In a series of special features, TPI journalist Colleen McKown reports from India's largest Tibetan settlement, Mundgod, in the southern state of Karnataka.
The Tibetan settlement at Mundgod was established in 1966. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, His Holiness the Dalai Lama requested land from Indian Prime Minister Nehru. He envisioned places where Tibetans could live together and keep their culture alive. His Holiness sent requests to each state of India, and the Chief Minister of Karnataka accepted, granting large parcels of land to Tibetan refugees.
While there are many Tibetan settlements throughout India, Karnataka has by far the largest number of Tibetans, and Mundgod itself is the largest Tibetan settlement in terms of both population and land.
In 1966, the Mundgod settlement had a population of 4,000. Today, that number has grown to 17,000. Economically, the settlement functions under cooperative societies, which provide financial support and supplies to the farmers and craftspeople.
The Central School of Tibet is run by the Indian government, and comprises mainly Tibetan students, although ten per cent are local Indians, as are several teachers. The language of instruction is Tibetan until class five, and thereafter English. 997 students currently attend the school.
Mundgod also has several major monasteries, among them Ganden and Drepung Loseling - two of the most prestigious seats of learning for Tibetan Buddhism.
Tsotsopon Palden Dhondup is the chairman and representative of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Mundgod. He spoke with the Tibet Post about the economic and social state of the settlement.
When asked about the challenges Mundgod faces, he said, laughing, "There will always be problems, because we are suffering until enlightenment!" That aside, he said that better roads and electricity as well as pure drinking water continue to be areas of difficulty.
However, Dhondup said conditions have greatly improved since the settlement was established, when many settlers had problems adjusting to the hot climate and scarcity of food was a major issue.
Challenges now often occur across the generation gap between parents born in Tibet and their children born in India. "The elder people need tsampa and butter tea, and the young like rice, dal, and sweet tea," he said. "They wear different clothes."
While Tibetans used to marry within the Tibetan community, these days the community sees many Tibetan-Indian marriages.
Further, Dhondup said young people aren't interested in staying in the settlement and working on the farms. "The young people, they want to study, to work in white collar jobs."
Taking these jobs typically means moving to urban centers like Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi. Tibetan young adults are often interested in working in places such as call centers, hotels and private industry. In Mundgod, their only options are working in the fields or opening a shop or restaurant.
According to a recent survey, 60% of Tibetans in Mundgod are interested in going abroad for the prospects of better earnings and a brighter future. Only ten per cent of them get the chance, but the statistic shows their desire for increased opportunities.
"The danger is the sustainability of the Tibetan settlement," said Dhondup. Speaking of the decline of Tibetan culture among Tibetan youth and citing the book My Vanishing Tribe, about the Lepcha people, he said he hoped someone wouldn't one day write "My Vanishing Tibetan Fellow".
The American government has helped sponsor a re-vitalization program for the settlement. Dhondup hopes that as part of this program "we can keep young people here and create more jobs and opportunities."
He mentioned building more infrastructure for young people, such as football and cricket stadiums.
As to the economic situation of farms in Mundgod, he said many people are "fed up with the land." From 2008 to 2010, he said, there wasn't much rain and, with global warming, the climate can be very unpredictable - some years it stops raining too early and some years there is too much rain at the end of the monsoon season.
"The monsoon pattern is discouraging," Dhondup said and, to address this, farmers get some compensation from the CTA.
The next big project for the farmers is to grow 160 acres of organic mangoes. "There is a high demand from Europe and the USA," said Dhondup. "The juice companies are demanding it."
Last year saw the beginning of this initiative and its success has yet to be determined. The farmers will also grow organic lychees, cashew nuts and coconuts.
A small number of local workers also earn a living from carpet weaving, woodwork, making sweaters and peanut butter, and other crafts.
Referring to the new farming initiatives, Dhondup concluded, "The dream is that they'll have much success."