The March to Tibet has
been on the road since March 10 and now approaches the Tibetan border. They
likely will face another round of arrests in the next few days. You can follow
their journey at the Tibetan People's Uprising Movement website:
Gedun grew up in the idyllic village of Podma in the Kham
province of Tibet. He spent his summers at the top of a mountain with five
others young men protecting the village yaks from wolves and foxes using stones
and slings. He learned about Tibetan culture and history from his grandfather.
At 13, Gedun fulfilled his childhood dream and entered the Podma Monastery near
his village to become a Buddhist monk.
protests for independence at the nearby Sevo Monastery, the local Chinese
officials intensified their monk reeducation campaign with a treatise of four
points to be hammered home:
monks should not follow the Dalai Lama
should not follow the Tibetan government-in-exile
must listen to Chinese officials
monks must love the People's Republic of China
asked about these points by the police in the monastery, he replied that "I
will not abide by any law denouncing the Dalai Lama." A few nights later, he
hung posters around the town that said "Tibet is a free country," Long Live
His Holiness," and "China Quit Tibet." He also put the banned Tibetan flag on
the main Chinese government building.
these activities, the police took the 16-year-old Gedun to Situthang Prison in
Chamdo to endure three months of torture. The first day began with three guards
questioning him about who masterminded the plot and four guards beating him
with thick rubber tubes. During the course of his stay, the Chinese authorities
used electric cattle prods all over his body. They would also tie him to a
snooker table to be beaten with hard tubes or long batons with needles on the
end. On the worst day, they handcuffed him with his head near knees in a metal
room filled with a few inches of water. Suddenly, it felt like a giant hammer
hit him and he blacked out. They electrified the entire room. He woke up
somewhere else, unable to talk or even see straight. He could not walk or take
care of himself for the next ten days.
three months, when his answers to his interrogators never changed, he received
a sentence of three years in Lojoso Prison. "When I look back, I feel no anger
towards the guards because it's their duty. Their orders came from the
government. I also feel proud that I did something for my country." Upon his
release, he had no rights in his homeland of Tibet nor could he return to his
beloved monastery, so he fled to Nepal over the treacherous Himalayas. He
traveled to Dharamsala, India, where he met His Holiness the Dalai Lama. "Since
I had only seen photos of His Holiness, when I saw him in real life, I was
speechless. I have so much reverence for His Holiness and I was so so happy."
went on to Sera Monastery in the southern Indian state of Karnataka where he
heard about the March to Tibet. He signed up immediately. "I'm not scared at
all to die for the Tibetan cause because I have experienced prison and it's not
only I who suffered under the oppression, thousands of Tibetans are suffering
now. When we go to Tibet, I'm quite sure the Chinese military will kill me but
at least I'm sacrificing my life for my country."
The March to
Tibet began on March 10th, the anniversary of the First Tibetan Uprising of
1959, when 100 Tibetan monks, nun and laity started a walk to their homeland.
Their plan: walk from Dharamsala through New Delhi and then cross the border
into Tibet. Their demands: an end to the occupation of Tibet, a return of the
Dalai Lama to his place as leader of the people, a release of all political
prisoners, and a cancellation of the Beijing Olympics. They want "to
revive the spirit of the Tibetan national uprising of 1959, and by engaging in
nonviolent direct action, bring about an end to China's illegal occupation of
I have met people involved in every stage of resistance in
Tibet and those who have witnessed all of the major historical events since the
1950 invasion by Mao's People's Republic of China army. I have interviewed many
of these marchers, like Gedun, who have already suffered torture at the hands
of the Chinese but still plan to walk home. I feel privileged to have spent the
last two months on the march with these brave Tibetan snow lions that will
fight for their freedom with nonviolence.
On March 10th, the 100 monks and
nuns of the March to Tibet woke before dawn to a breakfast of beans, hardboiled
eggs and puri (fried flat Tibetan bread). They spent the night near Dharamsala
in the state of Himachal Pradesh, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile.
The marchers, mostly younger than 25, squatted in small groups to eat and laugh
occasionally. Only later did I realize how rare it is to find them together without a
lot of laugher. A quiet serious attitude pervaded that morning as the marchers
readied themselves for a march which many believed would end in their death.
