For the first time, the voice of Tibet’s Diaspora find expression in an anthology of poetry
composed in English: Muses in Exile. History teachers us that artistic and intellectual creativity
reach their zenith under the most adverse conditions. And so it has been with Tibetan verse.
Of the thirty one writers published her, some have already died young. One at home in Tibet;
others in Alaska, Toronto, New Delhi and in the mecca of their exile Dharamshala. However, far
flung their lives, the longing for a homeland, the émigré’s estrangement, is expressed here in
unison to a variety of literary tunes. This collection is testimony to the anguish, rootlessness
and unwavering destiny of a displaced people still mentally marching homeward across the
Bhuchung D. Sonam was born in Tibet. In exile he studied in Tibetan Children’s Village
School, Dharamshala, India. His permanent address was stolen.
Exile is the shifting sands of hope mingled with the crippling sorrow of estrangement. When hope
fades into the distant horizon, and only the pangs of displacement remain, exile becomes a hollow
existence hanging upon a thin thread of moral courage. Exile is, in many ways, an opportunity and
a severe test of communal fortitude. Inspite of upheavals and separations, deaths and destruction
in our homeland, we have withstood this testing period and emerged enriched.
In the past four decades we have established a government in exile and achieved almost
full-fledged democracy. The Tibetan Diaspora has become a force to reckon with. Nevertheless,
exile reminds us that our political status is ambiguous; that we float in a brzrd “of
Like all exiles, Tibetans too were driven to a state of homelessness by harsh circumstances. Yet,
though physically deprived of home, Tibetans are not bereft within. Our strong traditional
heritage and spiritual ethics guide us through the tangled web of political chaos, physical
dislocation and existential uncertainty. Our struggle to re-root ourselves under thorny
circumstances is a variegated canvas.
Exile Tibet binds three generations. Those who were born and grew up in independent Tibet and
chased into exile after 1959; those who were born amidst the political upheavals of the communist
Chinese takeover of the 1950s and sixties and came into exile at a tender age; and those who were
born in exile. In that timespan we have witnessed a complete revision of our social structure. One
of exile’s positive changes was increased access to education, and as a result of this a new wave
of intellectual fervour flourished.
The rich Tibetan Buddhist philosophical heritage, which once remained within the confines of our
monasteries, began to permeate the outside world. Tibet is now universally synonymous with
concepts like Compassion and the Middle Path. However, this global awakening of interest in
Buddhist studies has somewhat overshadowed our unique secular creative heritage in dance, opera,
music, folklore and poetry, which remains scantily explored.
Tibetan writing in English, which is a very recent flowering, is a small part of this secular
culture. Though such works can be counted on our fingers, its future is undoubtedly bright. Led by
the award—winning novel The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu, exile compatriots are in
the mood for penning prose and verse (Tib.syan.ngag), both in Tibetan and in English. Since the
late seventies we have seen the publication of several poetry books in English by Tibetans.
Yet post-fifties exile Tibetans were not the first to express themselves in English. Prior to the
mass exodus of Tibetans to India after 959, a few highly privileged
sons and daughters of Lhasa aristocrats, powerful chieftains and rich businessmen received modern
educations in Christian boarding schools in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, and in the 1920’s four boys
were sent to an English public school by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. But neither the aristocratic
heirs, nor the four schoolboys educated at Rugby, left behind any literary output worth
mentioning. They largely disappeared into history, faceless and nameless.
Therefore Gendun Choephel was probably the first-ever Tibetan to write poems in English. In 1927,
when Tibet was enjoying her hard-won return to full independence, a monk from Rebkong in
north-eastern province of Amdo arrived in Lhasa — full of vigour and bubbling with ideas. He was a
rebel to the core. Desiring to broaden his knowledge, he later travelled to India where he roamed
the streets of Calcutta and Varanasi and became what he called a “stray monk”. Some biographers
say that he mastered the English language in six months.
Gendun Chophel was born in the Wood-Snake year of 1905. He was a brilliant student and became
accomplished in Tibetan grammar and composition early in life. At 25 he joined Gomang College of
Drepung Monastic University in Lhasa, where he created havoc in the debating courtyards with his
antics and often unconventional, but brilliant, dialectical skills. However, without sitting for
his Geshe Lharampab examination, he left Drepung and headed towards Sakya and eventually to India.
During his fourteen years roaming India and Sri Lanka he lived like a vagabond. His sole craving
was for knowledge. Knowledge, he hoped, that would one day benefit his beloved country — Tibet.
But when he returned to Tibet karma — “that restless stallion”— had turned against him. He was
imprisoned for crimes of treason that were never proven, and underwent unimaginable suffering and
humiliation. Out of jealousy, ignorance and narrow-mindedness, a few of Lhasa’s ruling elite chose
to destroy him. The land that he loved deserted him. Gendun Choephel passed away in 1951 at the
age of 47.
Was he an exile compatriot? Politically he wasn’t. But socially he was. He neither found his
rightful place in the hierarchical monastic system, nor did his sharp, inquisitive mind and
articulate mouth conform to the submissive and rigid social structure in yesterday’s Tibet -
especially in the eyes of Lhasa officials. Authority always seems to silence creative voices,
since creativity means change and change means danger to those in power. Constricted by such a
social climate, and in search of fresh knowledge, he left Tibet. During his self—imposed exile he
missed his native land and longingly wrote:
“Rebkong, I left thee and my heart behind
My boyhood dusty plays in jar Tibet.
Karma, that restless stallion made of wind,
In tossing me: where will it land me yet?"
I left thee and my heart behind’ aptly foreshadows our plight today in exile. Perhaps, through his
prismatic vision, he saw that his fellow countrymen would one day wander in an alien land. In his
own self-imposed exile Gendun Choephel experienced the same estrangement as we do today.
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