Around 100,000 Tibetan fled from Tibet around the time the Dalai Lama left in 1959. Most settled in India, primarily around Dharamsala and Darjeeling. Some settled in Nepal, Europe and the United States.

According to a 2009 survey by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) there were 127,935 Tibetans registered in the diaspora: with 94,203 in India; 13,514 in Nepal; 1,298 in Bhutan; and 18,920 in rest of the world. The true number is estimated at up to 150,000, as mentioned by both Edward J. Mills et al. in 2005 and by the 14th Dalai Lama in 2009.

Tibetans in exile have shown that it is possible to maintain a sense of community without occupying their homeland.

The world's second largest Tibetan exile community is in Nepal, where it thought that as many as 20,000 Tibetans live. Many make their living making carpets. In the past Nepal welcomed Tibetan refugees and allowed them to express their discontent but that changed when a Maoist government gained power in Nepal in the mid 2000s. In October 2010, Tibetans in Nepal were prevented from voting in a government-in-exile election by armed police that forcibly seized ballot boxes.

Tibetan Exiles in India

According to a 2009 survey by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) there were were 94,203 Tibetans in India but the real number is thought to be bigger. There were 110,000 Tibetans in India according to a 2001 census, with an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 arriving annually at that time. It has been estimated that around 90,000 Tibetans live in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives. Thousands more live in other places in India. There are also Tibetan-like people living in India like the Ladakhis.

The 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959. Over the next decade a steady stream of refugees migrated to India, with many living for a while in refugee camps. But it didn’t take long for them to make themselves at home. They constructed temples, monasteries, monastic schools, and print their sacred books. The latter project was assisted by Public Law 480 Program supported by the United States under the guidance of the Tibetologist E. Gene Smith.

Tibetans in India can’t vote or get a passport but they are free to work and own property. They are promised protection from repatriation and are issued papers to work. In July 2022, when the Dalai Lama marked his 87th birthday by inaugurating a library and museum in Dharmsala, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to him by phone and wished him well on his birthday.


Dharamsala in northern India has been the home of the Dalai Lama and a large Tibetan community since the Dalai Lama fled China in the 1959. Located in the upper reaches of the Kangra Valley in the Himalayas and nestled between the dramatic Dhauladhar mountains, this charming town is known for its conifer forests, bungalows, prayer wheels, prayer flags, and Tibetan monasteries. The Daila Lama lives outside of town in McLeod Ganj. Dharamsala is full of Tibetan monks in maroon robes, old men in chubas and women in traditional Tibetan aprons. Some have said it was chosen as the site for the Tibetan community because it was so difficult to get to. In fact it was chosen for its beauty, scenery and the purity of the water.

William Dalrymple wrote in the Paris Review from Tsuglagkhang, the temple attached to the Dalai Lama residence-in-exile. “All around us Tibetan pilgrims were circling the prayer hall on the topmost terrace of the temple. Some, in their ankle-length sheepskin chubas, were clearly new arrivals, nomads from western Tibet, fresh across the high snowy passes; others were long-term residents of this Tibet-outside-Tibet: red-robed refugee monks performing the thrice-daily circumambulation of the Dalai Lama temple-residence. There was a strong smell of incense and burning butter lamps, and the air was full of the low murmur of muttered prayers and mantras. [Source: William Dalrymple, Paris Review, Spring 2010]

Problems Faced by Tibetan Exiles in India

Many Tibetans in India have problems. They have difficulty finding work and many become alcoholics. About half become monks and nuns. Many get jobs in Chinese restaurants in New Delhi or work as manual laborers. Refugees that try to return are often captured and tortured by Chinese authorities.

Tibetans that end up in Dharamsala find out the reality doesn’t always match the hype. Yes the Dalai Lama is there, one can speak one’s mind openly and there are no Chinese authorities to harass them but they also find there are not that many opportunities, people miss their friends and many just plain don’t like India much. One 39-year-old Tibetan woman there told the Los Angeles Times, “When I was in China my friends told me Dharamsala was a paradise, you don’t even need money...But life isn’t easy, and this place is quite dirty. I couldn’t believe the Dalai Lama would live in such a messy place.” [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, October 4, 2010]

A Tibetan shopkeeper said, “China has jobs; you can start a business without a lot of bureaucracy. You don’t get Delhi belly [dysentery] all the time.” A restaurant manager and former monk said, ‘superficially everything better in China. But mentally, there’s also a lot of pressure there. You have to think before you talk....But I really miss my family. I?d like to go back if I ever get the chance.” [Ibid]

