Tibet’s Panchen Lama: Stolen as a child for 20 painful but hopeful years

Today, time is the rarest, most valued commodity. Not gold, not silver, but time.

It arrives too quickly without warning and is gone far too swiftly. And yet, it does not go quietly, leaving behind it a precious trail of memories, experiences and wisdom — all intertwined to make up the different parts of one remarkable lifetime.

So, imagine if 20 years of your life was taken away from you. What would that mean to you?

I asked myself this question as I thought of His Holiness the 11th Panchen Lama, who is one of Tibet’s most revered leaders in the spiritual and political community.

The only available picture of the 11th Panchen Lama is that of when he was just six years old.

The only available picture of the 11th Panchen Lama is that of when he was just six years old. He has been in enforced disappearance for 20 years.

The 11th Panchen Lama — who will be all of 26 years as on 25 April 2015 — will have spent 20 long years in enforced disappearance by 17 May 2015. This means, the Panchen Lama has been missing since he was just six years old.

Purely for comparison and meaning no disrespect, I am forced to recall what I was doing at that age.

At the age of six, I was leading a very normal childhood, protected by my parents and family, with my only major worries likely concerning ways to excel at studies/school and maybe also how to acquire enough sweet treats to fill my pockets and mouth.

For the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, at the age of six, he was recognized the world over as its youngest political prisoner. This title was accorded to him after Chinese authorities abducted the young boy, his family and his to-be-teacher on 17 May 1995. The arrests had come soon after His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama publicly recognized Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the rightful reincarnation of the Great 10th Panchen Lama.

His Holiness the 10th Panchen Lama being subjected to thamzing or struggle session during the Cultural Revolution.  "In person, the 10th Panchen Lama is an extraordinarily fearless Tibetan who showed unwavering courage to work for the general cause of Tibet and its people,” the Dalai Lama has said.

His Holiness the 10th Panchen Lama being subjected to thamzing or struggle session during the Cultural Revolution. “In person, the 10th Panchen Lama is an extraordinarily fearless Tibetan who showed unwavering courage to work for the general cause of Tibet and its people,” the Dalai Lama has said.

So in a cruel turn of events, the young Gedhun Choekyi Nyima — who should have been enthroned at a traditional, grand ceremony at his monastery, the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery — was instead thrust into oblivion, as China continued to stay tight-lipped about the whereabouts and well-being of the young lama, all through these past 20 years.

Between the ages of 6 and 20, I lived a lifetime — as do most people. I was able to go through high school, finish my post graduate degree and start working for a living, and through it all, experience joy, love, pain, laughter, betrayal, kindness and true friendship.

In comparison, the past 20 years of the 11th Panchen Lama’s life remains a mystery. Did he have a normal childhood, or as normal a childhood as is possible under the circumstances? Was he allowed to move freely in society, albeit in the guise of a commoner? Did he receive the freedom to practice his religious beliefs, study the Dharma, learn and debate with great scholars?

And the more heartbreaking, yet unavoidable question: Is he still alive and safe?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama with the monks from the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama with the monks from the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama

Countless appeals and calls by world leaders and activist groups for his release or information of his whereabouts and well-being have yielded no answers from China.

For 20 long years, we screamed on the pavements of cities and towns across the globe; lobbied peacefully with lawmakers; stood outside the buildings of the United Nations and the Chinese Consulate; signed countless signature campaigns; held innumerous press conferences; initiated multi-year campaigns worldwide; and prayed earnestly together under make-shift tents as our stomachs gnawed in pain from hunger, sometimes for a few hours, at other times for days or weeks on end — all with the hope for his eventual release.

For 20 long years — and long they were — we did not lose hope.

We self immolated before make-shift altars with offerings to images of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama; cried for his swift release as our bodies went up in flames; refused to bow our heads to the fake Panchen Lama, as we waited earnestly in the hope of his eventual release.

For 20 long years, we did not lose hope. If it takes another lifetime too, we will continue to hope.


