In all honesty, I admit I knew very little about the struggle Tibet has been going through for the past 50 plus years. I didn’t know how China relentlessly took over this homeland region inhabited by peaceful Tibetans and other ethnic groups. I didn’t know how Tibetan Buddhists are forbidden to openly practice or voice their beliefs. I didn’t know the simple act of owning anything pertaining to or symbolizing His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (birth name Tenzin Gyatso) can entail severe penalties including imprisonment, torture and death. I didn’t know how deep and dangerous the situation is.
I didn’t know until I went to McLeod Ganj.
I certainly won’t pretend to be an expert on this very complex matter but, as a result of my visit to McLeaod Ganj, I will attempt to shed a bit of light on the subject.
McLeod Ganj is a small town located in Northern India with the Himalayas mountain range acting as an unofficial border between India and Tibet. As early as 1959, Tibet was independent of China until this powerful empire forcefully took over its land and its people. Prior to this invasion, the Tibetan plateau throughout the centuries was governed by Dalai Lamas – Buddhist monks highly regarded and revered as teachers/mentors/gurus believed to possess immense wisdom and understanding.
Following the undertake of Tibet by the Chinese government, the then and now presiding Dalai Lama (the 14th in the lineage), had to escape Tibet to avoid imprisonment and probable death. He and many others fled with, quite literally, nothing but the clothes on their backs. This hurried escape meant taking the only clandestine way out of the Tibetan plateau – crossing the mighty Himalayas. Enduring deadly snowstorms, temperatures way below the freezing point, dangerously high elevation, starvation and vicious frost bite claiming hands and feet, Tibetans left behind their beloved land and the only home they ever knew.
The fortunate ones (many succumbed to death due to the harsh conditions) including His Holiness made it across the Himalayas and found themselves in a foreign land called India. Unable to control the hundreds of Tibetans that were making their way to Northern India every week, every month and every year, the Indian government, out of sympathy and as an act of humanitarianism, established and developed McLeod Ganj as a town for Tibetan refugees to pursue in complete freedom their religious beliefs, traditions and customs. Until this very day, more than 50 years later, Tibetans still continue to escape the horrors of Tibet by making the treacherous and often deadly journey to a safe and welcoming haven known as McLeod Ganj.
Since the late 1950’s, Tibetans have been engaged in an ongoing fight to regain control of their beloved land and, most importantly, to regain their freedom on every possible level. Tibetans living in the Chinese-governed region live in constant fear of being arrested, tortured or, worse, killed for refusing to abide by laws that prevent them from practicing their Buddhist faith – a most fundamental human right. Most, if not all, native Tibetans are strong followers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and continue to be faithful even under governmental oppression.
Some – men and women of all ages – go so far as to demonstrate their unequivocal faith by becoming martyrs and setting themselves on fire in the streets of Tibet in a desperate attempt to draw attention to this unbearably inhumane situation while others choose to intentionally end their lives of misery and utter hopelessness.
The museum in McLeod Ganj is dedicated to highlighting the ongoing struggle of Tibet and its victims – a number which continues to increase day by day. The very graphic images are heart-breaking at the most and thought-provoking at the least. It’s here that I learned that children in Tibet have been completely stripped and deprived of their heritage. Chinese Mandarin is the main language taught in schools with Tibetan as a second language but the younger generations hardly know how to speak their native language. Despite the numerous schools built by the Chinese government, illiteracy in Tibet is the highest in all of China. Tibetans have limited access to schools and hospitals which are prohibitively expensive and are located mostly in major cities far away from the rural areas where most Tibetans live.
Tibetans are forced to deny their roots and are ruthlessly expected to assimilate without question to Chinese culture all the while being neglected and abused as China continues to dismantle Tibetan villages in favor of urban development and, in turn, of the Chinese population. Tibetans are considered second-class citizens if at that.
Wanting to raise as much awareness as possible, entrance to The Tibet Museum is free of charge with a very minimal fee of 10 rupees for the viewing of the documentary film shown every day. If ever you go to McLeod Ganj, take some time to visit the museum and to educate yourself (as I did) on the dark history, the gloom present and the uncertain future of Tibet and its people.
For more in-depth and up-to-date information visit: Free Tibet
The Tibet Museum is conveniently located on the grounds of the Tsuglagkhang Complex where the Dalai Lama lives (though his actual house is not open to the public). The complex consists of the main temple Tsuglagkhang where His Holiness gives lectures and readings (he wasn’t there when we went), Namgyal Gompa Monastery and some dormitories for (novice) monks (and a few puppies). Visitors have access to all the grounds including the temple where shoes must be left at the door. The complex itself is very inspiring and the views of the mighty Himalayas all around make for a stunning landscape.
The days I spent in McLeod Ganj were a highlight of my time in India – its history, the kindness of its people and the palpable hope that lingers in the air all contributed to my wonderful stay.
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