I met Tenzin Dhundup thanks to Gowri and Raju, who sponsor his education in Dharamshala. They sponsor five other Tibetan children who have fled their country and are living in exile in India as refugees. It is a hard life and most certainly for Tenzin who had to make the choice of leaving his parents and undertook an arduous two-month journey to make a new life in India. Ever since 1959, when the Tibetan government in Lhasa, under the leadership of the 14th Dalai Lama rebelled against the Chinese government's suspected plans to abduct the Dalai Lama (after which the Dalai Lama fled from Lhasa and came to India), over 1.5 lakh refugees have escaped to India. The Tibetan rebellion after the Dalai Lama fled was bloody and the Chinese have since destroyed monasteries and killed thousands.
Tibetans in refuge in India live in Tibetan settlements across the country - Dharamshala (which is where the Tibetan Government in Exile under the leadership of the Dalai Lama functions), Dehradun, Ladakh, Bylakuppe and Mundgod in Karnataka, among others. All of them risked capture and imminent prison in Chinese prisons. The Tibetan government in exile stakes claim to its land and has been continuing to protest against Chinese occupation. In the 1959 thousands of Tibetans were captured, tortured and killed. In recent years several Tibetan monks have committed suicide by immolating themselves to bring International attention to Tibet. 2019 is the 60th year of Chinese occupation.
|Tenzin comes to Hyderabad|
In India, the Tibetans do some great work. For example, Tibetan medicine is quite popular in alternative medicine systems that are available in India. They have their clinics all over India (the main cities at least) and it is affordable and accessible (you can send your reports to Dharamshala with the case history and about 1-2 thousand rupees or so (approx) and they send you the medicines by post. Many swear by the Tibetan treatment for cancer and it is through many such recommendations that Ram and I went with Ranjan to Dharamshala seeking an appointment with the Padmashri awardee, 93-year-old Tibetan doctor, Dr. Yeshi Dhondhen, who is renowned for his cancer treatment. In the process of securing his appointment (which has 3 month waiting periods), I contacted Gowri who sponsored Tibetan children and she put me on to young Tenzin who is now studying for his medical degree in the Mentse-Kang College of Tibetan Medicine and Astro Studies in Dharamshala. He is in his second year now. (Our appointment, however, was facilitated by Raju through his friend Karma.) During our trip to Dharamshala last March, where Tenzin was a big help, I invited him over to Hyderabad and he finally did.
|Telling me his story|
Tenzin Dhundup, now 25, does not remember his birthday because his parents did not record it. (He never celebrated his birthday consequently!) His parents, Dargyi (father) and Dolma (mother), are from a nomadic tribe who kept animals - 20 yaks, 30 sheep and 5 horses from what Tenzin remembers. The female of the yak species, (dhu - as they call them), provided them with milk, cheese, butter, and other dairy requirements. Tenzin remembers his father's sister and her four children also being with them. Tenzin was his parents' only child; they had lost two other boys older to him to illness.
In winters the family lived in a town, Sershul. In summers they went to the mountains to pick herbs to sell. In autumn they stayed in Sharyak, a place in the plains. The herb (caterpillar fungus according to Wikipedia) they would pick up was 'yarsagumba' which fetched rich dividends - in 3 months they could get 1 kg of it, but it was worth 1000 yin. (Wikipedia says that 1 kg could fetch up to 100, 000 USD in China! It is considered a miracle herb.)
Life was pretty simple for Tenzin then. The family woke up at 4 am to milk the dhu, fed the animals, ate breakfast and then took the animals out to graze. Tenzin learned how to ride a horse early and was good at it. Food would be Tsampa (barley powder, yak meat, sheep meat, cheese, curd, butter, milk and vegetables) or thukpa (atta, meat and vegetables). Tenzin's father was good with his hands and he stitched clothes from sheep and yak skin. He also made tents from yak fur in which they lived. In winters when they were in Sershul, he made (continues to this day) a stove called Thap, made of tin, which has good demand. On a good day he makes 3-4 thaps. Tenzin says that since he did not go to school, his father taught him Tibetan basics - the language. 'He is my first teacher,' he says.
|Gowri and Raju with their Tibetan children - Tenzin in the green|
The Journey From Tibet to Dharamshala
When Tenzin was 14 years, sometime in early 2007, he received a letter from his friend Koma, who had been his neighbour in Tibet. The letter had a picture of Koma in India. Koma asked Tenzin to come to India so he could study. India was happy and peaceful, he said. Tenzin wanted to go to India and told his parents of his desire. They were against sending their only son away. The dangers of the journey were one aspect but the fact remains that once they come to India they cannot go back to Tibet. Nor can the parents come to India. Nor can they communicate.
