Blog: From the Highlands to the Himalayas

7th June 2017

Post by Eleanor

Most of Free Tibet’s focus was on the Panchen Lama during May.  We started our campaign on his birthday (25 April) and built up to a vigil on the anniversary of his disappearance on 17 May.  We asked people to send in birthday cards and we’ve received quite a collection so far.  We’ll be sending these on to China later in the summer.  We’ve also received lots of photos of the “missing” posters which supporters have been putting up in their local communities to raise awareness.

The campaign for the Panchen Lama has always been quite important to me.  It was via a Panchen Lama leaflet that I first joined Free Tibet back in the late nineties. I’d been interested in Tibet for years, and I don't remember where I picked up the leaflet, but I do remember that it had a powerful effect on me.

The Panchen Lama was kidnapped in 1995.  Coincidentally, this occured around the same time that I got the closest to Tibet I have ever been. It happened while I was working in north-east India, in an area with a strong Tibetan community, called Kalimpong.

Kalimpong is a hill station set in the Himalayan foothills (close to Darjeeling) with the town centre at an elevation of approximately 1,250 metres (4,101 ft).  On clear days we had a great view of Mount Kanchenjunga and some of the autumn sunsets were incredible.  Like many hill stations, Kalimpong doesn’t have an awful lot of flat space and much of the town spreads either uphill or downhill from the centre.  The highest point, Deolo Hill, rises to 1,704m (5,591 ft).


Technically it’s part of the state of West Bengal but the culture is not Bengali.  The original inhabitants of the area are predominantly Lepcha, Gorkha, and various Nepali ethnicities,  with Nepali being the principal language despite migration from other parts of India as well as neighbouring countries, including Bhutan, China and Tibet. It has always had a very strong Tibetan connection and was an important trading town prior to the invasion.  Since then, it has become home to many Tibetan refugees.

The Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Institute (ITBCI) School was established in Kalimpong in 1954 by the late Dhardo Rinpoche.  It was the first school of its kind to be set up in India, making it the oldest Tibetan refugee school in existence.  Over the years the size of the school has expanded and it now caters to over 300 students.  A friend of mine worked there in 1995, while I was teaching at another school nearby.  I visited him there one day and had my first taste of Tibetan butter tea. 

It was around that time that I also had my first taste of momos.  It’s hard to trace the origin of momos.  Some will argue that they are a traditional part of Nepali cooking as well as Tibetan.  Some will argue that they were introduced to Nepal from Tibet and then made their way down to areas like Kalimpong.  What I can tell you for a fact is that they were a very popular and important part of the local cuisine when I first visited Kalimpong and remain so today.

Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are another strong feature in Kalimpong and the surrounding area.  Some were set up prior to the invasion of Tibet at the request of merchants and other regular travellers.  Other monasteries were established as Tibetans fled from the Chinese occupation.  Zang Dhok Palri Phodang is perhaps the best known institute in Kalimpong.

It was consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1976 and houses 108 volumes of the Kangyur (sometimes also spelled Kanjur), which means the “translated words (of the Buddha)”. The monastery also contains many rare Buddhist scriptures that were brought out of Tibet following the Chinese invasion.

I was working at St Augustine’s, a school that takes students from all across India as well as some who come directly from Nepal or Tibet.

I remember some Tibetan boys who had been sent to the school while they were still very young, around three or four years old.  They were in the residential kindergarten and were often homesick.  They only spoke Tibetan and didn’t understand the teachers or any of their classmates. Fortunately, there were some older Tibetan boys who were also residential and able to keep an eye on them.

When the head teacher found out I was Scottish he (correctly, fortunately) assumed I’d be able to dance and insisted I pick a group of students and put together a highland dance item for the next concert.  He even arranged for a local tailor to come and make them costumes.  Some of the local fabric looks pretty similar to tartan so we had kilts and black waistcoats with a silver lining – just like the one I wore when I was learning the sword dance and the highland fling when I was their age.  It went down a storm and we had another highland dance in the next concert.  I was also roped into helping with other dance groups, which included Nepali folk dance and classical Chinese.

  • My highland dance group between performances.

  • My highland dancers in action on stage.

  • A few of my Chinese students taking a group photo before the performance.

  • Traditional Nepali folk dance on stage.

  • Boys in Scottish, Chinese and Nepali dance costumes.

  • Boys in the Nepali dance team waiting to go on stage. The younger ones are dressed as girls and danced the female part.

  • Boys from my registration class in their sports wear, ready for practice.

  • Some of my students outside the registration class – looking very smart and well behaved.

  • The students loved to be in photos – I always made lots of copies.

  • One of my classes – there was an average of 60 in each class.

  • A Nepali khukuri dance out on the school grounds, which included forming ‘SAS’ for St Augustine’s School. A khukuri is a traditional knife.

As you can see, the school had a strong emphasis on music and culture and regularly hosted performances by students.  So, in addition to butter tea and momos, I had my first taste of Tibetan music and dance, courtesy of some of the Tibetan students, as well as my first glimpse of a Tibetan snow lion.

During one of the school holidays I made a trip to Sikkim and went hiking with some local friends.  We reached a point where we had a clear view of a snow-capped mountain range that I didn’t recognise.  They told me: “that’s the border of Tibet”.  That is the closest I’ve ever been to getting inside Tibet.

The Chinese government has made it clear that I wouldn't be welcome there (being a high-profile campaigner for Tibetan freedom does not get you into their good books),  but I suppose that's just another on the list of reasons why Tibet needs to be free!

Eleanor is Director of Free Tibet and also of our research partner Tibet Watch. She joined the movement professionally in April 2013, having previously been Director of Casework for legal charity Amicus, where her work focused on the death penalty in the US. With a law degree and an MA in human rights, Eleanor has worked for many other campaigns and projects, including One For Ten, PeaceBrigades International, the Burma Human Rights Documentation Unit and the British Institute of International & Comparative Law. She has been a supporter of Free Tibet since her student days and has supported the Tibetan cause for over 20 years. Read updates from her on Twitter and each month on our blog.