FREE TIBET by Jill Dobbe
The brisk air and scent of pine emanated around me as I walked down the gravel paths toward McLeod Ganj. The heavenly surroundings and home to a vast number of Tibetan refugees, gave off a spiritual ambience steeped in Buddhism and the Tibetan culture. Prayer flags in faded hues fluttered above me sending off their positive and spiritual blessings as I strolled toward the town. Colorful ‘FREE TIBET’ posters, signs, and banners hung on the windows, walls, and doors of every shop I passed, proclaiming the name of the treasured homeland and asserting the refugees’ staunch desire to reclaim it from the Chinese.
Dusk settled around me as I stepped onto Temple Road. A large crowd had gathered and I sauntered closer to see what was going on. A slim nun wearing dark glasses moved toward me and handed me a long white tapered candle. Monks in long burgundy robes bearing bald heads and wearing worn sandals stepped into the fray to pass out more free candles. I turned to light mine off the wick of others’ whose orange flames were already jumping about in the air. I held my lit candle with honor and stepped into the noisy melee. It was my first ever demonstration and I cupped my palm around my flame eagerly waiting for it to begin.
At the front of the gathering, two solemn faced monks set off carrying a large framed painting of the Dalai Lama holding his hands in Namaste position. A silent cluster of nuns and monks followed behind leading the procession in hushed silence. Our trail of lit candles flickered brightly as we moved together along the cobblestoned streets. I was not exactly sure what it was all about, or why we were demonstrating, but the atmosphere around me, even though quiet, felt intense and charged confirming that the event was a significant one.
No one talked as we held tightly to our slim candles and followed the paths set out by the monks. I ambled alongside Tibetan women dressed in native chupas, and noticed younger boys and girls wearing their red and blue “Free Tibet” headbands and t-shirts with uncontained pride. The pensive expressions on everyone’s faces affirmed the solemnness of the occasion. A mass of Tibetan refugees, nuns, monks, and myself the only foreigner participating, meandered wordlessly throughout the city streets, finally coming to an end at the town’s community center. Realizing this was the end, I followed the others inside unaware of what would happen next. I watched as Tibetan people of all ages scattered around me looking for an empty place on the cement floor. I quickly claimed a spot for myself and plunked down. For a brief second I hoped the Dalai Lama was about to speak, but after several tries to get an old fashioned projector up and working, the muddled sound of a black and white film flashed up onto the large screen instead. The movie was narrated in the Tibetan language and once again, I was at a complete loss. All eyes were locked onto the screen in abject concentration and I tried hard to make out what was happening. The emotionally charged story appeared to depict the real life account of the many monks and nuns who died and/or went missing after fighting against the Chinese takeover of Tibet. I sat beside young and old Tibetan refugees who were visibly caught up in the film’s horrific and chilling details, and I could feel their intense sadness emanating all around me. Sitting only a few inches away, I watched as an elderly woman swirled her handheld prayer wheel back and forth. Her lips moved silently while she chanted prayers throughout the film.
An hour later the movie ended. Silence lingered in the building for several minutes until the throng of people gradually got up and staggered out. No words were spoken and nothing was said about the movie, or the peaceful march we had just participated in. Dazed and still a little stunned from the night’s events, I followed the throng and walked out into the cool, dark night. I could only guess what it had all been about, however my experience of participating in a demonstration and advocating for the rights of Tibetan refugees has stayed with me. I will forever be thankful and humbled knowing I took part in something so much bigger than myself.
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