exile, Tibetans have held on to their cultural heritage.
What does this cultural heritage comprise of? A sanitized
and homogenized interpretation of the dominant central Tibet
version of what they would have been perceived as a utopian
central Tibetan heritage.
Preservation is not an inherent phenomenon of most cultures:
Neither is the preservation of culture a unidirectional nor a
static process. Preservation may be introduced as a compensation
for the lack of context, continuity and congruity between the
past, present, and future. When a culture grows and flourishes
by the metronome of the seasons, and of traditions, there is no
need for preservation measures, as a culture is self-sustaining.
But when either intrinsic or extrinsic forces act to disrupt a
culture, preservation may serve as a mitigating force.
Being Tibetans born in exile, it has always been our collective
effort to preserve our traditions and culture far removed from
its geographic context and in a chaotic world whose rapidity of
change best serves as a reminder of impermanence.
Tibetans born in exile, it has always been our collective
effort to preserve our traditions and culture far removed
from its geographic context and in a chaotic world whose
rapidity of change best serves as a reminder of impermanence.
Our Tibetan culture does not necessary mean the built heritage:
thousands of Tibetan buildings lie in ruins, scattered in the
ancient Tibetan landscape. Our new buildings built in the new
lands may try to borrow from our ancient architecture but these
incorporate new materials, accommodate the local climate, and
cater to the changing cultural needs — all while attempting
to preserve an essence in these shelters, which is so Tibetan.
In Tibet, it is another story. Tibetans in Tibet have become
the “indigenous” minority living in areas, some of
which have been preserved in small pockets. Tibetans have been
relegated to being viewed as museum pieces in a living, Tibetan
Williamsburg in designated areas now offered — no, sold
— to tourists for public viewing. Herein are the traditional
lives of a closed community being opened to scrutiny and research.
Ancient texts, arts and customs once safe in secrecy are now laid
bare for the treasure hunters, anthropologists and museologists
and for view in public.
Our culture is being stolen in front of our eyes. Various institutions
claiming philanthropic and educational goals have denuded the
movable tangible culture from the Tibetan people only to create
museums far removed from us but offered to people for whom these
were never intended. Such institutions are, by their origin, elitist
and cater to the curiosities of this class. Their actions can
be classed as colonialists, with these museums being the house
where the trophies of victories against the “natives”
are displayed. Such museums are operated and protected by “international”
bodies and charters, which have been formulated and regulated
by persons belonging to these institutions — not by the
many peoples they so harshly affect. Such is a vicious effort
to protect the interest of one’s culture over another. In
the name of preservation, these museums are helping to destroy
our culture. And with their fixation on the past, and on the tangible,
they do little to help sustain the vitality of our living culture,
our traditional physical borders, peripatetic Tibetan people
have adopted lifestyles and customs to adapt to our new
physical surroundings and cultures, But this does not make
our culture any less Tibetan."
While our movable heritage has been vandalized and our immovable
heritage razed to the ground, Tibetans have turned to the preservation
of intangible aspects of heritage detached in physical context.
Culture is an ever-evolving phenomenon that is now increasingly
removed from our lands. Beyond our traditional physical borders,
peripatetic Tibetan people have adopted lifestyles and customs
to adapt to our new physical surroundings and cultures, But this
does not make our culture any less Tibetan.
In Mustang, one of the most remote areas in the Himalayas—
a place that requires tourists to pay huge sums of money to visit,
tourism has been discouraged in order to protect the cultural
heritage. Nonetheless, tourists and preservationists have made
their presence felt. Recently preservationists adopted Thubchen
Gompa — a 14-15th Century temple that formed the epicenter
of the cultural lives of Mustang’s inhabitants. With outside
“expertise” and direction, the murals were restored
and the structure stabilized. However the result was an imposition
of Western museum rules (guided by international charters, no
doubt) were followed at the expense of traditional practices,
such as the burning lamps, which were discouraged. Various other
practices were discontinued. Living traditions were imposed with
strict restrictions to prevent Mustang practitioners from performing
various functions, thus altering the culture and the lifestyle
of the people. Preservationists in Mustang came with a fixed mind
set of material conservation. While the project may be lauded
for its technical superiority, it lacked in the understanding
of the local culture and the needs of the people. A, dynamic,
living monument was converted into a static museum. Art that was
just the physical expression of a devotee now took precedence
over the sustained act of devotion otherwise manifested.
culture may have a different way to remember its past —
in the forms of traditional story telling (oral transmissions),
traditional operas, painting and so on. "
Beyond our traditional physical borders, peripatetic Tibetan
people have adopted lifestyles and customs to adapt to our new
physical surroundings and cultures, But this does not make our
culture any less Tibetan.It is not the various commissions and
international agencies that are making changes to suit the needs
of the “indigenous” people. It is just the reverse:
In most cultures “preservation,” as practiced by the
mainstream culture, does not exist. Each culture may have a different
way to remember its past — in the forms of traditional story
telling (oral transmissions), traditional operas, painting and
With the world being reduced to one big open market, these traditions
are being sacrificed in the name of survival. While new cultures
are being imposed on the locals in most areas, the local cultures
are discouraged. Christmas and New Year has become like an international
moment for celebration, while in Kongpo (a remote area in Tibet
— areas in Tibet do not all necessarily have the same local
traditions) the Kongpo New Year— is forgotten. Only a few
of the Kongpo people remember their local New Year: The general
Tibetan New Year, Losar, is celebrated.
