Articles‎ > ‎

Book Review: Exile, A Photo Journal 1959-1989

posted Jun 2, 2017, 8:36 PM by The Tibetan Political Review
By Warren Smith

            Exile (Tib. Tsenjol) is a lovely book of photos and documentation about the Tibetan exile from the uprising in 1959 to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1989. It is described by its editor, Lobsang Gyatso Sither, as an attempt to tell the story of Tibetans in exile during the period when the foundations for the exile community were established. He writes that his hope is that the journal will help the younger generation of Tibetans to understand and appreciate the history and origins of the exile Tibetan community and serve as a record of the extraordinary achievements of the early refugee community.

            In a quote cited at the beginning of the book, His Holiness the Dalai Lama writes that Tibetans were characterized as refugees but that they were actually political exiles, which is not exactly the same as what is usually understood to be meant by the term “refugee.”


            After reaching Mussoorie, the first phase of our work concerned the influx of many Tibetans who were arriving in exile. At that time, the term “refugee” was being used to refer to us. However, we said that we were not mere refugees, which is a term denoting people fleeing their own land due to disasters like famine and seeking asylum in another country. We are not like that, since we were forcibly displaced and could no longer live but flee our land, we decided to call ourselves Tsenjol-wa, or “people who are forced to flee,” whereas “refugee” is an appellation that is normally employed to people like us. So then, we called ourselves Tsenjol-wa for a reason and purpose at that time.


            This distinction proved to be a defining characteristic of the Tibetan exile and an important reason for its relative success. Not only were individual Tibetans forced into exile, but the Tibetan political and religious establishment was as well. The remnants of that establishment were instrumental in organizing the resettlement of Tibetans in exile, negotiating with the Government of India for assistance in doing so, and recreating the Tibetan political and religious establishments in exile and preserving Tibetan cultural institutions and traditions. Tibetans as political exiles took parts of their political and cultural institutions with them and reestablished those institutions in exile. They were thus different from the typical definition of refugees, as His Holiness said, in that they were not just individuals, but a government, a culture and a society in exile. As this photo journal makes clear, they accepted the responsibility to preserve their culture and traditions in exile and to promote their political cause. This was especially important since they felt that China seemed intent upon eradicating traditional Tibetan culture, religion and even Tibetan national identity within Tibet.

The book is divided into five sections: Arrival—Forced into Exile; Democracy—A New Way Forward; Survival—Living for a Day; Education—The Future Seeds; and, Religion and Culture—Tibet’s Heritage. In the first chapter, “Arrival,” there are many familiar photos of the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet and arrival in India. But there are also many more rare photos that reveal the extraordinary reception he received from Indian officials as well as the public. His flight from Tibet was widely reported in the international press, and was said to be the “story of the year” in 1959.  In Tezpur, His Holiness made his first press statement in which he rejected the 17-Point Agreement on the basis that China had failed to honor its promise to allow Tibetan autonomy.  There are also some fascinating photos showing the arrival of refugees at the first “Transit Camp” at Missamari in Assam, from where they were sent to more permanent refugee camps. One of these photos shows a group of Tibetan men who appear to be veterans of the Tibetan resistance. Tenzin Tethong confirms that Chushi Gandruk fighters were some of the first arrivals at the camp. By June 1959 more than 15,000 Tibetan refugees had arrived at Missamari. 

            The second section, “Democracy,” covers the establishment of the Tibetan Government in Exile, the promulgation of a Democratic Constitution and international diplomatic efforts by the Government in Exile culminating in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1989. Included are meetings with Indian political leaders, Tibet’s appeal to the United Nations, the publication of the International Commission of Jurists reports, the beginning of the tradition of the Dalai Lama’s 10th March statements, and the Dalai Lama’s international travels and diplomatic efforts. Also covered is the creation of a free Tibetan press and political organizations such as the Tibetan Youth Congress. There are several rare photos of the delegation visits to Tibet of the early 1980s. To its credit the journal does not shy away from an acknowledgment of the Mustang Resistance and “Establishment 22,” the Tibetan unit of the Special Frontier Force within the Indian Army, with several rare photos.

            The third section, “Survival,” contains many photos of Tibetans working on road building projects and clearing land for the establishment of camps in various parts of India. The strenuousness and difficulties of these efforts are obvious from the photos. Tibetans confronted a completely different terrain at the camp sites in south India, where they had to deal with the heat, jungle, wild animals and poisonous snakes.

The fourth section, “Education,” begins with a statement by the Dalai Lama about how emphasis was made upon setting up schools in exile, rather than monasteries, because of a realization that Tibet’s dire political situation was partially due to the lack of modern knowledge in traditional Tibet. The first school was started at Mussoorie in the fall of 1959 for some 50 students who, according to Tenzin Tethong, were “mainly young men who had accompanied the Dalai Lama in his escape and up to Mussoorie.  Among them were soldiers of the Kusung (Bodyguard) and Drapchi regiments, Chushi Gangdruk, and even a handful of Lhasa policemen; and among “civilians” there were some junior government officials, monk and lay, and personal attendants of some of the senior Tibetan officials and the two tutors of the Dalai Lama.  The actual inauguration of the school happened about two weeks before the first official commemoration of the March 10th National Uprising at the school.”

