Young Tibetans in a New World

A writer in Dharamsala provides a personal glimpse of a youth movement now redefining Tibetan culture.

Director Lobsang Wangyal presents the winner's scholarship cheque of Rs 100,000.00 (approx 2,000.00 USD) to Sonam Choedon at Miss Tibet Pageant 2008 at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, Dharamshala, India, Oct. 12 2008.
Courtesy of

By Maura Moynihan

Dharamsala is a young place, the creation of refugees from Tibet who transformed an old British hill station of minor repute into a pilgrimage site for the New World. The lanes of McLeod Ganj, or "Upper" Dharamsala, weave a melody of Tibetan, Hindi, English, Japanese, Dutch, and Hebrew.

Vedic chants and Buddhist prayers mingle with Bollywood, Dr. Dre, and rock anthems from the 60’s, the decade in which the first young Tibetans in exile pioneered a modern Tibetan style.

The Tibetan disapora has rock stars, like Phurbu T. Namgyal, an American-based Tibetan Justin Timberlake, and Loten, a Swiss Tibetan with a new hard rock YouTube hit called “United Tibet.”

There are new painters, filmmakers, actors, and writers, as well as young monks, nuns, and classical artisans growing up in multiple worlds, merging thangka painting with Photoshop and transmitting Buddhism through the Internet.

A small-town impresario

Lobsang Wangyal describes himself as “a photojournalist and a small town impresario.” Born in a remote refugee camp in Orissa, Lobsang studied in Mussoorie, where the Dalai Lama lived during his first year in exile, and then attended college in Simla.

“I moved here in 1994. I chose not to emigrate. I have a purpose in my life, the future of Tibet. I am more useful here. And I love India. The people are so witty, hilarious, gracious. India is the world’s supermarket of religion and culture. We must learn from India. It’s our guru anyway.”

Lobsang produces an annual Free Spirit Film Festival and Spirit Award show, and in May 2007 organized the Tibetan Olympics with a new Website, But he is best known for the Miss Tibet Contest, launched in 2002.

“The Miss Tibet Contest was my personal quest to break the shackles of Tibetan conservatism. It’s a way to say 'Free Tibet' and define Tibet as a nation. And the girls love it; the pageant has given them careers that a refugee girl couldn’t dream of.”

Boosting morale

The 2008 Miss Tibet is Sonam Choden, an 18-year-old new arrival from Lithang in eastern Tibet.

“The media coverage boosts the morale of the Tibetans inside Tibet, who need it most” says Lobsang, displaying photos of a stunning young beauty in a chuba and crown, smiling for a paparazzi horde.

A vocal faction of Tibetan elders were scandalized at the notion of young Tibetan ladies engaging in such compulsory beauty pageant rituals as the swimsuit contest.

But Miss Tibet became a tool for the Tibet movement when winners were denied permission to compete in international pageants, under pressure from Chinese judges.

“The best was Zimbabwe, 2005, the Miss Tourism World contest,” recalls Lobsang. “When Miss Tibet was barred from the pageant, other participants tried to boycott. African journalists started reporting about Tibet and the Chinese occupation. Before that, most people in Africa knew nothing of our story."

"That’s when I said 'mission accomplished.'”

Redefining Tibetan identity

Exiled Tibetans have long used music, art, and dance to redefine the Tibetan identity. Thubten Samdup, known to all as Sam, arrived in Dharamsala in 1960 at age nine and was sent to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, TIPA, one of the Dalai Lama’s first initiatives in exile.

One afternoon, as Sam played songs of Old Tibet with friends, a visiting ethnomusicologist listened in rapture and contacted the Rockefeller Foundation, which took Sam to Brown University in 1973. He was the first Tibetan refugee to attend an Ivy League school.

In 1988 Sam wrote a love song called Rigzin Wangmo, which became a huge hit inside Tibet.

“Woeser did a blog about reactionary songs, and noted that mine is the only song allowed to be sung in official government functions, inside Tibet. If only they only knew the composer is what they’d call a reactionary.”

New music from inside Tibet flows into Dharamsala on the Internet and with new refugees. The lyrics deploy metaphors for the Dalai Lama and the wish for a Free Tibet. Using art for strategic activism is one of the few outlets available to Tibetans living under Chinese dominion.

Tibetan communities in the West have access to media and politics to advance the Tibetan cause, but many in India are disengaged from the Tibetan exile government.

A Tibetan youth hero

A young lama, the Karmapa, has emerged as a Tibetan youth hero. Posters across Dharamsala hail him as “Tibet’s Rising Sun.” The Karmapa is beginning to fill the role of Buddhist teacher and authority for the Tibetans, but he cannot run for the office of Kalon Tripa, or prime minister, in a vote coming up in 2011.

Sam has returned to Dharamsala from his home in Canada to train young people to get organized.

“We need to act like the Obama campaign. We need to search for someone who will take charge, so the Dalai Lama can rest. For too many years, young Tibetans didn’t get involved in politics. I told them, now they have to walk the talk.”

Leaning out a window of the Hotel Kailash restaurant, a McLeod Ganj tavern of old, Sam reports that young Tibetans are responding to his mission.

“Everybody understands we are going through a crucial period. We are playing with time. The Dalai Lama is not getting any younger. If we want him to live long, prayer alone is not going to help.”


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