Born in Lhasa

The following article is from the Spring, 2001 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

The Autobiography of Namgyal Lhamo Taklha

 

 

by Namgyal Lhamo Taklha

ISBN: 9781559391023

Namgyal Lhamo Taklha recounts her remarkable life in Born in Lhasa. It is an engaging history of the Tibetan diaspora dramatic and filled with anecdotes. Taklha's autobiography differs from those of other prominent Tibetans because she discusses the unexpected challenges of living in America and Europe.

Mrs. Taklha married the immediate elder brother of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama She is a member of the elected Parliament of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and serves as Minister of Health. She lives in Dharamshala, India.

Below is an excerpt from the Introduction to Born in Lhasa.

The Tibet I knew no longer exists...

The Tibet I knew no longer exists a free, self-ruled Tibet, isolated from the rest of the world, where simple, religious people spun their lives around harvests, picnics, festivals, and spiritual pilgrimages. With its elaborate and distinct culture, with internal political intertwining as matted and tangled as yak hair, Tibet fiercely protected its self-determination, and closed itself off from almost all foreign influence.

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Born into two ancient Tibetan families

I was born in Lhasa in 1942, the child of two ancient Tibetan families Tsarong and Ragashar whose offspring have served the Tibetan government for generations. I grew up in the house of the Tsarong family, a family which had also produced generations of doctors of traditional Tibetan medicine. My paternal grandmother, Pema Dolkar Tsarong, married the son of a farmer who, in 1910, saved the life and won the great favor of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. During the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's flight to India, this young peasant led troops who defeated the pursuing Chinese forces at Chaksam, Tibet, thereby allowing the Tibetan ruler to escape safely into exile in India. As a reward for his bravery, my grandfather was made the commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army. He married into the Tsarong family and took this name. Thereafter, the hero of the Chaksam incident was called Dasang Dadul Tsarong. My siblings and I were raised in this household of almost sixty family members and servants, a protective net organized and ruled by our adored grandfather Tsarong, whom we called Polathe spark, the power, and life of our family.

He wanted prevent foreign military intervention

Pola was a broad-minded, forward-thinking patriot who had observed Russian military tactics while he served during the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's exile in Mongolia, and trained in British tactics during the Dalai Lama's exile in Darjeeling, India. Pola unnerved Tibet's monastic Old Guards with his plans to modernize the country. Pola wielded great influence in his position as commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army and as a minister in the government. He wanted the country to upgrade its defense, education, communications, and transportation so that it could prevent foreign military intervention, maintain its self- rule, and become an independent member of the world community.

 A great fear of the weakening of Tibetan Buddhism

Tibet's monastic leaders and a few of its landed aristocrats panicked at the thought of being heavily taxed and losing government monies that had been generously earmarked for ecclesiastical services, funds that would now go to civil and military services. The monasteries had a great fear of the weakening of Tibetan Buddhism, and a few people accused Pola of opportunism and disloyalty. Despite the accusations, Pola fought against Tibet's conservatism, and he persuaded the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to build up an army, to send promising students for education abroad, and to consider widespread modernizations.

Defeated in his efforts to modernize Tibet

Tibet's development did not last long. During a short period of peace, monastic leaders and a few conservative civil servants declared that Tibet had no need for an army and pressured the Dalai Lama to order the removal of all trained officers from their military posts. The Dalai Lama advocated change, but he was unable to steer his country away from the old system before his death in 1933. As for my grandfather, he was defeated in his efforts to modernize Tibet, so he turned to the task of educating his own family members, breaking open for them the world on the other side of the Himalayas.

What we never imagined

Pola fashioned himself into a successful international entrepreneur. He traded goods with people east and west of Tibet, and he invited merchants and diplomats of many nationalities to visit Tsarong House. Scholars, politicians, military officers, mountaineers, and Buddhist aspirants the famous and the unknown filled our house with stories and images of a world too far away and strange for my siblings and I to understand. We tasted bubble gum from the United States and gawked at issues of National Geographic, but we never imagined one day entering the life we saw in these magazine advertisements.

In 1922, my grand aunt Rinchen Dolma Taring was the first Tibetan woman to leave Tibet for an education in Darjeeling, India, a boarding school run by American Baptists. Years later, my father, Dundul Nam-gyal Tsarong, joined a Jesuit boys' school, while his siblings followed my aunt to Mount Hermon. In 1951, I went to Mount Hermon School in Darjeeling with my siblings.

