The Snow Lion Roars in the Palm Trees:
Tibetan Refugee Music in India
In south India along the side of a highway six hours west of Bangalore a bustling Tibetan refugee community goes about its business, quite unnoticed by the world. Bylakuppe is home to the largest community of Tibetans outside of Tibet, with a population estimated at twenty thousand souls. An onerous application process keeps any overnight visitors out, and has had the effect of maintaining Bylakuppe as a pure bastion of Tibetan culture, prayer flags flapping serenely in the palm trees. No less than five monasteries dot the agrarian landscape. Half the population at any time is made up of monks and nuns. Tibetan schools and town halls, homes, farms, restaurants, and businesses fill the rest.
I went there with a singular purpose – to learn Tibetan folk music from a qualified teacher, and to see what I could learn about Tibetan culture through that music. What I found was a rich and vibrant culture, continually evolving as it holds on to its roots, trying to maintain a balance between full modernity and cultural preservation. Folk music is a driving force in the lives of the refugees. It is social cement, bringing together families and communities around a shared sound and heritage. It is a tool for creative expression, for singing of loves lost and gained, of devotion to principles and people, of frustrations and ecstasies. It is sacred rebel music, a key instrument for protest against the ravages of their homeland and people. In short, it is an art form central to so much of modern Tibetan life, and, sadly, in acute danger of being lost in the winds of political uncertainty and cultural diffusion.
In 1959 the Chinese occupied Tibet. India gave asylum to the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s most sacred and respected political and spiritual leader, and thousands of refugees. India’s kind solution was to provide substantial plots of land for the Tibetans’ use as refugee camps for as long as needed. The Dalai Lama moved to Dharamsala, a small village above an old English hill outpost called McLeod Ganj, and began the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Among the first actions of the new government was to set up a school for the preservation of Tibetan art forms, and so before the first monastery or temple was built, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts was erected and staffed. The Tibetans began to spread throughout India, the majority congregating in the jungle in Karnataka State that was to become the collection of camps at Bylakuppe. After years of labor and many deaths from new diseases and new snakes, a plot of jungle was cleared and the agrarian lifestyle of the refugees could commence.
Fast-forward fifty years. Monks wearing mirror-shades and Nike rip-offs zip along well-paved roads on sleek motorcycles. Thousands of students learn Tibetan, English, and the sciences in two major schools, staffed mostly by Tibetans. The fields are orderly and verdant; farmers chat on cell phones while they direct cattle pulling plows. Tibetan food – delicious pot-stickers called momos and an infinite variety of noodle soups called thukpa – is still the main fare, but many families cook south Indian cuisine just as well. The third generation of Bylakuppe refugees is rising, with new citizens fresh from the Himalaya arriving every month. The only foreigners are a few students from the United States and one or two brave souls who are hiding out without a Protected Area Permit. Bylakuppe is modern, it is most certainly in south India, and it yet remains wholly Tibetan. This phenomenon of Tibetans adroitly mixing with other strong cultures while remaining themselves is, however, not a new occurrence.
The Metropolitan Shangri-La
In the mind’s eye, physical Tibet is a final frontier, an unexplored and vast frigid landscape of unspeakable beauty and impossible mysticism. Its inhabitants are shepherds and wizards, warlords and bejeweled aristocrats. Above all things, Tibet is remote and isolated, cut off from the world by cloud-capped mountains on one side and infinite barren expanses on the other. Tibet’s pristine isolation, however, is more invention than reality. There could hardly have been a more metropolitan society, by ancient standards. Muslims and Mongols shared Lhasa, the illustrious capital city, with the high Lamas. The Chinese royal court made frequent appearances, and the reverse was also true – Tibet’s most visible citizens spent months and years living abroad, taking part in all the intrigues and scandals of the court. Tibetan medical doctors, philosophers, and traders traversed the globe – China, India, Mongolia, Nepal, Russia, Greece – bringing home ideas and artifacts while spreading Tibetan notions of Buddhism, medicine, and commerce.
