How Tibetans in Karnataka’s Dhondenling put down roots in refuge
The lush home gardens in India’s southernmost Tibetan refugee settlement tell stories tracing 50 years of exile
"Anything will grow in this place. That's what I've noticed," Dawa Dhondup said as he sat in front of his green-and-white-painted one-storey house on a sunny morning last September. "In my garden, you'll find papaya, orange, custard apple, guava, jackfruit, avocado …" He continued reciting the list in his head. "Altogether, I have about 12 or 14 varieties of fruit trees." Some, like the banana tree, were planted many years ago, while others, like the waist-high pomegranate bush and a grafted mango tree, he added recently. In a few years, they will have grown tall and will overshadow the vegetable and flower beds that Dhondup has also laid out in his garden. "Then it'll be nice to walk underneath," he imagined.
Dhondup and his neighbours have cultivated an astounding variety of fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs in their home gardens in Dhondenling, a Tibetan refugee settlement in rural southern Karnataka, at the foot of the Biligiriranga Hills. Dhondenling is surrounded by a dense shola forest, a part of which was carved out to build the settlement. Established in 1974, Dhondenling is approaching its 50th anniversary, to be marked with a multi-day celebration in 2024. It will also mark 65 years after the 14th Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers fled Tibet, in 1959. Since its foundation, the settlement – called "Mini Swiss" by its inhabitants because of its scenic location – has undergone remarkable development, reflected in its roads, monasteries, health and educational facilities, and also in the way people have laid out their homes and gardens.
While not every garden is as diverse as Dhondup's, there is hardly a yard that does not have at least a couple of fruit trees, or a house without a few pots of marigolds or snake plants, or a gate not framed by white or bright pink bougainvillea. The gardens of Dhondenling tell a story of change – of arrival and of making a place one's own, of negotiating adaptation and preservation, of learning and exchange, of shifting livelihoods and resilience. Over the years, the settlement's gardeners have retained the hope of one day returning to pha-yul – the Tibetan homeland – but have accepted that Dhondenling will be home for the time being. As the years in exile have gone by, people have planted more and more trees and other perennial plants – some from single fruit stones, others from seeds or saplings – as they have literally and figuratively put down roots.
The early years
Dhondenling is one of 40 settlements, called shichak in Tibetan, across India where Tibetans have found refuge since fleeing Chinese occupation. Most settlements are in northern India, mainly in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. However, there are five settlements in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, all of which are historically agriculture-based. Dhondenling is the youngest and most rural of them, and was established for an initial population of 3300 people on 3100 acres of former forest land.
Dhondenling was developed under the auspices of MYRADA, the Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency, which was formed in 1968 to assist the Indian government in the rehabilitation of Tibetans in what was then the state of Mysore. MYRADA used domestic and foreign funds to clear forests for housing and farmland, to build schools and water tanks, and to train Tibetans to run their own agricultural cooperative. It built the entire settlement from the ground up with the newly arrived Tibetans in less than five years between 1973 and 1978. Currently, the settlement covers 22 villages, also referred to as camps, each with up to 32 households.
Each family was given three to five acres of land to encourage agriculture among the new arrivals. In addition, households were allocated a fifth of an acre of residential land around their white mud houses with the aim of establishing kitchen gardens. This was to enable residents to grow their own vegetables to supplement the rice, oil and pulses that they initially received as government rations and later started buying from the market. "The idea was that they grow a minimum amount of food themselves, at least vegetables, so that they wouldn't have to go and buy everything," recalled William D'Souza, a former MYRADA employee who was involved in the establishment of Dhondenling.
In the 1970s, Tibetans, many of whom had no farming background, would cultivate anything that was easy to grow, for which seeds were available and which could be consumed. Some older residents remember growing various leafy greens called pe-tsel in Tibetan. The British researcher Lynn Pulman visited Dhondenling in 1981 and saw them growing mainly papaya, some vegetables and the bright green chayote gourd, referred to locally as squash or iskus. (This is a term that some Tibetans must have picked up during their time in Nepali-speaking Sikkim before heading further south.) Pulman writes that the squash, which can also be cooked as sabji (the generic Hindi word for a vegetable dish), was then mainly used as cattle feed. At that time, almost every household in Dhondenling had at least one or two cows housed in sheds next to their kitchen gardens as part of an integrated crop-livestock system. They delivered milk from these animals every morning to one of five dairy centres. Today, as livelihoods and sources of income have diversified, only one dairy and a handful of livestock-owning Tibetan families remain.
Lhamo, who was in her mid 20s when she came with her family to Dhondenling in 1975, remembers keeping cattle next to their small vegetable garden. At one point they had nine cows, which they would take to graze in the nearby forest every morning and bring home in the evening. She has since sold all the animals as she can no longer take care of them. Her husband died ten years ago and her children work in other parts of India or abroad. Lhamo still grows vegetables and herbs, mainly spinach and chives. More recently, she has added coconut, amla (Indian gooseberry) and avocado trees, as well as some flowers, to her garden.
