Photographer Shares Top Five Stories, Memories From Tibet's Refugees In India

By Rebecka Calderwood

Over 150,000 Tibetans refugees have fled Tibet since the Chinese occupation. PWB photographer and Toronto native Joey Panetta travelled to Mcleod Ganj Dharamsala, India to work with and capture images from Tibet World, an organization which works with some of these refugees. Similar to a community centre, Tibet World “provides a platform for promoting education, raising cultural awareness and imparting Tibetan values to the world by inspiring people to initiate peace, harmony, and compassion.” Panetta visited this unique community from Nov. 16 to 28. Here, he shares his top five moments, stories and memories from the experience.

© Joey Panetta

© Joey Panetta

Five:  Watching Tibetan nuns and monks make candles in Tsuglagkhang Temple, home to the Dalai Lama. 

“It has such a cool vibe to it. As you’re walking through the temple, it’s this really small room tucked away in the corner and nobody really goes to it. I saw this nice warm glow coming out of this place and I went up to it,” said Panetta. “There were three or four nuns and monks working inside and methodically pouring wax into these candles. It was just one of those places that – from all the craziness going on the outside in the town and with all the honking horns – you get into this four-walled room and it seems so quiet and peaceful in this place.”

This became almost a practice in meditation for Panetta. He returned multiple times to watch them methodically pour wax and light candles, over and over. 

© Joey Panetta

© Joey Panetta

Four: Family buying groceries on Temple Road.

A mother and son talk to the shopkeeper, as the father stands outside waiting. Before capturing this scene, Panetta exchanged a warm smile and hello.

“Aside from documenting the work of Tibet World specifically, I spent some time photographing the daily life of Tibetans in McLeod Ganj," said Panetta. "For whatever reason, one of my favourite moments during this part of documenting Tibetan refugees was this family buying groceries on Temple Road.“

Three: Meeting Chukpo, 76, Tibetan refugee.

© JOEY PANETTA

© JOEY PANETTA

One fulfilling experience for Panetta was meeting a 76-year-old Tibetan refugee (pictured right). Her name is Chukpo, and she’s been working with the Tibetan Handicraft Co-op for 40 years. She left Tibet as a refugee in 1959.

“For Chukpo, like every Tibetan refugee I've spoken to, it's not a question of 'if' they will be able to return to Tibet, it is 'when,’” said Panetta. “Meeting her was definitely a highlight of my time with Tibet World. 

Panetta was brought to the co-op by Tenzin Yangdon, an employee of Tibet World, who spent a lot of time there growing up. 


© JOEY PANETTA

© JOEY PANETTA

Two: Tibetan Handicraft Co-op.

This photo is from the same experience as number three, but tells a different story.

Yangdon’s grandmother, mother and aunt worked in this Tibetan Handicraft Co-op after fleeing Tibet. She spent most of her days playing around these women and their large weaving machines. She now works with Tibet World helping to educate Tibetan refugees. 

“As a photographer, the lighting in this place was gorgeous, like a big soft box in there,” said Panetta. “These ladies have been working here for decades creating these huge intricate carpets that they sell. You can tell they’ve known each other for their entire lives just by the way they’re chatting.”

© JOEY PANETTA

© JOEY PANETTA

One: Monastery debates.

“This [monastery] is a two-minute walk from Tibet World on the same street," said Panetta.

"It was Thursday. It was my last day there and I had shot everything I needed to for Tibet World, so I said, ‘I’m just going to walk around and grab some detailed stuff to round out the Tibetan story.’ I’m walking around and get totally lost in this town, and in the back roads of this town.”

Panetta ended up on the roof of a building overlooking the monastery courtyard. He walked down and around the building, and right into 200 monks debating.

These debates are held daily. They are loud, filled with clapping hands, heated conversations, and gestures said to have symbolic meaning. The debates are part of Tibetan Buddhist training and meant to further comprehension to advanced levels of study for the monks. There are two sides: the questioner (who stands), and the defender (who is seated), while a teacher meanders around the courtyard guiding and acknowledging questions as debates ensue. They last about an hour and a half, and end when one side is able to entrap his opponent’s argument. Winning a debate is a testament to your wisdom as a Buddhist.

“These debates are somewhat theatrical and incredibly passionate," said Panetta. "It took getting completely lost on my last day in town to find what I had tried to witness for two weeks.”

Many of these monks attend classes at Tibet World, which allow them to better converse and debate in both Tibetan and English.

Tibet World and Panetta will be featured in Issue 5 of our magazine which launches on February 1st.

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