Connecting Tibet's Exile Community via the Web Two full generations of Tibetans have grown up outside their native land, but the expatriate community remains close-knit and many still dream of returning to a country free of Chinese domination. Until then, they are embracing the Web as a key to their future.
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Connecting Tibet's Exile Community via the Web

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Connecting Tibet's Exile Community via the Web

Connecting Tibet's Exile Community via the Web

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This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand:


I'm Alex Chadwick. This week our technology contributor, Xeni Jardin, is bringing us stories about the people of Tibet and their community in northern India that many Tibetan exiles now call home. Xeni's writing about this because the Tibetans are using modern technology to preserve their ancient traditions.

BRAND: When Chinese forces entered Tibet in the 50s, Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama fled to India. Waves of refugees followed him there after India's government gave them land. Today, the Dalai Lama and leaders of the Tibetan government in exile, now call the northern Indian village of Dharamsala their home.

CHADWICK: This week, the central Tibetan administration began airing an Internet news broadcast. This is what it sounds like:

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified man: (speaking foreign language)

CHADWICK: Tibetan Internet from Dharamsala. As reporter Xeni Jardin traveled, she found other ways that technology is changing the lives of Tibetan exiles, young and old.

XENI JARDIN, reporting:

(Soundbite of rainstorm)

It's raining this morning in the Himalayan foothills of Dharamsala, India. Looking out over these green valleys, dotted with Tibetan temples and colorful prayer flags, technology isn't the first thing that pops into your head. Electricity, phones, and Internet access are expensive and hard to come by here. They die for days leaving the region cut off from the world. But there's an effort under way to change that, and to teach young Tibetan refugees here about the computers and the Internet.

Unidentified child: (speaking foreign language)

JARDIN: I'm at the Tibetan children's village in Dharamsala, or as locals call it, the TCV. The peach-cheeked three-year-old trying to eat my microphone right now, is one of about two thousand boys and girls here. There are four other Tibetan children's villages in India, serving more than 16,000 children in all.

Unidentified child: (speaking foreign language)

Unidentified woman: (speaking foreign language)

JARDIN: My guide is Lobsang Tsomo, the TCV project director who grew up in India's Tibetan refugee community. As we walk up the steep hills of the campus, she explains that many of these children were brought out of Tibet by relatives or paid guides.

Ms. LOBSANG TSOMO (TCV Project Director): Most of them had to you know, walk to for weeks without eating or without sleeping. Usually in the winter, so that they are less guards and less regiments. And we had a few cases of children with you know frost bitten legs and you know toes or so.

JARDIN: After a treacherous journey, the lucky ones make it to facilities like TCV, that are modern by regional standards. On site schools teach them traditional Tibetan culture and trade skills for the modern world, including information technology.

(Soundbite of tapping)

JARDIN: Inside a room at the TCV campus is the Tibetan Technology Center, where western hackers and Tibetans are teaming up to build a wireless network. Young people and adults take computer classes here too. Naema Worjer(ph) is a sixteen-year-old TCV resident studying Web publishing software.

Mr. NAEMA WORJER (resident at TCV): Yesterday, Charlesgood(ph), php and (unintelligible)

JARDIN: Okay. Yes there are nerds in the Himalayas. Naema has lived in foster care here since he was two, and has big Internet dreams. What do you hope to get out of this? What do you want to do with this?

Mr. WORJER: I want to create a Web site.

JARDIN: A Web site about what?

Mr. WORJER: A Web site about Tibet's story.

JARDIN: About your story and the story of your people?

Mr. WORJER: Yeah sure.

JARDIN: That's exactly what TCV's general secretary, Thubten Dorje, wants to hear. He believes technology's essential to the survival of the Tibetan people.

Mr. THUBTEN DORJE (TCV general secretary): If you look at the history of Tibet, we lost a country because we were also not geared towards a technological aspect of what the outside world were doing, you know. So we had no weapons to fight with the Chinese, we had no technology to cope with the Chinese. Now that our Tibetan's are in exile, we cannot afford to lag behind.

JARDIN: The TCV relies on western aid. Yet many here see tech education as a way out of dependence on international philanthropy. They envision a future where Tibetan exiles set up profitable call centers like the ones in India's booming tech centers, further south. Or e-commerce sites selling traditional art or yak cheese online. Some young Tibetans are eager for those opportunities and find the pace of progress frustrating.

Mr. LOBSANG WANGYAL: There really is need for a big time change. Because Internet is the virtual home of Tibetan people. Because Tibet doesn't exist for us.

JARDIN: Dharamsala resident Lobsang Wangyal, is a self-styled cultural entrepreneur who was born in a refugee camp in India and has lived outside of Tibet all his life. He believes leaders of the Tibetan government in exile need to move faster.

Mr. WANGYAL: One simple example. Until very recently, the editor of the Tibetan Bulletin, the most important government mouthpiece - he didn't have Internet access. Now, what can I say now you know?

JARDIN: Wangyal thinks the government should appoint roving editors with laptops and digital cameras and use the Internet to get news of Tibetan issues out faster, just like blogs in the west. While change may not be coming as fast as young Tibetans may like, things have come a long way from the early days of life in exile, when fleeing monks would hide ancient texts inside religious statues and then smuggle them off to safe hiding in monasteries.

(Soundbite of Tibetan chant)

JARDIN: This priest of a nearby temple is chanting from ancient texts, inked into hand bound books. Now sacred words like these are being preserved digitally, as some Tibetan elders embrace technology as a way to share cultural knowledge.

Professor SAMDHONG RINPOCHE: Now many very important masters are passed away, but still we have their voice with us.

JARDIN: Professor Samdhong Rinpoche is a 67-year-old religious scholar and a close associate of the Dalai Lama. He's now the elected prime minister of the government in exile. Samdhong Rinpoche says he carries electronic copies of a large collection of religious texts. Three hundred volumes of his cannon fit neatly on a few CDs. He believes there's something inherently Tibetan about the Internet, and cites the Buddhist philosophy that everything in the universe links to everything else. Life is a network.

Prof. RINPOCHE: The Buddhist believe in the philosophy of inter-dependentness nothing is independent everything's interrelated and inter-dependent. And for connecting, we need communication, and communication is very good.

JARDIN: For NPR News I'm Xeni Jardin.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: For extended coverage of this series, including slide shows of Xeni's travels to northern India and Tibet, go to our Web site And tomorrow we'll hear about building a high tech network in a low-tech community.

CHADWICK: With these kinds of problems, chicken coups and monkeys tearing down the antennas, now that's hard to get used to.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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