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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Muslims of Tibet

May 5, 2008

There's little to distinguish this community of Tibetans from their
Buddhist brothers, apart from their faith

By Atul Sethi
The Times Of India
Sunday, May 04, 2008

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."
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