Cultural Identity and Homogenization
Preservation of a culture and its heritage warrants posing questions
such as “What culture? Whose culture is it? For whom are
we preserving it?” Claim holders — depending on their
varied cultural background — can answer these in a number
of ways. For an internationalist, it is the culture of humankind
and, as such, it should cater to universal values. To a cultural
nationalist, the answers are limited to the nation and the values
heritage holds for it. The preservation of culture and the heritage
is undoubtedly an effort to preserve an aspect of human development,
which occurs at many levels based on the level of human interaction
with these activities.
Cultural heritage has an ability to give identity to its owners.
Clifford Geertz, a prominent anthropologist, suggests that human
beings are compelled to impose on their experiences because without
these meanings to help them comprehend experience and impose an
order in the universe, the world would seem a jumble. He notes,
“…..a chaos of pointless acts and exploding emotions.”
Human beings are “incomplete or unfinished animals who complete
themselves through culture — not culture in general, but
specific forms of it: Balinese, Italian, Ilongot, Chinese, and
Another anthropologist, Geoffrey Lewis takes this concept of
culture and identity further and relates it to cultural property
that he defines as representing:“.,.in tangible form some
of the evidence of man’s origins and development, his traditions
and scientific achievements and generally the milieu of which
he is part. The fact that this material has the ability to communicate,
either directly or by association, an aspect of reality, which
transcends time or space, gives it special significance and is
therefore something to be sought after and protected.”
determination of the cultural values is then dependent on
the goals of the dominant group and is reflected in the
manner cultural heritage is portrayed."
People can be tied with heritage and culture at a various levels:
at a personal, community, regional, national or a universal level.
As this scale increases, the level of interaction between an individual
and the heritage in question decreases. The personal interaction,
which individuals have with heritage, becomes open to scrutiny
and subject to various external values, significance, interpretation
and legislation. Conflicts arise when a larger group recognizes
the personal heritage or heritages of small groups as being significant
and subsequently impose their values on these groups. The determination
of the cultural values is then dependent on the goals of the dominant
group and is reflected in the manner cultural heritage is portrayed.
In exile, Tibetans have held on to their cultural heritage. What
does this cultural heritage comprise of?
A sanitized and homogenized interpretation of the dominant central
Tibet version of what they would have been perceived as a utopian
central Tibetan heritage. For political reasons this centralized
cultural system does have a positive impact in creating a national
identity and uniting a huge geographic group of people under one
umbrella. However, after 45 years in exile, it is now time for
us to stand apart and evaluate the relative success of our cultural
preservation. How much has the regional and local cultures suffered
under this bigger umbrella of the national culture? While the
central culture has been preserved to an extent, local cultures
from remoter areas in Tibet have all but been lost. Few, if any,
can understand the language of the Kongpos, or the dialect from
almost any region in Kham, while the dialects from Amdo sound
too Chinese for our liking.
phenomenon can be seen in most post-colonial developing
nations where the indigenous languages have been replaced
by the colonial languages as the medium of education. Meanwhile
the official language used by these governments perpetuates
a continuation of the colonial thought and the viewing of
the indigenous as antiquated. However, this concept is evident
even at a national level where most of the local cultures
do not find adequate representation: Rather a dominant national
culture determines the national heritage at the expense
of local cultures. "
Edward Said, in his book “Culture and Imperialism,”
condemns the imperialists for misrepresenting the role of the
imperial conquests in the shaping of their culture— “one
which they continue to regard as superior to all others.”
This concept is taken further by Jane Collier who contends that
western law ignores the imperialistic context in which it developed
and the dominated cultures that stress their preservation that
stereotype the western as dynamic and the others as conservative
This phenomenon can be seen in most post-colonial developing
nations where the indigenous languages have been replaced by the
colonial languages as the medium of education. Meanwhile the official
language used by these governments perpetuates a continuation
of the colonial thought and the viewing of the indigenous as antiquated.
However, this concept is evident even at a national level where
most of the local cultures do not find adequate representation:
Rather a dominant national culture determines the national heritage
at the expense of local cultures.
David Lowenthal terms the “past as a foreign country,”
making the remains of the past irrelevant in the present space
and time. So, in the case of the Tibetans, is the national culture
representative of the various Tibetan cultures? And does it allow
for these local cultures to grow in exile? This is not an isolated
case in Tibet. In Nepal, does the national identity in anyway
represent the Himalayan people? Are the Yolmos, Mustangis, Manangs,
the Sherpas — or any other Pahari people represented in
the Kathmandu Valley— dominated Nepal national identity?
Identity is indeed a strong word — and an equally strong
phenomenon. In the field of historic preservation, cultural heritage
has been classified into the tangible and the intangible. The
tangible comprises of the movable generally in the form of buildings
and larger objects and the immovable in the form of paintings
and other objects that are easily transportable.
For Tibetans in exile, identity gives the exiled some thing to
hold on to. However, as the third generation in exile, children
of those exiled are born and bound with other cultures,and so
our individual, and our Tibetan cultures will evolve. Some evolution
can be seen in the second generation where Himalayan children
speak in various languages that include Nepali and Hindi. Our
new generation in America is now beginning to speak in Spanish
and American English. Cultures evolve and continue to do so. But
in the midst of this homogenization process and cultural evolution,
it is for us to sustain — and be supported by — our
local and regional culture and heritage.
Tenzing L G Chadotsang is a graduate of Historic
Preservation from Columbia University.
Philip C Marshall is a professor of Historic Preservation, Roger