Fifty years ago on March 10, 1959, the entire population of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, revolted against the Chinese troops who had invaded the Land of Snows in 1950.
The uprising failed, and the Tibetan temporal and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, had no choice but to flee his country and take refuge in India. He was followed by 85,000 of his countrymen.
Thubten Samphel, now the Secretary of the Department of Information of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, was one of them. Samphel, who fled his country as a child, was educated in one of the best colleges in India, and now works as the spokesperson of the Dalai Lama`s Administration. He has recently penned down his experiences as a refugee in a book, Falling through The Roof, (excerpts) published by Rupa & Co.
In a relaxed atmosphere surrounded by his children, the next generation of refugees, he told Claude Arpi what it feels like to be a refugee for 50 years. He made it a point to clarify, however, that he was speaking in his personal capacity and not as the spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile.
My first question: do you still consider yourself as a refugee after 50 years.
How long did you live in Tibet? How old were you when you came to India?
I was born in 1956 and I left Tibet for exile in 1962. I was born in Lhasa. My parents worked as servants for His Holiness the Dalai Lama`s mother whom we call The Great Mother. After the uprising of 1959, my brother took me to Southern Tibet, a place called Tingri (near the Everest base camp). He was doing some road construction (for the Chinese). From Tingri, it is very easy to cross over to Nepal; it is just a few passes away.
Did you parents come with you?
At that time the movements of the adults were very strictly restricted. As a kid, it was easier for me (to leave Lhasa). I was allowed to go with my brother.
How did you cross the border?
We crossed to Solu Khumbu (the Nepali district at the base of the Everest). From Tingri, on a clear day, you can always see Mt Everest.
What are your souvenirs from your days in Tibet? Do you still remember?
The most memorable souvenir is the Potala. In those days, the town was less developed than today; from wherever we would look, we could see the Potala Palace. In Tingri, it was more the scenery that I remember. Looking towards the South, you could see Mt Everest in all its majesty.
At that time, we did not know about (Sir Edmund) Hilary, but we had heard that the (Sherpa) Tenzin Norgay had climbed Everest.
Image: Thubten Samphel, with his son Yugyal and daughter Dekyong. Picture copyright Claude Arpi. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.