Tibetans in India also have problems with the language, don’t like the food and a have hard time with warm weather which makes their traditionally woolen and yak-hid garments scratchy and uncomfortable. Some say their culture is threatened in India just as much by Bollywood movies and Indian permissiveness and it was in China by Chinese authoritarianism. In Dharamsala there is also the problem of spies and how they can make things difficult for family members back in Tibet. [Ibid]

Tibetans Fleeing to India and Nepal

Many Tibetans have fled their homeland in a harrowing journey from Tibet, though the snow-covered passes of Nepal, to Dharamsala. The escapees often travel by foot with nothing more than a blanket, the clothes on their back, some yak meat and a bag of barley. By day they hide behind rocks to avoid detection by Chinese authorities. At night they walk. They often run out of food and get within a whisker of freedom before succumbing to storms, deep snow and glaciers at the last pass into Nepal, 18,000-foot-high Nangpa La, 30 miles from Mt. Everest. Many lose their fingers and toes to frostbite.

In a speech to welcome a group of 300 Tibetans who escaped to India, the Dalai Lama said, "Tibet has survived these past 40 years of Chinese occupation because of your strength and determination. I know you have come here with great difficulty, and you have suffered on your journey. But by coming here you have shown not only your own but Tibet's determination. I give you my greetings, and my gratitude for what you have done."

The escapees who make it typically need 25 days to reach India or Nepal. They pay a guide around $100 and cross some of the world's highest passes with canvas shoes. Refugees who make it to Mustang, Namchee Bazaar or Kathmandu are interviewed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), who then transfers them to India. The Dalai Lama personally meets with many of the refugees and often encourages them to return to Tibet.

As of 2003 there were about 25,000 Tibetan refugees living in Nepal. That year about 2,500 Tibetans made the difficult journey to get to Nepal. Most were turned over to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees who helped them make their way to India. In 1997, 2,639 Tibetans crossed from Tibet into Nepal and around 5,000 new arrivals showed up in Dharamsala, including 1,000 children. In 2002, the number of Tibetans arriving in Nepal dropped to 1,268. The decline was attributed to increase of police patrols on the Chinese side of the border.

In January 2012, AP reported: “Nepalese officials say they have detained 207 Tibetan exiles for illegally entering the country. Police spokesman Raviraj Shrestha said the Tibetans were detained while entering the capital, Katmandu, on buses. They arrived from India and failed to provide travel documents at the entry checkpoint. It was unclear where they were headed. Refugees from the Chinese-controlled Tibetan Autonomous Region are routinely detained by Nepalese police and usually handed over to the United Nations refugee agency. Many are passing through Nepal en route to India, where their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, lives in exile. Thousands more Tibetan refugees have settled in Nepal.[Source: AP, January 13, 2012]

Hardship and Death Fleeing to India

One escapee told National Geographic he and his infant son made it, but his wife died during the grueling trek and his father succumbed to dysentery soon after arrival in the lowlands. Another escapee told the Los Angeles Times that several members in her group died, including a 11-year-old girl that froze to death while being carried on the escapee' back.

In December 1997, four children and a 16-year-old monk died while trying to escape Tibet after getting caught in a blizzard and struggling through three feet of snow. One survivor who got as far as Kathmandu but lost his legs to frostbite told the Los Angeles Times, "Everyone was fainting, falling. The snow was at my chest, and I could not see. It would have been better to die." A woman who lost seven toes and was discovered by Scottish hikers near Namche Bazaar, said, "I was senseless. I kept thinking, 'I am going to die, and I will not live to see His Holiness."

Many of the Tibetan trekkers are children. One aid worker in Kathmandu told Newsweek, "Every winter, so many children die in the snow, while their parents back in Tibet think they are safe and happy in India." Many of the children leave because there is not enough for them to eat in Tibet.

Hannah Beech wrote in Time: Tsewang Dhondup, a trader from Kardze, fled his homeland after the 2008 unrest. Dhondup was shot while trying to help a monk who later died of bullet wounds. Wanted signs with Dhondup’s picture were posted in his village, but friends took him by stretcher high into the mountains. Maggots infested his wounds. Dhondup lived for 14 months on the edge of a glacier before escaping to India. His audience with the Dalai Lama, he says, was the most treasured moment of his life. But even he predicts that “once the Dalai Lama is gone, Tibet will explode.” [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, November 15, 2011]

Escaping from Tibet to India

Annie Gowen wrote in the Washington Post, “Kunga Dolma waited years to escape the repressive life of her remote Tibetan village, and one day in July it was time. The soft-spoken 24-year-old paid a smuggler about $800 to guide her over the Himalayas to what she hoped would be freedom and a better life. Her lace-up shoes were torn to shreds in the snowy passage. But if she was cold, she doesn’t remember. She was too terrified of being caught and beaten by Chinese security forces on the border. [Source: Annie Gowen, Washington Post, October 19, 2014 ***]

