An art installation made of 20 tons of soil from Tibet has touched a deep emotional chord among Tibetan exiles, hundreds of whom lined up to walk across the mounds of soil Wednesday.
Monks chanted prayers as emotional Tibetans offered ceremonial scarves at the installation. Some elderly Tibetans kissed the soil from the land of their birth, before finally walking on it.
Contemporary artist Tenzing Rigdol spread the dirt on a stage on a basketball court in the northern Indian town of Dharmsala.
The Dalai Lama and the new prime minister in exile have both accepted it as genuine Tibetan soil. Rigdol says his method for getting it to Dharmsala will be revealed in a documentary in a few months.
For Tibetans living in exile for more than five decades, the installation has evoked strong nostalgia for a homeland to which they hope to return one day.
Rigdol, who has a degree in art from the University of Colorado, says the idea came to him when his father was dying and wished to go back to Tibet.
Rigdol realized that desire was shared by almost all Tibetans exiled from their homeland. The project, he said, was "no longer just about my father's aspirations."
The nostalgic pull was evident even among young Tibetans as they picked up fistfuls of soil at the installation.
"I cannot describe my emotions as I touched the soil. I suddenly became emotional when I saw others walking on it and felt connected to a land I have never seen," said Tenzin Lhawang, a school librarian who was born in India.
Rigdol offered a tray of the soil to the Dalai Lama, who wrote the word "Tibet" in the Tibetan language on it.
"Tenzing Rigdol has brought Tibet to us," said Lobsang Sangay, the newly elected prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile.
"My idea was that the project in this interactive form could be a sort of re-connection to the land that many have left behind or have never seen," said Rigdol.
"If merely walking on Tibetan soil here generates such an emotional response, how would it be to walk on Tibetan soil in Tibet," he said.
The Dalai Lama fled fled to India amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. The Indian government allowed him to establish the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharmsala, setting up schools, hospitals and housing there.