After he came to India in 2007, Tenzin has not met his parents, though he has established contact with them. The oppression is evident in many ways - shows clearly in the flight of Tibetans against such odds. People asked to change religious practices, forced into labour, ways of life changed. It was worth fleeing for many of them.
After a couple of months of persistent asking, Tenzin's parents agreed. He promised that he would go to India, study well and that will always be a good person. Sometime in June 2007, he set off with a group of 5 unknown people and his friend Lhodo who was also fourteen years old, to Lhasa where the guide to India was. It was obviously clandestine. From their hometown in Sershul, they first went to Yishu by bus which was a three-hour journey. From Yishu he went to Silang, by overnight bus. Then another overnight bus to Kormo, another overnight bus to Nagchu and the last overnight bus to Lhasa. Pretty much 5 days to Lhasa. They paid 4000 yen to the guide. His parents gave him 500 yen for himself. The guide was known to his father's friend.
In Lhasa, the group of 31 waited for a month. They stayed in a room near the North Gate of Lhasa, 5 people to a room. Tenzin and Lhodo sold groceries to earn money to buy food. Occasionally the 14-year-old called his parents from a pay phone.
One evening they were told to assemble at a point outside the city. 27 adults (3 women), 3 children and two adolescent boys (T and L) and two young girls. The group got into a truck which looked like it was carrying a load of furniture and mattresses but had a secret cavity inside where they could huddle. 'It was very tight,' he recalled. They drove all day and then stopped at midnight at a small restaurant where they had tea and Tsampa. The truck started again and they reached a town where they hid in a house all day to escape Chinese.
They travelled 5-6 hours again when the truck stopped near a bridge and they were asked to hide under the bridge. Tenzin remembers sleeping under the bridge because the river was dry. Three were no tents so they slept in the open plains. In the morning another truck came to pick them up.
Once again they started travelling. By now the Chinese army seemed to have got wind of the escape and the truck had to hide in a valley to escape detection. The following night they were not so lucky though. A Chinese army patrol intercepted the truck. The truck driver bluffed that they were Tibetans travelling to see Mount Kailas. The authorities did not believe them and asked them to follow them. Two cars were ahead with the truck following them. At a curve, when the army cars were out of sight, the driver stopped and told the 31 people to get off and run. 'Climb the mountain and run, he said,' recalled Tenzin. 'So we ran up the mountain. We could see from the top, the army trucks going around, sirens wailing.'
|In Tibet - Walking towards India (2007)|
|Walking through the mountains (2007)|
They started walking at night - with no torchlights to guide them, just following one another. They walked till 630 am and then stopped. Tenzin remembers making tea with melted snow. By now they had split into three groups of ten each to avoid detection. For food they used a small thap (stove) to cook Tsampa and make tea. During day they hid and at night they walked - all night. Tenzin remembers seeing Mount Kailash on the way.
And then a problem cropped up.
Tenzin drank water in a river and his stomach cramped badly. He developed a high fever and could not walk. The others waited for a while for him to get better. The guide ran out of patience and told him that they would leave him there because they have to cross the mountain soon else the Chinese army will catch them. Once they cross the mountains they were safe. Tenzin told them to leave him behind and go. A couple of elders in the group said they must not leave the boy behind. All night two young men of 25, Oga and Jimba, carried Tenzin on their shoulders. Next day one lama in the group gave him a precious pill. After a while, Tenzin's pain stopped and he could walk again.
|7th class at TCV, Suja (2011)|
The next morning they reached the mountain. The guide told them that the Chinese army is coming - throw your bags and run. They threw their luggage and ran up the mountain. The other side of the mountain was Nepal where they would be safe. From the top of the mountain they could see the Chinese army going back. After five hours they climbed down and retrieved their luggage. At night they walked. 'We slept between two lakes. Very cold,' says Tenzin. One can imagine. There were no tents, just whatever clothes they were wearing, in the Himalayan plains.
