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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Lives in Exile: A saga of strangers in a strange land

April 15, 2009

Spectrum (India)
Aril 14, 2009

March '09 marked 50 years of Tibetans in exile.
It was in 1959 that 300 Tibetan refugees sought
political asylum at Bylakuppe. Krishna Vattam who
visited the camp then, paints a picture of their lives.

"I imagined them as tragic figures symbolising
all the agonies that were inflicted upon their
land of birth by an aggressive nation. I had
pictured them as a dejected lot, devoid of hope
and ambition, having succumbed to destiny. But
this was not so. Although traces of misery have
not been wiped out completely and were
discernible to the critical eye, there was a glow of hope."

That was what I had observed on a visit to the
Tibetan Rehabilitation camp in Bylakuppe, fifty
miles from Mysore bordering Kushalanagar in Madikeri district, in 1960.

It was in March 1959, that the Dalai Lama with
the concurrent uprisings in Lhasa and Kham, fled
from Lhasa, crossed the Himalayas and came to
India with about 80,000 refugees to seek
political asylum. While a majority of them
remained in India, others went to Sikkim and
Bhutan. After a short spell of firm policy on
their rehabilitation, the Government of India
decided to accord asylum to the Dalai Lama and
this was conveyed to the Chinese Ambassador also in April 1959.

When the first batch arrived

The then prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru
wrote to the state’s chief minister of the time S
Nijalingappa to take up necessary steps to
accommodate these refugees in the state and the
first batch of 300 of them landed in Mysore by
train and were taken to Bylakuppe, where about
3000 acres of forest land , bordering Kodagu district was allotted .

As I read reports about the events the Tibetan
community in India were planning to mark the 50
years of   their exile by organising meetings in
all settlements in the country to thank India, I
was conjuring up in my mind the sequence of
events, right from the day they landed in Mysore,
their adapting to a new environment , their
perseverance and determination to shake off the
despondency and live as a thriving  community of re-settlers.

Settling in

The sweet strains of their exotic music that I
had heard on approaching their camp in the early
days of their habitation, still haunt me. It was
a song they sang as they cleared the  jungle to
reclaim the virgin land for cultivation and
living. The theme of the song was that "we live to work."

On seeing us they laid down their pick-axes to
greet us. It was a paradox one could not have
missed. A people originally from the icy climes
of Tibet now adapting to the warm weather of the Mysore region.

However, the climate of hospitality of the
government and the people of the country,
especially of those living on the periphery of
the camp, had facilitated these people to
acclimatise themselves. People who had not seen
pick-axes were handling them deftly , had begun
to learn Kannada and English. I  had experienced
a pleasant surprise to listen to the young,
chubby Tibetan children reciting numbers in Kannada.

Each family had been allotted five acres of land.
The Tibetans had to adapt to a change in food
habits too. Their traditional food was one made
of barley powder. But the cultivation of  barley
was not feasible here; so they substituted it
with maize and wheat. They popularised maize
cultivation and their native neighbours  followed suit.

Change has come to Bylakuppe

The face of Bylakuppe, which is the second
largest settlement in India, the first being in
Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, where the Dalai
Lama stays with about 20,000 of his men, has changed beyond recognition.

The settlement presents a perfect township,
accommodating about 18,000 people, who have in a
way graduated from the status of  refugees to re
settlers. The town planning implemented in phases
with infrastructural facilities to house the
schools, hospitals, banks, cooperatives and
shops, happily blends with the spiritual symbols
,which have emotionally bound the settlement with its lost home.

Bylakuppe has also become a pilgrim centre with
the location of the Buddhist viharas. The prime
attraction here has been Namdroling monastery.
The grand temple here has 60 foot tall statue of
Buddha, flanked by his two equally grand images,
which are all covered with gold plates.

The sweet strains of music I had heard on my
first visit to the camp fifty years ago, have
been replaced with chants of hymns in praise of
Buddha. Monks in their red robes (of 18,000
Tibetans in the two camps , there are 9,000 monks
and nuns) go about the town and outside freely
mixing with the Indian neighbours speaking in chaste Kannada.

Over the years, the settlement has seen the birth
of second and third generation Tibetans in exile,
brought up in an environment that has helped them
to retain their identity, preserve their culture,
religion, tradition and medicine. Most of the
first generation  of refugees have faded away and
the youth are all well educated, some of them graduates and post graduates.

With the settlement providing limited employment
opportunities, they have moved to various parts
of the country selling sweaters on roads.

In the initial years, they used to procure wool
from outside, knit them locally and sell finished
products. They now purchase the sweaters in bulk from Ludhiana .


According to Tashi Wangdu, the present
representative of the settlement, Tibetans,
barring a minority have not taken up Indian
citizenship. The hope I had observed five decades
ago in the first generation of settlers, I still
see in the second and third generations of
people, a hope kept alive by the Dalai Lama,
whose pictures continue to adorn the walls of their houses.

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