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I have had a strange, almost unreal life, now that I try to recollect my history. You must forgive me if my memory lapses occasionally. It is all so very long ago, and my childhood has never been a conversation piece until today! I don't know how to be interesting. It's amusing that you ask me the date of my birth. If I had ever asked my grandmother such a question, I would have been severely rebuked for showing such disrespect. How times have changed!
Honestly, I do not know the exact date of my birth. What relevance did dates have to us? We were born without much fanfare, matured into adolescence, were married, had children ourselves, and then were overtaken by death. We lived the entire cycle simply, in the belief that people are ordinary and that existence is natural.
I was born approximately in the first month of the Iron Ox year (1901). I was named Sonam Tsomo. My birth name belongs to another life. Most people know me as Diki Tsering, but I was not born Diki Tsering. Ever since I went to live in Lhasa, I tried to become Diki Tsering, with all the social forms and graces that go with that name. Because of the responsibilities I owed toward my new position in life, I gradually eased out of being Sonam Tsomo, the simple girl with her simple life and the ordinary ambition of being a good housewife and mother. I feel very tender toward the young girl that I have forced myself to forget.
It was both faith and fate that propelled me into my unbelievable life as the mother of the Dalai Lama. When it happened, itseemed as if I had lost all my courage and confidence, and I became afraid, like a little child, at the formidable task that lay before me. But once I began to tell myself that I was Diki Tsering, the name that was given to me on my wedding day and means "ocean of luck," a kind of rebirth kindled all the forces of determination within me. I was no longer afraid, and I willingly challenged fate, determined not to be submerged by the tide.
Today I am a tiresome old woman, my body feverish with rheumatism. But however debilitated you become physically, the spirit of youth is constant and alive. It never deserts you, even in the face of the greatest suffering. My only companions now are memory and reverie. My mind goes back more and more to my childhood, my parents and grandparents, my birthplace. I see so clearly the meadows, the stream, the hills, the farm where I grew up, and I feel so strongly the cycle of returning home on this last lap of my journey.
Traditions are so easily broken and forgotten. Today, when I see young people, I often think they are reacting against their traditions in order to overemphasize their modernity. I am proud to be, despite my resilience and ability to change, a very traditional woman. Does this make me archaic and anachronistic? I don't think so. I have always been proud and strong-willed. I have fought many battles and have emerged stronger after each victory. My traditions, my roots as a Tibetan, have fortified me. Traditions cannot be denied or forgotten. They are the creators of your spirit and your pride and the backbone of your sensibilities. They make you what you are and define what you want to be.
My Earliest Years
A few days before my birth, my grandfather paid a visit to a local lama. He was insistent that his forthcoming grandchild was going to be a girl. "I feel it in my bones," he declared. "She is going to be someone. Please help me find a name for a very special girl who is going to be a very special woman." A few prayers and many hours of astrological consultation later the name Sonam Tsomo was decided on, Sonam meaning "fertility," Tsomo for the great goddess of longevity.
In our traditional peasant society, religion was our sole justification for existence. It brought serenity, peace of mind, and contentment of heart. Religion-I call it faith-was part of every aspect of our daily lives. The priest, representing God on earth, was invited to participate in all the major events in the cycle of life: birth, marriage, travel, illness, death, and afterlife.
My earliest memories are of a land that nature had made a plentiful paradise. It was a wealth of forests, lakes, hills, mountains, and fertile soil. This is how I remember the village of Churkha, in the district of Tsongkha, where I was born. Churkha was under the jurisdiction of Kumbum monastery. Tsongkha was the birthplace of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism in the fourteenth century. I was the second child born to my parents, but the eldest girl. Perhaps my birth was considered a misfortune to my parents, for it heralded a long chain of girls in my family.
I have never forgotten the freedom of my young days in Amdo (one of the two eastern provinces of Tibet). I grew up with seven sisters and three brothers, surrounded by great affection and friendship. My parents were humble but prosperous peasants, and my horizons and my awareness began and ended with the lives of my forefathers, tillers of the soil. That soil was the means by which we earned our survival and existence. When fate changed my life so swiftly and abruptly, I was but a peasant girl.
My early years were spent within a large, extended family. My father had six brothers, and they all lived in our household with their wives and children. This custom was peculiar to our area in Amdo. Sons brought their wives to their families of birth, but daughters left their homes upon marriage and joined their husbands' families. Sometimes, when parents had only daughters, they "acquired" a bridegroom to enter their family to continue the family name, but that was not typical.