When she came to Karnataka, she had already spent about a decade in exile, working mainly in road construction for the Public Works Department in Himachal Pradesh. She remembers being convinced at the time that Dhondenling was just another stopover before she and other Tibetans could return to their homeland. "I thought we would stay here for maybe 10 years or so," she said. "I guess, that's why we didn't think much about growing fruit and coconut trees at the time."
The scholar and poet Yasmine Shamma studied desert gardens in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan in 2020. "Gardens inherently imply an intention to stay awhile," Shamma wrote in an article. She described gardening as "an act to surrender" to the prospect of dwelling in the resettlement site. With this realisation comes the longing to make a place one's own. Gardeners are able to engage with land they have been allocated and to transform it in ways that reflect their ideas of home, refuge and belonging. The cultivation of plants is thus also a cultivation of place. Rui Gomes Coelho, a historical archaeologist, points out in his study of refugee gardening how "to nurture a garden has been a sign of place-making, and of social integration." He further describes it as a process through which refugees "show and reclaim their agency" over their lives, their land and their plates.
Old foods and new
Although the people of Dhondenling no longer depend on their gardens for food security, the plots allow them to grow certain items that are not readily available on the local market. Lhamo's chives, for example, called kyurtse in Tibetan, are a popular ingredient for momos, which are Tibetan dumplings filled with meat or vegetables. Momos are usually served with a spicy sauce called se-pen in Tibetan, made of Sichuan pepper (also known as yer-ma or timur in the Himalayan region) and red chillies. In the Himalayan region, se-pen is made with a particularly hot chilli known as dalle khursani – literally "round chilli" in Nepali. While in India it is mostly found in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Sikkim, the dalle has also made its way into the gardens of Dhondenling, including that of Yangzom, who came to the settlement when she was eight and is now in her 50s. She has planted a few dalle shrubs at the edge of the garden behind her house.
Tashi's garden also has some lush green maize plants. This is not the hybrid fodder maize that covers large areas of farmland in Dhondenling between August and December every year. Rather, it is a type of starchy white maize that Tashi said is particularly suitable for making tsampa, a roasted flour traditionally made from barley and mixed with tea and yak butter. High in nutritional value, tsampa has been a staple food in Tibet for centuries. The geographer Emily T Yeh calls it a "potent marker of Tibetan-ness." It also remains a meaningful component of the diet of Tibetans in exile – the Dalai Lama, for instance, is known to start each day with a bowl of tsampa. To this day, in Dhondenling, as in other Tibetan settlements, there are flour mills where people grind their grain to make tsampa.
Therefore, in displacement, gardens become spaces of agency where refugees are able to revive and preserve some of the produce, smells and flavours they had to leave behind, and that are vital in keeping their cultures alive. In her study of Nepali-Bhutanese refugee gardeners and their seed systems in Vermont, in the United States, the anthropologist Junru Guo illustrates how gardening enables displaced groups to "reconstruct culturally significant foodways" as an act of place-making, and in this way contributes to nutritional and cultural sustenance. In addition to preserving culturally meaningful plants, however, gardening also provides an opportunity to engage with the host environment. Guo notes that "placemaking is a complex process, combining memories of homelands with new knowledge and practices." This engagement with the "new" can take many forms. One very tangible one is the cultivation of plants traditionally grown in the host region.
In Yangzom's garden, the wooden fence enclosing her maize bed is covered with vines of the peculiarly shaped and poison-green coloured winged bean, also known as Goa bean or dragon bean. Yangzom got the winged-bean seeds from a neighbour in her village. Rich in protein and best eaten cooked as sabji or raw in salads, the winged bean is commonly cultivated and used by tribal people in southern India as well as in some northeastern states. It is likely that it first found its way to Dhondenling from one of the nearby settlements of the Soliga tribe, whose members have lived in the surrounding forest areas for centuries and traditionally cultivated ragi (finger millet), coloured maize and different varieties of beans for their own consumption. This transfer of seeds is just one indicator of the intricate social-ecological linkages that place-making processes encompass.
No water, no garden
Growing plants means forging connections with the soil, with the local biosphere, with weather patterns and seasons. It fosters ecological knowledge and experiences, and a better understanding of the local environment. This is how Dhondup came to realise that there are not many restrictions on what can be grown in Dhondenling. "Everything grows in this climate," he said. Growing conditions are indeed favourable year-round, with temperatures peaking at around 35 degrees Celsius in April before the kharif season that accompanies the rains from May until October. A mild winter follows, when temperatures rarely drop below 20 degrees Celsius.
However, Dhondenling has a water problem, with shortages both for agricultural and domestic use, including gardening. After the monsoons retreat, there is almost no rainfall in the settlement for a good six months. For years, this meant farmers could only harvest one crop annually. They did not have the option of irrigation as the regional administration did not grant Dhondenling access to electricity for agricultural purposes, such as running water pumps. This changed in 2011, but more than two-thirds of farming households still do not have irrigation facilities. For some, groundwater is too scarce around their land and the next water body is too far away. Others have moved away from farming.
