I don’t remember ever reading an article in our local publications about Tibetans living in Nepal. Besides the news items about protesters in the valley or new refugees entering the country, precious little has been written about them. The Nepali media in general has tunnel vision and what lies in the periphery is often ignored. How often have you seen the same peoples’ faces in the local publications? I wouldn’t blame someone if he/she mistook a bank CEO for a rock star. The legendary footballer Shyam Thapa was in Kathmandu for a number of years as the national football coach but was ignored by the media. We published an interview with him on ECS and following that the only time I read about him in the local publications was when he was leaving in disgust when his superiors forced him to include players he didn’t have on his list.
But to come to the point, I was talking about Tibetans living in Nepal. They’ve been living in this country from even before the Dalai Lama left Tibet. Historically the ties between the two nations began when the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo married the Nepali Princess Bhrikuti in the 7th Cent. Some historians believe one of the Tibetan kings had a hand in establishing the Boudha stupa around which many Tibetans live until today. But of course there are many different stories related to the origins of this important Buddhist pilgrimage site. Trade flourished between the two nations for many centuries until Tibet lost its independence after the Chinese invasion. Once the Dalai Lama had left his beloved country, many Tibetans followed suit and became refugees in Nepal and India. Those who settled in India enjoyed privileges beyond that received by any other refugees there. Besides monetary assistance, they had seats reserved in educational institutions and government jobs. Although similar privileges were not bestowed upon them in Nepal, they did very well for themselves.
Tibetans who came across in the 1950s and ‘60s made a major contribution to Nepal’s economy by introducing the craft of making woolen carpets. The great Swiss geologist Toni Hagen had a big hand in helping them establish the trade and it wasn’t long before it developed into a major industry, leading to carpet exports worth millions of dollars which no doubt boosted Nepal’s foreign reserves. However by the 1970s, the carpet export business began to attract the attention of greedy politicians. A law was passed to give incentive to carpet exporters in order to boost carpet production and hence export. Incentive was given in proportion to the volume of business. Unscrupulous businessmen in collusion with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats made a pile of money by producing fake bills showing an export volume much larger than what was actually exported. It became a massive scandal known as the ‘Galaicha Kanda’. When this blew over, the carpet industry picked up and prospered until all and sundry wanted a piece of the pie which led to more setbacks. But by and large, the Tibetan carpet producers have carried on running their businesses quietly without much fuss while others looking to make a fast buck came and went.
Since I was a kid I have admired the way Tibetan youth respect their elders. It’s not just the uncles and aunties or grandpas and grandmas; they are very respectful of all seniors. From my personal experience, I have known Tibetan boys who give you a lot of respect, bowing their heads slightly when they say ‘La’ meaning yes, irrespective of whether you are a Tibetan or not. They also have a very strong communal bond and immense respect for the Dalai Lama, their Spiritual Leader who has been living in exile in Dharamshala, India. And what a great leader he is, gaining respect around the world making the Tibetans proud.
Another aspect of Tibetans that many may not even have noticed is the fact that you don’t come across Tibetan beggars in Nepal. They are quite well looked after and once they are on their own feet, they do very well as businessmen. Hard working as they are, besides the carpet industry, they have established restaurants, curio and jewelry shops, hotels and various other businesses in the country. A majority of Tibetans are businessmen. They will go to any lengths to start a life in the field of business. Decades ago, seeing Tibetans wearing bakkhus and standing in the intense heat of Calcutta, selling clothes to Bengalis was quite a stunning sight.
Official figures tell us that the total number of Tibetans now living in Nepal (13,500 at last count) has gone down rather than up. Many move on to India while others head to the west, mostly to the United States. A large number of them left during the Maoist insurgency when security was not guaranteed and the business community was targeted for forced donations.
Before I forget, another great Tibetan contribution to the Nepali society is their momo (of course we have begun to think we invented the momos). It’s hard to imagine Kathmandu without its momo shops; one of the many gifts they brought with them when they left their homeland to settle in the neighboring countries.