They loaded into the back of two
trucks, each carrying a Tibetan flag, perhaps the coolest flag in the world
with its sunburst and dual snow lions. These guys looked like snow lions as
they stood staring forward in the predawn light with their flags snapping
sharply in the wind. The marchers met for prayers before walking into the huge
crowd awaiting them in the Khang Temple in Mcleod Ganj, the touristy town near
Dharamsala catering to the Western adherents of Buddhism. After some speeches,
the marchers started their march through the crowd like the brave heroes I have
found them to be. Everyone near the narrow path carved through the mass of
people reached out to shake their hand or touch them. As the crowd thinned out,
older people stood watching with tears running down their faces. Many monks
stopped for blessings from these people who had fled their homeland long ago
and will probably never see it again.
The monks walked quietly down the
switchbacks of the mountain followed by a roaring crowd yelling protest chants.
A few kilometers of walking brought them back to the town of Dharamsala where
everyone stopped for a pulse pounding rally. The march began with nice speeches
but now it had become roars of "Bod Gyal lo" (Victory to Tibet) from a crowd
packed tightly in all directions of the intersection. After 45 minutes of this
beautiful rabble rousing, I joined the end of line of marchers as they left and
received many thanks and handshakes.
However, trouble arose the first
night when the Himachal Pradesh police, on orders from the national government,
served the marchers with a cease and desist order for "endangering public
tranquility and breach of public peace." They forbade us to leave the Kangra
district, a three day walk from the monastery/university where we spent the
night. Many marchers, myself included, thought that we were done before we even
got out of the gate. Then Tenzin Tsundue, the poet/activist who organized the
march, came out of the meeting with a big smile and said, "The fight has just
begun. We walk on!"
If this movement has its Che Guerva/Gandhi love child, it's Tenzin Tsundue. Named as one
of the top ten influential people in the January 2008 edition of Tibetan World magazine, he has
come up with many creative ways to draw attention to the Tibet issue. In an
incident reported around the world, he climbed to the 14th story of the Oberoi
Hotel in Mumbai to hang a giant Tibetan flag outside the hotel room of the
Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji. He repeated a similar stunt when the Chinese Prime
Minister visited Bangalore. He hung a "Free Tibet" banner from the 200 foot
high tower of the Indian Institute of Science while shouting "Wen Jiabao, you
cannot silence us." When Hu Jintao came in November 2006, the police issued
Tsundue with a travel ban and assigned many officers to ensure its enforcement.
Tsundue says, "For me, the struggle is the only aim of
life." He has dedicated himself to a nonviolent resistance against China's
occupation of his homeland. A poem from him:
My father died
Defending our home,
Our village, our country.
I too wanted to fight.
But we are Buddhist.
People say we should be
Peaceful and nonviolent.
So I forgave my enemy.
But sometime I feel
I betrayed my father.
He studies the freedom movements of Gandhi in India, Mandela
in South Africa and King in the American South. He leads workshops in Tibetan
settlements throughout India to teach about the power of nonviolent resistance.
"March 10, 1959 was the first instance of mass political activism in Tibet.
With no experience in political activism, now we have to challenge China with
For five dollars a copy, Tsundue supports himself by selling
his books of poetry and essays. He carries them in a small bag that he refers
to as his office. It has a magic reputation for always having a needed item, no
matter how random. Tsundue's most striking feature is the red band he has been
wearing around his head for eight years. It represents his promise to continue
working for his country's freedom and he will take it off only when Tibet is
The First Arrest
After three fun and blister-inducing days of swimming in
clear blue rivers, urinating anywhere you felt like and sleeping under the
stars, we camped just inside the district border. That night, during our first
meal with meat in it (mutton which actually means goat), I asked my friend
Leki, a monk from Bhutan, how he and the others felt about crossing the
district border against police orders tomorrow. He slowly replied, "We are
ready. They can beat us, they can kill us but we will continue until we reach
Tibet. We are ready." I have heard similar sentiments from every core marcher.
They are not scared of the police, death or Chinese torture. They are excited
to go home.
The next morning we woke early and left an hour before dawn
to reach the border at the earliest possible moment with enough light for the
press to get good photos of any possible confrontation. And sure enough, we had
a story to cover. As we rounded the corner, I saw about one hundred policeman
waiting for us in a line across the main road with four police vans with iron
bars across their windows. The monks in their red robes and carrying their flag
or a picture of the Dalai Lama walked directly towards the police and sat down
in front of them in rows of four, arms linked together.
The police immediately grabbed the energetic Tenzin Tsundue.
It took a few officers to put him into a car set aside for him as passively
resisted. A monk I recently interviewed named Gyaltsen Wangcuk, one of the
leaders of the Second Tibetan uprising of 1989 at the age of 16, said that
watching them grab Tsundue "reminded him of the moment when he was caught by
the Chinese" and subsequently tortured with beatings and electrocutions.
