ITHACA, N.Y. — Hundreds gathered at the Namgyal Monastery on South Hill Friday for a ceremony to celebrate the opening of a new library and museum dedicated to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

Pine branches and incense smoldered in a massive metal brazier outside the new building, casting a fragrant cloud over the crowd. Well-wishers draped delicate silk sashes at the foot of a new statue depicting Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current dalai lama. 

Inside, volunteers welcomed attendees with milk tea and plates of sweet rice. A variety of books and writings by the Dalai Lama, and his predecessors, were available to peruse. Some of Tenzin Gyatso’s personal effects were also on display.

The library and museum are poised to make the Ithaca area a destination for the global Buddhist community. 

Since the 1990s, Ithaca has been home to a sizable community of Tibetan refugees — one of several in the United States. They are part of an ongoing exodus of ethnic Tibetans that began after China’s takeover of that country and exile of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959.

According to the U.S. Department of State, there is credible evidence of Chinese human rights abuses against ethnic Tibetans.

Shortly after the first wave of refugees arrived in Ithaca, the community opened a small monastery and theological institute in a house on North Aurora Street.

In 2007, when the monastery relocated to its current site, a 27 acre plot just south of Ithaca College, the Dalai Lama himself was on hand to celebrate. The Dalai Lama was not present in person Friday, but a large picture of the leader took center stage in the prayer hall on the second floor of the new building.

Dhondup Zurkhang came to Ithaca as a refugee in 1997. He recalls the 2007 celebration with pride.

“We never dreamed that we’d end up with the Namgyal Monastery here,” Zurkhang said, gesturing at the buildings along the hillside.

Though the setting has changed, Zurkhang said the monastery remains dedicated to education and culture, just as it did in the 1990s. 

“Every Sunday morning the monks and nuns taught Tibetan culture, Tibetan language to the children,” Zurkhang said.

Zurkhang said his granddaughter, now six, often attends the same weekend classes her parents once did.

Twenty-five year-old Tenzin Damdul also remembers attending classes here on the weekends. He said the monastery helped him keep hold of his heritage after moving to the U.S. at the age of 12.

“My mom and dad put me into these [cultural] situations and it helped me to be more active in our society,” Damdul said. “We had Tibetan dance every weekend, we did Tibet Day. So kids here are actually involved.”

Damdul was one of many who traveled to Ithaca for the celebration. He currently lives and attends college in New York City. And while he is not ready to settle down just yet, Damdul said that when he does, he’d like to return to Ithaca.

The Namgyal Monastery and library is open to all visitors regardless of religious belief. Opening celebrations for the library will run until Sept. 10. 

All photos are courtesy of Casey Martin for The Ithaca Voice. To navigate the gallery, use the arrows on either side of the picture.

Megan Zerez is a general assignment reporter at the Ithaca Voice. Reach her via email or social media @meganzerez