Sushma Joshi, February 2004
Photographer Gill Goucher’s exhibition brochure of the Khampas starts with a photograph of a nomad with a wry smile, holding a baby who pops out of a pouch inside his half-open woolen jacket. The baby, wrapped in sheepskin, looks less like a kangaroo and more like a wide-eyed alien. Goucher is from Australia, and that down-under sense of humor pops up more than once in the portraits of nomads with a very contemporary sense of style.
Keith Gardner, the Australian Ambassador to Nepal, who opened Goucher’s exhibition in Kathmandu, followed up the theme of the alien by remarking, “Khampas look like people from out of this world.” He went on to talk about their elaborate hair-dos and love of jewelry (could the Khampa ambassador, if such a personage were to exist, have used the same words for an exhibit of photography about Australians?: “These warm, humble people have a great love of tattoos and eye-brow rings, which they love to show off along with their mozzy bites on their sickies on Mondays”?) Before anybody could groan at the diplomat’s exoticization, Mr. Gardner had already added: “But they are very much of this world.”
Khampas, indeed, are very much of this world. Nepal knows little about the Khampas other than the fact that they were once going back and forth between the Nepal-Tibet border, fighting against the Chinese with funds from the Americans and the tacit approval of the Nepalis. After Nepal’s relationship with Beijing improved, it started to get tougher on the famed guerillas. Many of them eventually found their way down to Kathmandu, where they today live on the fringes of the Tibetan refugee economy. Others lucky enough to get identification papers found themselves en route to foreign countries, especially the United States. The cultural capital of New York remains the sought-after destination for many Khampas who find themselves stranded in a legal void. Nepal, while culturally welcoming, remains a place where passports are impossible to extract from bureaucrats without generous bribes, not just for refugees but even for the indigenous citizens themselves.
The communities in Boudha and Swayambhu remain the main hub of the Tibetan refugees. Many of them are now second generation immigrants with a Nepali identity. While the community remains tightly-knit, its members continue to be influenced by the emotional impacts of the outward flow of migration. The Tibetan diaspora has now become as global as the Chinese and Indian, and it comes as little surprise that the people left behind want to join their friends in the US and Europe, even though they are fully aware of the hardships they will encounter there as low-skilled workers.
The Kathmandu reality may be very different from the nomads Goucher met in Kham. Or perhaps not. The global desire to travel, it seems, hits nomads wherever they might find themselves, in the high desert or the congested heart of a capital city. But these desire to move and flow goes both ways, with style making its way into the heart of Kham as quickly as the Khampas find themselves in Fifth Avenue.
Scholars have been quick to point at the similarities between Native people in the Americas and the Tibetans of the high plateaus. Not only do they look similar, they even have similar rituals and rites, processes and worldviews. Some scientists posit that the new landmass that drifted off from what is now Asia and became the Americas was one big mother-continent. Whether it’s that pre-historical link between continents or the simple migration of new media that brought John Wayne to Kham, there is no question he has arrived, along with the Marlboro Man. The tilted hat of the cowboy is more than an aesthetic – it’s a lifestyle. The cosmopolitan adaptations of nomads in sheepskin sporting fedoras may seem out of this world. But no more so than middle-class folks in Sydney sporting tribal tattoos.