The houses in Amdo were different from those of central Tibet. They were square, with one or two stories. Our home was double-storied, and we also had a single-story house where the servants lived. The houses were made of thala, which is two wooden walls filled with pounded sand. Village houses were surrounded by a stone wall and built around an inner courtyard. An extended family often lived in a cluster of such houses. Every house had a large storeroom for tsampa (roasted barley flour, the staple food of Tibet), flour, butter, dry meat, and oil. The stables were separate, and here we kept the sheep, cows and horses, dris (female yaks), donkeys, pigs, and dzomos. (A dzomo is the offspring of a yak and a cow. The male is called a dzo.)
In our area we had the fiercest-looking mastiffs that I have ever seen, even in Lhasa. They were used as guard dogs. It is known that these dogs were often exchanged for horses. They often had to walk great distances when they were traded, and they would develop sore paws. We would wrap the sore paws with yak fur as padding.
My father was called Tashi Dhondup, and my mother was Doma Yangzom. My grandparents also lived with us. In Amdo all older women in the family were called amala, or mother. To distinguish between the various mothers, we used terms like tama and gama, elder mother and younger mother, in accordance with their seniority. It was customary, as a mark of filial devotion, that those of the older generation who had grown children did not work. It was thought that the old folks had done their labor during their youth.
From the moment of my birth I was loved by my grandparents, not because I was the eldest-I already had an elder brother-but because some premonition told them that I was to be a special child and an even more special adult. They lavished such tenderness and affection upon me that I felt cherished. The enjoyment of life that resulted has never left me. To them I owe eternal gratitude for enriching my childhood and for hiding from me, however temporarily, the fact that a woman's life can be hard, cruel, and full of trials and tribulations.
My grandparents formed the nexus of my entire world. I slept with them, ate with them, was cajoled and petted by them. They seemed to fill up my entire little self. This was possible because of the unrestrained and informal relations between grandparents and their grandchildren, which lacked rigid rules of conduct.
My grandfather was a strong, imperious, slightly arrogant man. At that time in Amdo it was the grandfather who was lord, and he ruled with an iron fist. This tempestuous man cradled me in his arms the instant I was born and declared loudly, "She is my Sonam Tsomo." With this sweeping statement, I became his charge. Even if they were nettled by this dominance, this exploitation of authority, my parents could do nothing but obey.
It often seemed strange to see my parents defer to my grandparents on every matter of consequence yet give in to every caprice and whim of mine. It was only much later that I came to understand the respect underlying our kinship ties and how it marked every aspect of our behavior. Grandparents were regarded by all members of the family with awe and respect. Yet the relationship between grandparent and grandchild was marked by casual intimacy. Parent-child relationships were restrained, distant, and very formal. My own parents' relationship with my grandparents was like this.
I noticed, often with secret glee, how awestruck my parents were by my grandparents. For instance, if my grandfather was sitting on the kang (a heated platform used for sitting and sleeping), my father was socially forbidden to sit beside him. Out of deference for his elder, he had to either stand or sit on the floor. But I could crawl up on the kang beside my grandfather and feel the security of his arms around me. I would deliberately provoke my father in this way, to show that in the presence of my grandfather I was the little mistress of all and could do as I pleased.
When my grandfather was having tea, his favorite drink, convention forbade my father to drink tea unless my grandfather ordered him with "Tashi Dhondup, sit down and have a cup of tea." Even then my father would never draw up a chair but had to be content to squat on the floor. Chairs were only for equals meeting each other eye to eye.
Every evening after sunset, when the family got together for a meal, I would edge close to my grandfather, a secret sign between the two of us that we were going to have a marvelous time after the meal. I would listen spellbound as he told countless legends and stories. My favorite was the one in which he overpowered all opposition in the final selection of my name. My grandfather was the main influence in my life in those early years. He knew how to enjoy himself and taste fully every experience of life.
Even when I was still quite little, the fact that I was a girl weighed heavily on my heart. From very early in life we were aware of the different roles and aspirations of males and females and the preference families had for sons. The birth of a girl was sometimes looked upon as a curse. I heard a story about a poor family who drowned a female child immediately after her birth. Daughters were viewed as an economic liability in our farming society. As a child a daughter consumed without contributing to the production of food. Then as a teenager she had to be provided with a dowry, whereupon she left her family to marry and join her husband's family. Sons, on the other hand, increased production by their labor. They remained with their families, and their offspring increased the family wealth even more.
Many a time I asked my grandfather whether he would have preferred a boy. I would not have been able to bear the disappointment had he affirmed my fears. Instead he'd tweak my ears and say, "Would I have said you were a girl even before you were born?" Then I was transported into the great joy. It meant a great deal to me to be wanted for myself and not for the practicality of my sex.
Those early years were so full of every kind of pleasure that I have never forgotten them. I had the freedom to laugh as if I had heard the funniest joke in the world, to see the beauty of the trees and the flowers, to feel the contentment of the horses and cows, and to dream every dream that my little mind could call up.