DHARAMSHALA, India, 14 February 2014
Yesterday, 13 February 2014, I attended the event “Tibetan Independence Day” at the Tibetan Day School in McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala, India. The event, organized by the Students for Free Tibet India, was being held throughout the world — in more than twenty cities.
I felt the event turned out decently well. There were Tibetan journalists, a few local Tibetan activists, two Tibetan MPs (who were the official speakers on Tibet’s imperial history), ordinary folks, some foreign volunteers, and Tashi Tsering and Roberto Vitali, who were honoured for their outstanding works of scholarship on antiquity Tibet.
I felt the choice of the speakers — Geshe Monlam Tharchin, a Bonpo scholar, and Sonam Gyaltsen, professor of history at the College of Advanced Tibetan Studies, Sarah, Dharamshala — very interesting. After ages I sang the Tibetan National Anthem at the event, and felt good — perhaps because, for the first time, I thought I did it on my own accord, with full consciousness.
In his speech Dorje Tseten, Director of SFT India, said that as an activist for Tibetan freedom he believed that one should learn about Tibet’s past, because without a firm understanding of one’s own history, one would not be blessed with the determination and pride necessary to struggle for a just cause in a sustained manner.
The organizers displayed a replica of the famous Tibet-China treaty pillar erected in 821-822 CE in the Tibetan capital Lhasa. Flyers were distributed containing brief but concise information about Tibet’s imperial past. A few excerpts from the flyer that fired my imagination on a cold Dharamshala day are:
On Tibet’s Military Technology and Engineering Feats
Songtsen Gampo (reigned 627-650 [CE]) unified the plateau and brought Tibet from feudalism to cosmopolitanism…the strength of Imperial Tibet was based on advanced technological standards. Their military and civil technologies are well-known. Iron bridges were built in Tibet some 600 years before the first ones in Europe… holding Central Asian territories across which trade was flowing, the Tibetans came to share control of the commercial traffic from China to India, Persia, Byzantium, and Rome.
On Literature and Medicine
Masterpieces of Indian literature were given outstanding appreciation. The Ramayana, for instance, has been found among the documents recovered from the walled library at Dunhuang, which housed an array of texts going back to the imperial Tibet… Tibetan medical science was born, mainly during the reign of Trisong Detsen, by combining the tenets of three great medical schools — the Greek, with the incorporation of principles whose eminent master was Galenos; the Indian, basing its adoption on the text known as Yenlag Gyepa; and the Chinese medical system. All these cultural influences were transformed into logical whole, which contributed to the unique Tibetan way of life.
The organizers moreover distributed beautiful badges bearing an image of the pillar and the words “Tibetan Independence Day — Secure the Past, Shape the Future,” the campaign slogan for the event, and a poster containing the full English translation of the text carved on the pillar.
I was glad that the organizers used, of all the varied translations, according to me, the best and most authoritative one yet (Hugh Richardson’s). What is so striking about Tibetan language is that even today, if one has decent grasp of it, one can read and comprehend the texts on the pillar without much ordeal.
Those of us who cannot read Tibetan, of course, can seek recourse to the elegant English translation by Richardson. For readers’ benefit, let me quote a few outstanding lines from that English translation:
With great compassion, making no distinction between outer and inner in sheltering all in kindness, they have agreed in their counsel on a great purpose of lasting good — the single thought of causing happiness for the whole population — and have renewed the respectful courtesies of their friendship… Both Tibet and China shall keep the country and frontiers of which they are now in possession. The whole region to the east of that being the country of Great China and the whole region to the west being assuredly the country of great Tibet, from either side of that frontier there shall be no warfare, no hostile invasions, and no seizure of territory.
… And in order that this agreement establishing a great era when Tibetans shall be happy in Tibet and Chinese shall be happy in China shall never be changed, the Three Jewels, the body of saints, the sun and moon, planets and stars have been invoked as witnesses; its purport has been expounded in solemn words; the oath has been sworn with the sacrifice of animals; and the agreement has been solemnized.
One particular line from the text that should force us to do some serious thinking:
If the parties do not act in accordance with this agreement or if it is violated, whether it be Tibet or China that is first guilty of an offence against it, whatever stratagem or deceit is used in retaliation shall not be considered a breach of the agreement.
I concur with Dorje Tseten that without some sense of history, without some sense of memory, without falling back creatively on our past, it would be difficult to work for our freedom. What we truly need is a critical reflection of our national past. Such a critical reflection of our history is not possible without making painful attempts to look beyond the mainstream narratives of history that have been repeatedly fed to us.
About the author
Tenzin Nyinjey is a researcher at the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) in Dharamshala, India. The views expressed here are those of the author only and have nothing to do with TCHRD.