Show your solidarity with the campaign to free the Panchen Lama. Visit the Central Tibetan Administration’s #ReleasePanchenLama campaign and the official website of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama.

The things I see


I see a mountain bedecked with wild flowers,

And on the grasslands below, the proud, stately creature you called your own.

I see the white-washed compound wall of your home,

And at its entrance, the two black majestic Dok-Kyhi(s) that stood guard.

I see the grand prayer halls of the monastery that was your home,

And in its walls, the sea of maroon and red that ruled your world.

I see the holy lake before which you stood,

And in the water below, the prophecy you saw of the times to come.

I see the wrinkles on your tanned, brown skin,

And in your eyes, the pain from knowing you’ll never see your home again.

Fiction: In pursuit of a home

63938_112754318793488_7306620_nPo Nyendak woke up at the break of dawn on Sunday morning to offer prayers in his Choekhang, just as he had done every morning of living in this house in the last forty years. But today would be the last.

Three black American Touristers, of varying sizes, were lined up neatly against the wall of the Choekhang, the most sacred room of any Tibetan home. Atop the smallest of the three was a thick brown envelope, which he knew contained his yellow Identity Certificate, his British Airways tickets, a phonebook which only had the addresses and phone number of his only son and three daughters, and an envelope with a wad of U.S. dollars that he had saved from his children’s visits over the years.

The Gods and deities of Tibet had been kind to him and his family, as if rewarding him for all the things he had done right. It was just as well, he thought. He prayed religiously every day, served as the patron of a local monastery, offered generous donations to other monasteries, and held seasonal and annual prayer ceremonies at his home. His father, his father’s father, and their ancestors had been famed for their piety, and he knew how to follow a tradition, even if it had to be maintained in a foreign land.

With all his children settled in the West, Po Nyendak led a relatively comfortable life in a settlement full of farmers. At every community meeting, Po Nyendak could tell the others were talking about him, as they sat in groups and whispered among themselves, turning every now and then to glance at his direction. “Sotey rey / How lucky,” he knew they were saying. “What more can the old man ask for? His children are all well settled and have good jobs abroad. He has nothing to worry about.”

Once in a while, one of them would sit next to him and ask a million questions. When was his eldest daughter, Yangkyi, coming to visit him next? How were the children of his other daughters, Dekyong and Desal? Could the old man speak to his son, Lhagyab, about finding a sponsor for so-and-so’s children? Is Po Nyendak going abroad to visit his children or would he move permanently? He answered all these questions as if he were being asked them for the first time. He spoke in wonder about this magical world his children lived in, the land of a million opportunities and of easy living. He knew this was what they wanted to hear. They would have none of the truth, none of the stories of long hours at work, of days without seeing a family member despite living in the same house, of sudden job cuts, of identity crisis… and yet, he remembered all these stories from when his children first moved abroad two decades ago.

At the time, they had called to complain to his wife, Sichoe, about the pain of starting anew in a foreign land. The children had never told him any of their problems, telling him only about the clean air, the beautiful malls, the money they were sending home, but his wife told him everything. The two had lived through too much together and never known how to hide anything from each other.

His wife, Sichoe, was fortunate to have died early, he thought, as he stared at the pejas before him on the table, while reciting prayers from memory. His mind continued to wander around the endless stream of memories from long ago, stopping only to marvel at the way the impending future seemed to mirror the past. Sichoe would never have been able to survive, yet again, the feelings of utter helplessness one suffers from having to start all over again. He felt it now, just as he had felt it over forty years ago, when his wife and him had trudged across the mountains from Tibet, in search of a place to freely nurture this dream of a free Tibet.

“How many places must we live in to finally feel at home?” he pondered, as he removed an incense stick from the stand. With ease, he found the matchstick at the side of the altar, beside the incense stand, where he had always kept it. It had taken him and his wife several years to feel like they could get around this place they had chosen as home, several more years to let go of the fear of the unknown after their escape into India, and yet more years to feel like they belonged to it in some way.

And yet, this feeling could be taken away all too easily, he had learned.

