Tibet is being cloned in a tiny part of South India
A strong winter noonday sun, a disciplined sea of bowing monks in red, and policemen everywhere. Then amidst the uneven sound of the bronze trumpets called dhung chens, and bustling officials clad in chubas, the Dalai Lama arrives in a cavalcade of cars to this remote part of Karnataka in South India.
This is the Doeguling settlement (population 12,000) in Uttar Kanara district, one of five Tibetan refugee settlements spread around Karnataka. Even on ordinary days when the Dalai Lama doesn’t come visiting, this 3000-acre settlement looks typically Tibetan, but for the terrain and the climate. Women in Tibetan attire wait for taxis to ferry them to Mundgod town or to another of Doeguling’s ten camps. Little monasteries dot the landscape. A cluster of whitewashed buildings with a playing field has a board: Tibetan Central School.
Tibetans have been in Karnataka since 1960. Once refugees began pouring into India following the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959, Jawaharlal Nehru asked Indian states to take them in. Karnataka was one of the 10 states that responded positively, and gave the largest tract of land: 13,000-odd acres in the settlements located in Kodagu, Chamrajanagar and Uttar Kanara districts.
In the first wave, 14,000 refugees came into Karnataka between 1960 to 1974. Today there are 40,000 refugees here, and there is no more land for the next generation, or for newcomers. Every year over 2000 Tibetans come as refugees to India, says Nawang Choedak, the south zone development coordinator for the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) or Tibet’s government-in-exile based in Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.
CTA officials have transferable jobs and look after areas ranging from health to international relations in the 10 states of India that have refugee settlements. The CTA’s relief wing helps those in need from its emergency funds, while the CTA itself runs on funds from voluntary contributions, from collections from the Dalai Lama’s now well-established international network, and from CTA financial investments. India does not formally recognise the government-in-exile, but accommodates it.
Despite the nearly three-fold increase in population and lack of land, the Tibetans of Karnataka don’t have to depend on outside help to shore up their finances. Industrious as a community, Deccan Tibetans thrive on trading: mainly in sweaters, and in running little restaurants and shops, even taxis. Take the case of 40-year-old Sonam Yangzon. Her husband is out selling sweaters for eight months of the year. She says the recession has slowed income, but they can still afford a mobile phone, a TV, electricity and another phone connection.
Not many go to town to see films, because a ‘Tibetan’ video shop rents out cassettes. Sonam’s mother, one of the early comers with land, has a local Kannadiga to help out with her cows. Sonam herself is a busy housewife, taking active part in the Tibetan Women’s Association, and helping the Tibetan aged and women in income-earning activities. She visits the monastery at Doeguling twice a week and attends cultural functions at the camp once a month. Friends and relatives from neighbouring camps are frequent visitors.
The community seems to get along better with the locals than do Tibetan settlements in northern India, says Sherup Choden, a visiting teacher from the Tibetan school in Dharamsala. The CTA is sensitive to the situation, and does not wish to heighten any undercurrent.
“They’ve been here 30 years,” says Ashok Subedar, a Kannadiga taxi-driver who ferries passengers to and from Mundgod and Doeguling. “Some of us speak their language, they speak ours. Karnataka is a hospitable land.” The local police chief says he cannot remember a single registered police case against the refugees.
Coordinator Choedak says one of CTA’s administrative objectives is to keep traditions alive so that it can eventually return and renew Tibet’s threatened culture. “This is the only reason why we haven’t really encouraged intermarriage or local assimilation.” The Indian government has given them naturalised citizenship, but most are unwilling to change their status.
Assimilation into India though has taken a different meaning for the newer generation. Karma, 18, will soon graduate from the Tibetan school, and he doesn’t think he wants to eventually return to Tibet. He plans to enroll in one of Karnataka’s medical colleges, but like others of his generation, Karma faces a stiff challenge in getting into mainstream higher education in India. Only three medical seats and five engineering seats are reserved for Tibetans countrywide.
Monastic students face no such problems. The Doeguling monastic university (a replica of Tibet’s reputed 500-year-old Doeguling monastic university, destroyed by the Chinese in 1959), has 3500 monk-students from many countries undergoing a rigorous Mahayana-Buddhist theological education and pursuing a spartan lifestyle.
It has 260 child monks, many of them from the Himalayan regions of India and neighbouring countries, and they learn general-school subjects along with theology. Doeguling is the largest of three similar universities in Karnataka, and its international reputation is growing, even as it strives to keep up with the standards set by its destroyed 15th-century predecessor.
Nearly 50 years after the Chinese occupied their homeland, Tibetans are still streaming out of the high plateau, and one of the problems in places like Doeguling is the increasing refugee population. In the absence of an official policy to promote family planning, the settlements have become overcrowded. However, Choedak is not worried that Karna-taka could stop being a good host—he says they will be easily absorbed into India’s huge numbers, and that the rate of increase is anyway slower than the host-country’s population growth-rate.
What does worry Choedak is the situation in his homeland. Despite the Dalai Lama’s optimism that Tibet will eventually receive some measure of independence, from down here on the Deccan, the possibility does look rather remote. In a reference to the prospering Tibetans worldwide, Choedak says, “The problem is not outside Tibet, it is inside Tibet.”