Nepal | Study Abroad | Tibet | Himalaya | Buddhism | Tibetan Language

Nepal: Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples

Examine Tibetan and Himalayan politics and religion and the contemporary issues faced by communities in exile, particularly in the case of Tibet.

Through the thematic lectures and fieldwork of this program, you will explore issues of cultural change and preservation, religious revival, and [sub-]regional geopolitics. You will be challenged to consider the contemporary and historic connections between diverse Himalayan “landlinked” communities. Questions of self-identification and recognition, as well as of diaspora, exile, and migration, are important topics for analysis in this program.

Major topics of study include:

  • Varieties of beliefs and practices among different groups of Himalayan people
  • The politics inherent in processes of everyday life in an exile community
  • Aspects of contemporary Tibetan civilization
  • History and politics of the region
  • Himalayan arts and sciences

Meet the program’s academic director (Isabelle is on leave for fall 2016).

I was incredibly honored when my ISP was recognized by the National Trust for Nature Conservation in Nepal. It gives me renewed confidence that the research we do can accomplish something.

Sierra Gladfelter, Temple University

SIT Students with the dalai lamaThe Nepal: Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples program examines the myriad factors — including historical, religious, economic, and political forces — that have shaped, and will continue to shape, the diverse Himalayan communities inhabiting Nepal, northern India, Bhutan, and the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan zones in China. Particular emphasis is placed on societies with Tibetan/Himalayan Buddhist cultures.

Lectures and discussions on this program, provided both in Kathmandu and on excursion, incorporate the following topics:

  • Regional History and Politics including twentieth-century occupation and exile; CIA intervention in Tibet from Nepal; the Dalai Lama and his Middle Way approach; negotiations with China; human rights in Tibet; Nepalese civil war (1996–2006, Maoist “People’s War”) and the writing of the new (2008) Federal Democratic Republic’s representative Constitution; Bhutanese democracy and GNH (gross national happiness)
  • Buddhism Across the Himalayas including philosophical debate; the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism; Newar and Theravadin Buddhist traditions in Nepal; religious tourism and pilgrimage; meditation and retreat
  • Contemporary Tibetan Civilization including an overview of women's issues in exile; the new Tibetan dream of going to the West; nongovernmental organizations; democracy in exile; monastic versus modern education; the burgeoning Tibetanization of Himalayan cultures
  • Cultural Anthropology including social structures and the tradition of the masked dances of the Tantric deities in Tibetan exile and rural Himalayan communities
  • Arts and Sciences including Tibetan medicine and astrology; Tibetan thangka painting; Buddhist symbolism and art; Himalayan secular music

In-country resources include:

Resources in the region include:

In Dharamsala: 

In Ladakh:

In Sikkim:

In Bhutan:

Kathmandu (Program Base)

program house in kathmandu

You will spend the first six weeks of the program living in Kathmandu, Nepal's crowded political and cultural capital, and home to a significant Tibetan exile community.

During your time in Kathmandu, you will live as part of a homestay family and attend lectures both at the program house and across the city. You may experience a discussion on the Bön religion at a respected institute halfway up a mountain on the valley’s periphery, hear a lecture delivered by a traditional Ayurvedic doctor in the heart of the old town, or talk with the caretaker of one of Kathmandu's ancient pagoda shrines.

The Kathmandu base facilitates exploration of Tibetan and related groups living in high altitude mountain settlements elsewhere in Nepal and beyond.

Tibetan Language Study

You will receive language instruction in Tibetan during the program period in Kathmandu. Formal classroom instruction in Tibetan is complemented by traditional Tibetan tutorials that are characteristic of spiritual training in Buddhist text recitation and analysis. Less formal instruction is also provided during educational excursions. If you wish to pursue an Independent Study Project in Nepal or one of the many Nepali-speaking regions of the Indian Himalayas or Bhutan, you also have the option of learning functional Nepali.