This was followed by the establishment of an Education Council and the creation of two more schools at Simla and Darjeeling. A Tibetan Refugee Children’s Nursery was established at Dharamsala when the government in exile moved there in 1960. In 1961 the Tibetan School Society was established with the support of the Government of India to set up schools in all the Tibetan refugee camps. Various nurseries for orphans were set up at Dharamsala and other camps, often with foreign assistance, culminating in the creation of the Tibetan Children’s Village at Dharamsala in 1971. There are photos from the early days of these schools that will undoubtedly be a delight for the many Tibetans educated there and for their own children. 

The last section, “Religion and Culture,” documents the recreation of Tibetan monasteries in exile; the evolution of the first dance and drama troupes into the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts; the creation of the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute, Mentseekhang; the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala; Tibet House in New Delhi and the Central University for Tibetan Studies at Sarnath. This section ends with a quote from M.C. Chagla, Union Minister for Education, Government of India, at the dedication of Tibet House in 1965, about the importance of culture for the survival of a nation: “What China has done has not merely violated the Charter of the United Nations as far as Human Rights are concerned, but China has done something worse, it has tried to destroy a culture, which is like destroying the human spirit, because culture is the expression of the human spirit.”

            Tibetans in exile are often said to be the world’s most successful refugees. I always slightly cringe when I hear that characterization because the very fact of exile is a reminder of the tragedy of Tibet, a national disaster that the success of Tibetans in exile cannot rectify. In addition, many of the early exiles died from unfamiliar diseases or suffered in poverty. One only need see the photos of Tibetans laboring in the heat of south India still in their wool chubas to sympathize with their displacement from their homeland and relocation in a foreign, unfamiliar country. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Tibetan exiles have done remarkably well despite their tragic circumstances. Their success in exile also resoundingly refutes Chinese propaganda about the supposed evils of the society from which they came. China claims to have relieved Tibetans of their own misrule, but the flight into exile of so many Tibetans proves that Tibetans preferred their own self-rule to the foreign rule imposed upon them by China. 

The remnant members, including many lamas and aristocrats, of the “dark, barbaric, cruel, feudal serf society,” according to Chinese propaganda, from which Tibetans were “liberated,” managed to reestablish a society in exile that contrasted so favorably with Tibet under Chinese rule that even until recent times many hundreds of parents inside Tibet chose to send their children to India for an education in their own culture and traditions that could not be obtained in their own country. Some parents sent their children into exile knowing that they might never see them again, but they believed that was preferable to subjecting them to indoctrination in schools inside Tibet whose purpose seemed to be the eradication of Tibetan religion and culture. The success of the Tibetan Children’s Village schools in Dharamsala and other camps in India in nurturing these “political orphans” is a testimony to the compassionate and beneficent character of traditional Tibetan culture and society, even in exile, in contrast to the “New Tibet” created by the Chinese. 

Exile: A Photo Journal 1959-1989 is a very handsome publication, printed on fine quality paper and nicely bound with a very attractive dust jacket. It is a valuable record in text and photographs of the history of the first 30 years of the Tibetan exile. Its authors are to be commended for their efforts to preserve this history and their very fine accomplishment. It is not yet easily available but will eventually no doubt become an essential item on the bookshelves of Tibetans and their friends. 

The book was published by Tibet Documentation, a project directed by Tenzin Namgyal Tethong. Researchers were Lhakpa Kyizom and Tenzin Jigme. The editor acknowledges Tashi Tsering Josayma for his guidance and support and Claude Arpi for his numerous inputs and sharing of documents. Also thanked are Dr. Losang Rabgey, Kalsang Chokeng, Tsangshol Desal, Rigzin Dolkar, Ashwin Bhatia, Pranav Kumar, Jane Moore, Victoria Conner and Gyamtso Graphics. It is composed of 262 photos out of over 40,000 photos received from various institutions and individuals. 

The publication of Exile was made possible by a grant from the Geographic Legacy Fund at National Geographic Society and the Committee of 100 for Tibet. The first printing is intended for free distribution to Tibetan schools and institutions, and not for public sale.  However, copies are available at a small price covering printing and postage upon request from http// The photos have been archived and digitized and can be viewed at the same website. Donations to support the Tibet Documentation project may be made to the Committee of 100 for Tibet, a non-profit California 501(c) (3) corporation.  Contact: Committee of 100 for Tibet, PO Box 60612, Palo Alto, CA, 94306, USA. 

Email to a friend or share on Facebook, Twitter, etc.: Bookmark and Share