“On that day in July, Dolma prayed at the temple, ate dinner with her extended family and said goodbye to her parents on the doorstep. She knew she would never see them again. Though she was sad, she was ready to go.She carried no identifying papers in case she was caught. The only thing she took was a rosary, with four carved beads made from rubies, that had belonged to her mother. ***

“I miss her sometimes,” she said on a recent day, playing with the rosary at a table in a nearly empty hall at the reception center, after a simple lunch of Indian dal and tingmo, steamed Tibetan bread. A new life awaits, including classes at a small school nearby. She met the Dalai Lama, she said, and she’s still wondering if it was a dream.” ***

Number of Tibetans Fleeing to in India Shrinking

Annie Gowen wrote in the Washington Post, Once, more than 2,000 Tibetans a year made the dangerous crossing from China through Nepal to Dharmsala. But that number has fallen dramatically since 2008, with only about 100 arriving in 2014. Those who have escaped China describe increased restrictions on movement, more surveillance and a rising climate of fear. [Source: Annie Gowen, Washington Post, October 19, 2014 ***]

“Declining numbers of refugees are likely to have a profound effect on the Tibetan diaspora — with an estimated 120,000 living in India alone — who have relied on survivors and their first-hand accounts to help raise support for their cause in the West, experts say. The Tibetan Reception Center, a $1.4 million campus of dorm rooms, a medical clinic and landscaped gardens, sits on a rutted road in Dharmsala. The center was built to house 500 refugees when it was opened in 2011, its cheerful green and yellow buildings largely paid for by American taxpayers. These days, it is mostly empty. “It’s more or less like a ghost town,” said Tenzin Jigdal, an activist with the International Tibet Network. ***

China’s Crackdown on Tibetans Fleeing to in India

Annie Gowen wrote in the Washington Post, The Chinese have tightened the border between Tibet-China, Nepal “as part of a counterterrorism campaign launched this year in the wake of two violent terrorist attacks by extremist Uighurs, a Muslim minority, advocates say. The International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington advocacy group, says the Chinese have conducted two large-scale military drills in Tibet since May to prepare for “combat,” as well as training sessions for police stationed inside Buddhist monasteries. “China is attempting to project its unjustified crackdown in Tibet as ‘counterterrorism,’ ” said Matteo Mecacci, the group’s president. “It’s a dangerous path.” [Source: Annie Gowen, Washington Post, October 19, 2014 ***]

“The number of refugees crossing the border first began declining in 2008, when Tibet was engulfed in protests in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. Movement later grew more difficult after Nepal’s government began turning some back from the border to appease the Chinese, according to allegations in a report released this year by Human Rights Watch, which the Nepalese have denied. Typically, refugees from China end up at a transit center run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kathmandu before making their way to India. ***

“Jigme Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who arrived in Dharmsala in May, 2014 was first arrested by Chinese authorities in 2008 for his role in making a documentary about Tibet. He was beaten and tortured, then in and out of custody for years, escaping after his last arrest in 2012. He spent the next 18 months living in the hills on the run from police, begging for food from nomads, before making his way across the mountains on foot and motorcycle. “The repression is so overwhelming that people are burning themselves,” Gyatso said. “There isn’t a single day the Chinese are without guns. They could shoot us at any time.”

Sonam Rapgha, a Tibetan monk told AFP he was tortured daily over a three-week period by Chinese police after his arrest in 2012 for having the wrong visa in Chamdo region in Tibet where he travelled from India to visit his mother. “I thought I was going to die. Almost every day I fell unconscious from the beatings and I was scared,” he said. Rapgha, who now suffers from kidney disease, said police accused him of trying to spread disharmony in Tibet, before finally releasing him at the Nepal border. [Source: Agence France-Presse, June 5, 2014]

Tibetans in Switzerland

In the 1960s, after the Chinese invasion, a handful of Tibetans were allowed to seek refuge in Switzerland, where some of them suffered extreme culture shock. One Tibetan man became so obsessed with saving money for lama beads for his after-life that he ate nothing but onions and bread for three months. A Tibetan child who lost an eye after being gored by a yak was happy to be in place where he could get a glass eye. [Source: National Geographic]

Tibetans who were transplanted to Switzerland in the 1960s often hoarded their money at home because they could not comprehend the purpose of a bank. When the finally put their money in an account they marked the banknotes with X's. When they withdrew their money and found it didn't have X's on it they complained to the manager.

Image Sources: Nolls China website, Purdue University

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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