Love and Compassion: Tenzin
Words by Melanie Groves
In northern India, nestled in the Himalayas the town Upper Dharamasala provides a safe haven for a bustling Tibetan community.
In 2012, a short stay introduced me to this beautiful town. Even in April, snow-capped mountains created a picturesque backdrop. Tibetan prayer flags fluttered over the paths and in the alpine forests. Little bald monks in maroon robes strolled the streets, plucking at prayer beads.
Upper Dharamasala (also known as Mcleod Ganj) looks more like a little Tibet rather than India and for good reason: it’s home not only to families of Tibetan refugee’s but also to the exiled Dalai Lama. They’re living across the mountains from their home, but they are safe.
In 1950, China invaded Tibet. The occupation has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans, the imprisonment and torture of thousands more, and the displacement of tens of thousands. While living conditions have improved since the early days of the occupation, Tibetans are still oppressed by the Chinese government, who refuse to acknowledge Tibet’s sovereignty.
It was here in Upper Dharamasala that my travel buddies and I met Tenzin. Tenzin gladly told us of his experiences as a political refugee: a man who fled Tibet as a child for India.
Not minding our ignorance, he discussed his religion and experiences, telling us of how he came to India as a young boy. He was not shocked about our lack of knowledge of the Chinese occupation of Tibet and willingly chatted to us in the hope we would share his story to others who do not know of the troubles of the Tibetan people.
“Some were children, some were elderly”
Tenzin travelled to India in 1997 without his family. He was only a child at just eight years old. The treacherous journey took over a month. They left Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, at midnight, having gathered in a deserted part of the city. Travelling with Tenzin was forty seven Tibetan strangers. Some were children, some were elderly, but the majority of them were between the ages of sixteen and twenty five.
A luggage truck arrived: their transport for the next six days. The truck driver gave the scared huddle of refugees some stern advice. Don’t make any noise. Don’t get out of the truck until you’re in a safe place.
For the next six days, Tenzin and his fellow Tibetans travelled in silence. It was a highly uncomfortable trip; everyone succumbed to travel sickness, plagued by pounding headaches and vomiting. The roads were rough and the truck shook all the occupants around. As Tenzin said, “Anyway, six days passed this way.”
On the sixth day, they needed to leave the moderate safety of the truck to bypass security check points. The driver tried to find a way around, however he could not pass the checkpoints and had to return to Lhasa, leaving the refugees to continue the journey on their own. From here, the refugees were on foot; facing the Himalayan mountain range; home of the highest mountains in the world. It was the safest route out of Tibet – safest as it was the route least likely to meet Chinese border guards, but dangerous as they faced exhaustion, frost bite, exposure, starvation and dehydration.
“they faced exhaustion, frost bite, exposure, starvation and dehydration”
To avoid detection, the refugees slept during the day and walked at night. It was continuous hard work, walking through the mountains at night and several of the older refugees made the decision to turn back.
Tenzin, only a child, was severely exhausted and fatigued, too weak to even carry an empty bag while walking. Thistles stuck to their clothes, scratching them through the material. They had to stop regularly to pull them off.
Finally they made it across the mountains and into Nepal, where they were quickly caught by the Nepalese police. They spent some time in Nepalese jail before being transferred to India safely.
By this stage, all Tenzin had left in his possession were a few Yuan and a bag. When he left, he had biscuits and drinks, but he made the journey from Nepal to India without a single meal. Even now, he reminisces of the people who helped him and expresses how grateful he still is for their help.
In Dharamasala, Tenzin was sent to a Tibetan Children Village School. Before India, Tenzin had never been to school. Now, seventeen years later, Tenzin is settled in Bangalore, where he works as a chef in his own restaurant. India has provided Tenzin with the opportunities that Tibet couldn’t. He still travels regularly back to Dharamasala in northern India for religious teachings from the Dalai Lama. He practices Buddhism and still thinks fondly of Tibet, with the self-professed “innocent memories of childhood.”
Tenzin generously shares his knowledge of his home country and his dangerous journey to India, with the hope that the world can learn about the plight of the Tibetan people, both in Tibet and those exiled.
Despite the sad stories many of the refugees have, the Tibetan people are inherently happy and positive. When I met Tenzin, he was helping perfect strangers find seats on a packed bus. He showed us kindness when no one else did, and then gladly told us stories of his childhood and his culture.
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive” – The Dalai Lama.