Field Methods and Ethics

fieldworkThe Field Methods and Ethics course focuses on cross-cultural and experiential learning. Content includes:

  • Cross-cultural adaptation and skills building
  • Appropriate methodologies
  • Field study ethics and the World Learning / SIT Human Subjects Review Policy
  • Developing contacts and finding resources
  • Developing skills in observation and interviewing
  • Gathering, organizing, and communicating data
  • Maintaining a work journal
  • Twentieth-century ethnography

Assignments permit you to test the tools and methods introduced alongside discussions on ethics and intercultural readings. Throughout the Field Methods and Ethics course, you will work to plan and develop your research topic for your Independent Study Project. You will significantly advance your initial ideas, assumptions, and drafts, in close consultation with your academic director and learned colleagues. A core component of the program is working closely with local peer research collaborators doing fieldwork and on excursion. These Tibetan and Himalayan youth will not only assist you in understanding the cultural, religious, and political conditions of the particular area of study, but have their own assumptions challenged by your questions. 

Independent Study Project

You will spend the last month of the program working on an Independent Study Project (ISP) in which you will conduct primary research on a selected topic. Projects are sited in Tibetan and Himalayan communities in Nepal or another approved location appropriate to the project.

You can opt to carry out your ISP research in Dharamsala or another approved location in India. The program maintains a branch base in Dharamsala with a library and IT resources. A highly experienced staff member is based on site to facilitate student ISPs.

The ISP allows you to directly apply the concepts and skills of your experience-based learning in the Field Methods and Ethics course and your interdisciplinary coursework, while exploring a topic of particular significance to you individually.

ISP sample topic areas include:

  • Monastic universities for secular students from abroad: the case of the International Buddhist Academy in Tinchuli and its strong contingent of Chinese and Korean disciples
  • Sherpa mountaineering encounters with the World Wildlife Fund, in Nepal and elsewhere in the Eastern Himalayas
  • The politics of lavish sponsorship: a California-based Tibetan foundation renovating the Newar Buddhist hill shrine of Swayambhu
  • HH the 17th Karmapa's daring reforms and his manifesto in favor of a vegetarian diet and environmental preservation
  • The Mind and Life Conferences: Buddhism as a "science of mind and mental transformation" encounters neuroscience and cognitive psychology
  • No longer mindless copying: original grand commissions for alumni at the Thangka Painting School, Shechen Gompa
  • Buddhist art for sale: the semi-antique business and the emergence of a "first class fakes" industry
  • Bön: the pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion and its first generation of Western disciples
  • Options for Tibetan Muslims in exile

Access virtual library guide.

Browse this program's Independent Study Projects / undergraduate research.

This interdisciplinary program balances an overview of traditional Tibetan civilization, emphasizing political and religious — Buddhist — history, with the analysis of some of the most pressing contemporary issues in exile, as well as in Tibet and other Himalayan communities. Students learn appropriate field methodology through the Field Methods and Ethics course, ultimately equipping them for their Independent Study Project. Language instruction provides students with a basic understanding of Tibetan and a direct entry into the culture’s concepts.

Links to syllabi below are from current and forthcoming courses offered on this program. Because courses develop and change over time to take advantage of dynamic learning opportunities, actual course content will vary from term to term.

The syllabi can be useful for students, faculty, and study abroad offices in assessing credit transfer. Read more about credit transfer.

