by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon


ITM has developed a close working relationship with one of several Tibetan refugee camps in southern India called Drepung Gomang.  In 1999, Drepung completed construction of a medical clinic on their land, made possible by support from ITM.  The clinic, headed by a doctor trained in Tibet, will provide Tibetan, Chinese, Ayurvedic, and Western medicine.  Their ability to provide different methods of health care depends, in part, on the availability of medicines and equipment, which is still limited.

One of the important determinants to residents’ health at these refugee camps is basic living conditions.  The refugees, most of whom are Buddhist monks escaping life-threatening repression in Tibet, suffer from exposure to severe weather conditions (especially monsoon rains and intense sun), lack of adequate food, deficiencies in basic medical care (with little of the medicines we take for granted), crowding, and lack of fresh water (no plumbing, limited water supply).  These problems are being partially remedied by donations from Western nations, mainly the U.S.  

From July 1999 through February 2000, ten monks from Drepung toured the U.S. to raise funds, ending with a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City on the Tibetan New Year.  During seven months time, with the help of a large donation from the Dalai Lama (who was also touring the country for this purpose), the monks were able to raise about $100/resident at Drepung Gomang.  Most of these funds are intended to help construct a new assembly hall so that the group can meet indoors on a regular basis.  Their current assembly hall can hold only about half of the current camp population, having been built 25 years ago when there were far fewer residents and when no one could have predicted their numbers would swell to the current level.  Following are more details about this group and the efforts being made to assist them.

History of Drepung in Tibet and India

Drepung Monastery was founded in 1416 A.D., as a Buddhist educational institution.  Its founder was Jamyang Choje, a close disciple of the revered Je Tson Khapa.  This was the largest monastery in Tibet, initially with two colleges (dratsang), of which Gomang was one.  It is of the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism, which is the lineage of the Dalai Lama.  At its zenith, before the invasion of Tibet by Chinese communist forces, Drepung had nearly 8,000 monks, and the Gomang, the largest of its four colleges, had 3,300 monks who had come from all over Tibet, as well as from Mongolia and Russia. Gomang produced many eminent scholars, philosophers, and mystics—known throughout Tibet and its neighboring countries—who have maintained the spirit of Buddha’s wisdom and message of inner peace, compassion, and non-violence. 

When Chinese communist forces took full control of Tibet in 1959, a small band of 160 monks from Gomang were able to flee to India.  Many of those who remained in Tibet were killed during the decade of terror that China imposed on Tibet, while others were forced into hiding or to reject, at least outwardly, their true faith.  All the dozens of buildings (except the large central prayer hall) of the great and ancient monastery were destroyed.  The prayer hall itself was used by the Chinese for storage of grain, damaging the fine artworks that lined the walls.  The refugees endeavored to create a Tibetan environment in India in which to preserve and maintain their rich cultural identity and precious religious practices, while in Tibet, the communist soldiers attempted to erase both the Tibetan culture and religion.

The refugees, poor and without assistance, were forced to labor at road construction in Chamba and other sites in northern India in order to feed themselves and the children in their care.  Both the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Indian Government planned to establish a center for preservation of Tibetan culture and religion in Buxa in North India.  Unfortunately, due to the limited rations of food, the adverse climate, and the poverty of the refugees, many failed to survive.  Of the original group from Gomang, only about 60 remained and they were joined by about 30 new refugees to form a small community.  The Indian Government and Tibetan Government in Exile decided to move the refugees to an area where they could practice farming and where they would be away from the border, where the tension between China and India (over the Tibetan issue) was worsening.

They moved to southern India, where Drepung Gomang Dratsang was established at its current site near the town of Mundgod in Karnataka State.  Other Tibetan colonies were also relocated to southern India; there are now about 15,000 Tibetan refugees in Karnataka at 2 monastic camps, including Drepung Gomang, and 9 other camps.  They are located about 45 km (30 miles) from the closest major town, Hubli.  When the college was established in southern India in 1969, its members were allotted three years of rations, after which they were to become self-sufficient.  In 1970 they were given 40 acres on which to construct living and working quarters, with the rest being used to cultivate essential crops in order to support about 100 monks and children.

At first, the colony suffered from lack of sufficient members.  There were the elder monks, but no disciples to whom the teachings and cultural practices could be passed on.  However, about 200 young Tibetan refugees soon joined the monastery.  After that, a steadily increasing stream of refugees swelled the college population to its current level of 1,400—far too many for the facilities.  About 150 more monks escape from Tibet to Gomang each year.

