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India – and a visit to ‘Little Tibet’ Printer friendly page Print This
By Siv O'Neall, Axis of Logic
Axis of Logic
Wednesday, Mar 14, 2012

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife Leah walking with His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the Main Tibetan Temple in Dharamsala, India, on February 10, 2012. Photo/Tenzin

The trip to Dharamsala to see the Dalai Lama’s own town McLeod Ganj, which became the seat of the Tibetan government in exile in the fifties, had been planned for many months. My husband John and I, had visited several Buddhist monasteries in other parts of India, such as Sarnath, where Buddha is said to have held his first sermon to five monks. From this day on Buddhism spread with enormous speed, first in India and from there to huge parts of Asia and even to the rest of the world.

Sarnath is very close to our ‘home town’ in India, which is Varanasi, where we are closely cooperating with the DEVA/DISCC organization for underprivileged children. DEVA, which is the name of the original organization, is a Hindu organization, only in as far as the denomination counts at all. Castes, for one thing, just do not exist to our friends who run the organization and children or families are helped if they need help no matter which God or Gods they pray to.

A few years ago we also traveled to Gangtok in Sikkim in northeastern India, which is heavily influenced by Buddhism from the closely situated Tibet. There are Tibetan exile monasteries and also a smaller Tibetan exile center close to Gangtok where monks and whole families have fled from Tibet ever since 1959.

Chinese invasion and Tibetan rebellion and exile

Tibetan Buddhists had been rebelling ever since the Chinese clamped down on their freedom to exercise their religion, beginning in 1955. Armed conflict between Tibetan rebellion forces and the Chinese army started in 1956 in a couple of provinces and spread quickly to the Tibetan capital Lhasa. Guerrilla warfare lasted through 1962. On March 10, 1959, a revolt erupted in Lhasa. On March 17 mortar shells were fired on the Dalai Lama’s palace, and it became obvious that his life was in danger.[1]

View of McLeod Ganj on its hilltop above Dharamsala (Photo O'Neall)

In March 1959 the Dalai Lama escaped to India during a 14-day journey on foot across the Himalayan mountains. He left Lhasa on March 17 with his family and an entourage of 20 men. For quite some time there was no news as to his whereabouts. On March 29, 1959, he sent a message to the Indian government asking for permission to enter India and to seek asylum there. They had to cross the Kyichu and the Tsangpo rivers, but due to the loyalty and affectionate support of his people he was able to find his way through a route which is, to say the least, extremely arduous.

The exodus of Tibetans into India continues to this day. Out of the more than 6000 Buddhist monasteries in Tibet only 12 remain today. Particularly during the Cultural Revolution (launched in 1966 and not really ended until 1971), there was wholesale destruction of Tibetan buildings and religious artifacts.

"The Tibetan people were unwilling to accept Chinese occupation. Unrest escalated throughout the decade after 1950, culminating in the Tibetan Uprising of 1959. According to Chinese sources, 80,000 Tibetans died in Central Tibet alone during and immediately after the uprising. It is estimated that since 1959, 1.5 million Tibetans have died as a direct result of Chinese incursion into the country." (The Situation of Tibet)


Today, more than 200,000 Tibetans live in exile in India, Nepal, Bhutan and elsewhere.

The statue of Buddha in the center of the temple (Photo O'Neall)

The Dalai Lama has his government in exile in McLeod Ganj in upper Dharamsala, even though he recently gave up on his position as the political leader of Tibetans in exile. He is now only the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. The goal is to achieve autonomy for Tibet and he stresses that he is not a separatist.

Monks and tourists turned toward the statue of Buddha (Photo O'Neall)
We were thrilled to find out that, on our first day in McLeod Ganj, there was going to be a Memorial service in the Temple for the refugees from Tibet in 1959. It was February 8, but it was still a memorial service for the violent strike-down of the rebellion on March 10, 1959.

The temple was crammed with thousands of monks in their burgundy colored robes and shaved heads, many of them actually, for once, wearing warm clothes under the robes – and tourists with cameras.
Chai is being served (Photo O'Neall)
Everybody was sitting cross-legged, even Westerners if they could manage it, and after a while we were all served chai (marsala tea) by monks who were walking around with huge ‘tea pots’. Very good and nice on a bone-chilling day like this. And no segregation either. We were all allowed our paper cup of chai and a small loaf of Tibetan bread.

In the evening there was a candle light procession from the temple to the downtown area of McLeod Ganj. We saw a glimpse of it, the monks all carrying the candles you always see in their temples, walking down towards the lower situated town.

Masses of candles inside the temple (Photo O'Neall)
However, as we were watching them with much awe, the snow began to fall and we escaped back inside. We later heard that they had actually gone back up to the temple from the downtown, in the snow. And we also found on the following morning, that the snow had continued to fall during the night.

Many of the monks in their scanty robes seemed eerily resistant to the cold. Lots of them were showing at least one bare arm, the way you usually see the Dalai Lama himself portrayed. On a different occasion we asked a monk how they could stand the cold weather in such thin clothing. They said they learned ‘through meditation’.

