5th Prof Dawa Norbu Memorial Lecture

Choekyi Lhamo & Tenzin Dhamdul| Tibet Forum, JNU| 5 April 2019


Tibet Forum- JNU organised the 5th Dawa Norbu Memorial Lecture on 1st April 2019. We invited Mr. Jamyang Norbu to deliver a lecture in the auditorium of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The lecture was followed by a Young Scholars’ session where four papers on Tibet related issues were presented. The Tibet Fund gave us the necessary financial aid for this event. This memorial lecture is in continuation with the last year’s lecture delivered by Professor Tsering Shakya.

As is known, this is one of the most anticipated programs of the forum. It is held in the memory of Professor Dawa Norbu whose intellectual capabilities were unfortunately not acknowledged in its totality in his lifetime. His works such as Red Star over Tibet, Tibet: The Road Ahead, China’s Tibet Policy and Cultural and Politics of Third-World Nationalism are some of the most important texts that have paved the way for modern Tibetan studies. Our forum aims to commemorate his intellectual integrity in the face of the present political stagnancy.

Jamyang Norbu is known as one of the leading and certainly the most controversial Tibetan writer at work today, principally on account of his numerous essays on Tibetan politics, history and culture, appearing regularly in his own and other websites, books, and journals. Although he has been denounced by the People’s Daily (Beijing) as “…the radical Tibetan separatist” and condemned by the exile Tibetan leadership for his numerous critical writings on the Dalai Lama’s policies and administration, Norbu is one of the few exile writers read inside Tibet and even in China, where translations of his essays have appeared on various websites. The Beijing based Tibetan poet and blogger, Tsering Woeser, has described him as the ‘Lu Xun of Tibet’. Lu Xun was the pen name of Zhou Shuren, a leading figure of modern Chinese literature.

Jamyang Norbu delivered his lecture titled: Great Women of Tibet: Transcending the Confines of Traditional Male-dominated Society in Old Tibet. This lecture discussed great women warriors, rulers, diplomats, scholars, business entrepreneurs and revolutionaries of the past. It was stated clearly in the beginning that the lecture does not seek to undermine the problems faced by women in the past but it aims to relocate these strong individuals in order to reverse the general assumption that there were no real significant contributions made by Tibetan women.

He gave numerous examples of great women who contributed immensely to our history of warfare. One of the first women was Semar Kar, Songtsen Gampo’s sister, who conspired to assassinate the Zhanzhung emperor whom she was married to. She used to send coded messages in poetry to her brother orally through her messengers in order to ascertain her husband’s whereabouts. Likewise, Trimalo, who was married to Songtsen Gampo’s grandson, she discovered that her husband is heavily under the influence of the Gar clan who were a threat to the king’s power. She succeeded in her plan to conspire against them and massacred the whole clan. It was also said that she even managed to live to see her grandson being enthroned.

The speaker then mentioned Dorji Youdon from the Gyari Tsang family. She was so fierce that it is said that the Chinese collaborators tried multiple times to assassinate her. There was another dynamic member of the same family: her name was Gyari Chime Dolma. Mao Zedong calls her the “Tibetan queen” in an interview with his biographer Edgar Snow. She fought for a long time with the Chinese after the army destroyed her palace and killed the whole of her family. When she was eventually executed, her last words were, “People of Nyarong, I die for you, do not forget me!”

Maharani of Sikkim Yeshe Dolma came from Lhasa as a bride to the king. She played a major role in Sikkim politics during the late 19th and early 20th century. Her role in negotiating with the British during the Young Husband mission ensured that she was a wise diplomat and negotiator. She was well educated and her first publication gave a well-documented history of Sikkim. A British officer even went on record to say that if Maharani Yeshe Dolma had been born in Europe in a high family, she would have risen to the similar stature of European statesmen/stateswomen. The relationship between Sikkim and Tibet had its religious roots but there was a time when matrimonial ties were also very significant.