In the Tibetan tradition, the place of one’s birth determines which of the several monasteries one will join.  Accordingly, the monks at Gomang have come from Domay (eastern Tibet), U-tsang (central Tibet), and Dhotoe (southeastern Tibet).  There are also 55 monks from Mongolia and Russian-occupied Mongolia, and a few from Russia.  Both Mongolia and areas of Russia adjacent to Tibet and Mongolia have long participated in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

Each day, 6 days per week (for all but 6 weeks of the year), students at Drepung spend 1 hour in memorization of the classics and 2 hours of debate in the morning, then 3 hours of classroom studies followed by 2 hours of debate in the afternoon.  Debating, the main method of acquiring proficiency in the Buddha’s teachings and becoming aware of their full implications, is continued in the evening.  Here is a description provided by Gomang:

Debate is carried out with the monk sitting on the ground, with his knowledge and wisdom held like shields against the onslaught of his opponent who stands above him, stamping, shouting, firing volley after volley of questions and wit in an effort to find chinks in his spiritual armor and crack his defense.  He slams his palms together directing bolts of energy at his quarry.  When the defense fails, the attacker lets out a great victory cry: “T’sa.”  The debate is a testing ground for well-studied monks who have understood the increasingly profound points of Buddhist philosophy learned in the classroom and practiced hour by hour.  The debating practice is stimulating and enjoyed: sometimes the monks are still shouting at each other when the breakfast bells are rung at 6:00 in the morning.

The children at Gomang study basic education—including mathematics, English, and social sciences—in a small 4-room school.  About 200 of Gomang’s monks are under the age of 18, many of them orphans.  The college also helps to maintain the traditional Tibetan arts at its Arts and Crafts Center, created in 1992 at the suggestion of the Dalai Lama and headed by Alak Rigda, born in Amdo, Tibet in 1925 (he left Tibet for India in 1955 to continue his Buddhist studies, but was unable to return to Tibet due to the Chinese invasion).  The center teaches tangka painting, wood carving, tailoring, and embroidering.

The monastery still has only 40 acres of land, part of it used for cultivation (mainly rice, cotton, and sometimes corn). The harvest is only enough to supply about half the monks and there is no more assistance from the Indian government.  About half of the land occupied by the Tibetan camps is without any irrigation and subject to drought; Drepung Gomang, being at the end of the water transfer system, has no irrigation.  A few years ago, a major drought devastated the crops and brought the center to the limits of subsistence.  Recurrent droughts require the Tibetans to spend their limited funds on purchasing food that would otherwise be grown.  ITM has contacted an organization called Sahayoga that specializes in irrigation work and has its main offices in Bangalore, about three hours drive from the Tibetan camps.  Sahayoga is now working to provide an effective irrigation system for Drepung Gomang as well as for a group of neighboring camps (see following report by Bhavanishankar Bankipur).

The Tibetan Government in Exile provides small amounts of subsidies for the Tibetan refugees who are between the age of 16 and 24.  The original subsidies of 50 rupees (about U.S. $1.50) per month proved inadequate, so these were raised to 80 rupees per month.  However, with the growth in the number of refugees, the amount is likely to be reduced back to 50 rupees, and there is some concern that it will be canceled altogether due to lack of funds. 

The Drepung facilities, constructed to serve a few dozen monks in 1970, are now in disrepair and far too small for the numerous members.  There is little money available for repairs or for new construction except by donations.  The last building projects were a small hostel and some small room additions to older hostels for arriving monks, and construction of an expanded debate grounds (still, the open courtyard must be abandoned at times because of monsoon or intense summer sun, as covering has not been built as yet).

The monastery has developed plans for building the necessary new facilities, including a small school, living quarters, and assembly hall.  The leaders are hoping, one day, to add at least 10 acres of land for farming, so as to become more self-sufficient.  Single donations, or monthly support, would be most welcomed by the college.  Funds can be given for general support or earmarked for specific applications, such as school, living quarters, medicine, food, etc.  Donations can be given by check or money order to:

Drepung Gomang, Lama Camp No. 2

P.O. Tibetan Colony

District North Kanara - 581411

Karnataka State, India


report by Bhavanishankar Benkipur, Director, Sahayoga, Bangalore, India

On 29th November, 1999, our Secretary (R. Doraiswamy), Treasurer (Dr. Somashekar Reddy), and myself visited Drepung Gomang, traveling to Hubli by overnight train.  Migmar Tsering (Gomang’s Secretary) and his associates received us at the station and took us to Drepung Gomang.  We were well received and had excellent hospitality and were treated very well.  We were highly impressed by the traditional Tibetan hospitality.