Notable evidences of this trade and interplay appear even in Tibet’s most prized and lauded instrument, the lute-like Dramyen. The music teachers and friends I made in the community readily admitted the bulk of Tibetan instruments to be Chinese in origin, simply modified to Tibetan tastes and circumstances. For example, the Tibetan violin called Pi-wang is simply a larger version of the Chinese Erhu, providing increased volume appropriate for dance music in wide-open spaces. The Dramyen, however, is claimed to be a Tibetan original, a sacred and august instrument, and as such is the only Tibetan melodic instrument to play a crossover role as a device of religious implement and secular entertainment. Gods and goddesses adorning the local temples are as frequently seen with Dramyen as are kids in shades and designer jeans. The Dramyen, as uniquely Tibetan as it is, shows strong evidences of influence from Mongolian and Chinese sources. The Dramyen I bought is typical of one of three main styles of tuning box decoration. Mine has a geometric head, simple and unadorned, with graceful lines. The other two head styles are sumptuous and intricate – one is styled after a horse’s head, powerful and aggressive, and the other is a multihued dragonhead, usually over-the-top in complexity and detail. The horsehead motif came from Mongolia, where the “horsehead fiddle” is ubiquitous. The dragonhead is of Chinese descent, where it graces Erhu and other stringed instruments. From this simple example, it is easy to see the complex and interwoven nature of Tibetan culture, and to extricate oneself from a too-simple view of the isolated residents of Shangri-La.
Milarepa and the Rebel Lama
Recognizing Tibet’s cosmopolitan flavor does not prevent recognition of some of its most singular and, from a music culture point of view, most contributory citizens. The whole of Tibetan life is tied up in its distinctive form of Buddhism, and it follows suit that two of the heroes of Tibetan music were important Buddhist leaders.
The first was Milarepa. In any Tibetan thangka painting, he is easily recognized by his emaciated figure and green skin, both gained while subsisting solely on nettles as he meditated for years in solitude in a snowy mountain cave. A joyful ascetic, he embodied spontaneity, living in the moment, and love of the spiritual aspects of the natural world. He was known to break into song at any given moment, and often with little discernable impetus, extolling spiritual truths, asceticism, and exalting the features of the landscape around him in parable. He set a precedent for and lent credence to songs describing mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, and all of the animal denizens. These profound songs are common in the Tibetan folk vernacular.
The second, more scandalous and human hero of Tibetan folk music was none other than the VI Dalai Lama, a rebel youth who shed the trappings of his high calling and spent much of his time drinking, carousing, chasing women, and writing songs. He was universally loved by the people, and universally worrisome to the clergy. His songs are full of longing, of love, of angst, and occasionally the candid yet transcendent spirituality expected of the highest lama.
Even if meditated upon
The face of my lama comes not to me,
But again and again comes to me
The smiling face of my beloved.
The honest candor of this song is easy to relate to for most of the people I met in Bylakuppe, including (perhaps especially!) the monks. The next song showcases the strong visual nature of many traditional lyrics.
It snowed at dusk
When I searched for my sweetheart.
Now the secret cannot be kept;
In the snow my footprints remain.
The simple image of footprints in the snow at dusk, an austere sight filled with the warmth of emotion of the young lover, remains with the hearer and forever changes the common sight of a lone set of tracks in the virgin snow. Descriptions like this, sparse yet powerful, are common in Tibetan folk music.
The garrulous parrot
Please stay with your mouth shut.
The thrush in the willow grove
Has promised to sing a song for me.
Wit and straightforwardness are also common markers of folk tunes, and this one in particular shows the face of wit and even irritation in the face of the “garrulous parrot,” or the clergymen that disapproved of the Lama’s liaisons with the “thrush in the willow grove.”
Lend me your wings.
I shall not fly far;
From Lithang, I shall return.
