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Culture, Heritage and the Himalayan Dilemma of Identity (Migyul Magazine, Vol.2, May 2004)
Tenzing L Chadotsang and Philip C Marshall

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.

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.

"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. "

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, today.

"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."

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.

"Each 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 so on.

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 so on.”

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.”

"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."

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.

"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. "

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 (backward).

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 Williams University