Photo Essays | Society | South Asia

Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

How the residents of Bylakuppe Tibetan Settlement hold on to their collective memories of the homeland.

By Subir Rana for
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

The day begins with a prayer at the school for the lamas.

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

Tsogyal Shedrubling Nunnery, BTS.

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

Sera Mey Monastery, BTS.

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

Along with tsampa, the staple Tibetan food, monasteries also serve sambhar and poha, south Indian breakfast foods, in the monasteries and nunneries in BTS. This serves as a fitting example of “culinary acculturation.”

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

Shram daan is voluntary labor of a unique kind, where the monks participate in all the activities associated with preparing meals. In this image, the monks are seen chopping vegetables in the communal kitchen.

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

Perfecting the art of writing or ume. The students are supposed to practice writing and copying Buddhist scriptures with pencil or fountain pens with blunted nibs so as to give the calligraphic touch to the writing.

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

The Lugsam Tibetan Settlement Office looks after the welfare of the settlement.

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

Tibetan Martyr’s Memorial built by the Association of Tibetan Artists is a homage to those killed or self-immolated for the cause of the Tibetan homeland. It is sign of the constant struggle and perseverance by the Tibetans for the cause of their homeland.

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

Namgyal Arts is a center for training young artists in the art and craft of making thangka, a traditional Tibetan form of painting depicting the life and deeds of Buddha. Many of the thangka paintings are custom-made for monasteries and nunneries in India and abroad.

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

Artists re-creating a 3-D scene from the life of Buddha in one of the monasteries at BTS.

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

Children from the SOS TCV School.

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

A hostel room of the TCV School adorned with the Tibetan flag and pictures of The Dalai Lama along with other Tibetan trinkets and memorabilia.

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

Art and culture form important elements in the Tibetan community life and centers like the Tibetan Opera Performing Arts impart training in the traditional Tibetan dance forms.

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

A resident at the BTS old age home.

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

Scriptural knowledge is to be mastered. Here, lamas undertake a close reading of a Buddhist texts at one of the monasteries at BTS.

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

Meditation and self-reflexivity form an important part of the academic and philosophical training of the lamas (monks) and alinas (nuns).

Credit: Subir Rana
Community in Exile: India’s ‘Little Tibet’

Debating Society or rtsod pa is central to the Gelug sect (also practiced in other sects in varying degrees) especially for earning kenpo degrees. The debate starts with the standing challenger invoking Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. The seated defender must assert a thesis and attempts to defend its truth. A particular gesture of forcefully hitting one’s palm assures an effective counterpoint in the opponent’s arguments. Each hand and arm represent a part of the rebirth process, with wisdom and compassion all tied into it. A stomp that accompanies the clap is meant to slam closed the door to rebirth.

Credit: Subir Rana

Tibet (known as Bod in Tibetan and also called Ü) is a civilization with over two millennia of history. But ever since the invasion by China in 1950, Tibetan culture has been under siege. From the 1960s onwards, more than 150,000 Tibetan refugees have fled into exile to different parts of the world; out of those, an estimated 120,000 refugees remain in various camps and settlements in India today. The journey of the Tibetans in exile to India began after then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced in the Rajya Sabha (the lower house of India’s parliament) that “the Indian government grants political asylum to the Dalai Lama.”

The largest concentration of Tibetan refugees is in south India, where they are spread throughout five settlements. One of those the Bylakuppe Tibetan Settlement (BTS), also known as the “Little Tibet of India.” BTS, located in Bylakuppe in Mysore district in the state of Karnataka, is the largest and oldest Tibetan settlement with the largest Tibetan population outside Tibet. It is also the most fully documented settlement since the earliest times of exile.

BTS has had incremental growth over the years ever since its conception and has evolved as a model in communitarian living. It is one of the finest examples of a diasporic community with a self-sustaining system packed with a rich sociocultural history and ability to survive against the odds. What is perhaps most striking about this peace-loving community is its adaptability, acclimatization, and acculturation of local customs, language, and habits without softening or letting loose their own distinct cultural traits, folkways, norms, and values. This balance is reflected in their everyday life activities.

This visual essay is an ethnographic tour of BTS undertaken in the summer of 2017. Through images, the essay attempts to explore the lifeworlds of an “imagined community,” memory of the homeland, and the “homing” strategies that help foster the feeling of Tibetanness and Tibetan nationalism – what Benedict Anderson might call “long distance nationalism.” In sociological parlance, the essay strives to analyse the “we feeling” and the Durkheimian notion of “collective conscience” and “mechanical solidarity” amongst the inhabitants of the settlement in this era of globalization and identity politics.

The Bylakuppe Tibetan Settlement: A Brief History                                                    

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In 1960, the government of Mysore (as Karnataka was called at that time) under Chief Minister S. Nijalingappa leased nearly 3,000 acres of land at Bylakuppe village, which came into being through an amalgamation of 20 villages, for accommodating the stream of Tibetan refugees. Karnataka thus became the first state to offer land to the Tibetans in India. Bylakuppe is located to the west of Mysore district, which is about 80 km away from Mysore city, with the nearest town being Kushalnagar. BTS or Lugsung Samdupling Tibetan Settlement is the first ever Tibetan exile settlement, which came into existence in 1961 for the first wave of 3,000 settlers. It was followed by Tibetan Dickey Larsoe or TDL established few years later. The town is mainly inhabited by Tibetans and an estimated 70,000 Tibetans live in the settlements today.