However, he said that he felt better once he realized that the Indian police
were just doing their duty.
It appeared to me that most of the police did not relish
their job that day because they saw the picture of Ghandi in many of the
marcher's hands and his spirit in their passive resistance. It showed in the
gentleness of the police's handling of the arrests. A few policemen would
gather around one monk and separate him from his comrades. This sometimes took
considerable force because of the marcher's tight grip on their comrades. Then
the police would carry the unresisting body into the police vans. I saw tears
of rage and sadness in many of the marcher's eyes. These people had a dream and
I can't imagine the loss they felt as they saw it slip away.
After a long time, the police finally got close to the monks
directly ahead of me in the line. I clung to the back of the monk in front of
me like a leech. For once, my wrestling experience paid off because the police
did not want to arrest a foreigner but they could not get me separated. That's
how I ended up in the police van trying to learn the prayer the monks sang the
entire trip to the prison.
At the local prison, they quietly led us down some stairs
and into the large holding cells. Numerous policemen came in to tell me that I
could leave. Over the peaceful chants of the monks, I said I will not go
without my friends. Finally, they brought in one of the march coordinators and
she told me that they would prefer that I leave but I could stay if I wanted. I
decided to stay. The police came in to harass me some more but it was easy to
ignore them. I wasn't brave. I knew not much could happen to me. I have a
powerful passport representing the world's lone superpower (though I'm not
proud of it). These monks have no one. No embassy, no country, no one to look
out for them.
Eventually, the coordinator came in and simply said follow
me. I figured they needed me for some paperwork and I could return afterwards.
Instead, she led me to the front gate where the other foreigners stood waiting.
I realized I could not go back and I felt quite upset. I felt like I abandoned
my friends inside. As I stood outside, I got more and more worked up. So I made
my plan. I bought two bottles of water and hung around the front door while
Clay, a gentle California soul with an easy laugh who made Buffalo Soldiers
into the theme of the march, played Marley and Dylan for the marchers to hear
down in their cells.
Life on the March or:
At Play with Snow Lions
It sounds pretty impressive: walking
400 miles from Dharamsala to New Delhi. However, once the blisters heal and the
blisters underneath the blisters heal, it's a pretty cushy life. We wake before
dawn to a breakfast of puri (fried Tibetan bread) and beans or a fried egg and
the Tibetan's staple food of tsampa. It's a doughy substance made of flour,
black salty tea and sugar mixed by hand in a bowl. Luckily, seeing my
helplessness, one of the monks took me under his dietary wing to teach me how
to make tsampa and perfect my technique of eating rice dishes with fingers. I
used to eat rice by scooping it into my mouth like a shovel but he taught me
how to form bite-sized balls on the tip of my fingers that you neatly flick
into your mouth with a thumb. He teaches me all of this using no English.
It always amazes me how much
communication occurs with no common language and I don't mean the constant
stream of blue movies that Indian guys show me on their cell phone when they
realize we can't talk together. Unsurprisingly, it's more refined with the
monks. A monk named Shimmy Potro recently taught me a mantra he recites for all
sentient beings including the ants wandering around our feet. Without any
English, he told me it helps all escape the wheel of life and achieve
enlightenment. We sat together for almost an hour and the conversation never
lagged. I don't know how it works but I'm glad it does.
After breakfast, we load our bags
into a waiting truck as the monks sing their rousing national anthem followed
by three cheers of "Bod Gyal lo" (Victory to Tibet). We start
walking as the sun appears quickly in the strange Indian phenomenon of rapid
sunset and sunrise. Our long column of
monks and nuns in red robes followed by a motley crew of Westerners never fails
to bring out the perpetually curious Haryana natives. All work halts as everyone
stops to stare. The Indian stare can be uncomfortable at first but there's an
honesty to it that's refreshing. I often don't stop and stare when I actually
wish I could. In India, if you are curious, you have all the time in the world
to sit and contemplate it.
We make good time in the cool
morning hours but the breaks become more frequent as the day heats up. We
generally cover 10 to 15 miles a day which provides ample time for jawboning.
Luckily, there's a strange menagerie of Westeners to talk to while the monks
and nuns quietly walk forward. We tend to fall behind by stopping for chai (the
ubiquitous Indian milk tea with lots of sugar). Luckily, I have never found an
easier place to hitch a ride. I have been picked up by many tractors pulling
wagons filled with Sikh families, I have hung onto the outside of an extended
cab tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw affectionately referred to as cockroaches with
wheels) and found myself in the luxurious cab of a big truck complete with
pictures of Krishna and Shiva, hanging fake flowers and three smiling guys who constantly offer
water, cigarettes and beedies (cheap smokes made out of leaves, less harsh and
more cool than cigarettes (because remember kids, cigarettes are not cool
unless you're Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall or a hard drinking, hard living
old man with a tough exterior that hides a heart of gold)).