One woman developed a swelling in her knees. Tenzin remembers how her skin became very red and then the skin started peeling off behind her ear with the cold. She was in a lot of pain. That night at the lake her condition got worse. She could not walk. To keep pace they walked slowly. All of next day they walked. In the evening the guide told them they had taken a wrong route and they had to go back. That meant that for the second night running they had to sleep between the two lakes and again froze in the cold. The look on his face gives an idea of how cold it must have been.
|IXth class, TCV, Chauntra (2013)|
The next morning they started walking again. Tenzin remembers that they finally came to a forest. Tenzin and his friend Lhodo had by now exhausted whatever money they were carrying with them. When they told the group they had no more money the elders told them to get up early and do work like picking up firewood, making fires, making tea, cooking Tsampa etc. The two boys were asked to go ahead of the group. Tenzin remembers that Lhodo did not do his work properly and the elders scolded him severely. By now the woman's foot had swollen so much that she could not walk. The group spent that night in a cave so she could get some rest. After two days in the cave, they started walking again and reached a town in Nepal called 'Lumyi'. There they stayed for four days. A local doctor treated the woman but she did not get better.
They started walking and reached another 'Lumyi'. Here Tenzin remembers walking in snow that was waist deep for him. First the guide, then the elders, then the women and kids. After two days in the snow, he remembers reaching a forest that had trees with fruits. Bananas, coconut, peas, gooseberries. The elders told the hungry Tenzin and Lhodo not to eat the gooseberries which they considered poisonous. But the two kids had no money so they ate a few, found that they were ok and collected many gooseberries. These gooseberries they sold in the next town where people were buying them from the market. They were so hungry that Lhodo sold his watch for 20 walnuts and Tenzin sold his blanket to buy ONE Marie biscuit. Incredibly he smiled when he said 'Marie biscuits'. Tenzin also sold his cap to buy 'raara' something like Maggi he said.
|Xth class, TCV, Suja (2014)|
They walked again. It was almost a month since they had set out by then. Tenzin had another problem. His shoes tore. As he had no extra shoes, he used some cloth and twine and wrapped his shoes together. The guide told them that they had to stay in the forest and walk in the night. There was danger from a group called Mao Buddhi, who infested the route in Nepal and if they caught them, they would hand them back to the Chinese authorities.
'We waited all day in the forest. It rained all day. There was no fire. It was very cold. At that time I regretted coming on the journey. I thought if I had stayed at home I would not have faced this problem. I went behind a tree and cried. No one saw. I did not want to show them I was crying.'
|XIth class, TCV, Bylakuppe (2017)|
They walked all night again, up and down forests in the mountain and reached a town the next morning. They were tired and slept somewhere very soft. The next morning they woke and found they were lying in pig excrement. But there was no way anyone could have a bath. At no time in their 59-day journey did anyone have a bath! Tenzin was sent to get some water from a nearby river. 'For the first time, I saw a Nepali woman. She was shouting at me. The sound of her ornaments made a jangling sound. I got very scared and ran.' They stayed there for half a day and then started walking again. 'My pants, shirts and head were full of bugs by then. My pant was torn.'
They walked again and ran into the feared Mao buddhi leader Suna Lama. He blocked their way and demanded money. The two young boys had no money to pay. The group left them and went ahead. But Jimba, one of the boys who had carried Tenzin when he was sick, shouted at the others and told them that they cannot leave the two boys behind. The guide said he would pay for them, but the boys had to pay him back in Nepal. Tenzin and Lhodo agreed. Suno Lama gave a discount and let them go. They walked on and on and reached a bigger town. It had restaurants.
|2nd year, Mentse-Kang Tibetan Medical and Astro College, Dharamshala (2017) |
While all others had the money to go and eat in restaurants, Tenzin and Lhodo, had no money so they went to another restaurant and collected leftovers and boiled water. They stood on the roadside and sang to collect money for food. They stayed in that town for two or three days and walked again. 'On an average, we must have walked 8-10 kms a day,' he says. They reached a town called Choos Pani in Nepal and waited for a bus.
They were back in civilisation.
They took a bus from Choos Pani to Bodh Gaya (in Nepal I guess), Jamadho and someplace called Boudha. They got a bus to Kathmandu - a journey of three days. 'The guide paid our fare with a promise that we will pay him back,' said Tenzin. (They both paid him back when they got some money in Nepal) But after two days of the three-day journey, they found the way was blocked by Mahabodh. So they had to back and take another route. Finally, they reached Kathmandu!
The journey from Lhasa to Kathmandu had lasted 1 month and 29 days.
|Tsering, Tenzin, Raju, Pella and Lobsang at Varkala beach (2012)|
At Kathmandu, a Tibetan Reception received them and gave them clothes, food, medicines. The woman was hospitalised. The group stayed there for a week and then went to the Indian embassy in Nepal. The embassy gave them documents for the refugee status, gave pocket money of 3-4000 rupees each and then sent them to Delhi by bus. It was a two day and two-night journey. In Delhi, they were received by the Tibetan Reception and stayed a few days. All 31 survived the journey.