(All songs and song numbers taken from The Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama by K. Dhondup)
Part of the special station of the Dalai Lama is an ability to choose the location of his next rebirth, and the last of these songs was recognized after his death/murder/disappearance (depending on the version of history) as a hint to help his followers find the VII Dalai Lama. The VII Dalai Lama was indeed found in Lithang, having passed all the tests associated with becoming a recognized reincarnation. Thus this VI Dalai Lama was seen not only as a folk hero, the voice of the common people in a society ruled by the clergy, but also as a true embodiment of the purest type of holiness, boldly refusing the fetters of outward accessories while yet displaying the spiritual power of a god.
Though the Tibetan folk music tradition is criminally understudied by scholars, Tibetologists, and ethnomusicologists, it nevertheless holds a vital place in Tibetan culture in modern times. The examples set by Milarepa and the VI Dalai Lama have been followed without interruption, and the songs of Tibetans in exile echo love for their lost landscape, Buddhist philosophy, and the angst of young love and unfulfilled longing for lover or home. Added to these are the powerful messages of protest songs. Some of these songs are completely new, rock songs with power chords and drum sets. Kiela Diehl, in one of the only works on modern Tibetan refugee music, follows the Yak Band in their quest to unite the diaspora through rock protest ballads. Particularly interesting to me are the old songs, once innocuous praises of Tibetan culture and the Dalai Lama, now transformed into protest by politics as the process of cross-acculturation continues in the new refugee venue.
Soong Dhang Laymo
The first song I learned to sing and play on Dramyen was Soong Dhang Laymo, an old song that falls into this second category of protest. On the surface, none of the lyrics are incendiary or revolutionary: “What is the precious jewel of the Norbulingka? The Chosha Yishi (one of the Dalai Lama’s titles, also approximately translating to “precious jewel”) is the jewel. What is the precious jewel of the Norbulingka? The young men of Tibet are the jewels. What is the precious jewel of the Norbulingka? The women of Tibet, with their jewelry of turquoise and coral, are the precious jewels. What is the precious jewel of the Norbulingka? The children of Tibet are the precious jewels.” This song, written in some time in the lost annals of history, was originally a song of praise to the Dalai Lama and of love for the Tibetan people. However, in the refugee context, the lyrics cry defiantly that the people are not broken simply because they are not “home.” This song with its original lyrics and meaning would draw severe punishment if performed in Tibet, where every image of the Dalai Lama, aural or visual, is outlawed. These refugee Tibetans are not in their motherland, but they brought their most prized treasures with them in the person of the Dalai Lama and the strength of the rising generation. Burn the Norbulingka, kill, rape, and plunder, and the Tibetans will yet not be dead. Tibet will yet not be dead. Precious jewels are indestructible.
I was asked to perform this song at the year’s most auspicious celebration, the Dalai Lama’s seventy-seventh birthday, on July 6th. To fully understand the weight of this celebration, it must be considered that the Dalai Lama is, quite literally, the living deity of the people. In the refugee context, he is the symbol of hope and the strong leader that has kept the diaspora unified. Every year he lives is another year of hope, especially as many begin to doubt that another charismatic and able leader will rise to take his place and fill his shoes. The death of the Dalai Lama is seen by some as the death of the struggle to save Tibet. There is no person or concept more beloved of the Tibetans.
I asked my teacher, Dawa-la, why he wanted me to perform this song at the celebration. He told me that many Tibetan children and teenagers do not fully appreciate or understand the culture they come from, having never set foot in Tibet. A reminder that the Tibetan musical tradition draws people from all over the world would also be a reminder to the children of the power and value of their culture. An “Inji-Mi,” a Western man, playing this song on that stage seven thousand miles from his home would be a powerful image for the youngsters, one that will never leave. A tall, white, blond-haired blue-eyed Christian came and sang – not one of his songs, but one of ours – for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This image represents the worth of the music, the support of people in the West, and the compassion taught by the Buddha in accepting all beings as relatives, regardless of race or creed.