Religious Change in Tibet and the Himalaya – syllabus
(ASIA3010 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
This course explores religious preferences among Himalayan peoples in the midst of the region’s colorful diversity. Tibetan Buddhism is examined in relation to the broader Tibetan(-oid/-ish) cultural sphere and civilization, incorporating but not limited to the realms of politics (including the “Tibet issue”) and of ritual. The course goes beyond the typical focus on Himalayan culture in terms exclusively of a core Tibetan Buddhism. Instead, students investigate varieties of beliefs and practices among different groups of people, e.g., other Buddhism(s) such as that of the Newars, the sole surviving continuous tradition of Indian Buddhism; Indian tantra; Hinduism in the Kathmandu Valley; Islam in Tibet and South Asia; and Bön and pre-Buddhist Himalayan traditions. Furthermore, the course assesses how emerging systems such as secularism and spiritual materialism, whether or not sprung from Communist ideologies, also play determining roles across the region.
The Politics of Tibetan and Himalayan Borders – syllabus
(ASIA3020 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
This course traces Tibetan history from current political dynamics back to ancient times. The course challenges the prevalent analysis of Tibetan(-oid/-ish) politics synchronically and in emic terms, disconnected from change, larger dynamics, and regional events. Individual political systems are examined, such as the Tibetan government in exile and the birth throes of the projected Nepalese constitution. This course also examines the politics inherent in processes of everyday life in an exile community, covering themes such as individual articulations of identity as well as the politics of language and of religious practice. Students examine politics on the geopolitical scale, including the significance of various regions in the Himalayas as well as the maneuvering between Asia’s giants, India and China. Through examination of current conditions in Tibet, students are asked to reflect on and reconceptualize ideas of power, autonomy, authority, and vulnerability on individual, group, and state levels.
Tibetan – syllabus
(TIBE1000 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
Beginning oral comprehension skills are emphasized, along with basic literacy. Formal classroom instruction plus one-on-one sessions with a language partner in Tibetan language are given daily during the program period in Kathmandu, with less formal instruction while on excursion. Optional Nepali language instruction is always provided, not least since students often wish to pursue Independent Study Projects in Nepali-speaking areas (much of the Himalayas including Sikkim/Darjeeling and Bhutan).
Field Methods and Ethics – syllabus
(ANTH3500 / 3 credits / 45 hours)
A course in the concepts of learning across cultures and from field experience. Introduction to the Independent Study Project. Material includes cross-cultural adaptation and skills building; project selection and refinement; appropriate methodologies; field study ethics and the World Learning / SIT Human Subjects Review Policy; developing contacts and finding resources; developing skills in observation and interviewing; gathering, organizing, and communicating data; maintaining a work journal; and twentieth-century ethnography.
Independent Study Project – syllabus
(ISPR3000 / 4 credits / 120 hours)
Conducted in Tibetan and Himalayan communities in Nepal, in Dharamsala, India (where there is a branch SIT program center and resident program assistant), or in another approved location appropriate to the project (including Bhutan when the semester’s excursion is to Bhutan). Sample topic areas: the politics of language and education in Tibetan communities; reflections from former political prisoners; youth identity in the Tibetan diaspora; traditional Tibetan medicine; the reemergence of the Bön tradition; Tibetan Muslims; traditional arts (with apprenticeship) in Bhutan; the economics of the Tibetan carpet industry in Nepal; the economy of Sherpas and mountaineering tourism; critical thinking in Bhutan’s education system; a case study of a traditional Buddhist college; nuns and Tibetan female mystics; the changing status of women in Buddhist monastic life; migration and Tibetan exile settlements.

Please note that in order to take advantage of dynamic learning opportunities, program excursions may occasionally vary.

Time outside the program base exploring different Tibetan communities in diverse geographical and cultural contexts is a major component of the Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples program. Excursions vary from semester to semester but may include visiting some of the following locations:

  • The Tibetan Autonomous Region in the People's Republic of China (conditions permitting)
  • Tibetan(-oid/-ish) communities in Nepal outside the Kathmandu Valley such as Pokhara or Solu Khumbu
  • Tibetan settlements in India such as BirDarjeeling,DharamsalaKalimpongLadakh, or Mussorie

A high altitude trek is usually included in the program. This allows you to visit relatively isolated Tibetan(-oid/-ish) rural communities in the mountains. Comfortable hiking shoes and appropriate clothing are strongly recommended on this physically strenuous trek. Top-quality, high-altitude sleeping bags can be rented or purchased at affordable prices in local trekking shops in Kathmandu.

Through SIT's well-established regional networks, you will enjoy unique access to restricted regions during excursions. This access, in turn, allows for assignments which are "absolute firsts" in their own right.

PagodaPast achievements include:

  • Following a visit to Kya-nak-tsa in the Gungthang area, an SIT student group returned with photographs of Milarepa's birthplace (including the ruins of the “eight pillars, four beams" mansion and the triangular field saved from the hailstorm); these photographs appear to have been the first ever.
  • During a visit to the Protector Room (Gön-khang), SIT students obtained photographs depicting the wrathful protectors on the ground floor of the tower that Tibet's most famous saint built for his severe Guru, Marpa the Translator. When copies were offered to the several hierarchs of the Kagyü order, they were delighted. No one had ever seen photographs of these holy spots.