I think my favorite ride might be when I stopped
to answer an urgent call of nature and the policemen accompanying us through
Punjab decided to stop as well to make sure I was safe. In this land of gentle
warrior giants, I think the most dangerous thing I faced was snakes and the
runs but I appreciated the gesture. I took my time and we couldn't see the
column of marchers when we started walking. I flagged down a tractor and
convinced the cop to take the ride with me. I stood on the back while the
policemen handed his gun to a young teenager in the passenger seat. The cop
clambered into his seat and let the kid hold the gun for the rest of the ride.
I'm not a wise man but I have learned a few things in my twenty-five years and
one of the most important is: Never give a loaded gun to a teenager in a
tractor. Nothing happened but it was definitely one of those "only in India"
On to one of my favorite topics: how to take a
dump in India. I considered posting the complete play by play of how to do this
with just some water but when I did that on my blog,
my Aunt Patty said "sadly, like an accident on the highway, I
could not look away from your description." However, defecation in this country remains a
fascinating phenomenon. I think bowel movements and women in purdah (veiled
from sight) are the only two things ignored by the Indian stare. In the countryside
I walk through, human waste lines the edge of every field and you can see men
by their roads patiently attending to their morning constitutional. In the city
I live in (Bombay), people squat by the railroad tracks in full view of the
thousands of commuters who pass in the trains that come every three minutes
during super overload crush time (the technical name for rush hour and quite an
appropriate name at that). This illustrates one more refreshing fact of life in
this country: you can be honest about your bodily functions. In America, people
know the book "Everybody Poops" but not everyone believes it.
After lunch, the monks rush for shower time.
It's always hard to find water but its fun once you do. It's often a cow trough
with a pump next to it or a hose from a gas station. Then it's 150 Tibetans in
their underwear shouting and laughing in the water. It's also one more instance
where it's better to be a boy because the girls can't shower with the men and
the water often disappears before the bathers do. Everyone washes their clothes
in buckets with bars of soap before laying them all over the place to dry.
During the hottest part of the day, the monks and nun settle down for a nap or
a time of study and discussion. This time of the day used to be known as when
the only things out in the hot sun were "mad dogs and Englishman."
Later in the afternoon, monks sit in small
groups laughing and talking or learning English from Westerners. This has
become my favorite part of the day because I can grab a translator to perform
my only duty as march writer: interview people to write a biography of them for
the march website. Luckily, that's the only job I want. I love getting people's
stories. The biographies can be found here on the
A Profile in Courage
A good rule of thumb: To find
the measure of a man, don't look at him when he's happy. Watch him during the
hard times. I thought of this recently as I observed the almost 200 Tibetans on
the march waiting in line for their dinner after a 10+ mile walk through the
hot smoggy outskirts of New Delhi (as you might notice, the number of marchers
swells as it continues). As a people group, the Tibetans are down and out. The
Chinese have captured their homeland, destroyed 6,000 monasteries to only leave
nine left in the country, wiped out books, paintings and sculptures during the
Cultural Revolution, tortured political prisoners for simply displaying the
banned national flag and now import ethnic Han Chinese to displace the native
Tibetan population. The exiles living in India have a strange legal
status with residency permits that give them the refugee's right to live in
India but not the full rights of citizenship. In spite of these hardships, I
watch them laughing and talking in that dinner line and I do not believe I've
ever seen more joy in a group of people.
But first, I should make one
thing clear for my readers and to remind myself: The Tibetan people I know on
this march represent the cream of the crop. Almost everyone here plans to cross
the border into the hands of a regime with one of the worst human rights
records in the world (who somehow got the Olympics). I can safely say that this
eliminates the ne'er do wells, jabbernows and moon-calves (a prize to anyone
besides my father who gets that reference). So whenever my bubbly enthusiasm
for the Tibetans reaches a fever pitch, I have to remind myself that I haven't
met the slack jawed yokels who make up the majority of any community.