They got into an overnight bus to Dharamshala. They reached Dharamshala on the 20th of September 2007.
|Best friends - Tenzin, Jampa, Cheokyi (2015, Suja)|
In Dharamshala the group was put up for one month. They met the Dalai Lama who asked them questions. 'Don't worry, he said, you will get full opportunity.' And then they were deployed accordingly. Tenzin and Lhodo were sent to school. Tenzin was the only one who stayed in Dharamshala. He was sent to the Tibetan Children's Village school in a town called Suja, 60 kms away from Dharamshala. Lhodo went to Bylakuppe where his two older brothers lived. Unfortunately, Lhodo contracted some infection in his brain and died not long after. He was the only person in that group to have died.
|The batch of 2017|
The TCV school takes in children of all ages and puts them through two years of 'OC - Opportunity Class' where they are taught English, Tibetan, Maths. It was the first time Tenzin went to school. After 2 years they have an exam. Those who pass the exam are eligible to join class 6. Tenzin joined class 6 when he was about 16 years. He continued studying and made friends - Lobsang, who is now in Switzerland, Chamba, his best friend, who is studying history in the Dalai Lama Institute in Bangalore and Tsokyi (a girl), who is his best friend who is now in Australia. For their 11h and 12th they parted ways - Tenzin went to Bylakuppe to study science on the advice of his teachers and the other two opted for arts in Delhi. After Class 12 Tenzin appeared for an exam to enter the 'Mentse-Kang' College - The Tibetan Medical and Astro college. About 150 students appeared for the exam and only 22 are selected - 11 boys and 11 girls. After 5 years he will get a degree as an MBBS doctor in Tibetan Medicine. He can register under the Medical Council and practice. Currently, he ranks 10-11 in the class of 22 and is doing his second year. Tenzin has that air of peace which is necessary to make the patient feel good. He will make a good doctor. He also has a learning mindset and has some lovely philosophies which he told me - how to handle life.
|2018 - Class of 2017|
When he was in OC2 (his second year in the TCV School), Tenzin got a sponsor for his education in Brendan Jones, an Irishman, who adopted Tenzin and Tsering Kyi, another girl. Typically sponsors find kids they want to sponsor by going through a process that gives details of the children. 8 TCVs operate - Dharamshala has five in its vicinity (Suja TCV, Upper TCV, Lower TCV, Gopalpura TCV, Chauntra TCV) which educate 20000 children.
Gowri and Raju now sponsor Tenzin and five other children - Tsering Kyi (in France now), Pehla (married and in Delhi), Ngawang (Manchester), Tsering Sangmo (Nursing in Mangalore) and Tenzin (a new girl in school). The school fees cost Rs. 3000 a month or so Tenzin says. His one year at medical college costs Rs. 55000. Apart from that Gowri and Raju send pocket money. 'As much as I ask,' he says with his shy smile.
Sponsoring a Tibetan Child - Raju and Gowri's story
To sponsor a Tibetan child please visit the website https://tcv.org.in/child-sponsorship/.
Raju, who is a software professional worked in the US for 8 years and headed back to India after 9/11. After his return, he worked in Dharamshala with the Tibetan Department of Security creating their databases and other software related work - for free. His friend in Dharamshala, Karma, asked him if he wanted to sponsor a child. Raju and Gowri who were just married then, decided to sponsor a child. Though they can do it online, they decided to visit Dharamshala and meet the children. Typically one has to choose between sponsoring small children (4-5-year-olds) or older kids (6th class onwards).
Of their five sponsored children Raju and Gowri have sponsored one for 10 years and the rest are continuing. Some have grown and are working and do not need any more financial assistance but they have become family and they stay in touch and seek advice and occasional help.
'There is no minimum commitment and one can contribute as much as they want,' said Gowri. 'However, we realised that if the child is left without a sponsor it is not good for them. So we decided to commit for the long term. For example, if a child gets sponsored from their 6th class, it is better to continue sponsoring them until they complete their 12th. Tenzin wanted to study medicine so we decided to fund his higher education also. The sponsorship for school is Rs. 3000 per kid per month and that includes their education, hostel, food and books.'
'We are like a family now,' says Gowri. 'We actually took our children on vacations. They came and stayed with us down south in Kerala. There will be typical needs that children have as they grow up and since we have decided to be like a family we take care of their other needs - a phone, an emergency visit that needs flight tickets, travel and such. But one can just sponsor a child's education and leave it at that.' Click that link above and you find bank details and you can transfer online.