Snow covered mountains above Dharamsala, the foothills of the Himalayas (Photo O'Neall)

The Tibetan Children’s Village in McLeod Ganj

Also we got some very useful information from our hotel managers about a Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) close by. We immediately decided we were going to pay a visit. After making the acquaintance of a cow and some lively monkeys (tourists, watch out, they are thieves and they can bite too!), the whole Children’s village opened up in front of us with its school buildings, its dormitories, its playing fields and its management buildings. We were shown by a friendly man to the building of the manager of the community, a woman named Tsering.

The Tibetan Children's Village (Photo O'Neall)

After having a long chat about the whole organization with this dignified and extraordinarily friendly woman, we were given the grand tour of the precincts by a younger woman, Lima. They all spoke excellent English. January and February are winter vacation time so classes were not in session. We were shown some of the very comfortable dormitories though and the whole village was beautiful and well-kept.


"On 17 May 1960, fifty-one children arrived from the road construction camps in Jammu, ill and malnourished. Mrs. Tsering Dolma Takla, the elder sister of His Holiness, volunteered to look after them."

Tsering (a common Tibetan man’s or woman’s name, meaning ‘Long Life’, first or last name) told us how children, sometimes orphans, who have grown up in a Chinese family can not even speak their own Tibetan language and know nothing about their cultural heritage. They do, however, sometimes manage to secretly cross over into India via the Himalayas, thus repeating the trek the Dalai Lama himself made in 1959. An almost incredible feat, considering the height even of the low passes of the Himalayas. The Chinese do allow a limited number of Tibetans to leave their country, but the numbers are steadily decreasing. It is now down to 500 a year, a mere trickle.

We were greatly impressed by Tsering and by the whole organization. This TCV is not financed by any foundation, but by various small organizations and by people like you and me. Having a foster child who really needs your financial help can be a most fulfilling experience.[2] This
The 'Baby Room' in the Tibetan Village (Photo O'Neall)
community is extremely well equipped with Day Care Centers, a Health Center, an Old Age Home, and they are more or less self-sufficient, with the help they get from various international organizations.

Their brochure states that:

“Today the TCV is a self-contained integrated community with family homes, schooling facilities, vocational training centers and teachers’ training centers.”

The big surprise – Tsering also told us that the Dalai Lama himself was going to be present at a very important event, together with his guest, Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa, on the very next day, February 10.

The very top of the Dalai Lama's temple could be seen from the terrace of our hotel (Photo O'Neall)

Historic event in the Temple of the Dalai Lama in McLeod Ganj

For the big event when we were going to see the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and his wife Leah, we had received many different opinions about when the event was to take place. Tsering had told us to be there well before 10. At our hotel someone even said to be there at 9.

We arrived in good time before 10 but were told on the way in that we were not allowed to bring cameras. Oh well, so John had to go back downhill and up on the hill where our hotel was and back again.

I entered the crammed temple, the area more or less outside the temple building itself under a huge canopy that had been added for this kind of huge event. Right away I saw Tsering sitting in the inner circle where she would have a very good view of the stage. Here I was, over 6000 km from my home in France, a total stranger to everybody, in a place that I had never really dreamed that I would ever see in my life, in a Buddhist temple filled with thousands of monks, nuns, Tibetan refugee families… and tourists. I then see a woman, Tsering of course, turning her head towards me and saying “Where is John?” I should have been thunderstruck, but somehow it all seemed fairly natural. I told her that he’d had to go back to our hotel with our cameras. She said that I could probably find some sitting room further down against the wall. With a big smile, as if I was talking to an old friend, I asked her if she would please tell John where I was, if she saw him coming in.

I didn’t find any sitting room, but I was actually pleased to find standing room at all. All in all we must have been standing up for a  couple of hours for the event. John arrived and told me that Tsering had, just as I had asked her, told him about where he could find me. It all seemed somewhat unreal. Here we were in a country and a small town and a Buddhist temple where we were as foreign and as anonymous as can be. And here is a woman turning her head towards me, saying “Where is John?”.

Some people must have been waiting, standing or sitting cross-legged, literally for hours. But finally, just after 11, something was stirring on the other side of the enormous seating area. They had arrived. Dancers dressed in gorgeous black white and red costumes and wearing face masks were starting their wild dance that we could see quite well.[3] A monk had given me his seat on a bench at one point and since he was nowhere to be seen, I got up, with others, onto the bench and had a very good view of what was going on. The dancing was accompanied by wild screams, somewhat pagan sounding. Behind them came the notables, the Archbishop with a broad smile.

In October, the globe-trotting monk had called off his South Africa visit, as it was "inconvenient" for the government there to grant him a visa, the reason being that it had close ties with China. ‘They later changed their minds on this but the preparations for Desmond Tutu’s trip to India had already been made by then. The occasion for the meeting between the two great men was Tutu's 80th birthday.


The Dalai Lama spoke to his fellow countrymen in Tibetan, and was afterwards translated into English for those of us who didn’t understand Tibetan.