Hubert Decleer, Interim Academic Director

hubert-decleerA Belgian national, Hubert Decleer founded the Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples program in the spring of 1987 and has been the Academic Director from that time until the spring of 2001. He received his MA in oriental philosophy and history from the University of Louvain, Belgium, and his BA in history and European literature from the Regent School in Ghent. He has pursued classical Tibetan and Buddhist studies under a number of tutors in Kathmandu. Hubert’s particular research achievements are the identification of longstanding Tibetan traditions embedded in the Kathmandu and Nepal religious landscape, largely forgotten, and only recovered through close investigation of textual passages in the context of today’s geography. He has worked as a fine arts apprentice, art critic, language instructor, and translator and has lectured for the SIT Nepal: Development and Social Change program.

YonnettiEben Yonnetti, Interim Assistant Academic Director

First journeying to Asia as a student on this very program, Eben Yonnetti has lived and studied in Tibetan and Himalayan communities across India, Nepal, Bhutan, and China. With his background in history and religious studies, Eben’s research focus is on the contemporary global transmission and translation of Tibetan Buddhism, especially its transnational and translinguistic dissemination. He has studied the propagation of Tibetan Buddhism in Europe and North America and is increasingly interested in its growing prevalence among “Chinese” peoples in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and China. His graduate studies at the University of Colorado Boulder have focused on the first cross-cultural Tibetan Buddhist ritual of the contemporary period, particular to the Shambhala communities. Eben was a program coordinator and teaching assistant on this program in 2013–2014 and has taught in China and in the US, including at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Matthew Akester, Lecturer and Faculty Advisor

Matthew AkesterMatthew is a translator of classical and modern literary Tibetan with 25 years of fieldwork experience as an independent researcher throughout the Tibetan world. His discipline is history, both religious and political history, which corresponds with the program’s double specialization. Matthew's special interests include the history of Lhasa, the life and times of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, historical geography of central Tibet, and history and memoir in occupied Tibet. His published book-length translations include The Life of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo by Jamgon Kongtrul (Shechen Publications, 2012); Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule by Tubten Khetsun (Columbia University Press, 2008, Penguin India, 2009); and The Temples of Lhasa (with Andre Alexander, Serindia Publications, 2005). In addition, he has worked as active consultant and contributor for the Tibet Information Network, Human Rights Watch, Tibet Heritage Fund, and Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center; as translator, editor, and advisor for countless publications on Tibet in English, French, and Tibetan; and as lecturer on contemporary Tibet for student programs including SIT in Nepal and India.

Tenzin Choezom (“Tenchoe”), Program Assistant

TenchoeTenchoe la was born and raised in Bouddha, the "little Tibet" in Kathmandu, Nepal. This is her third year with SIT. Before joining SIT, she worked as a media researcher for five years, interviewing Tibetans coming from Tibet about their use of foreign media and about the restrictions on and impact of foreign media within Tibet. She also transcribed the interviews and translated them into English. Tenchoe la did her schooling from Srongtsen School and Namgyal Higher Secondary School, the two prime Tibetan schools in Kathmandu. Her bachelor's degree is in computer application from Kathmandu College, a branch of Purbanchal University, Biratnagar. There, she got the chance to emerge from her close-knit Tibetan community and mix with all kinds of Nepalese. She has developed many travel websites for trips to Bhutan, Tibet, India, and Nepal. An animal lover and a Buddhist, she takes enormous interest in Buddhist philosophy and dialectics. She is deeply connected to her Tibetan roots and keeps herself updated on everything concerning Tibet, Tibetan issues, and Tibetans.