One of the most striking
interviews I conducted came from a nun named Ngawang Tendol who now serves as
an inspiration to me and an illustration of the importance of fighting human
rights abuses in China. Born outside Lhasa, the capitol of Tibet, she joined
the Nichung Nunnery at a young age because "she always wanted to be a nun." She
spent her first two years helping to rebuild the nunnery after the Chinese
destroyed it. She solicited donations from people and carried dirt and rocks to
the building site. As she got a little older, some nuns of her order got picked
up for political protests. That's how she first came to learn of Tibet's
independence. Nobody had ever told her before because the government forbids
parents to talk about it and there's obviously no mention in school. As she
learned more about her country's history and the suppression of Buddhism, she
got fired up about religious freedom in Tibet.
When she couldn't take it anymore, Ngawang and six other nuns went to a
cultural festival at Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's summer palace in Lhasa (you
know, before he had to flee the country in '59). During the middle of a
traditional dance, they ran into the middle of the dancers yelling, "Free
Tibet" and "China get out of Tibet". Just remember for the rest of this column,
this is her only crime. She yelled these phrases for two minutes until the
police took her away for more than four years of torture and imprisonment.
The initial interrogation phase tends to be the worst part of arrest in
China as the authorities try to extract confessions to political crimes, find
ringleaders and force admissions to China's historical claims over Tibet. They
took her to the notorious Ghutsa prison for the interrogation phase of her
imprisonment. They released Ngawang and her friends into the prison courtyard
still in handcuffs while all of the guards in the courtyard punched and kicked
the helpless nuns. She had to spend the next two hours staring into the sun (a
common tactic) while the guards took her friends away individually to be
followed by terrible screaming. When it came to her turn, two guards used
thumbscrews (I didn't even know they still existed) to lock her arms behind her
and hang her from a tree. She got beaten with sticks until unconsciousness
before being thrown into a cell for the night with a tiny bit of food. They
never even asked a question.
the questioning began the next day, it turned into the worst experience of her
imprisonment. They asked her about who led the protests, who shouted first and
who pushed you to do it. She answered honestly and repeatedly said we were
shouting for the religious freedom that you took away. They called in two more
officers and laid her face down on the ground as the new arrivals stood on her
arms and legs. They put an electrode in the middle of her neck and turned it on
for several minutes of agonizing pain. She knows that a few more minutes would
have killed her. That was the end of the first day but the beatings continued
for eight more days.
questions never changed but the method of beatings did. The interrogators would
beat her with springs that leave no mark, punch and kick every body part, beat
her with sticks and finally put a loaded gun to her heart and said they would
kill her if she doesn't tell them the truth. They never pulled the trigger on
her but it happens frequently.
"China, which this (Amnesty
International) report refers to as the world's top executioner, classifies
the death penalty as a state secret. As the world and Olympic guests are left
guessing, only the Chinese authorities know exactly how many people
have been killed with state authorization." (bold in original)
according to Amnesty International's article "Secrecy
Surrounds Death Penalty". According to Amnesty International's UK director, Kate
Allen, "As the world's biggest executioner, China
gets the 'gold
medal' for global executions." According to T. Kumar,
the Advocacy Director for Asia at Amnesty International, told reporters during
a teleconference that there has been a significant erosion of human rights in
China as the beginning of the games approaches. Kumar says a quarter of a
million people have been arrested and held without charges or trial in labor
camps during China's so-called patriotic re-education campaign.
Ngawang, after each day of questioning, doctors performed a medical checkup
where only those unable to lift their head received treatment with pain
killers. Her answers to the interrogation never changed and the questioning
ended. She spent the next four months in solitary confinement and she could
only leave her cell to empty her toilet bucket. It took a long time to fill up
because she received little water or food. During that four-month period, she
saw only the toilet attendant.
On August 20, 1990, the guards led her to a waiting police van to be
reunited with her friends from the protest. So overjoyed to see each other,
they could only cry in delight the entire ride to the Lhasa courtroom. She
received a four-year prison sentence without ever being able to utter a word in
her own defense.
their sentencing, a police van took them to the dreaded Drapchi Prison in Lhasa.
The first day consisted of a medical checkup that simply recorded identifying
features and an explanation of the rules. They could not pray, wear their robes
or shave their heads in the traditional manner of Buddhist nuns. The guards
told them they needed to change the way they think. Then they put them into
cells of 12 prisoners with no more than three political prisoners like Ngawang
together. Two criminal prisoners acted as trustees for the guards and reported
any breach of the rules such as talking in the cell.
received a job in the greenhouse where she worked ten hours a day. During lunch
breaks and for three hours after dinner, she had to sit in her cell on a stool
knitting sweaters for sale in town. At dinner, a monitor would read the news
and praise all of the good things the Chinese brought to Tibet. They could hold
their peace at that but any slur on the Dalai Lama would be too much for them.
Disagreements resulted in beatings and electric shocks applied to the tongue.