He spoke of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, his much honored guest:


"I welcome a great person today. He is a great and world-renowned personality," the Dalai Lama said in his welcome address.


"He's a person who strongly advocates the importance of love, compassion and equality. Even in his own country South Africa, he, along with Nelson Mandela, has worked wholeheartedly through non-violence for equal rights and genuine democracy," he said.


"The most important thing is that, even after the victory of democracy and equal rights in his country, uneasy feelings of animosity and ill-will have remained within people. Archbishop Tutu has made special efforts to reconcile the people and do away with the feelings of unease and ill-will towards each other."


The Dalai Lama appealed to his fellow Nobel laureate to pray for the well-being of Tibetans suffering repression in Tibet.


"Tibetans are passing through a difficult period. Our sophisticated and compassionate Tibetan culture is really facing a lot of difficulty," the elderly monk said.


"Another thing is that he works tirelessly for truth, honesty and equality. He doesn't see any differences. Wherever there is abuse of human rights or people's freedom is being snatched away, be it Burma or Tibet, he is always the first person to speak against it," the Dalai Lama said about Tutu.” (Dalai Lama is not a separatist: Archbishop Tutu)

In spite of the very serious words, the whole event was marked by a lot of joking, and Desmond Tutu was the leader in the pleasantries. But they both laughed a lot and you got the impression from both of these Nobel Peace Prize laureates that they had just been leading quiet and good lives since their childhood – whereas the truth is just the opposite.

Before getting into the serious part of his speech, Desmond Tutu was kidding a lot about the enormous popularity of the Dalai Lama. He said, ‘When he was in Seattle, there were 60,000 people who had filled a football stadium to listen to him. But I’m not jealous’, he said and repeated: ‘I’m not jealous.’ Laughs from the audience. And, said Tutu, he can’t even speak English properly. Big laughs again.

On a more serious note he said that the Dalai Lama was the holiest man he had ever met and that he wanted to say to the Chinese government that ‘His Holiness is the most peace-loving person on earth’. 


“The discussion also saw Tutu and the Dalai Lama poking fun at each other and making jokes at the expense of the South African and Chinese governments.


“Do you have an army? Why does the Chinese government fear you?” Tutu asked the exiled Tibetan leader at one point.


“Tutu even managed to inject humour into his praise for the Dalai Lama, describing him as:

"Someone who has amazed me, who has been in exile for over 15 years — you’d expected him to be bitter and angry. He’s actually a bundle of joy. He’s in fact quite mischievous, I have to warn him sometimes and say hey, hey, hey, the cameras are on us, you need to behave like a holy man.” (memeburn

Archbishop Desmond Tutu continued, addressing the Chinese in speaking to the Tibetan spiritual leader.

"I want to say to the Chinese government that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the most peace-loving person on this earth. I want to say to the Chinese government that the Dalai Lama has no army, he cannot command his people with guns, he's not a separatist," Tutu said at a public ceremony organised by the Tibetan government-in-exile on his visit.


“Seeking more autonomy for the people of Tibet, Tutu said: "Please, you leaders in Beijing, we beg you, allow Tibet to be what the constitution of the People's Republic of China commits. The constitution allows for autonomy and that is all His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his people want." [4]


"We beg you and at the same time remind you too that this is a moral universe. There is no way in which injustice, oppression and evil can ever have the last word," the former archbishop said in his message to the Chinese leadership.


“To the Tibetan people, he said: "We will visit you in Tibet. We will enter a free Tibet." (Dalai Lama is not a separatist: Archbishop Tutu)


This our 7th visit to India turned out to be possibly the most eventful and exciting one of them all. There was one surprise after another and our final visit to our ‘home town’ of Varanasi was anything but a let-down. Our meeting with our foster child, 13-year-old Sampa, an extremely bright girl who speaks excellent English, and her mother, Vimla, whom we also know very well, was just one of the wonderful events. The get-togethers with other old and new friends connected to DEVA/DISCC, some being total surprises, made it a series of festive encounters while visiting various of the very important DISCC projects.

I do believe India will be calling us back at least once again.


For a detailed background of the Chinese invasion of Tibet go to:
The Dalai Lama’s Press Statements (issued at Tezpur), 18th April, 1959



[1] The Dalai Lama’s Press Statements (issued at Tezpur), 18th April, 1959 “In 1951, under pressure of the Chinese Government, a 17-Point Agreement was made between China and Tibet. In that Agreement, the suzerainty of China was accepted as there was no alternative left to the Tibetans. But even in the Agreement, it was stated that Tibet would enjoy full autonomy.”

[2] If you consider sponsoring a Tibetan child, please go to Tibetan Children's  Villages

[4] In the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet from 1951 the Chinese have the sovereignty over Tibet, but the Tibetan people have the right of exercising national regional autonomy under the unified leadership of China. 

Read her Biography and more articles
by Siv O'Neall on Axis of Logic.

Siv O'Neall is an Axis of Logic columnist, based in France. Her insightful essays are republished and read worldwide. She can be reached at


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