Never once did I feel the cold shoulder I might have expected. I was one of eleven performances, the only solo, and the only foreigner. My participation in the sacred event of another culture might have been met with opposition or discomfort, were it anywhere else. The eagerness of my teachers and friends to share their traditions with me is a sign of the robust and lively nature of Tibet in exile. There was no defensiveness, neither was there hurt or disgruntlement where the failure of my country to reprimand China and restore Tibet was concerned. From what I felt talking to friends before the performance, and from the response of the crowd after the performance, everybody was interested in moving forward, in holding on to peace and accepting any offerings of love regardless of their source.
The stage was a concrete platform beneath a colorful array of canopies covering the capacious lawn in front of the Dalai Lama’s palace in Bylakuppe. When I arrived, I was surprised to find that the “palace” was a rather humble house set in the middle of a field of grass dotted by towering trees. It turns out the only good translation for the Tibetan word for the places the Dalai Lama stays when he travels to the various settlements is “palace.” The crowd gathered around three sides of the stage, and the fourth side met with the covered porch of the palace where the dignitaries were seated, where the Dalai Lama would sit were he not attending a similar performance in his home base in Dharamsala in North India. The performers, myself included, performed not facing the crowd, but the dignitaries and the absent-in-body high Lama. The party, after all, was for him.
The opera singers, lion dancers, children’s groups, and school troupes took their turns on stage, exuding national pride and devotion to the Dalai Lama. The crowd responded enthusiastically, laughing and cheering at the right moments. When my time came, I stepped on stage as Palden, another of my teachers, adjusted the microphones. I started to play the instrumental introduction, and as soon as the melody was recognized, the crowd erupted. Being surrounded on three sides by thousands of people in close proximity heightened the effect on me, and I watched as the dignitaries smiled and serenely nodded in the same recognition the crowd had just had. As I plunked my way through the song, an amateur at best, the crowd alternately went silent to hear the lyrics, and then clapped and cheered uproariously during the instrumental sections. It was a heady experience, overwhelming – I even forgot to play the instrument for most of a chorus and got caught up in singing with the crowd. For the last verse, a repeat of the most known lyrics, the crowd drowned me out. In all the performances I have been a part of over the years, none has paralleled this experience for sheer crowd participation and excitement. It still humbles me to think about it. Maybe sixty people in the crowd knew me. Yet the response to my performance was by far the most extreme of the day. Why were they so enthusiastic?
I will not pretend to understand all of the reasons for the incredible reception the performance received, but I will relate the responses I obtained from people I talked to after the performance. Several people told me how much they loved that song, and how much that song meant to them. A woman from Third Camp, the same camp we lived in, had graduated from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and immigrated to Canada where she continued to sing. Her YouTube version of Soong Dhang Laymo, a reinterpretation with drum machines and synth pads (a prime example of the natural evolution and cross-acculturation of Tibetan refugee music), had recently gone viral in the community. There was local pride in her accomplishments, and my act of bringing the song “back home” completed the circle. Others, the elderly in particular, were happy that I sang in their language and that the words could be clearly heard. Kiela Diehl describes Tibetan refugee response to well-enunciated Tibetan-language poetry in song as a central part of the enjoyment of their music. I was dressed in traditional Tibetan clothing, at the behest of Palden, and this compounded the positive response of the elderly and traditionalists to my singing in Tibetan. This combination also, incidentally, gave me a happy source of trouble the rest of my stay as everybody then assumed I spoke Tibetan (whereas everybody before assumed I spoke none and therefore communicated in English). Many people I met were simply proud of their culture and music, and related to me how happy they were that I enjoy it too, as a Westerner. The longest lasting response I could observe was the revival of the YouTube version of Soong Dhang Laymo – I heard it blare from community loudspeakers and cafes several times a day in the month after the performance. As I would pass people in the street, they would start to sing or whistle the melody, usually followed by a fit of laughter and a hearty “Hello! Tashi Delek!” when I made eye contact. Everybody knew the song before – it is one most learned on their mothers’ knees – but it became ubiquitous after. The song generated so much excitement that, despite my weak and halting performance, I became a celebrity for the last month I was in Bylakuppe.