He recalled the phone call he received immediately after his wife’s death a year ago. His eldest daughter Yangkyi had been adamant that he move abroad. “Now that Amala is no longer with us, you must not stay alone,” she had said, as if Sichoe’s absence had been long anticipated, and the plans of what to do with Po Nyendak, the remaining parent, had been chalked out years ago. The others agreed with Yangkyi.

He wasn’t hurt, only a tad annoyed that his children could so easily think of the future and let go of the past, when his and Sichoe’s whole life had revolved around preserving the past.

A decade or maybe even two years earlier, Po Nyendak would have been only too happy to do anything his children bid him to do. If they had asked him then to move abroad with Sichoe, he would have agreed without putting up a fight. His wife and he had lived through the darkness and confusion that accompanies moving to unfamiliar grounds, and he would have made the attempt to do it again, if only for the comfort of knowing he wasn’t the only one trying.

But with Sichoe gone, even his children felt like strangers to him. They had lived almost their entire lives away from their parents, in search of education, jobs, love and family, and yet, even after they had found all these ingredients that represented a better life, they had never called their parents to live with them. Over the years, his wife and he had waited in silence, never once complaining of the loneliness they felt or of their desire to see their little grandchildren every day.

And so in the waiting, the children had lost their father.

A mother was different, the bonds were deeper, he thought. That’s why Sichoe could be on the phone with the children for the entire hour that the $2.50 calling cards allowed them time to speak, while Po Nyendak could only mutter a few pleasantries and talk about the weather. But now, his children seemed to act like their mother was just another link to their past, one they weren’t too sure existed, just like the stories of Tibet that he and Sichoe had taken turns to tell them when they were younger, dirtier, happier kids.

At first, Sichoe and he had been lonely after their children left home, one after another. They had missed the sound of the children’s laughter, and the endless fighting amongst the four. Slowly, they grew accustomed to the silence that hung over their home, and over the years, as they waited for the invitation to live with their children, they took to the faith of their fathers with a vengeance that Buddhist lamas would have frowned upon. They replaced the silence and the loneliness in their hearts with the sounds of Buddhist chants through regular visits to the local monasteries, or of their own voices in prayer.

Prayer had helped Po Nyendak survive Sichoe’s death too. He had made sure grand prayers and offerings were made for Sichoe’s quick rebirth. He wondered what would be his fate in the new place? Would his children seek the help of elders in carrying out his final rites when he died there? Would anyone know the traditions that must be followed? Would his body be kept in a state of complete rest and quiet for at least the first five hours after his passing? Or would loud sirens and the sounds of weeping by people he’d have hardly known wreck his journey into the next life? He shuddered as all these questions plagued his mind, just as they had when Yangkyi had first proposed he move abroad. At least in India, the people of the community had seen too many deaths and knew all too well the traditional Tibetan Buddhist rites and rituals due to the dead person. Po Nyendak knew the community was only too aware of the results of not taking care of the dead. They would never want his soul to be lost forever in Bardo, a fate he feared might be the case if he traveled to the United States, only to die there.

The flames from the butter lamps flickered in the corner of the altar, breaking Po Nyendak from his reverie. He looked down at the table where his peja, or prayer text, was turned to the same page he was on earlier this morning. He peered out of the window, and could see the sun coming up. Bhu Tsering, the local taxi driver, would be here anytime now to take him to the airport. He looked at his watch. Only an hour more.

He felt the dread return and that familiar pain in his chest. He ignored the pain and began to prostrate before the images of the Gods that had accompanied him across the border, from one home in Tibet to this current one in India and all the in-between ones on the way.

As he prostrated, he repeated over and over again the prayer, “I bow in reverence to the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha.”

He felt another stab of pain in his chest, but continued to prostrate, and in even greater fervor. “Lama la kyab so cheyo, sangay la kyab so chey-o, choe la kyab so chey-o,” he recited over and over again, his voice hoarse and shaking.

Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead, his hands shook each time he brought them together to fold in prayer, his legs wobbled when he bend down to prostrate, and the sharp pain in his chest only seemed to increase. And still, he persevered. “Sunday is not an auspicious day for travelling anywhere, and I must ask the Gods and Deities to watch over me,” he told himself as he continued to throw his face and body down flat on the ground, with complete submission.

A shooting pain pierced through his chest then, and he cried out in great pain. The room started to spin, and suddenly, everything before him was a blur of dancing images of Gods, Goddesses and wrathful deities. The flames from the butter lamps seemed to dance in rhythm with the Gods, as if welcoming him to a dream destination. His fought for air and tried to stabilize his vision, but nothing stood still.

The Gods danced, the flames danced, and then there it was again, that pain.

This time, he felt the ground beneath him open, and he tried to keep from falling. He knew he had to hold on the nearest table, but his hands missed and he started to fall. Po Nyendak clutched his chest as he fell flat on his face, gasping for breath one final time.

Sunday is not an auspicious day for travelling anywhere, but Po Nyendak would, now, never be too far from home.

The utterly buttery appeal of butter

Losar Tashi Delek! Wishing all you wonderful people a very Happy New Year – the year of the Sheep! I’m starting this new year by reblogging an old post that highlights the Tibetan’s love for butter. May your new year be as rich and fulfilling as a dish made with dollops of butter!


Tibetans are well-known for their piousness and lesser known for being thorough butter enthusiasts.

Ma, as butter is called in Tibetan, or SoMa, if you prefer to use the honorific term, is a chief occupant in any refrigerator at a Tibetan home and the primary ingredient in many a recipe. If you, per chance, happened to study the contents of such a fridge, it is highly likely that you will find in there more than one variety of butter — salted butter, churned butter, cultured butter, unsalted butter, and ghee.

Many non-Tibetans, who’ve been fooled thus far by the relatively butter-free Momo(s) and Thukpa(s) of Tibetan food, would be horrified to learn that Tibetans use butter liberally in their food. It’s a wonder most Tibetans are not bursting from their seams at the rate at which we dunk dollops of butter into seemingly unsuspecting bowls of soup and the relatively unwary salted Tibetan tea…

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Making 14 pounds of Tibetan pastries for the Wood-Sheep year…

The intricately designed and colorful rhug rhug Khapsey

With the Tibetan New Year or Losar around the corner (Thursday, in fact), I spent my Sunday in the kitchen, cooking Khapsey(s). A khapsey is a Tibetan snack or pastry, made of whole flour, sugar or salt and butter/ghee or oil; some varieties of khapseys are even topped with ground sugar or melted jaggery.

Khapsey literally translates into “mouth, eat” — meaning a snack to eat. With the help of my two Amalas — my own and my husband’s — we made a wide variety of Khapseys, mainly because they were giving in to my quest to make all the kinds of Khapseys made in the different regions of Tibet. (Here’s a great read on Tibetan Khabseys)

Of course, we made lots of different types of dough — colorful ones for the colorful khapseys; sweet ones for the rhug rhug or regular small khapseys; salty ones for the Bhungu Amjos or Donkey’s ears; Sichuan pepper-flavored, salty, oiled dough for the Amdo khapseys; and non-salted/non-sweetened ones for the Sangha Bhaley and Tseytang-Kotsay (two other types of khapseys that are topped with ground sugar and melted jaggery, respectively).

Khapsey dough, flattened using the noodle maker

Khapsey dough, flattened using the noodle maker

Khapsey dough, with one side colored orange

Khapsey dough, with one side colored orange

Here’s what we started off our Khapsey-making session with… the scorpion.

The scorpion is the first Khapsey that is made with the Khapsey dough and is meant to soak up all the bad luck and ills of the past year. Tibetans don't eat this scropion-shaped Khapsey, but instead, they hang this near their stove in the kitchen.

