There's little to distinguish this community of Tibetans from their Buddhist brothers, apart from their faith
By Atul Sethi
A group of Tibetan Muslims with the Dalai Lama. (Photo: Tibet Museum, Dharamsala)
Masood Butt is a Tibetan, living in India. But, unlike most other Tibetans in exile, who are Buddhists, Butt is a Muslim. However, apart from his faith, there is little else to distinguish Butt from other Tibetans. He follows Tibetan customs, speaks the language fluently and regards the Dalai Lama as his leader. Yet, Butt's community — the Tibetan Muslims — are little known in India, even though they have shared with their Buddhist brethren, the plight of leaving their homeland. And they have been living in India for the last 50 years."Like other Tibetans, our community, too has faced tough times and undergone great mental and physical strain," says Butt, who now works with the Dalai Lama's office in Dharamsala.
The story of the Tibetan Muslims is that of a unique community, that has blended different cultural strains to forge a distinct identity, that has been kept alive even in the face of adversity. What is interesting to know is that Islam arrived almost a 1000 years ago in Tibet — a region that has always been synonymous with a monolithic Buddhist culture. How the first Muslim settlers reached Tibet is an interesting tale. Sometime in the 12th century, it is believed, a group of Muslim traders from Kashmir and Ladakh came to Tibet as merchants. Many of these traders settled in Tibet and married Tibetan women, who later converted to the religion of their husbands. Author Thomas Arnold, in his book, The Preaching of Islam says that gradually, marriages and social interactions led to an increase in the Tibetan Muslim population until a sizable community came up around Lhasa, Tibet's capital.
Elders of the community, waiting to receive the Dalai Lama on his first visit to their colony in Srinagar, in 1975. (Tibet Museum, Dharamsala)
"The Tibetan government allowed the Muslims freedom to handle their own affairs, without any interference. This enabled the community to retain their identity, while at the same time absorbing traditional Tibetan social and cultural traditions," says Butt. The Tibetan Muslims followed the occupation of their ancestors and were mainly traders, who owned successful businesses. The community also contributed to Tibetan society and culture in many ways. For instance, the first cinema hall in Tibet was started by a Tibetan Muslim businessman. Also, Nangma — a popular classical music form of Tibet, is believed to have been brought to Tibet by the Muslims. In fact, the word ‘Nangma' is said to be derived from the Urdu word, ‘Naghma', which means song. "These high-pitched lilting songs, developed in Tibet around the turn of the century, were a craze in Lhasa, with musical hits by Acha Izzat, Bhai Akbar-la and Oulam Mehdi on the lips of almost everyone," says Butt.
Many Tibetan scholars have commented on how religions as diverse as Islam and Buddhism could co-exist in peace in a traditional society such as that of Tibet. The credit for this, some feel, goes to religious leaders like the Dalai Lama, who took the lead in fostering this spirit of brotherhood. For instance, a history of the Tibetan Muslim community published some years ago relates how during the 17th century, the fifth Dalai Lama readily agreed to give the Muslims land within Lhasa for building a mosque.
The story goes that when a delegation of Muslims approached the fifth Dalai Lama for space for a mosque and a burial ground for their community, the Dalai Lama shot an arrow, with the promise that the place where the arrow fell would belong to the Muslim community. The place later came to be known as Gyangda Linka or the park of the distant arrow. Tibetan Muslims also enjoyed other special privileges in Tibet. For instance, they were exempted from the ‘no meat rule' when such a restriction was imposed in the rest of Tibet, during the holy Buddhist months. Besides, their commercial enterprises were exempted from taxation.
All these special privileges, however were withdrawn, soon after the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1959. Most of the Tibetan Muslims, consequently, opted to leave rather than live under the Chinese occupation. Those who were able to cross over to India, settled in the border towns of Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Gangtok. Later, the community gradually started moving to Kashmir — the land from where their ancestors had gone to Tibet in the 12th century. In fact, the move to Kashmir was significant, says Butt. Even in Tibet, the Muslims were identified as Kashmiris, since Kashmir was known to Tibetans as Khache Yul and Tibetan Muslims were referred to as Khache. Thus, their status was that of a foreigner, even when they were in Tibet.
On the basis of their Kashmiri ancestry, the Tibetan Muslim families who came back to Kashmir after 1959, were given Indian citizenship. Many of these families are still living in Srinagar, while a few have migrated to Nepal and the Gulf countries. Today, there are around 250 families of Tibetan Muslims in Srinagar, mostly in the Hawal and Idgah areas. A number of these families are engaged in fine embroidery work of Kashmiri carpets, while others have set up their own businesses, says Nasir Qazi of the Tibetan Muslim Youth Federation — a body that works for the welfare of the community. The community remains a close-knit one and, for many of them, Tibet remains an emotive issue. Recently for instance, the Tibetan Muslim Youth Federation took out a peace march in Srinagar to show solidarity with the Dalai Lama's views on granting of autonomous status to Tibet.
And, in case a solution is found, would they like to go back to Tibet? "Maybe not for settling down, since most of us have been born and brought up in India," says Qazi. "But once, I would definitely like to go there — to visit the Potala palace, the landscape that we have heard so much about and to see for myself the land where our forefathers lived."