Kalsang is caretaker of the Pavilion of Tibetan Culture. She was a Tibetan refugee who joined Auroville when she was only seventeen.
Kalsang was busy arranging flowers for a visiting delegation of Tibetan monks when I entered the pavilion. Stocky and strong, she is very different from the tiny colourful ammas who were helping her. Together with her partner Tenzin Namgyal and her three year old daughter Tenzin Jangchup, Kalsang has made the Pavilion of Tibetan Culture her home. She is in charge of organizing events and the maintenance of the place.
Dianna went to visit her to ask her how she came to Auroville and what it is like living in a Pavilion. Seated in her office surrounded by pictures of the Dalai Lama and Mother and Sri Aurobindo, and with her little three-year-old daughter Jangchup sitting on her knee, Kalsang told her story.
The flight from Tibet
“In 1983, after the Chinese had invaded Tibet , my father carried me and my twin to safety over the Himalayas . He left us at Dharamsala then walked back to Tibet . I did not see him again for 24 years. Two years ago I went up to the Indian-Tibetan, now Chinese, border with my daughter to meet him. It was a very strange experience. I hardly recognized him as he looked so old. He did not look how I had imagined he would look and I felt very confused and emotional. He looked at my three-year-old daughter and said that I was her age when he carried me out of Tibet in a basket.
“We were sent to the Tibetan Village Children's School which was a boarding school and very traditionally run, all books and rules. No one ever explained to us why we were living there. I had no idea until someone showed us pictures of Tibet one day, and I realized that that was where I had come from. I often felt very lonely and isolated at school. I always felt sad not having a mother or father in India , especially during the holidays when the other children's parents used to come and take them away and I was always left behind.
“In 1989 the best moment of my life happened when the French couple who had been sponsoring us for 13 years suddenly appeared at the school. They turned up in the classroom, just like that, and I was so proud of them and showed them around the school. I finally felt I had a connection with someone. These wonderful people are still in contact with me and visited Auroville in 2001. I just hope one day I will be able to repay them by helping other Tibetan children as they helped me.”
Training in Auroville
“One day when I was 17, a lady called Anne who came from Auroville appeared at our school. She explained that two places for vocational training were being offered by Auroville, one in gardening and the other in cooking. I remembered the Dalai Lamai talking to us and saying we should try to live simply, so the gardening course interested me. All I knew of South India was that it was a place that was very hot, and where the people were very dark and ate off banana leaves while sitting on the ground. I decided to take up the challenge and eventually was chosen to do the course.
“I will never forget the day I left Dharam-sala: it was the 11th July, 1994. The train journey was very long and it was the beginning of a year of homesickness. I was put in the Kottakarai guest house and waited for my training to begin but nothing happened. I felt neglected and deeply regretted having come all this way. I did not realize at that time I had come from a school where we were spoon-fed everything, and never had to make any decisions for ourselves. I just did not know there was another way of doing things. My English was poor and I had little confidence and no friends. An “International Community” had sounded so good, but I did not see any training programmes or classrooms where I could learn my new trade. I was just left to discover things for myself. After a few days of just sitting around I asked someone where I should go to start my training and they suggested I go to the Matrimandir nursery. It took me a long time to find it amongst all the trees, and I was shy to ask people: Tibetans are not a pushy people, it is not in their nature to be forward. I pretended to be a visitor till someone asked me what I was doing and finally Martin, who was in charge with the nursery, got me organized. There never was any training programme; I just did odd jobs like compost-making and I was very disappointed. I had thought I would eventually get a certificate and go back to Dharamasala but this did not happen.”
Meeting the Dalai Lama
“One day something happened that changed my life. Several young Tibetans had come to Auroville to learn about ferrocement and compressed-earth brick-making and then used the technique very successfully in their Tibetan settlement in South India . I went to visit them for the Kalachakra initiation and was fortunate enough to have an audience with the Dalai Lama. He looked at me directly and said, “What are you doing in India ?” “Living in Auroville,” I replied. “That is wonderful. We need Tibetans to work for the Tibetan Pavilion,” he said. I suddenly realized that Auroville is where I should be, where I can be of use. This was a turning point in my life and I decided to forget the past and dedicate myself to the Pavilion of Tibetan Culture. This would be the place where I could fulfil my dream of helping young Tibetans and being like a Tibetan mother to them.
“French Claude and his Indian wife Abha, who provide the energy behind the Tibetan Pavilion, became like my family. It was so good to be able to share my difficult moments and my hopes and dreams with them. One day they suggested my family move to the Pavilion and live there as caretakers. I had been living in Aspiration, which I loved. It was difficult to leave and move to the Tibetan Pavilion and start all over again in a new and rather isolated place.
“We came here in 2001 and before Jangchup, my baby arrived, we enjoyed being here a lot. We used to go to the courses which are run here and had time to talk and help people. Now, with a very lively three-year-old running around the building, things are very different and often difficult. When we run a course I have to try and keep her quiet, and she cannot invite her friends to come here as there would be even more noise. People knock at our door day and night with enquiries about the guest house and I often work an eighteen hour day and get really tired and bad tempered.
“My dream is to have a little house outside the Pavilion where we can live as a family; I am sure it will happen one day but now the priority is to finish the building. Since Claude fell ill last year even more work has fallen on our shoulders; he now does the accounts and we take care of everything else. The only money we get is from the guest-house, which is seasonal and unpredictable. We do not get a single paisa from the Central Fund and I refuse to take one from the Pavilion as it needs every paisa it can get. “I try to economize, but it gets stressful.”
“When I went back to Dharamasala a few years ago and met some of the friends I had gone to school with I could not help comparing our lives. Most of them had degrees and good jobs and nice houses and here I was with nothing in comparison. Then I thought that Auroville does not give certificates or degrees; the good behaviour of a human being is his degree. I saw that I was doing far more than my friends by doing what the Dalai Lama advised and dedicating myself to the completion of the Tibetan Pavilion.
“Sometimes I feel a lot of pain in my heart and I can't sleep with worrying. People think I am rude and serious and shout in three languages, but I just get frustrated and overburdened. I have learned to change myself over these last four years. Before, I expected people to help me and was disappointed and angry when they didn't. That was the cause of a lot of pain but now I have given that idea up. I have stopped comparing myself with others and just try to do everything as sincerely as possible. That is all I can do, that is all anyone can do. I am very much a Buddhist and Mother said we all were very much connected and involved with learning to be compassionate. And Auroville is a wonderful place to practice this.”
See also: The Pavilion of Tibetan Culture