For many Tibetan refugees in the scenic hillside town of Dharamshala in northern India, whose community has now been living in exile from their Chinese-occupied homeland for a full six decades, preserving their age-old heritage is a battle worth waging.

One of them is 91-year-old Changzo Ngwang Tenpa. His memories of his homeland have faded over the years, what concerns him more is the prospect of his community's heritage also gradually disappearing.

"I'm worried about how our cultural heritage will be taken forward in the future because the older generation which came in exile is gradually passing away, and I am not sure as to how serious is our younger generation about it," said Tenpa, once a monk at a Lhasa-based monastery.

(Lekshey Tenpa)

At the outset of the Tibetan uprising that began on March 10, 1959, the Dalai Lama, Tibetans' spiritual leader, fled with his retinue to India, followed later by more than 80,000 refugees including Tenpa.

"It was a difficult night. I couldn't carry anything with me, not even my prayer book. The situation was so chaotic that although my family stayed near the monastery, I couldn't meet them and left," he said.

Now living with his wife and a daughter, with a son working in the United States, Tenpa has never again seen his other family members since that fateful night.

Tenpa worries that the younger generation of Tibetan exiles is more interested in the materialistic world than in spirituality, in which the Tibetan community has long been deeply rooted.

Pema Yangchen, education minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamshala, agrees that six decades on, preserving Tibetan culture and language through education of youth is a matter of utmost urgency.

"One of the first concerns that His Holiness had when he arrived in India was children's education, because most of the people followed him that year had children and these children needed education," Yangchen said.

"When His Holiness met the then (Indian) Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, he asked him to set up Tibetan schools for children as he wanted to preserve our culture and language. That is how Central School for Tibetans Shimla came into existence," she said.

(Dalai Lama)

The school is currently under the Central Tibetan Schools Administration that runs, manages and assists institutions set up to educate Tibetan refugee children living in India while also preserving and promoting their culture.

As an autonomous administration overseen by India's Ministry of Human Resource Development, it runs some 28 schools located in the places of concentration of Tibetan population, mainly in the states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh.

Yangchen said the government-in-exile is now working hard to get the administration transferred into its own hands, which would streamline various procedures that currently take a long time due to the constant need for Indian government authorization.

"Even to hire a teacher, we have to consult Indian authorities first and then wait for their decision and work accordingly," she said.

A key concern for the exiled administration is the decrease in number of new students coming from Tibet and the migration of many Tibetans to the United States and European countries.

"We started witnessing lesser number of students coming to Dharamshala and taking admissions in school from 2008," Yangchen said. "Before that we not only had Tibetan children coming from India, Nepal and Bhutan but also from Tibet."

Sharing concern over Tibetans migrating abroad, she noted that when around 1,000 Tibetans migrated to the United States in 1993, and since then the growth of population staying in Dharamshala, now estimated at about 15,000, has been decreasing, especially with a lower birth rate.

The impact on enrollment can be seen at a school in the town run by Tibetan Children's Village, a charitable organization, whose former general secretary Lekshey Tenpa, 71, himself has two children settled abroad but wants to spend his life here attached to his culture and among his people.


"I served this school for 53 years, during that time it was difficult to manage with so many students, but today when most of the youngsters are going abroad we feel that they are slowly leaving away their basic roots," he said.

"Tibetan culture is in a very critical stage, so we have to stay together and in unity...We want that the parents who have already settled (abroad) send their children back in order to make them familiar with their native language," he added.

Since he first arrived in Dharamshala in 1963, the community has seen tremendous changes, especially the school.

"From a resources point of view, there has been a huge change. If compared to the past, we have more teachers now and even computers. But I still feel that in the past children were closer to each other without these resources," he said.

When the community followed their spiritual leader 60 years ago, they lived with hope to have a glorious return someday.

But now, after the passage of such a long time, many of them are left with heart-rending stories of their escape from Tibet with a lifetime struggle to preserve their culture and language for the future of the community.