Another woman from a place called Nyemo led entire groups against Public Liberation Army. There were invented stories about her in Lhasa during the Cultural Revolution. She was often called by the name of the goddess in the famous Gesar epic. She was also known as Nyemo ani. Her name was Thinley Chodon. Her side-kick Rinzin Dolkar also played a pivotal role here. Both of them were mercilessly killed by the PLA in a mass demonstration to hinder the development of such charismatic figures in Tibet. Mr. Norbu suggests that these stories are coming from a time when the great famines were happening in both Tibet and China. These women made a huge difference by instigating and revolting against the Public Liberation Army (PLA). He even concedes that Nyemo ani was one of the pioneers during the politically chaotic time in 1956 and that her other counterparts were nowhere as effective as she was. Moreover, there were peaceful demonstrations during the March Uprising which was led by the likes of Lhalu Lhacham and her husband. She was considered to be a Lhasa beauty in the 1940s. Then the speech focussed on our time in exile and the involvement of women therein. In 1975, there were women paratroopers in the Chakrata regiment who gave demonstrations in front of Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India. Indira Gandhi also invited them for tea in her estate in New Delhi. In 1962, there were women from Darjeeling who took up arms voluntarily when the Chinese were invading India. In 1995, there were nine Tibetan women who volunteered to be a part of the conference on Women’s Rights in Beijing and peacefully demonstrated. He also mentions women scholars like Tsering Woeser and Yudru Tsomu. Tsering Woeser is a Tibetan activist, blogger, poet and essayist in China and Yudru Tsomu is a professor at Sichuan University, Chengdu. Both of them have done valuable research in the field of Tibetan studies. One more important figure the speaker mentions is Rinzin Lhamo who was married to an English officer in Eastern Tibet whose book We Tibetans was the first book ever to be published by a Tibetan in London.

The speaker then stressed on the strength of these women who managed to do so well during this tumultuous time. In the frontier town between Tibet and China, there were sixteen business establishments. Half of them were owned by Tibetan women. The role of female businesswomen in taking ownership in these establishments is vital. There were terms like Acha Khamad (older-sister negotiator) which was used to designate these women. This also signifies how women were allowed to control their own finance which is a phenomenon rarely seen in other societies. At the beginning of this lecture, he mentioned scholars from the West and China who have remarked about the free and respectable status of Tibetan womanhood in old Tibet. He also acknowledges the monastic and aristocratic institutions that were devoid of women in the past. We are told about the polyandry system which is still in practice and in places like- Ladakh, Kinnaur, Spiti- places that are culturally Tibetan. This system serves an important purpose as the land in Tibet is arid and requires a lot of people in a family to work on the land to ensure livelihood. Jamyang Norbu who playfully says that he does not want to be a typical academician listed some names of important women figures that survived on their own through their sheer personalities. The winner of the Booker prize (2000) also said that there was a contract, sort of a prenuptial, which was prepared whenever two parties got married. It was an interesting insight into the marriage system, especially in Eastern Tibet. However, a student pointed out in the Q&A session that most of the women in his presentation are largely from an aristocratic background and it brings into question the lack of women from different class backgrounds which comprise most of the women population in Tibet. In his defense, he said that the literature that he has discussed is fairly new. What he has brought to life is a subject to be further developed not only by him but by all Tibetans and to give us a new framework through which we can really make a difference in understanding the pitfalls of our society. He was even self-critical as to note that he should not be the person to be delivering this lecture on great women of Tibet. He reassured us that it is time for women to talk about their stories and imagine a new world with them taking the center stage for once.

After the long morning lecture, we conducted the young scholars’ session after lunch. There were four speakers: Tashi Phuntsok, Binita Rai, Ranu Kunwar and Kalsang Yangzom. There were topics ranging from different disciplines and interest. Tashi Phuntsok, an assistant professor at the Calcutta University, presented a paper on Livelihoods Challenges of Tibetans in South Asia. His paper argues that the economic and financial conditions of the Tibetan in exile are worsening and tried to explain how it can endanger the Tibetan communities in numerous ways. Binita Rai, a PhD scholar at JNU, presented a paper on Revisiting Tibet-Sikkim Relations, and the history of Border Making: A Case of Rumtek Monastery in Exile and the Institution of Karmapa. Her paper gives us an overview of the Rumtek Monastery controversy and wishes to explore the historical and political consequences of this monastery which decides certain border patterns. It also tries to negotiate the relationship between Tibet and Sikkim by taking the case of Rumtek Monastery. Ranu Kunwar is an assistant professor at Shivaji College, Delhi University. Her paper was titled: Tibet in Diaspora Imagination: Representation of Tibet and “Tibetanness” in Life-writings of the Tibetan Diaspora. This paper talks about the “self” in the literary corpus of life-writing and discusses this particular literary tradition. It brings to light an important entry point whereby we construct the self and the nation. This paper tries to question the boundaries of our community to deal with everyday management of the self and focuses on a different exile consciousness which is the result of the newly perceived exile identity. The last presenter was Kalsang Yangzom who is an assistant professor in Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University. The title of her paper is Found in Translation- Creating Solidarity and Expanding Identity in Exile through Burning the Sun’s Braids. Her paper tries to negotiate the idea of translation in the current Tibetanness discourse that seems to have grabbed the attention of many young Tibetans who have either been exiled or were born here. The solidarity seems to be extended by the poets in Tibet through Bhuchung D. Sonam’s translation of the poems.

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