Tibet's bygone era

At the age of nine, I was a changed girl. I went from being a privileged child protected within the comfort, love, and religious idealism of Tibet's bygone era to a minority student in a modern, sophisticated, and international society. I saw my first car, ate my first hot dog, wore my first knee-length skirt, and attended my first Sunday school class. My own clothes became costume pieces; my language was unspoken. Gradually my small landlocked world of Tibet expanded beyond time and space.

Where is Buddha's compassion?

I began to study English, Western literature, world history, geography, biology, mathematics, and the Bible with my American, European, and Asian classmates. Having to learn the values and motivations of people raised not on butter tea and Buddha's compassion, but on roast beef and the parables of Christ, I could no longer retreat into my mental shelter of oblivion. I had to learn to be at ease with social unfamiliarity and to overcome my own insecurities.

This lesson, scary at first, was crucial to the rest of my life. Only a few years later everything I had known and trusted became unfastened: my country was invaded, my family members were separated or lost, and my home was taken away. I became a refugee, homeless, stateless, lost amidst the teeming population of India.

Cruel and comprehensive

When the Communist Chinese took over Tibet in the 1950's, they tried to uproot every aspect of Tibetan culture and to vilify our sacred teachings. While pretending to be the savior of our populace, they worked at breaking us down physically, mentally, and spiritually. Their methods were cruel and comprehensive. Crazed with hunger from the famine caused by the Chinese, sorrowful at the loss of Tibetan lives, we became suspicious of our own family members, and desolate from the destruction of our cultural and spiritual norms.

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How to make a home in exile?

Although not all of its members escaped the Chinese, my family like so many other Tibetan families fled into exile in India. There we faced an entirely new set of challenges: how to make a home in exile, how to cope in a foreign environment, how to preserve our language, culture and religion, how to help each other with very little money, and, most importantly, how to get our country back from the Chinese. With hard work, perseverance, deeply rooted fortitude, and assistance from all over the world, Tibetans have become a unique community in exile, one that China cannot afford to ignore.

Feeling fortunate

I was fortunate to have lived in India, to have met people from all over the world, and to have been well-educated. Having the skills to help the Tibetan government-in-exile, I began my services as a translator and interpreter at the Bureau of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New Delhi. Later, I assisted with the rehabilitation of Tibetans in Europe and in health services for Tibetans in India and Nepal.

Finding Inner strength

I married an elder brother of the Dalai Lama, gave birth to two children, and traveled further and further from my childhood world from India, to Switzerland, to the United States and back to India, but due to my early exposure to foreign customs and my inner strength coming from a spiritual environment, I never felt lost and never abandoned my sense of being Tibetan.

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Clockwise from top: The author on her mother's lap (Lhasa, 1943); Abbot N. Nyima from Mongolia; Lobsang Samden, Tenzin Choegal, Jetsun Pema, the author and other family members at a birthday celebration for His Holiness; H.H. the Dalai Lama drawing the Potala rooms for M. Mathison, M. Scorsese, B. Defina, and E. Lewis for the film Kundun; Tibetan refugee work crews in Manali; H.H. the Dalai Lama with orphans in Dharamsala, 1960; Barkhor, the circumambulation path around the Central Temple in Lhasa City.

Celebrating Tibet's unique cultural and religious tradition

I am writing this book to document Tibet's unique cultural and religious tradition. When I returned to live in a Tibetan refugee community in India after my modern nomadic life, I realized the value of my roots. Mental peace became far more important to me than material acquisitions. In finding a way to care for my countrymen and women, and in contributing to the cause of regaining our homeland, I found a purpose in my life. Now I live with the hope that China will realize the need to settle the Tibetan issue honorably, honestly, and amicably.

Mental peace became far more important to me than material acquisitions.

Namgyal Lhamo Taklha, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Parliament of theTibetan Government-in-Exile, Minister of Health, Dharamsala, IndiaNamgyal Lhamo Taklha married the immediate elder brother of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. She is a member of the elected Parliament of theTibetan Government-in-Exile and serves as Minister of Health. She lives in Dharamsala, India.

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