Samyeling, home to Delhi's Tibetan exile community

Tucked behind a highway in New Delhi is a hidden world, filled with people whose hearts are back home in Tibet, the land they left behind

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 4:41am

Just as National Highway No1 begins to wind its way out of New Delhi, hidden in a line of shops and shanties, lies a nondescript red gateway.

Step through it and, as if by magic, you leave the rich local Punjabi chatter, the noisy auto-rickshaws and the broad roads of the great metropolis behind. This is the entrance to Samyeling, a Tibetan settlement in New Delhi's New Aruna Nagar neighbourhood.

The lanes inside Samyeling, no more than a metre wide, are lined with Tibetan restaurants, art shops and travel agencies, while the air is filled with the delicious aromas of Tibetan food. Monks stroll by in their maroon robes, children run around and the shops are abuzz with haggling customers.

They are among Samyeling's 3,000 Tibetan residents, refugees caught in a struggle to earn a living in a foreign land.

"All of us came here, hoping to return to Tibet one day," says Tobden Tsering, 61, who has lived in the colony since it was formed in 1963. "Therefore, we never built houses with bricks and concrete until very recently."

When the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, escaped to India in 1959, around 80,000 Tibetans are estimated to have followed him.

While most settled close to the border in Dharamshala, in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, where the Dalai Lama set up his government in exile, some Tibetans headed south to the capital city of New Delhi, in search of better prospects.

At first they lived in clusters of shanties around the city, but in 1962 they were asked to settle on the banks of the Yamuna, which now lies along National Highway No1. Later, the Dalai Lama named the settlement Samyeling, after the oldest monastery in the Tibetan city of Lhasa.

Yungdung Dhargye, a 29-year-old software engineer, says: "Dharamsala is considered the heart of the Tibetan world in exile. But Samyeling constitutes its commercial centre. It is the hub of Tibetan commerce and spreads its limited prosperity to other Tibetan communities on the subcontinent."

Walking the narrow alleyways of Samyeling, several hotels come into sight. "I am staying here for 10 days, before I go to Dharamshala," says a 35-year-old monk, Lobsang Tenzin, who has been living in the Gaden Jangtse Holiday Home. "I like this hotel, as they accept whatever we can pay them."

Tenzin has travelled 3,000 kilometres north so far, from the southern state of Karnataka, where there is a huge Tibetan refugee camp.

Samyeling has become a transit point for religious Tibetans travelling between refugee camps. Even though the hotels and lodges do not charge the travellers a lot of money, they earn enough to prosper.

Sonam Gelek, 27, the manager of the Gaden Jangtse Holiday Home, says: "Those Tibetans who have been allotted land in this colony have used it to run these hotels, while they live in small shanties on the outskirts of this neighbourhood."

Gelek was born in Dharamshala and, in his own words, is "very Indian". He likes Bollywood movies, plays cricket and speaks fluent Hindi. "I am not that religious, but I do follow Buddhist practices," he says.

While the younger generation has no emotional connection with Tibet, they do feel the pain of their refugee status every day.

"Tibetans are handed yellow pieces of paper," says Lobsang Torjee, 31, a member of the Tibetan Youth Congress. "That is their visa to stay in India, that is their identity, that is everything."

With only this registration certificate, which defines Tibetan refugees as "foreigners", Tibetan youths find that few Indian companies are willing to hire them. Many end up selling jewellery or sweaters in makeshift markets inside Samyeling.

Samyeling is a big draw for locals and tourists. "I visit this neighbourhood on a weekly basis," says Manjima Saikia, 24, a student at Delhi University, just three kilometres away. "I love the food here, plus it is a great place to pick up junk jewellery."

Until 2001, the production of rice beer was big business in Samyeling. However, neighbouring districts voiced their opposition, saying the availability of cheap alcohol was corrupting young people, particularly university students.

"We used to drink it all the time in Tibet, it has less alcohol content than beer," says Tobden Tsering, one of the oldest residents of the camp. The Dalai Lama directed the Tibetans to stop producing rice beer. "Many people lost their employment then," Tsering says.

Students of Delhi University have always been of immense help to the community. "They used to conduct classes in basic mathematics and science in the camps," Tsering says. Today, they are a major part of the campaign group Students for a Free Tibet campaign.

Hanna Achen, a German national and a life sciences student at Delhi University, has just attended her first meeting at the office of Students for a Free Tibet in Samyeling. "I knew nothing about Tibet, I started by asking them where Tibet was," she said.

Achen spoke at length about oppression in Germany during the Nazi period and said her aim in life was to ensure no one was oppressed anywhere in the world.

There is idealism and there is grim reality, Lobsang Torjee says. A 27-year-old Tibetan named Jamshel Yeshi, protesting against President Hu Jintao's visit to India in March, set himself on fire in the heart of New Delhi.

"There was very little media coverage," Torjee says. "Everyone was interested in what the president would say."

However, Torjee and his Tibetan Youth Congress have sworn not to give up. On Indian Independence Day, August 15, the Tibetan Youth Congress read out a "declaration of Tibetan independence" to a gathering of 200 people in the courtyard of the Buddhist temple in Samyeling.

Emotions were high as a young boy began the reading in a nervous monotone. Several people began to call out slogans for a free Tibet after the boy finished; some women were weeping tears of sorrow. The mood was of determination.

After a long prayer to Lord Buddha, the Tibetan group then spoke about the greatness of India and its history and wished each other a happy Indian Independence Day. A few minutes later, the gathering broke up and people went back to eating at the restaurants and shopping in the markets of their little piece of free Tibet.



Lamplighter at Buddhist temple prays for souls who died in protest
Yeshi Chonzom, 77, lamplighter.

Her small, shaky steps bring her to the Buddhist temple in the heart of Samyeling every morning at 5am.

After cleaning the brass lamps, Yeshi Chonzom, 77, checks whether the oil supply is sufficient. She says a small prayer and lights the lamps for those who have set fire to themselves in protest at Chinese rule in Tibet.

"Buddhists believe that the spirit of the person is on this earth for 49 days before it is reborn," she says. "I, therefore, light the lamps for their souls."

Chonzom is happy that she fled Tibet. "There is no religious freedom there," she says, shedding a tear.

Her grandson is studying religion in India, and while that gives her immense pleasure, Chonzom misses him keenly.

She thoroughly checks on the lamps throughout the day and leaves the temple at 7pm. "Windy days are particularly bad," she says softly, "but then, it is not particularly sunny times in Tibet these days."


‘My singing creates awareness’
Khyen Tse, 38, musician.

Khyen Tse sings to his wife and cooks for her when she is feeling down. When he is not keeping her happy, he is travelling India, singing songs about Tibetan nationalism and other tunes with Buddhist themes. "That is the least I can do to create awareness of Tibet," he says.

Tse is spending the summer selling Chinese snacks, which he prepares in his house, on a street corner in Samyeling. "I do this as my wife has taken my son to Dharamshala to spend his summer vacation," he says.

Tse was in Tibet until 1995. He crossed the border to reach Dharamshala, happy that his "torturous" journey was over. Religion is what brought him to India. "I just wanted to keep the Dalai Lama's photo with me. There is a strange peace in that."