Older residents remember how, in the mid 1970s, their families would queue up early in the morning with their canisters to fetch water from a central point near the settlement office to which water was channelled from a stream originating in the nearby Biligiriranga Hills ridge. Later, by the 1980s, all 22 villages in Dhondenling gradually received borewells and tanks, but water has remained a precious commodity. Residents hope that the Cauvery Water Project might alleviate the problem once completed.
Till the water problem is resolved, Dhondup will continue to choose what he plants in his garden carefully. He points to the large selection of cacti and succulents he grows in pots and repurposed tractor wheels, and to the pink and white blossoms of Madagascar periwinkle creeping up the wall of his former cow shed. Also called sadabahaar in Hindi, which means evergreen, it is a particularly low-maintenance flowering plant that can now be found in most gardens in Dhondenling. Other common drought-tolerant varieties here include bougainvillea, geraniums, crown of thorns, snake plant and aloe vera.
The aesthetic and the spiritual
Dhondenling has a remarkable range of flowering and herbaceous plants growing in pots, hanging baskets or beds in the gardens. In fact, quite a few people seem to have shifted from growing edible plants to keeping mostly ornamental ones, apart from a few fruit trees bordering their yards.
"When I look at the flowers in my garden, I feel happy," said Paldon, Yangzom's neighbour, who is in her 70s. The dense bushes and hedges of orange marigold, peach-coloured hibiscus, and bright red jungle geranium certainly exude peace and comfort. They almost cover the small patch of land behind Paldon's white one-storey house, which is lined with a few shady star-fruit, banana and mango trees, some of which have turned into involuntary hosts of passion-fruit vines.
Gardens like Paldon's have become places of self-realisation and of aesthetic and spiritual value. They have surpassed their original, primarily utilitarian purpose as kitchen gardens. Gardening has become a hobby for the people of Dhondenling. Elderly residents like Lhamo and Paldon, who used to stand in the fields from dawn to dusk to grow maize or herd their livestock, now spend time sowing, trimming, weeding and watering these gardens. Gardening has also gained popularity among younger generations. Some younger people who grew up in Dhondenling work in nearby cities and commute to the settlement on weekends. Others cultivate their families' fields or run seasonal businesses in other parts of India every winter. The gardens offer them space for experimentation, relaxation and recreation.
The shift, or at least the expansion, from kitchen gardening to a more decorative and aesthetic approach is not least a sign of the change in people's livelihoods and socio-economic status, their routines and their access to leisure time. It is a sign of mobility and prosperity. Many of the plants people grow today are not from the area and were bought from nurseries in bigger towns. "Every now and then, when I go to Kollegal, Mysore or Bangalore for some work, I come home with a flowerpot," Yangzom said. "I love buying flowers." In the settlement, new varieties spread quickly from garden to garden as the exchange of cuttings is common among neighbours, friends and relatives. "If you give a cutting with a full heart, flowers will grow," Yangzom said. "People have told me that whatever I give is growing well. When I hear that, I feel happy."
Exchange practices also go beyond the boundaries of the settlement. Tenzin Wangdak worked in the private sector in Delhi for many years and recently returned to Dhondenling to take care of his family's house and fields after most of his relatives moved to the United States. He has given cuttings to his Indian neighbours, with his snake plants being particularly popular, and also freely shares flowers to be used for spiritual and religious purposes. "The gate to my garden is always open," he said. "Often people come before they have a puja in their home and ask if they can take some flowers. I always let them – I just tell people to not damage the root." His neighbours particularly seek out roses, hibiscus flowers and marigolds for making garlands.
Flowers, as well as certain leaves and fruits, play an integral role in Hindu and Buddhist rituals, where they are considered auspicious artefacts. In Hinduism, certain flowers are associated with various gods and deities – for example, the marigold with Ganesh. The ancient Hindu scriptures of the Vastu Shastra, which set out principles of architecture and design, also make recommendations about which plants to keep. For example, while aloe vera and tulsi, or holy basil, are considered particularly beneficial, plants that secrete a white liquid – for instance, Euphorbia varieties such as poinsettia and crown of thorns – are deemed unfavourable for indoor cultivation or for rituals.
Tibetan Buddhists use flowers as offerings. The branches of the juniper tree, which is also grown in many gardens in Dhondenling, are burnt during a ritual known in Tibetan as sang-sol. The very process of planting and tending is considered a virtuous act and an embodiment of the key Buddhist principles of impermanence and interdependence. The Dalai Lama often encourages his followers to plant trees and flowers in public places and their homes as a "a beneficial service to oneself and others and, in fact, to all living beings." This is something gardeners like Yangzom and Lhamo have internalised. "After all it is His Holiness' advice to grow more trees, flowers and all that," Lhamo said.
The gardens of Dhondenling have evolved into spaces of cultural, social and ecological significance, serving as places of refuge, belonging and continuity, but also of experimentation, learning and self-expression. They have become representations of the complex and intricate processes of Tibetan resettlement in southern India, which continue to be shaped by the dynamics of adaptation and preservation, and the negotiation of familiarity and newness. As Coelho points out, refugee gardens thus become "not only ecological phenomena but also the articulation of ideas, places and action."