The most dramatic period of her four years in prison started on December 10,
1988 when the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize, now a Tibetan holiday. The
nuns decided to retrieve their robes from the storeroom and wear them to
celebrate the day. The guards beat them for this but all of the political
prisoners rose up and no amount of beating could keep them down. They spent
three days resisting the guards and the prison administration had to remove the
criminal prisoners. The military finally had to come to the prison to put down
the uprising. It took another week of beatings before calm was completely
On August 21, 1994, the Chinese authorities released her from Drapchi
Prison. Forbidden to return to her nunnery, she prepared to flee the country by
walking over the Himalayas into Nepal, the dangerous refugee route taken by
2,000 Tibetans a year. It took her 27 days to walk over the snowy mountain
passes and she ate mostly butter and tsampa, the Tibetan staple food for long
distance traveling. Once reaching safety, she made her way to Dharamasala, home
of the Tibetan government-in-exile where she could finally settle in the Dolma
So now you get a little glimpse into why it's so important to try and stop
China's human rights abuses. There's many other persecuted people groups
including Christians, the banned Falun Gong religion and the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group in
northern China who face a plight similar to the Tibetans but without the
benefit of a religion that attracts many famous and deep-pocketed
Westerners. These people face cultural
annihilation and torture if they try to resist assimilation by the Party. We
have to stand up for them.
The Torch in Delhi
many were dismayed at the Indian government's response, you might even say
kowtowing, to the Chinese Olympic torch. They simply shut down the city around
the torch's path with 15,000 policemen. Since the torch ended near the
Parliament, all the government bureaucrats simply left after lunch because they
were not allowed to exit their doors or open their windows from 1PM to 6PM. As
far as I can gather, only 50 Chinese schoolchildren, a small group of media and
a few busloads of Chinese officials and their guests got to see the Olympic
torch in India. In the most damning statement, CTV.ca reported that "The
Chinese government said it was pleased with India's security preparations for
In the Indian
government's favor, they did allow the Tibetans to stage an alternate protest
torch run in a different part of the city which somehow ended up having six
different torches. It sounded like quite a fun experience with traditional yak
dances, great food and all of the media that couldn't see the real torch.
However, I couldn't see any of the festivities because I went to the one place
in the city where they didn't want anyone who even looked Tibetan: India Gate,
the end of Olympic torch run in Delhi.
After publicly demonstrating in the public area
near the media gate entrance, I was taken to the jail near Jantar Manter.
They led us into a
courtyard surrounded by high walkways with a badminton court in the center. We
only had a few Tibetans there ahead of us but we quickly learned to look
forward to the entrance of more. Each new arrival brought out a chorus of
slogan yelling, a few minutes of singing and once they even broke out in the
national anthem. As I interviewed and talked to the other detainees, almost all
of them were college age Tibetan kids who I found to be wholly committed to a
nonviolent path of resistance. Only one young guy, Tenzin Tashi, entered angry
after receiving a punch in the face from a cop and from his recounting of the
incident, it sounded like he deserved it. All of his peers quietly counseled
him to calm down and be more peaceful.
Some of these young
people got taken into "protective custody" (to protect ourselves and the torch
according to the head screw) while actively jumping barriers or skirting police
lines. Some, like ourselves, protested with signs and chants in areas legal for
walking but apparently not legal for protesting on that day. Some incidents
simply made me angry. The police sent plainclothes policemen (you can pick them
out by their shoes) into the Tibetan settlement that morning and took dozens of
young people into custody before they even left their neighborhood. A pair of
engaged teachers wearing "Torch 4 Tibet" t-shirts and carrying an Indian flag
had the cops offer them a ride to the Tibetan protest and took them to jail
had been told we would be released after 6PM when the torch run finished but
then they told us that we had to stay and see a judge the next day for
sentencing. By the end of the day, 58 protestors had been detained. The guards
had been friendly all day and even went out to buy us cigarettes, milk and chocolate
with money we gave them. However, all that changed after they counted us again
after our late dinner. They only had 47 people in the jail. In all the loose
confusion of the day with people wandering around the courtyard, playing
badminton and getting chai from the prison canteen, 11 people had escaped
including one girl who had the gall to come back the next day and visit us. The
head cop went from smiling old uncle to "I'm going to shoot you and take away
your bathroom rights." I happened to be on the phone with my dad at the time so
we could giggle together at this new revelation.
we all took a bus ride over to a hospital at 11PM for a waste of time medical
checkup. The bus ride turned out to be a highlight because we spent the entire
time chanting and waving flags out the window through the almost deserted
streets of Delhi. They simply took thumbprints but in a sign of the new
crackdown, we each had a guard locking arms with us the entire time.
finally got back to home sweet home and they put all 41 men into a 150 square
foot cell. Of course, in true Indian fashion, we all had to file out after ten
minutes of head counting because every count resulted in a different number.
