Diaspora Tibetans

Tibetan Exile Community, Dharamsala, India

The Tibetan diaspora community is estimated at about 150,000 people worldwide. Most of them live in India, Nepal and other Asian countries, with some in Europe, the Americas or Australia. Dharamsala, in Northern India, functions as the administrative heart of the Tibetan Community in India, and harbours the residence of its spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The exile community has been admirably successful in providing for the basic needs of the stream of people that have crossed the Himalayas over the past sixty years. However, with the community being so dispersed, fragmented and disconnected from their landscape and places of heritage, their biggest preoccupation today is that their culture might be eroded, their traditional knowledge and values lost.

With several generations now either born in exile or having arrived as small children, Tibetans are facing a huge challenge to maintain their cultural heritage alive. In order to confront this situation, they have built schools and supported education initiatives in which their language, history and culture are transmitted. To strengthen the Tibetan identity in the settlements, they also aim to design buildings in Tibetan style. Following a request by the Tibetan administration, Ernesto Noriega (founding member of OrigiNations) started a program for young Tibetans in Dharamsala in the early 1990s to support them to gather information on the architectural practices of the past and document and promote their endangered cultural heritage. The broader objective was to create the conditions for the emergence of a social space where a new generation of Tibetans living between tradition and modernity could start to reconstruct the memory of their cultural heritage and make creative use of this recovered legacy in the process of redefining their identity and constructing their future.

The project was launched with a symbolic act – a visit to a man people referred to as „the last architect of Lhasa“ called Jigmet Taring (pictured on the left). As a highly-ranked officer in Tibet he was responsible for all the historical monuments in the old capital Lhasa. He had made a drawing of the city documenting all the important structures such as temples and monasteries. After he came to exile, he built an exact model out of memory of the most important buildings of the city and toured with it to all the Tibetan schools in India. When he was approached by this group of young Tibetans, he encouraged them in their research task with the following words:

“Go visit the monuments wherever you can, open your eyes and ears, and make sketches, take photographs, ask questions, study the old stones. Even in ruins one can find precious information, small drops of knowledge here and there. But don’t get discouraged, remember that small drops make a mighty ocean.”

His death shortly after the meeting with the group was a dramatic wake-up call to the young Tibetans interested in documenting their cultural heritage. Seeing the memory disappear before their very eyes, it became an urgent task to build some form of receptacle for all these drops of fragmented knowledge in order to be gathered in one place.

Contact was established with private collections and archives in different museums and (ex-)colonial institutions in Europe that allowed 2,500 reproductions of historical photographs of Tibetan architectural heritage to be taken back to the exile community in India (see the black and white pictures above). The photographs show Tibet as it was before its destruction. Many are unique records of monumental buildings, religious complexes, towns and villages which no longer exist. On the basis of this collection, a documentation center dedicated to Tibetan architecture was constructed in Dharamsala. The photographs, drawings, books, old texts, testimonies and academic studies of historical monuments were gathered, preserved and organised in a way that would facilitate access by the general public and the younger generation.

School students were the most enthusiastic users of the archive – through the photographs they realized that their ancestors had developed a rich architectural tradition well adapted to and in harmony with a difficult environment. They were exposed to a world populated by extraordinary structures, feats of engineering where countless monumental fortresses were strategically located atop inaccessible summits and giant monasteries resembled small towns in their size and complexity, sometimes accommodating up to ten thousand monks. They also learned how their built heritage extended far beyond monasteries and towns and permeated practically the whole landscape through the use of structures that marked historical events, defined boundaries, and ordered the ritual use of space, serving as focal-points for worship or as stations along pilgrimage routes. The photo collection covered the architecture of the different regions of Tibet and other areas within its cultural sphere of influence, from the old Buddhist kingdoms along the Himalayas all the way to Mongolia and south-central Siberia.

Young Tibetans also found that many lessons could be learned from the old tradition that offered relevant solutions to today’s challenges. For example, monasteries that at some point in history had been confronted with a rapid increase in population, suddenly having to accommodate thousands of monks on a limited amount of land, developed sophisticated high-density housing that in many ways resembled housing developed in the West during recent decades. Surprised about the “modern” quality of these solutions, young Tibetans were excited about the points of coincidence between their own tradition and the prestigious and much admired contemporary architecture. This material promoted the understanding that the Tibetan building tradition is flexible and has always been capable of adapting to diverse of cultural and ecological conditions.

Thrilled about these discoveries, the young students joined the initiative and subsequently made important contributions to the construction of this documentation. A dark room was built where they could develop and print photographs before taking them to their grandparents or other elderly to help them identify particular buildings and villages and ask them about specific details and construction practices.

However, as enlightening the interaction with the historical photographs was, nothing can replace the direct experience of touching, walking through and around a real building. Not being able to visit Tibet itself, it was decided that the second-best option was to visit Ladakh, a region within India, but part of the Tibetan sphere of cultural realm. After travelling through Ladakh visiting villages and monasteries, they stayed at the monastery of Samkar applying the particular skills they had acquired to record and document and make measured drawings of architecture. They also produced some artistic renditions of the monastery (see picture on the right).

Understanding how vulnerable and endangered their heritage is, had the power to mobilise different segments of society and different generations to work together, focus their minds on it and avert what is instinctively perceived as a great danger – the loss of their cultural values, knowledge and practices. This example also serves to reaffirm the role architecture can play in the process of cultural resistance and renewal, especially in the case of marginalized population groups.

Background Information

This project was implemented in collaboration with the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA), TCV School, TCA Planning Council with institutional support from the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (Germany) and the Department of Architecture of the University of Trondheim (Norway).

A description of the project can be found here.