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A Life: Kesang Tashi; ‘He wanted to keep the tradition alive’

  • Kesang Tashi checks on the quality of handmade rugs with weavers at his weaving center in Lhasa, capital of Tibet, during one of his many trips to his homeland in the early 2000s. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Kesang Tashi, owner of InnerSanctuary in Bridgewater, Vt., in front of one of the Tibetan rugs his company makes on Jan. 27, 2005. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Kesang Tashi, or Tashi as he was known to family and friends, meets with rug weavers during a trip to Tibet in the 1980s. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Valley News Columnist
Published: 9/19/2021 9:25:49 PM
Modified: 9/19/2021 9:25:51 PM

HANOVER — To the casual acquaintance, Kesang Tashi was simply a shopkeeper who sold imported rugs — pricey ones, at that — for a number of years out of a store on Hanover’s Main Street and most recently his gallery at Pompanoosuc Mills in Thetford.

But family and friends knew there was much more to the “mountain boy from Tibet,” as Tashi described himself. The obstacles he overcame, the people he helped and details of the journey that brought him to Hanover, 7,500 miles from his homeland, is a story that deserves telling.

Born in the “Land of Snow,” Tashi was the oldest son of a large merchant family. The family business — a trading house — played an integral role in the “Tea Horse Caravan,” a 1,400-mile mountain trek with pack mules that for centuries connected Tibet and China. Tibetan horses, known for their endurance and speed, were dealt for bricks of Chinese tea.

Tashi was still a boy when the Communist Party gained power in China. In 1950, the Chinese sent thousands of troops into Tibet, taking its isolated, Buddhist neighbor to the south by force.

Within a few years, the Chinese had “introduced policies that put my family in grave danger,” Tashi wrote on his blog last September. “My father’s only sin had been the dream of providing his young family a life free from political persecution and a decent education for their future.”

When Tashi was 10, “under the dim light of night,” he wrote, “my father plotted our escape route via the Tea Horse Caravan.”

Muleteers, or “mountain sailors” as they were known, guided Tashi’s family over 600 miles of mountainous terrain from eastern Tibet to northern India. The 120-mule caravan carried “loads of precious valuables and brick tea that sustained so much of Tibetan life,” wrote Tashi, a devout Buddhist.

After the family resettled, Tashi’s parents enrolled him in a British-style boarding school in Kalimpong, India, where he learned English. (Everyone who knew Tashi called him by his second name.) After graduating, Tashi worked as a translator for the Tibetan government-in-exile based in northern India.

Around that time, he met a Dartmouth graduate, who worked for a U.S. nonprofit in that part of the world. The alumnus told him about a new scholarship program aimed at attracting foreign students to Hanover.

With the benefit of a scholarship funded by the Class of 1956, Tashi became the first Tibetan to attend Dartmouth.

When he arrived in the U.S., “he knew nothing about this country,” said Kathy Harvard, a longtime friend and vice president of marketing and sales at InnerAsia, which does much of its business online.

But after the camping trip for incoming Dartmouth students, “Tashi felt at home right away because of the mountains,” said his future wife, Tsedan. And although his English was “impeccable,” said anthropogy professor Hoyt Alverson, Tashi still had reason to doubt his decision to leave India.

Tashi hadn’t been at Dartmouth long when he received word that his father had died. While he couldn’t be part of his younger siblings’ daily lives, Tashi made sure they had the same educational opportunities that he had. Five siblings attended U.S. colleges, including his brother Tsering who followed him to Dartmouth.

Another brother, Kesang Tseten, graduated from Amherst College. (In Tibetan culture, it’s not unusual for siblings to share first names and have different second names.) In a video tribute that he put together, Tseten, now a filmmaker living in Switzerland, said his brother became a “father-type to us. He opened the vista of America to us.”

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1970, Tashi earned a master’s degree in cultural anthropology and Buddhist studies from the University of Wisconsin. From there, he embarked on a career in international banking in New York. But he was a social entrepreneur at heart.

During a visit to Tibet in the early 1980s, Tashi stopped at a crafts market where rugs were sold. He was dismayed at their poor quality.

For centuries, Tibetan weavers and dye masters had created some of the world’s finest handmade rugs from the wool of sheep raised in the cold climates on the “roof of the world.”

Following the Chinese invasion in 1950, however, many weavers had fled the country. The political turmoil made it difficult for Tibetans to “continue practicing their craft or train the next generation of weavers,” said Harvard, who has a master’s degree in Tibetan studies and worked for the United Nations in neighboring Nepal.

“Tashi not only wanted to create beautiful rugs, but also keep the tradition alive,” Harvard said. “He devoted himself to revitalizing and growing Tibet’s centuries-old weaving tradition.”

To that end, Tashi established a weaving center in the capital city of Lhasa that continues to offer meaningful jobs to Tibetans.

Recruiting rugmakers was only part of the challenge. Since the 1950s, Tibet has been governed as an autonomous region of China. More than half of the 13 million people living in Tibet are Chinese.

“It was very challenging for a Tibetan with an American passport to do business in China, but he succeeded,” said Sienna Craig, a Dartmouth anthropology professor who has conducted research and traveled in the Himalayas for nearly 30 years.

It helped that he spoke fluent Chinese and four other languages. His ability to “speak directly to people in their own language allowed him to build bridges,” said Craig, who met Tashi during a public talk she gave in 2005 while interviewing for a Dartmouth faculty position.

Tashi made several business trips a year to Tibet. On one trip in 1992, he sat alone in a hotel restaurant when a stranger approached. With no tables available in the small dining area, she asked if it would be OK for her to join him.

“Sure,” Tashi replied.

That’s how Tashi and Tsedan met. Tsedan, who is also Tibetan, was moved by how after living abroad since he was a boy that Tashi remained committed to his homeland.

“His whole life, he wanted to do something for Tibetans,” said Tsedan, a biotech researcher with a Ph.D. “That was his mission.”

An instant friendship developed into a long-distance relationship. Four years later, they married.

In the early 2000s, while living in New York with a young daughter, Pema, and son, Tenzin, the couple made a “quality of life move” to Hanover.

Tashi opened his downtown shop and joined the Rotary club. In 2011, Craig told him about a Tibetan student who had recently arrived at Dartmouth.

Tshomokyi (her full name in Tibetan culture) hadn’t been at Dartmouth for long before Tashi began inviting her to his family’s home on weekends for Tibetan meals.

Whether it was choosing a major or starting a small business in her Tibetan village, which she did after graduating from Dartmouth in 2015, “I always turned to Tashi for advice,” she wrote for a Zoom remembrance service that Tashi’s family and friends held in July.

To make sure Tshomokyi could pass the “swim test” the college requires in physical education class to graduate, “he kindly helped to set up a swimming lesson for me,” she said.

With Tsedan getting a new job in the Boston area, she and Tashi moved to Wakefield, Mass., in 2020. Tashi continued to run InnerAsia in Thetford.

Last fall, Tashi was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died on May 18.

A week before his death at age 77, Tashi posted a story about his grandfather on his blog. In the 1920s, Tashi’s grandfather had persuaded his business rivals who “normally could barely be in the same room together” to put aside their differences to open a tea factory. It became the first Tibetan-owned tea factory in China.

“At his core, Tashi was Tibetan,” Craig said. “He saw the beauty and the value of his culture. He would never want to forget where he came from.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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