Migmar and his associate took us around the fields that need irrigation facilities.  We had a close look at the entire stretch. It appears there is a great potential to boost agricultural production.  The field areas lie along the roadside for about one kilometer, close to the Monastery.  It is gently sloping to one side in the upland near the monastery, and gradually sloping along the road, with a well defined valley commencing from about the last one-third of its length.  At the end of the land near a flowing nala [small stream], and within the Gomang’s land, we can have a small farm pond to collect the drainage waters of the entire field after irrigation.  This collected water could be recycled and also used as a recreation and aquaculture lake.  Just below the pond at the toe of the earthen barrier we can have a deep tube well at a depth of 300 ft or so. As there is a flowing natural nala close by and being at a depression, it is felt we can have a capacity of 2–3 cusecs discharge for irrigation.  The surface aquifer appears to be salty and we can tap a deeper aquifer which will give sweet water for crops and also for drinking purposes. 

From the tube well, a main line can be taken along the road up to the higher ground close to the administrative complex of the monastery and within the fenced area of the fields. This can have valves at intervals to irrigate the paddy fields at the lower half of the total land.  The rising main can lead to a surface storage tank of masonry, located at the highest point.  From here we can have a piped supply with filters to develop a microsprinkler irrigation system above the ground level to irrigate horticulture and vegetable crops in about one-third the area (about 10 acres out of about 35 acres under crops; the other 5 acres are occupied by monastery buildings and for other purposes).

In all, about 25 acres can be developed for paddy, maize, jowar, and pulses, with 10 acres for cash crops, like orchards, vegetables, and fodder for the cattle, etc.  There is a very promising future to develop this land into a model self-sustaining farm and also make surplus to earn revenue.

On a rough estimate about 25,000 US dollars may be needed to install a tube well of 2–3 cusecs discharge with submersible pump, main line, laterals, alfalfa valves, microsprinkler systems with filters above the ground for orchard crops, a masonry or concrete storage tank at the highest point to provide adequate storage for balancing and to overcome disruptions in power supply.  In the farm land we can have a biomass plant to provide an alternate source of energy in the event of short supplies from the existing lines.

We have expertise in agriculture and will provide a package of practices to optimize the production: matching the crops with both the the soil and agroclimatic conditions prevailing there. I have explained details to Migmar Tsering and the Administrator of Drepung.  On working out details, the cost could vary, plus or minus.  I will try to meet with representatives of some well-known sources who can supply the equipment at least costs with concessions to the refugee camps and try to minimize costs to the extent possible.

Apart from this monastery, there are lands of other Tibetan settlements close by and, put together, it will make a sizable project needing minor gravity-irrigation facilities. Though the land of Drepung is in the command of an existing small tank of the irrigation department, being at the tail end, it does not get any water, as all of it is consumed at the upper stretches by the local cultivators.

If we consider the total land of all the settlements, we can think of another minor tank, as there are hills close by, and put pressure on the State and Central Government to build an irrigation tank.  This will, of course, be a long range plan.  Immediately in the short range, the tube well irrigation (as explained earlier) is the best solution to boost up production.  The settlements have no sewage disposal arrangements, though there is potable water supply. They need to have one, as untreated sewage left on the ground is polluting the ground waters and also hazardous to the health of the people there.

Sahayoga can supervise and act as consultants in the implementation of the projects.  We will also arrange with experienced agencies to implement and train the inhabitants locally to maintain and run the facilities.  In December, I talked with other agencies about the bigger gravitation-flow irrigation for the entire colony area.  This would be accomplished through the construction of two more tanks suitably located in the hillocks nearby, so as to augment supplies to the existing tank to extend irrigation water to all the Tibetan villages, including the other local villages and improving the existing canal system which is in a defunct state.  This bigger project will also supply drinking water to Mundgod Town and other villages enroute.  Thus, Municipal Council of Mundgod and village Panchayats also can participate in the project by providing partial funds.  The Principal Secretary is very much excited about this new concept of participatory water resource development and management and will take up with the Minister concerned in the government for governmental support and assistance.

Funds to support Sahayog may be sent to:

Sahayog, c/o R. Doraiswamy

No. 72, 7th Cross

Chikkathayappa Street, Vasanthanagar

Bangalore 42, India.