The cell had itchy blankets and a squat toilet in the corner. It doesn't sound
so good (and we could have slept in the big open air courtyard if it wasn't for
the escapees) but the police would take us to the bathroom whenever we
requested and some of the march leaders came bringing snacks and cigarettes. In
addition, most of these guys grew up in India so they know how to sleep piled
on top of each other like puppy dogs. It's a friendly and efficient system and
I've been training myself to do the same.
spent the next morning sitting around making chess boards, eating our breakfast
of bananas and white bread and playing card games with homemade cards. At 3PM,
they loaded us all into the back of a truck to take us to the judge. They led
in the foreigners first and the judge just looked up, asked where we came from
and said that we can go. He said "don't protest like this again" and we said
"OK." The American consular officer said the same thing when we
emerged and we said "fat chance." Our fellow Tibetan inmates received
sentences of 14 days but almost all got released within three days. Their
crime: being Tibetan
Peace at a Quiet Temple
I came ahead of the march to the tranquil hill
station of Nainital to finish some writing. I spent a night there under the
stars and storm about 100m above Nainital Lake. The stars shine above me as I
read Seven Years in Tibet and ready myself for bed. That night, a rain storm
arose but the drops came so infrequently that it felt refreshing as I drifted
in and out of sleep. Around three in the morning, I woke to loud bolts of
thunder. Lightning lit the sky in long bursts but the jagged lines stayed
hidden behind the thick clouds. Instead, the skies lit up with a gentle diffuse
blue light, illuminating the lake below me and the jungle vegetation around my
mountain bed. I gaze on this fantastic sight for a few minutes until sleep
overtakes me again. The call to prayers from the nearby mosque woke me and I
soon heard the bells from the Catholic Church calling people to Mass as the
Buddhist temple silently sits above it all. Unbeknownst to me, I would spend
that night at the temple peacefully.
I'm glad I got to see this small beautiful temple
that serves as a vacation spot for Buddhist monks. That morning, I woke just
before dawn on a simple bed with a thin foam mattress. One of my roommates
still slept under his blanket while the other helped ready a great meal for the
now 300-strong March to Tibet. The night before, we discussed my roomies coming
end of his two-decade course of studies and the five years of examination he
will soon face to graduate as a geishe (doctor of divinity). He has two years
left on his study of Vinaya, the Buddhist regulations concerning the behavior
of a monk. When talking about his early life in Ladakh, Kashmir, he described
riding horses with his friends as today's generation rides motorcycles; just
wandering around the hills, exploring, laughing and talking. The two of us
stayed up so late that I got more sleep the night of the thunderstorm.
I brushed my teeth in water from the faucet set
in the wall outside the kitchen with two monks who flashed big smiles at me
when I said "Good morning" in Tibetan. An extremely hygienic people, I've never
seen anyone spend more time on lathering and teeth brushing. I'm trying
to emulate this habit so I had ample time to admire the sun just lighting up
the evergreens at the top of the facing mountain, the beautiful green lake set
in the bottom of the valley surrounded by a picturesque town and a pair of dogs
engaged in a little hanky panky.
The temple had thousands of the multicolored Buddhist
prayer flags strung over it between the tops of the trees. Traditionally,
prayer flags come in sets of five, one in each of five colors arranged in a
certain order. The five colors represent the elements: blue for sky, white for
air, red for fire, green for water, yellow for earth. The colors of the
temple's simple exterior soothe while the sumptuous interior amazes.
Organized around a picture of the Dalai Lama
draped with strings of fake brightly colored flowers, the temple houses a
special treasure: one thousand small brass statues of the Buddah complete with
finely made outfits. The back wall has a large statue of the Buddah complete
with the large ears of wisdom. Curiously enough (to me at least), a fierce
Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, stands to one side complete with a pencil
thin mustache and his symbolic trident bearing the requisite three heads
impaled on it's shaft.
