The 1950s were a time of deep unrest and political uproar in the largely Buddhist nation of Tibet. Cornered by the Chinese military, a significant portion of its population including young families, men and women were forced to flee the country to escape persecution and violation. What followed was a mass exodus that drew even the spiritual leader of the former theocratic government led by the Dalai Lama into Indian borders to seek asylum.
NEFA: The Doorway To India
In the summer of 1959, the Dalai Lama’s entry into India had sparked a mass uprising of followers and civilians who undertook the arduous journey through the Himalayan passes and forests to arrive at a region that over time came to be known as North-East Frontier Association (NEFA). Located in Arunachal Pradesh, the NEFA became the official entry point for all refugees arriving from Tibet.
Over the decades, Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh came to hold the largest settlement of Tibetan refugees in the country, most of whom subsequently sought asylum in the country. What is interesting to note is that, despite India being an expansive nation with stark contrasts in heritage, culture and more, the Tibetan community is known to have become the only one that has managed to proliferate in the vast extremities of India’s climatic and socio-cultural settings.
Bylakuppe: The Little Tibet of India
Located far South amidst the Western Ghats of Karnataka is South India’s largest Tibetan settlement. Overtime, Bylakuppe has transformed into the largest and most popular Tibetan settlement outside of the nation. Packed with a self-sufficing socio-cultural fabric and a harmonious ecosystem, Bylakuppe is revered as one of the most popular and successful refugee settlements in India. With almost no resistance towards the local community and its people, Bylakuppe Tibetan Settlement (BTS) has established a peace-loving rapport with its neighbours and surroundings.
Karnataka became the first state in the country to offer land to a large settlement of refugees on exile in the year 1960 and the amicable rapport between the state and the community has been preserved dutifully ever since.
Tibet Memory Project
In an attempt to document the stories and fading memories of refugees in exile, two Tibetan photographers currently residing in India, Tsering Topgyal and Tsering Cheophel have embarked on an archival project that preserves old photographs, documented stories and oral history of first-generation refugees in exile.
The aim of the project is to rebuild first-hand narratives and restore the cultural fabric of the nation which was lost in the conflict and displacement that ensued. The photographers interact with refugee families and collect photographs to discern the stories, dreams and narratives that they hold. This activity over time evolved into a community-building, restorative history project that is now independently run and widely recognised by the community.
Some of the archives hold handwritten letters and photographs holding written notes. A subsect of this project includes “Brothers in Arms” which is a visual documentation of refugee soldiers who participated in the Liberation War in Bangladesh in 1970. It explores the journey of soldiers who lost their families, livelihoods and the aftermath that followed.
Tibet memory project is actively pursuing to restore a sliver of history of a community separated by memories of war, conflict and disruption.
Follow their work here.
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