Chinese prison. “I wanted to be here, for this huge gathering of Tibetan people” said Chopehel, linking arms with Tenzin Tsundue, who also went to Tibet as a refugee from India and was held in prison for three months.
Shertar, a popular Tibetan singer in Lhasa has a hit video called the Unity Song, where artists from Amdo, Kham and Utsang, each in their distinctive native hats, chubas and boots, sing “Oh Tibetans unite, the Three Regions of our Snowland” which plays on every ipod and video screen.
“Even after 60 years of Chinese occupation, the Tibetan identity is there,” says a trader from Lhasa who does business in Nepal but had never been to India before. “Of course, lots of Tibetans speak Chinese, we have no choice, and there is pressure to intermarry with Chinese. Tibetan culture is adapting, but it’s still very strong, because it’d very old. We don’t sing Chinese opera, we have our own style.”
On the last night of the Kalachakra, the Alliance of Tibetan Musicians staged a special Unity Concert. Exile stars Techung, Tsering Gyurme, Michael and others sang songs about the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and Tibet’s Freedom struggle, before large banners bearing faces of monks who self-immolated, offering their bodies as a sacrifice for their nation.
One his last morning in Bodhgaya, The Dalia Lama went to the pipal tree at the Mahabodhi Temple, a place where he has prayed and taught since he took refuge in India in 1959. The roads were lined with Tibetan pilgrims, waiting for one last glimpse of the great master, upon whom the 32nd Kalachakra organizing committee bestowed the honorary title; “The Supreme Master of Complete Teachings of Lord Buddha, the XIVth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso of Tibet.”
As the Dalai Lama’s bade farewell to Bodhgaya and drove off with Indian military escorts, the roadways jammed with buses, land rovers, scooters and even horse-drawn tongas, carrying pilgrims away, the great Mahabodhi temple dissolving in the mist.