BTS is home to various schools, philosophies, and sects of Tibetan Buddhism and accordingly, Namdroling Monastery, also known as Golden Temple of the South, was established by Drubwang Padna Norbu Rinpoche in 1963. It is the largest teaching center of Nyingmapa, a lineage of Tibetan Buddhism with a sangha community of over 5,000 monks and nuns. Sera Monastery, modelled after the Sera University in Tibet, belongs to the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism and is the local seat of education. Sera is situated about 2 km from the main Namdroling Monastery. Other smaller monasteries like the Sakya Monastery and the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, one of the four great monasteries of central Tibet and the original seat of the Panchen Lama, were restablished in Bylakuppe in 1972. The monasteries provide an alternative system of education with a unique focus on community life and are an integral part of the lifestyle of the monks and nuns, some of whom are from different parts of the Western and Eastern world.

Practicing Ethno-Nationalism and Homing Strategies

The “lifeworlds” of the inhabitants at BTS hinge on Tibetan Buddhism as an all-encompassing philosophy of life; monastic education that caters to the psychological, moral, and intellectual perfection of an individual; memories of the homeland; and “homing” strategies of this community in exile. These strategies include their rootedness to the Tibetan way of life, which invokes sociocultural symbols such as following Tibetan Buddhist rituals and ceremonies, food and cultural motifs, dress and ornaments, art and craft, script and songs, sacred objects like beads (mala) and prayer wheel or dharma wheel (chokhor) imagery, and material artefacts like thangka paintings, Tibetan flags, and prayer buntings.

BTS resembles a mini-Tibet and this feeling is sustained by a Tibetan concept known as gter — understood either as geopolitical sites, mental states of awareness, or as literary work depending on the context. The political appeal for gter stems from the possibility of reterritorialization in the once-forsaken land and new ways of acquiring citizenship in India. The gter literary tradition seeks out new cultural routes to orient bodies and minds and prepares to bypass geopolitical boundaries.

The first wave of settlers at Bylakuppe started a Cooperative Society in 1961, which was formally registered in 1964 under the Indian Cooperative Society Act. The main purpose was to carryout the trading activities of the settlement and it seemed to be a profitable venture since the main market was far away from BTS. Today, the Cooperative Society runs a few enterprises that include a flour mill, a carpet weaving center, a poultry farm and an animal husbandry program, a mechanical workshop, and a few shops. Most of the original families have a small piece of agricultural land for their living. They practice rain-fed crop agriculture due to the lack of irrigation facilities and the Society also helps the farmers in procuring and supplying farm inputs. Besides agriculture, the settlers are engaged in trading, restaurants, shop keeping, and seasonal sweater selling, etc.

Bylakuppe consists of a number of agricultural settlements and villages or camps situated close to each other with their elected group leaders. As discussed above, BTS has monasteries, nunneries, and temples in all the major Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Other institutions in the settlement includes an old age home, a care home for the differently-abled, Tibetan shopping centers dealing in items of daily use in Tibetan homes, and an SOS Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV). The Dalai Lama places the greatest emphasis on an education where the curriculum marries modern education with traditional Tibetan values and cultural heritage in order to spread the Tibetan issue to the outside world, while protecting Tibet’s cultural traits and linguistic heritage from any kind of imperialist design. The SOS TCV at Bylakuppe began in 1981 on a piece of land donated by the settlement with an idyllic children’s village and has a few homes, hostels, and complete facilities for education till class 12. Beside this village, the TCV runs day-care centers for the benefit of the Tibetan settlers around the Bylakuppe and Hunsur areas and has a modern allopathic dispensary and a traditional Tibetan medical clinic too.

An interesting aspect of the dietary habits at the BTS monasteries is that there is “culinary acculturation.” The prolonged stays of the Tibetan refugees has resulted in acquiring a taste for some signature South Indian food items like poha, idli, and dosa accompanied by sambhar and chutney. There is a strong sense of “shram daan” or voluntary labor at the BTS as the monastery mess is run by the lamas (monks) and alinas (nuns) who besides their studies, meditation, and everyday activities are supposed to take turns in working and supervising the chefs.

The story of this Little Tibet in Bylakuppe is as emotive as it is courageous, since it deals with the crisis of dislocation, “statelessness,” re-territorialization and contested sovereignty in an alien land – all while trying to cope up with their everyday struggles and worries and still imagine a homeland with common futures in a transient place. Yet, despite all odds of a hyphenated citizenship, memory, and enclavement, the dreams and aspirations of the Tibetans to inhabit and populate their imagined community and faraway land one day and define their own nationalism, hoist their own flag, and sing their own anthem one day remain as strong as ever. But till the dream is fulfilled, practicing “ethno-nationalism” (Skrbis 1999) and homing strategies will continue to play a vital role in negotiating with their notions of identity, ethnicity, community, and nationalism while also turning this lesser known and little traversed turf into their own.

Subir Rana has a Ph.D in Sociology from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) New Delhi and is currently located in Bangalore as an independent researcher.