Blog: Hearing Tibetan refugees' stories

Looking into Rewalsar
Looking into Rewalsar

31st March 2016
Guest post by Rowena

I have recently been staying in Rewalsar, a small settlement in the foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh, Northern India. Tibetan refugees have settled here as this is a place sacred to Tibetan Buddhists. Guru Rinpoche – the deeply revered 8th century Indian saint and guru - lived here in a cave in the hillside above the settlement before travelling to Tibet and introducing Buddhism to that stunning and extraordinary country.

I was here as I help to run a sponsorship scheme among the Tibetan community in Rewalsar and I'd come to catch up with the people we support – seventy now in total - and to begin to develop a new community project. Whilst doing this I had the chance to talk to some of the refugees in more depth and to hear their stories.

I felt so glad to have had the chance to listen to this gentle man tell me something of his story...

I managed to chat to one elderly man when we stopped to have chai at a small stall by the lake in Rewalsar. We were doing a kora – taking the path around the sacred lake – and it was time to sit down and take a break. He had been a farmer in Tibet he told me but his lands were confiscated following the Chinese invasion in 1950. He was deeply upset.  He was left with just a small strip of land on which to grow barley but the following year all his harvest was also confiscated by the Chinese. There was no payment and he was left with nothing. He was also brutally attacked and lost all his teeth. He was reduced to begging and eating wild plants to survive. For many years he got whatever work he could but always had to beg to get enough money to be able to live. Eventually he and his family, together with a few friends, took the decision to flee Tibet to find freedom in exile. By this time he had four children – the youngest was just one year old. Unable to afford a guide, they found the way, on their own, over the highest mountains in the world. It took them eight weeks.  When they didn’t know which way to go, he would do a divination, he told me. They were always correct.

And how had he found life in India? I asked. "I’m very happy here" he told me. "It’s calm and peaceful, and people treat me well. I feel secure". And what about the Chinese I asked, how did he feel about the Chinese? He looked at me with the same steady, calm expression. "There are two ways" he said. "One way is the way of anger. The Buddhist way is to feel no anger, only compassion.  I feel no anger at all towards the Chinese".  It seemed extraordinary, given how much he had suffered in his life. The desire and ability to replace anger with compassion seemed innate, remarkable and totally inspiring.  Then he added "I’m old on the outside but happy on the inside". I smiled, and felt so glad to have had the chance to listen to this gentle man tell me something of his story.

If anyone mentioned The Dalai Lama they would be put in jail – it was as simple and direct as that.  

A few days later I met a nun who lived in one of the many caves in the hillside above Rewalsar. We sat in the sunshine outside her cave and she told me of her life in Tibet. She’d come from a nomadic family and described an idyllic childhood. She knew nothing of the problems in Tibet, she said, until she became a nun when she was sixteen. She joined a large local nunnery but there was constant pressure from the Chinese to reduce the number of nuns. She felt uncomfortable all the time. "There was no freedom" she told me. "For the four years I was at the nunnery I felt half a human being and half not a human being". If anyone mentioned the Dalai Lama they would be put in jail – it was as simple and direct as that.  The worst thing for her was witnessing the public humiliation of a very high Lama. It felt much much worse, she told me, than if she had been humiliated herself.  It upset her deeply and she knew then she needed the freedom of exile to be able to pursue the spiritual life which meant so much to her. It took four weeks for her to walk over the Himalayas in a small group of eight people.  At one point they ran out of food for three days and she collapsed and lost consciousness. She owes her life to a close friend and fellow nun who searched desperately for food for her and found some nomads who gave sufficient tsampa – the roasted barley flour which is their staple food - to revive her.

I realised a life in exile could mean a deepened sense of optimism for the future. 

Now, living a settled life in exile, she is bright, confident, with an easy and relaxed manner and totally dedicated to her spiritual practice. She is greatly relieved to be free she tells me but very sad to have left Tibet and those she loves. I asked her what she felt about the future for Tibetan Buddhism outside Tibet given that it is so compromised by Chinese policies within her native country. Her reply was simple and clear: "It will survive" she said. "In fact it will flourish because it is true". Listening to her I realised, in spite of the inevitable losses, a life in exile could mean not only freedom but also a deepened sense of optimism and confidence for the future. 

About the author: Rowena first became a Tibet supporter after visiting Dharamsala in the early 1980s. She has been helping to organise Tibet Support Group York since it began 8 years ago, a group that is not only active locally but which also works in Rewalsar, a Tibetan refugee community in Northern India. 

View local Tibet support groups in the UK here.