Far from home, Tibetan exiles set foot on native soil

Tibetan exiles gather around soil from their native country that has been transported to India.

Story highlights

  • Tibetans who long to see their homeland were able to touch native soil again
  • Artist Tenzing Rigdol smuggled the soil in sacks from Tibet to India
  • The dirt was spread on a stage so Tibetans could walk on it
  • Rigdol's father died without ever seeing Tibet again
They lined up hundreds strong to touch the dirt. Some fell to their knees, clutching the gritty stuff as though it were a long-lost child. Others lifted it to their lips to savor a taste of the home they left behind decades ago.
Exiles -- who face never returning to Tibet as long as it is under Chinese rule -- stood on Tibetan soil this week, fulfilling a desire that has burned within since they fled westward across the Himalayas. Only, this week, they were able to do it in Dharamsala, the Indian hilltown that functions as the de facto capital of the refugee community.
The display was the work of New York artist Tenzing Rigdol, 29, who clandestinely trucked in sacks containing 22 tons of dirt from Tibet to Dharamsala to construct his installation. He did not want to disclose details of the soil's journey, fearful of the repercussions of the act of smuggling. All he would say is that it was a "complicated process that took 17 months."
Rigdol then spread the dirt over a stage the size of a basketball court and called it "Our Land, Our People."
He invited Tibetans to walk on his dirt, write on it or pick up a microphone to express themselves. He knew it could never be the same as actually returning to Tibet, but perhaps, he thought, it would spark a sliver of that feeling.
He thought of his father on Wednesday when the installation opened and people lined up, many overwhelmed with emotion.
The only wish his father had was to see Tibet one more time. But he fell ill in 2007 and died.
A father's unfulfilled wish drove his artist son to create something that would allow the displaced to be able to "return" home again. And others like him, who were born outside of Tibet, to finally feel native earth they have never had under their feet.
"There are so many like my father who wanted to return," Rigdol said. "And many more who have never been to Tibet."
Tenzin Dorjee, 31, remembers receiving cell phone texts at 4:30 in the morning when his excited friend first came up with his idea. The message was so long that it got broken into three.
"He was saying he had this idea to transport a large amount of soil from Tibet," Dorjee said. "I was blown away. My first reaction was: how is that possible?"
But then Dorjee began visualizing the project and how much of an impact it was sure to have on Tibetan exiles.
"The implications," he said, "seemed historic."
Known as the "roof of the world," Tibet is a remote Buddhist region governed by Communist China. Beijing claims its sovereignty over Tibet goes back centuries and views the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, as a separatist.
About 150,000 Tibetans live in exile, a majority of them in Dharamsala, according to their governing body. The Dalai Lama set up residence there after Chinese forces crushed a 1959 Tibetan uprising.
The Dalai Lama summoned Rigdol to his residence after the opening of the installation Wednesday, Rigdol said.
Rigdol carried with him some of the Tibetan dirt. Using his index finger, the Dalai Lama, wrote Tibet in the dirt and blessed the soil.
Meanwhile, monks in their flowing maroon and saffron robes queued up, as did parents holding babies.
"It was very exciting," said Tenzing Geche, 22, a monk who was a baby when his family left Tibet. He touched the dirt and felt a connection like no other.
"I felt I was back in my own country," he said.
Tenzing Tfuengue, 17, has never been to Tibet -- he was born and raised in India. He has longed to go to Tibet, feel the air there, drink the water, see the land that possesses his soul.
"Today, (Rigdol) made it a little bit possible," Tfuengue said.
For Lhadon Tethong, 35, a Canadian visiting family in Dharamsala, the installation was bittersweet. It was completely inspiring at one moment and in another, as she watched elderly Tibetans fall to the ground, sadness overcame her.
"I am normally better with words than this," she said, unable to complete her sentence.
There was no overt political statement in Rigdol's art, but some Tibetans hoped it would inspire resistance to Chinese rule. China blames Tibetan unrest on the exiled community.
But no matter the consequences, Rigdol's art will carry on.
The installation will stay up until Friday. But when it closes, Tibetan exiles will be allowed to take some of the dirt with them, a reminder always of the land they long to see.