In the early 1960s, it would have been a sight to see Tibetan men and women work on the land in a remote part of south India. But the residents of Little Tibet are as much a part of Karnataka as the dosa and idli the refugees from the Himalayan plateau have adopted into their daily diet.
“I still remember when I came here this was a forest area, the government of India built a tent for us and gave food for six months,” remembers Tenzin, who came to Bylakuppe with his parents at the age of six.
This cluster of 20 villages spread over 3,000 acres in Mysuru district of south Karnataka was chosen for the Tibetan settlement in 1960. “After the China invasion, Dalai Lama requested the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for a place for Tibetan refugees in India. After Nehru wrote to all the states, in 1960, the government of Mysore (now Karnataka government) under Chief Minister S Nijalingappa came forward to give nearly 3,000 acres at Bylakuppe,” explains Thupten Tsering, Lugsam Tibetan Settlement Officer here.
After China conquered the Tibetan country in 1950, refugees fled into exile to different parts of the world. Most of them came to India and remain in various camps and settlements across the country. Now, Bylakuppe is home to around 20,000 Tibetans, the second-largest Tibetan settlement in the world after Dharamsala. Initially, some 3,000 Tibetans moved into the Lugsung Samdupling Tibetan Settlement, the first such in India, before Tibetan Dickey Larsoe was established nearby.
Tenzin remembers who his family gradually moved to a concrete house and how he was educated in the local settlement school. “We cultivated maize, ragi (finger millet), cotton, tobacco and vegetables in the tract of land. The government of India was paying men Rs 2 and Rs 1.75 paisa for women to send the children to schools,” says Tenzin, adding how the government was very kind to the refugees.
Tsering says that along with the hard work of the displaced settlers there was a lot of help from the local government. “The government allotted the land and officials to help us to convert this plot into our home. This was all forest land then, which we together cleared, made houses on,” adds Tsering, adding one acre of land was distributed for each family to grow food pm.
In the coming years, six camps were formed in this area. In 1963, the Namdroling Monastery, also known as Golden Temple of the South, was established by Drubwang Padna Norbu Rinpoche and many monks moved in there.
The Tibetan colony now has three schools till Class 12, an orphanage school, a hospital and a Tibetan local justice committee. The Sera Monastery, modeled after the Sera University in Tibet, is the local seat of traditional education.
The initial dependence on agriculture, is the reason the area now has an animal husbandry program along with an active flour mill run by a Cooperative Society. But the settlers soon started branching out to do embroidery and even trade in sweaters and other goods. Some launched restaurants, while the society set up a mechanical workshop, incense factory and a few shops.
Interestingly, some of the refugees even got jobs in government establishments. Pasang, an 80-year-old refugee, took voluntary retirement after working for 25 years at the Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT) Limited in Bengaluru. “I went to Bengaluru and took technical training for a year and passed the interview in HMT and started to work there for a monthly salary of Rs 10. Now, I am back in Bylakuppe spending my retirement life happily,” he says in fluent Kannada.
This was all before Bylakuppe became a major tourist destination. In 1999, with the help of devotees and charitable donors Late His Holiness Penor Rinpoche built the Padmasambhava Buddhist Vihara. The so-called ‘Golden Temple’ has been attracting thousands of tourists daily since it was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama, two decades back.
The youth are also finding new job avenues. Pema Delek, a member of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, says: “While once 90 per cent of the people here were into agriculture, now many of the young are into businesses in other countries and Indian metro cities. But many of those who are here even now also depend on agriculture.”
The Tibetans have also made it a point to become a part of the local community that accepted the outsiders, not knowing their cause, customs or traditions. Delek confidently says you just need to ask the local police station if there are any criminal cases registered against the Tibetian refugees. “We always respect the local people and culture. Whenever the Dalai Lama visits here, his only advice to us is to respect the local people and the government of India and Karnataka,” he adds.
And even as popular restaurants the settlements serve tourists momos and thupka, the Tibetans who started calling this part of south India home almost six decades back now start their days with a crisp dosa and sambhar.