Caught in the Middle: India, China, and Tibet

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ZEMITHANG, India — My friends and I had gone as far as we could toward the border with China. We were tracing, in reverse, the Dalai Lama’s path into India from Chinese-occupied Tibet in March 1959. We stopped in this village, on a rise in the road overlooking a river in the far western corner of India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, to look for anyone old enough to remember the Dalai Lama passing through on his way into exile.

We were unable to find anyone. Restrictions on foreigners’ travel prevented us from driving farther on, so we sent our Indian driver off alone, to the next town toward the border. After some time, he returned with Bumpa, a compact, weathered man in his eighties, in the seat beside him. When the Dalai Lama arrived, Bumpa recalled, he was wearing a robe of reddish brown, “the color that tea leaves make in water.” It was, Bumpa said, “like looking at Avolokiteshvara himself.” Tibetan Buddhists believe the Dalai Lama is the manifestation of Avolokiteshvara, or Chenreizig, the Bodhisattva of compassion, an enlightened being who postpones the attainment of Nirvana to serve humanity. 

It’s getting harder to find people like Bumpa, who is among the last of a generation that can remember a free Tibet. Before the Chinese invasion of Tibet, historic cultural and religious bonds connecting Tibetan Buddhists from various ethnic groups—including Bumpa’s own Mon people—stretched unhindered between the two countries. Bumpa recalls the local townspeople trading across the border and walking for days on pilgrimages to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. He also recalls sleeping by the road as he trekked in the other direction, to escape Chinese troops who surged through Arunachal Pradesh during the Sino-Indian War of 1962. 

In late 2014, my companions and I traveled to this area of northeastern India in Arunachal Pradesh, and to Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir state, another heavily Tibetan Buddhist region on the western end of India’s disputed border with China. We wanted to appreciate the remote, high-altitude setting for this standoff between two strategic rivals, one an authoritarian communist regime, the other a democracy developing ties with the United States. In particular, we wanted to consider the conflict’s enduring connection to Tibet.

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