The scorpion is always the first Khapsey that goes into the wok full of hot oil. Made with the Khapsey dough, the scorpion is meant to take away all the bad luck and ills of the past year and any that may be prevalent during the khabsey-making session. Tibetans don’t eat this scropion-shaped Khapsey, but instead, they hang this near their stove in the kitchen. (There’s also the snake, but we didn’t make that this time)

Then the others followed… The Bhungu Amjo or the Donkey’s ears — Salty khapseys that are shaped like donkey’s ears and take pride of place in Tibetan altars as Losar decorations. They’re also lovely to have with Tibetan butter tea, or regular sweet tea.

The rhug rhugs are the regular sweet Khapseys. These are great to taste and easy to carry around during picnics or offer around when guests come visiting.

We also made the sugar-coated Sangha Bhaley — not too many of them because I was trying out the recipe for the first time. But it didn’t turn out too bad.

Sangha Bhaley -- Khapsey topped with ground sugar. This Khapsey is popular among Tibetans from Lhasa

Sangha Bhaley — Khapsey topped with ground sugar. This Khapsey is popular among Tibetans from Lhasa

We followed that up with our version of the Amdo Khapseys, or Khapseys made in the Amdo region of Tibet. (We’re from Tsang, central Tibet; Amdo is in East Tibet).

The Tsang-pa version of Amdo Khapsey

The Tsang-pa version of Amdo Khapsey

And then of course, we made my favorite — the Tsey-tang Kotsay, which is spaghetti-pasta shaped khapseys that are topped with melted jaggery.

Tsey-tang Khotsey

Tsey-tang Khotsey

And after the day-long khapsey-making session, the three of us put them all away in cartons, until they will be unveiled for the altar decorations due later tonight.

Of course, we offered the first of the khapseys that came out of the hot oil to the Gods, what we Tibetans call “phue” or the offering of the first of anything. (Remember, my post on the first drops of the morning tea? More here.)

See you in the Wood-Sheep year!

My tryst with immodesty

Telling the world about being nominated for an award is, in the Tibetan world, akin to being immodest. Any Tibetan caught or suspected of blowing his own trumpet is met with the slightly unkind, yet apt tongue-in-cheek Tibetan remark: “Kyakpe kup kyak,” which literally translates into “The shit is lifting the butt.”

award21But today, I am throwing caution to the winds by proudly letting you know that I was nominated for my first blogging award — The Versatile Blogger Award — by Vicki oEco Elements. Vicki, who is passionate about healthy living and the environment, writes a wonderful blog as he seeks to discover and share unique ways of preserving the planet for our children.

I’d like to share the award rules (given below) and nominate my other friends in the blogging world, this time a powerful set of women of four:

Perelin Colors — “Travel advice and impressions of a colorful world”

Plateau Journal — “Threads of life”

Simply Tibetan — ” Tsampa, Momo, Laphing and more”

Revisions of Grandeur — “Life is a draft”


  1. Thank the person who nominated you and add a link to their blog
  2. List the award rules so your nominees will know what to do.
  3. State 7 things about yourself
  4. Nominate up to 11 other bloggers for the award.
  5. Contact your nominees to let them know you have nominated them.
  6. Display the award logo on your blog.

The Chromosome that wasn’t working…

“My Chromosome isn’t working,” my mother-in-law told my late father-in-law.

“Chromosome?” he had asked, looking up from his paper, a cup of tea in hand as he basked in the warm glow of the early morning sun on the terrace, overlooking the glorious hills of his hometown.

“Yes, it has stopped working,” she answered. “I’ll show you,” my other Amala had said.

She had gone into the house, fished out her laptop from the top drawer of the large study table in the Choe-khang, and had purposefully turned the screen toward her husband.

“See, my Google Chromosome isn’t working,” she had said, clicking repeatedly on the Google Chrome icon on her main screen, but to no avail.


Promptly, an hour later, my late father-in-law, a gem of a man in every sense of the word, had called my husband to share this latest episode of my mother-in-law speaking Tinglish or Tibetan English. (My mum also speaks Tinglish, as do most Tibetan mothers).

We all had a hearty laugh and my mother-in-law laughed the hardest.