Raju urges anyone who wants to sponsor a child to make it a long term commitment.
I love the way Raju and Gowri go about this so normally. I heard about Gowri's 'Tibetan kids' ten years ago but it never sank into me as it did now. To do what they have done at such a young age and to what they are continuing to do - I am amazed. Great job you two.
|Dhondup Tashi and Tenzin Dhundup @ Dharamshala January 2019|
After medicine, Tenzin wants to do research on cancer. 'I want to find a new Tibetan medicine for cancer,' he says.'I will have a hospital, a clinic.' In 2020, he will be moving to Bangalore as they are shifting the medical college to Bangalore. The herbs will still be sourced from Dharamshala to make medicines but all facilities will be in Bangalore. He showed pictures of his life in Dharamshala - a month-long camping trip to Manali to pick herbs for medicines, working in the medicine making plant and earning money, teaching Tibetan, listening to music, reading self-help books, fun at college.
'I want to go back to Tibet,' he says. 'After some years of experience, I will go back to Tibet. I will open a clinic in my town and serve during the winter months. But I will live here in India It is very peaceful.' He is very clear that people are here to serve others and nothing else.
Tenzin's parents miss him. They have not seen their only son since 2007 when he set off as a fourteen year old with 500 yen in his pocket. For four years they could not even speak to one another. In 2011 a friend of his who had made contact with his parents who were neighbours with Tenzin's parents made him speak to them. 'My amma could not speak. She cried. Would not stop. My appa was happy. Good. Study hard. Be a good person he told me.'
Now they chat with each other over phones thanks to smartphones. They can see each other but they are careful not to speak too many details. The authorities landed up at his parents' doorstep last year and asked them the whereabouts of their son. They told them they don't know where he was. That he ran away. 'Earlier my mother would tell me, come home, come home. Now she says say there. you are better off there.'
Tenzin speaks softly, shyly. He speaks halting English, searches for words using a Tibetan to English translator on his phone when he gets stuck. 'Ok ya ya,' he says when he agrees. He is a fine cook with great patience - he cooked noodles and momos while here - always drinking his hot water (it is the first medicine he says) and careful about the veggies. He teaches Tibetan to a Spanish student who is in Dharamshala and who aspires to be a monk or a nun. He is learning Chinese. He knows a smattering of Hindi. he loves Bollywood movies - Simba was his last movie. He participates in extracurricular activities like drama, poetry recital (very good), singing, dancing, fancy dress (he made a very pretty girl in one competition), was an athlete of repute in his school. When he gets comfortable he is mischievous. He spoke gently to Anjali and told her stories, jokes. He checked our pulse to give his diagnosis and offered a massage when Shobha's elbow and neck were hurting. He is very particular - when he chose a shirt for himself he chose the perfect fit. In his two small bags he has all that he needs - two shoes even. His bed is perfectly made once he is up. Everything is so unobtrusively packed and kept. You hardly know he is around. Gentle with the world too.
To live without an identity, a land to call one's own, and live as a refugee must be a difficult thing especially when everyone around you seems to belong to someplace they call their own. It must bother them, but it has also made them so adaptable, so strong. The TCV's mission had a line - Come to learn. Go to serve. Tenzin keeps talking about serving, it is deeply ingrained in him. It is wonderful how they have turned this injustice, this hardship into something so beautiful. A lot of credit goes to their leader the Dalai Lama, who retained and built on the Tibetan identity, developed an adaptable, gentle and serving culture.
|At Charminar with his new friends - they gave me tea and biscuits|
I sent him on a city tour one day and he managed well - after that trip from Tibet to India this must have been nothing. And on the day he came home first, he put his bag aside and pulled out gifts for us - a Dalai Lama book for me, green tea for Shobhs and chocolates for Anjali. When Ranjan came to see him he gave him a green tea packet as well. The next day he woke up, made tea (I will make, he insists) and then told me 'I got dream last night. You were there. You gave me a flower. It smelled nice.') I am glad it smelt nice.
Today he left for Bangalore and then to Bylakuppe and then to Palakkad and then to Mundgod and back to Dharamshala by end of February. I asked him if he would meet the people he travelled with to India in Bylakuppe. The guide lives there along with the woman who was unwell (who they found out later was his wife!), Jimba and Oga who carried Tenzin when he was sick live there, Lhodo's brothers live there. I told him to send me pictures of them. He said 'Ok ya ya.'
When he called me from the airport before boarding the plane I asked him if he enjoyed his Hyderabad stay. 'Very happy,' he said.
Same here Tenzin.