I was seven when the Dalai Lama fled to India. With 50,000 Chinese troops surrounding Lhasa, where, as now, unarmed people were in the streets demanding freedom, the 23 year old leader slipped out of the Norbulinka Palace and began his two week icy trek to the Indian border. It was March 17th 1959 – exactly 49 years tomorrow. In exile in the Indian town of Dharamsala he has since watched the systematic destruction of his people’s way of life.
It is significant that he took with him not an army, but an opera company. The Tibetans carried to safety trunkloads of costumes, scripts and musical instruments. For the Dalai Lama knew that the Chinese would wield their brute power by attempting to stamp out Tibet’s culture and religion, and he wanted to ensure that a vital part of Tibetan life, the community opera, would survive.
In Dharamsala, he established a small dance and drama school, now called the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. I know that little dance and drama school well, set in the village of McLeod Ganj overlooking the main town. In fact, I was married there.
Last year I wrote about my drive across Saudi Arabia to India with my girlfriend Jilly. During our year in India we drove south to Mysore, where a large Tibetan community was based. We’d heard that an opera was to be staged using the original instruments and costumes brought over during the exodus. What we hadn’t expected was the scale. Three days before curtain up, in a huge clearing, thousands of Tibetan families had arrived with tents to claim their spaces. It resembled a giant Glastonbury, with little cafes and stalls, and by the time the opera started, there must have been tens of thousands in the arena.
It was like a continuous Ring Cycle without the intervals. With fantastic colourful costumes and masks, the opera told of heroes and Gods, dragons and evil forces. With an orchestra of drums, cymbals and deep rasping horns, and a chorus of girls with high-pitched reedy voices, it was a cross between Glyndebourne and pantomime. From toddlers to the ancient, the crowd sat transfixed. Tibetan Opera dates back 600 years. It’s a unique form of folk art handed down by successive generations. It was part of the rich culture which the Dalai Lama was trying to preserve, the “genocide” of which he accused the Chinese this weekend.
After the performance, we became friends with several of the cast and, perceiving that we were in the throes of young love, they asked if we were going to get married. We explained that it was tricky as Jilly was still married to someone else. Apparently that made no difference in Tibet. We were in love, so we should marry.
So it was that a month later, we sat next to a photograph of the Dalai Lama in the Dance and Drama School, swathed in little silk scarves (the Tibetan traditional gift of greeting), and exchanged silver rings made by the Dalai Lama’s own jeweller.
The ceremony was simple. Did anyone in the village think these two shouldn’t be married? They all shook their heads. Then applause, the ceremony was over, and a test of virility followed: I was handed an enormous three-pint jug of sour Tibetan rice beer to down in one. Next everyone had to perform a song. I was far too drunk to remember what or how I sang, but I do recall standing with my bride looking out over the Himalayas as the sun set thinking that somehow, someday, the international community had to put pressure on China to cease its brutal repression and grant Tibet some form of autonomy.
I hope the current events, just two weeks before the Olympic torch arrives in Beijing, will mark the beginning of that process.