Cultural Education in the Himalayas, a Ladakhi Textbook, and the AIIS Tibetan Language Program

Patrick Dowd’s passion for the languages and cultures of the Himalayas didn’t end in the summer of 2013, after completing the AIIS intensive Tibetan language program in Dharamshala. Today, Patrick finds himself in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, where he is directing a project to oversee the writing, publication and distribution of a Bhoti (literary Tibetan/Ladakhi) language ethical education textbook, rooted in indigenous cultural values for children aged 10-12.

Patrick Dowd with Teacher

Patrick continued living among Himalayan Tibetan communities for two years after attending the AIIS program. He then pursued a master’s degree in international educational development from the University of Pennsylvania, where his graduate studies were supported by a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) grant to study Tibetan at an advanced level. He also received grants from the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) and Penn Global to conduct anthropological research and educational development work in Ladakh and eastern Tibet.

After competing his master’s degree, Patrick served as an intern in the educational division of UNESCO in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he focused on indigenous language revitalization in the Himalayan nation.

AIIS sat down with Patrick to discuss his current project in Ladakh and the impact of the Tibetan language program.

AIIS: What are the goals of your project to create a Ladakhi textbook?

PD: Recognizing an absence in the current Tibetan language children’s literature as well as the tremendous cultural changes affecting Ladakh, our project is the creation of a Ladakh-centric, culturally appropriate textbook to preserve the rich cultural heritage of Ladakh. Inspired by His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings on secular ethics and moral education, this project seeks to maintain and promulgate the unique heritage of Ladakh through the first textbook of its kind, presenting centuries-old values and traditions to youth using modern curricula developed specifically for them.

Through our project, we hope to not only make a significant contribution to the corpus of Tibetan language children’s literature but also to perpetuate the values of altruism, compassion and interdependence that have defined Ladakhi culture for generations.​

Our project is being overseen by a Board of Directors that includes Ladakhi educational specialists from Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian communities, the major religious traditions in Ladakh. Our team recognizes that the same ethical values underlie all of these these great religious traditions which all have a long history in Ladakh. By working across these communities, we seek to preserve the shared cultural heritage that all Ladakhis hold in common.

How did your experience with the AIIS Tibetan program prepare you for your current work? 

It is difficult to overstate the importance of my study with AIIS. Though prior to beginning the program I had Tibetan friends, knew the alphabet, and had basic conversational skills, my time studying with Gen Naga Tandar Sangye was my first deep immersion into Tibetan language and literature. I will never forget his reaction when I arrived to class on one of the first days carrying a spiral-bound notebook. He immediately interrogated me, “Why do you have this notebook? These pages are like toilet paper—meant to be torn out and thrown away. You are studying the language of the Kangyur and Tengyur (Buddhist canon); none of these letters are meant to be thrown away.”

It was Gen la who first showed me the reverence Tibetans have for their language, every syllable of which is considered mantra. It was he who taught me that if I needed to dispose of old notes, I should take them to be burned at the monastery rather than throw them away. He also taught me to never place a book on the ground, never step over a single letter, but respect every book and piece of writing as though it were your teacher.

I read my first Tibetan book under Gen Sangye’s guidance and now, four years later, I am directing a team of writers and illustrators here in Ladakh to produce a Tibetan textbook. And ever since that summer in 2013, I have never bought another spiral-bound notebook.

To what extent do you rely on the Tibetan language in your work?

Tibetan is indispensable and inseparable from my current project. None of my core team speaks English so all our communication is solely conducted in Tibetan. As their mother tongue is Ladakhi, Tibetan serves as our lingua franca. Furthermore, the book we are writing is itself entirely in Tibetan (or Bhoti, as written Tibetan is called here). So, the entire project is an exclusively Tibetan language endeavor, from A to Z, or Ka to A.

How does the current project fit into your future professional and academic goals?

Next year, I plan to begin a PhD in anthropology, keeping my geographical focus on Tibet and the Tibetic speaking Himalayas. Specifically, I will research the intersection of language revitalization, Buddhist revival, and ethno-national identity construction within the region. I aspire to continue wedding my scholarship with applied engagement with Tibetan and Himalayan communities, particularly in the field of language revitalization. Therefore, my hope is that this current book project will be the first in a graduated series, extending all the way to class 10. I am also optimistic that if our project here in Ladakh is successful, it can be used as a pilot for similar work elsewhere in the Himalayas.

I would like to again extend my gratitude to Gen Sangye, his lovely family, and everyone at AIIS. AIIS provided me with an incredible opportunity that fundamentally changed the course of my life. Admittedly, the course of events started by AIIS has led me to a general deprivation of oxygen, money and internet, but I would not have it any other way. Thank you again. Thugs rJe Che!

Keep up with Patrick’s endeavors in Ladakh on his blog.