Nyima Dorjee Bhotia, Program Coordinator

Nyima Dorjee Bhotia (“Dorjee”) always dreamt of becoming an international trader from his early childhood in the very high mountains in the far northeast of Nepal, in Walung (Olangchung Gola), at the intersection of Nepalese, Tibetan/Chinese and Indian borders. His worldview was transformed when he crossed to the Indian town of Kalimpong to a Tibetan school. Although unsure what he wanted to do, he was certain he wanted to do something different from his father. After studying humanities in high school, Dorjee majored in history at college in Delhi. Since then and during his postgraduate years at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, his interests have tended toward social research. He is intent on studying and documenting Nepal’s Himalayan borderland communities ethnographically, e.g., in his collaborative research project Moving in, moving out, moving up. Social and physical mobility in Walung, Upper Tamor, Nepal, in order to gain a better understanding of how marginal communities situated at the frontiers of Nepal negotiate changing dynamics within the nation state and the global sphere. Dorjee is also passionate about the arts and photography and incorporates the visual into his professional research.

Pasang Rinzi Sherpa, Office and Finance Manager

Rinzi was born in Solukhumbhu, the Everest (Sagarmatha/Chomolangma) region, east of Kathmandu, settled by “easterners” (“Sherpa”) from Tibet an uncertain number of centuries ago. He came to Kathmandu at the age of three and did his schooling at Daleki Secondary School (an extraordinary institution, the subject of a recent motion picture). He has been with SIT since 2009, where, besides handling the finances, he ensures the proper functioning of the program house under the academic director. He acts as right hand to the academic director, and his name “Rinzi” is used as synonymous with “amazing” by the students.

Tenzin Youdon, Dharamsala Office Program Assistant

Tenzin YoudonTenzin la was born and raised in Dharamsala, India, and has been working with SIT students ever since she can remember: her family has hosted SIT students for over 15 years. She went to TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village) for school and then graduated with a BA in English literature from Delhi University. After working briefly in the Indian capital, she participated in different research programs in Dharamsala, such as Professor Melvyn Goldstein's Oral History Project. Tenzin also coordinated the Miss Tibet beauty pageant for five years and hosted the event twice. She completed her MA in history from Himachal University and has been working with SIT as program assistant since spring 2007.

The SIT Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples program is also lucky to be supported by the following individuals:

  • Ang Nima Sherpa, House Manager
  • Rajeev Shrestha, Cook
  • Nima Nurbu Sherpa, Assistant Cook
  • Manu Tamang, Housekeeper

You will enjoy a six-week urban homestay experience with a Tibetan family in Kathmandu. You will share daily activities with your host family and will frequently be invited to larger family gatherings as well as cultural events and outings. Through the homestay, you will have an opportunity to practice language skills at the same time as learning local manners, customs, and traditions. The homestay is often considered one of the highlights of the program, and students usually become very close with their homestay family.

You will also stay in rural high-altitude homestays while on excursion, for a few days at a time.

Other accommodations during the program include guest houses, hostels, educational institutions, and/or small hotels. The group may do some camping while on Himalayan trek.

In the words of the program's senior faculty advisor and Tibetan scholar Hubert Decleer:

"The homestay is the sort of formidable challenge where students are likely to commit most of their early, highly un-Tibetan blunders and, at times, students may feel they're systematically 'putting their foot in it' (mettre les pieds dans le plat). These are the episodes that two months later will make the host families laugh the hardest (‘You know what our student did? He couldn't resist any longer and ate the biscuits from the altar offerings!’), with students quite likely to join in. Learning how to be utterly respectful and at ease, with a light touch and a sense of humor, is the trick and what the homestay ultimately entails.

"Homestay families are likely to take students in tow to major events, whether public or involving the extended family. Almost by osmosis, students pick up a number of good habits, which may become second-nature long before students realize it, but which people in Kyirong, Khumbu, or Shey Gompa recognize at a glance and highly appreciate.

"The homestay is a great experience, for many unforgettable, causing tears at parting time. The contacts between students and their host families in some cases have been maintained for more than twenty years."

A diversity of students representing different colleges, universities, and majors study abroad on this program. Many of them have gone on to do amazing things that connect back to their experience abroad with SIT. Learn what some of them are now doing.