Reflections After the Performance
I have thought for months about this experience and what it meant, and what it means for the Tibetans and the rest of the world. I am yet unable to look at the experience with the cool eye of a researcher, so powerfully has it touched me. It changed who I am. Maybe a few years’ time will enable me to make a more detailed analysis of what happened, the implications for future researchers, etc. For now, let a few thoughts and feelings suffice. As I said before, the performance was simultaneously botched and the absolute most successful performance I have ever given. The reaction the crowd gave was not in response to my technical ability, which most performers hope to wow the audience with (and, truthfully, spend too much time on), but rather in response to the love with which I performed and, above even that, the song itself. I have never felt such emotion from a group in response to a song in any venue. I had also never lived among a group of refugees. These people are united in pain and passion and cultural heritage. The refugee spirit, though at times depressed and downtrodden, is formidable, potent, and nigh indestructible. It springs back, and any sign of life and happiness is celebrated, be it the smallest iota. It is inspiring to watch. It imparts hope, not just for the Tibetan diaspora, but for all of humankind. If a song can elicit such a response, then not only is music an important part of Tibetan expression and heritage, it is an important part of human expression and heritage. It changed the way I look at music and how essential it is to the make up of my being. It changed the way I viewed my research and vastly increased the amount of importance I place on the preservation and promulgation of folk musics. This stuff is not just for guys from the Smithsonian with fancy microphones – it is for everybody. And, in the Tibetan case, I became convinced that the work of preservation and promulgation needs to start now.
Current Dangers and Next Steps
In Bylakuppe and elsewhere in the Tibetan diaspora, the folk music canon is still largely held in the minds of the musicians. Though there is wide oral dissemination of this music, proper archival work of diasporic music as it stands will serve in preserving and disseminating the art form to a world audience, and will guard against loss due to any future upheavals in Tibetan life. The Dalai Lama’s death, change of policy by the Chinese or Tibetan governments, etc., could all cause a great loss of memory as the Tibetan community either regroups or further splits. Though Tibetan culture is robust, the political situation is undeniably precarious, and action must be taken to improve the musical database available to refugees and any other interested persons. Moreover, the special expression of musical values in the current community is unlikely to be remembered in the wake of either happy or sad endings for the diaspora. The universal human value inherent in the honest and difficult struggles of refugee expression will be lost if not immediately recorded.
In addition to the problem of the impending loss of current refugee expression, the fact of the wide variety of musics from within Tibet that are housed in the minds of musicians has gone overlooked by researchers and, frankly, by Tibetans. The song I sang was from Lhasa, which is recognized as the center of Tibetan culture and therefore houses the normative art forms. However, I could have performed songs from any number of provinces and villages, each with their own unique style. Dawa and Palden, my teachers, each had mastery of various styles from various places, and none of this is adequately recorded in any easily accessible format. The few regional songs that make it on to YouTube represent only a tiny fraction of the variety of Tibetan musical expression, and a thorough cataloging of the repertoires of musicians such as Palden and Dawa would greatly expand understanding and advocacy of what might be fading, non-central, non-normative styles. The alternative is to risk a repainting and homogenization of the rich variety found outside of Lhasa.
The suggestion and call is for researchers to a) create the first generation of English-language treatises on the variety of Tibetan musics, with recorded examples, and/or b) seek out Tibetan-language treatises on the same subject, if any exist, and translate them. The diaspora in India is a prime source for both projects, as it is concerned with preservation, willing to contribute, and much more accessible than Tibet itself. For those not involved in research, the call is to seek to understand and appreciate this folk music, to see the ways it impacts the diaspora in Bylakuppe and to allow some measure of its hope, happiness, and emotion to rub off. The story is a Tibetan story, a refugee story, and most of all it is a human story that impacts every one of us. To lose it would be to lose the thoughts and dreams of generations; to preserve it would be to preserve one of the greatest sources of life and expression in the entire human family and enable it to inspire generations on into eternity.