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Nepal: Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples

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, students explore issues of cultural change and preservation, religious revival, and [sub-]regional geopolitics. Students are 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 amongst 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
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; 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 kathmanduStudents 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 their time in Kathmandu, students live as part of a homestay family and attend lectures both at the program house and across the city. Students 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

Students receive intensive 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. Students wishing to pursue an Independent Study Project in Nepal or one of the many Nepali-speaking regions of the Indian Himalayas or Bhutan 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 students to test the tools and methods introduced alongside discussions on ethics and intercultural readings. Throughout the Field Methods and Ethics course, students work to plan and develop their research topics for their Independent Study Project. Students significantly advance their initial ideas, assumptions, and drafts, in close consultation with their academic director and learned colleagues.

Independent Study Project

Students spend the last month of the program working on an Independent Study Project (ISP) in which they 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.

Students can opt to carry out their 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 students to directly apply the concepts and skills of their experience-based learning in the Field Methods and Ethics course and their interdisciplinary coursework, while exploring a topic of particular significance to them individually.

ISP sample topic areas include:

  • Monastic universities for secular students from abroad: the case of the International Buddhist Academy in Tinshuli 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

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.

The Politics of Tibetan and Himalayan Borders – syllabus
(ASIA 3020 / 3 credits / 45 class 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.

Religious Change in Tibet and the Himalaya – syllabus
(ASIA 3010 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
This course explores religious preferences amongst 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 amongst 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.

Tibetan – syllabus
(TIBE 1000 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Beginning oral comprehension skills are emphasized, along with basic literacy. Formal classroom instruction in Tibetan language is 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 will 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
(ANTH 3500 / 3 credits / 45 class 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
(ISPR 3000 / 4 credits / 120 class hours)
Conducted in Tibetan and Himalayan communities in Nepal, in Dharamsala, India (where we have 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.

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

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

working in mountains in NepalTime 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 Bir, Darjeeling, Dharamsala, Kalimpong, Ladakh, or Mussorie

A high altitude trek is usually included in the program, which allows students to visit relatively isolated Tibetan (-oid/-ish) rural communities in the mountains. Comfortable hiking shoes and appropriate clothing is 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, students enjoy unique access to restricted regions during excursions. This access, in turn, allows for assignments which are "absolute firsts" in their own right.

Past achievements include:

  • PagodaFollowing 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 groundfloor of the tower which 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.

Isabelle Onians, PhD, Academic Director

Isabelle OniansIsabelle Onians received her doctorate in oriental studies from the University of Oxford (2002). She first came to Kathmandu in 1990 to work as a volunteer teacher in a Tibetan monastery school and returned in 1992–1993 to study Tibetan (and Sanskrit) at Tribhuvan University.

Isabelle’s own research and professional experience have always centered on the study of classical philosophical, religious, and literary texts. But her textual scholarship has been undertaken in the context of ongoing intense exposure to and interaction with contemporary cultures, people, politics, and landscapes, principally along the Himalayas, both to the north, in the Tibetan regions and neighboring areas, and in South Asia. It is in fact a noteworthy feature of the civilizations of both Tibet and the Indian subcontinent that their textual traditions continue to have a dynamic existence in the life of the individual and of society. Her dissertation examined a particular and infamous apparent paradox in historical Tantric Buddhism, using both Indian and Tibetan sources.

Isabelle has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at the Universities of Oxford and London and at Mahidol University in Bangkok. She has made research and lecturing trips to a large number of institutions across the world, including leading a Royal Geographical Society Oxford University expedition to the Tibetan plateau, in collaboration with the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences, Lhasa.

Hubert Decleer, Senior Faculty Advisor

hubert-decleerA Belgian national, Mr. Decleer 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. Mr. Decleer 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. He was the academic director for the Tibetan and Himalayan Studies program from its inception in the fall of 1987 until the spring of 2001.

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. For the last five years she has worked as a media researcher, 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 really mix with all kinds of Nepalese. Tenchoe la is currently pursuing her business studies master's. She has developed many travel websites for trips to Bhutan, Tibet, India, and Nepal. An animal lover and a Buddhist from her heart, 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.

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 for more than three years, 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 has also coordinated the Miss Tibet beauty pageant for the last 5 years and hosted the event twice. She completed her MA in history from Himachal University and has been working with the SIT Tibetan studies program 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
  • LhakpaTenzing Sherpa, Cook
  • Jangmu Sherpa, Housekeeper

Students on the Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples program enjoy a six-week urban homestay experience with a Tibetan family in Kathmandu. Students share daily activities with their host families and are frequently invited to larger family gatherings as well as cultural events and outings. Through the homestay, students 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.

Students 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."

Program Dates: Fall 2015

Program Start Date:  Aug 25, 2015

Program End Date:    Dec 7, 2015

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:   May 15, 2015


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: $15,960

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:$3,690

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, several days 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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