Recent positions held by alumni of this program include:

  • Africa Correspondent, TIME magazine
  • Senior Director, Asia Programs, World Wildlife Fund, Washington, DC
  • LGBT Rights Researcher, Human Rights Watch, Berlin, Germany
  • Co-Founder and Volunteer Coordinator, Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, Ladakh, India
  • Scholar of Buddhism in Tibet and the Himalaya and Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

We are pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 SIT Study Abroad Undergraduate Research Award. These two students were chosen from a very competitive pool of 25 nominations drawn from more than 2,000 Independent Study Projects (ISP) completed over the past three semesters. Both will be nominated for the Forum on Education Abroad award for Academic Achievement Abroad. The SIT winners are:

  • Katherine Hirsch (Tufts University) for “A Critical Analysis of the Public Sphere: How the LGBTQ Movement Occupies and Utilizes Space in Morocco,” written on the Morocco:  Multiculturalism and Human Rights program in spring 2016. The work examines the ways LGBTQ individuals and organizations deploy public spaces in their resistance to a system that sidelines and represses sexual difference. “Her ISP is exemplary for a study abroad research endeavor,” writes program Academic Director Taieb Belghazi.
  • Henry Wilson-Smith (Stanford University) for “More Religious and Less Moral: The Changing Face of Religious Coexistence in Ladakh,” completed in fall 2015 on the program Nepal: Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples. Academic Director Isabelle Onians writes, “This is a brilliant piece of work with a plethora of original data presented with impartiality, a sense of nuance and consummate art.”

Program Dates: Fall 2016

Program Arrival Date:  Aug 30, 2016

Program Departure Date:    Dec 12, 2016

The dates listed above are subject to change. Please note that travel to and from the program site may span a period of more than one day.

Student applications to this program will be reviewed on a rolling basis between the opening date and the deadline.

Application Deadline:   Jun 1, 2016


SIT Pell Grant Match Award. SIT Study Abroad provides matching grants to all students receiving Federal Pell Grant funding; this award can be applied to any SIT semester program. View all SIT Study Abroad scholarships.

Tuition: $16,070

The tuition fee covers the following program components:

  • Cost of all lecturers who provide instruction to students in:
    • History and politics
    • Buddhism across the Himalayas
    • Contemporary Tibetan culture
    • Cultural anthropology
    • Arts and sciences
  • Field Methods and Ethics course on research methods and Human Subjects Review
  • Intensive language instruction in Tibetan
  • All educational excursions to locations such as: Nepal, visiting Tibetan communities (Pokhara, Solu Khumbu) and/or Himalayan peoples (Mustang, Tsum, Yolmo); India, to Ladakh, Spiti, Dharamsala, or Sikkim/Darjeeling; and/or to the Kingdom of Bhutan, including all related travel costs
  • Independent Study Project (including a stipend for accommodation and food)
  • Health insurance throughout the entire program period

Room & Board: $3,805

The room and board fee covers the following program components:

  • All accommodations during the entire program period. This includes during orientation, time in the program base (Kathmandu), on all excursions, during the Independent Study Project, and during the final evaluation period. Accommodation is covered either by SIT Study Abroad directly, through a stipend provided to each student, or through the homestay.
  • Homestays (six weeks in Kathmandu, two to four weeks in a rural village)
  • All meals for the entire program period. Meals are covered either by SIT Study Abroad directly, through a stipend provided to each student, or through the homestay.

Estimated Additional Costs:

International Airfare to Program Launch Site

International airline pricing can vary greatly due to the volatility of airline industry pricing, flight availability, and specific flexibility/restrictions on the type of ticket purchased. Students may choose to take advantage of frequent flyer or other airline awards available to them, which could significantly lower their travel costs.

Visa Expenses: $ 411

Immunizations: Varies

Books & Supplies: $ 140

International Phone: Each student must have a phone in each country. Cost varies according to personal preferences, phone plans, data plans, etc.

Discretionary Expenses

Personal expenses during the program vary based on individual spending habits and budgets. While all meals and accommodations are covered in the room and board fee, incidentals and personal transportation costs differ depending on the non-program-related interests and pursuits of each student. To learn more about personal budgeting, we recommend speaking with alumni who participated in a program in your region. See a full list of our alumni contacts. Please note that free time to pursue non-program-related activities is limited.

Please Note: Fees and additional expenses are based on all known circumstances at the time of calculation. Due to the unique nature of our programs and the economics of host countries, SIT reserves the right to change its fees or additional expenses without notice.


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