Two very old Tibetan women, heavily wrinkled but
still beautiful, walk around the temple spinning the prayer wheels while
murmuring Om Mani Pema Hu. A small building near the temple houses a prayer
wheel 10 feet tall that would take two of me to reach around. The monks cook or
use the ubiquitous brushes of straw held together by string to sweep the leaves
and little trash into a pile for burning. I cut vegetables while making small
sounds of appreciation for the blade master to my left, the Bane of Tomatoes. I
have to force myself to not replicate his speed but concentrate on doing the
job right, one of the many lessons I learn as I spend time with Tibetans. We
breakfast in the kitchen on a long rectangular table. The seven monks smile and
laugh often during our meal of tsampa and rice soup (almost as good at Grandma
Pelgers and no higher praise do I know). I find myself laughing with them even
though I never know what is being said.
The Tibetans in general are the most optimistic
and joyful people I have met. The Dalai Lama said in his autobiography, "My
Land and My People", "we are not a joking people but we are a joyful people"
(can't find exact quote). It's true. Simple innocent jokes go over big. Someone
tripping always brings huge laughs but never in a spirit of malice. It's one of
their unique qualities that I fear will be lost if the Tibetans remain exiled
from their homeland. The longer I'm here, I find more special traits in them
the world could do well to learn from. I hope we can get them home soon.
And now on to the saddest thing I have ever had
to write: an obituary for Pema Tashi.
A few days before his death, Pema Tashi told his
best friend, Leki Dendrup, that "Tibet has given me so much and I want to give
back to the cause. If necessary, I will contribute my life to the struggle." On
May 10, Pema drowned in the Kosi River at Kakri Ghat, Uttrankhand during the
March to Tibet.
Born in Arunachal Pradesh to non-Tibetan parents,
he decided to become a monk by the age of six. He delighted his parents with
his decision and journeyed down to Sera Mae Monastery in the south of India to
take his vows of monkhood. When he heard the announcement about the March to
Tibet, "I was happy because I had always wanted to see Tibet. I have lived in a
Tibetan community for a long time and have always viewed Tibetans as
compassionate people and this motivated me to join the march. Since I have made
up my mind to go on this march, I am fearless."
When arrested with the other 100 Core Marchers at
Dehra, Himachal Pradesh, "I felt agony and the status of a homeless refugee."
Once released from house arrest, Pema rejoined the march only to develop
problems walking. The leadership allowed him to switch to the tent building
crew where he earned the reputation as a hard worker and a joker. In fact,
everyone knew of Pema's infectious joking and his friend Leki said "he couldn't
be quiet for a minute." He eventually got the nickname "Man of the March".
Other marchers would never refer to him as Pema. In fact, most didn't even know
that name. They simply called him "the Man". Some said that without him on the
march, there would be no joking.
As the trucks approached Pema's last campsite, he
marveled at "the beauty of the newly entered hills and felt a sensation of
coming to his homeland." After building the tents at the campsite, Pema jumped
into the cold and cloudy water of the river, apparently hitting his head on a
rock. He spent too long underwater and passed away a few hours later at the
Tibetans believe that the soul stays in the
neighborhood for twenty-four hours so all the monks and nuns spent several
hours that day praying for a positive rebirth for the young monk. The next
morning, everyone gathered around his body wrapped in muslin with a Tibetan
flag over him underneath the green heavy canvas tent where a team of monks
stayed up all night praying over his body. A monk kept incense burning near the
body for its purification. After the monks and nuns prayed in the baritone
tones that issue from deep in their chests, some leaders gave short speeches,
all with tears in their eyes. The president of Gu-Chu-Sum, the ex-poltical
prisoners association, a tough warrior looking monk, choked up when he tried to
address the mourners. Everyone walked through the tent to lay a khata on Pema
Tashi's body, the traditional white scarf of esteem.
I crossed the river to the cremation spot holding
hands with Tenpa.
At 74, the nimble old man helped me across more than I helped him. Friends and
leaders carried Pema's body across the river, laying it on a stack of wood
before covering it with more logs. They sprinkled kerosene and sugar on the
body. The sugar makes the fire burn hotter. His best friend walked around the
fire three times with a large torch before lighting the pyre.
They burned his clothes off to the side including
the new jacket he bought for the mountains of Tibet. After the pyra burns for
an hour, the marchers file back across the river. A monk hangs five prayer
flags from the large rock overlooking the scene of the accident. Everyone walks
around a small pile of burning evergreens and washes their mouth with a thin
white liquid to purify the presence of death. Life returns to normal with
people laughing and splashing in the river. Ledup Tsering explains "it's karma.
Maybe he died young in a previous life and now lived out the rest of the time.
It's fate. It makes it easier to deal with."
To a hard worker, a lover of jokes and a warm
person with a brave heart who died before he reached his home. Pema Tashi, our
thoughts and prayers go with you. I'm sorry we never got that last chess game.