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The Forgotten Tibetan Refugees of Darjeeling

The Tibetan Refugee Center is a rundown, underused facility in Darjeeling. It's not just a place for the best momos in India; it's a testament to the resilience of the refugees who fled and the heritage of those who stayed.

Darjeeling in India’s West Bengal is famous for two things: high quality tea and a panorama of four of the five highest mountains in the world. Many tourists, both foreign and domestic, flock to the small mountain area for a relaxing break on the edge of the Himalayas, just like the British who used it as a resort escape during the time of the Raj. However, the old hill station has another history between the herbal drinks and mountain vistas, the story is of the Tibetan refugee population who have called the hillside home since the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Today, the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center is visited by travelers wanting a look at Tibetan history and culture – as well as the best Tibetan momos in India.

ABOVE: Making a sweater from dyed yak wool at the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center.

The Tibetan uprising began in March 1959 in Lhasa and over the following years was brutally suppressed as large masses of the local population dispersed to various areas outside of Tibet. Many people followed in the footsteps of the 14th Dalai Lama to Northern India and settled in clusters wherever the Indian government granted refuge. Darjeeling, close to the border of Nepal, had previously provided shelter for the spiritual leader decades before and seemed like an obvious place to find safety once again. Now 60 years later, the Tibetan refugees have rebuilt new lives and contributed to the unique blend of cultures that can be found in the small mountain town.

The famous tea plantations are best seen on the journey up to Darjeeling from Siliguri, whether you opt for a jeep or the old, steam toy train. Despite the jeeps making the journey in much less time, the rail line hails from the British era and offers a gentle and meandering journey up to the town with views over the perfectly manicured plantations.

Travelers will find small, unassuming restaurants with wooden signs offering steamed momos and thenthuk soup; Darjeeling is known for its Tibetan cuisine. Without being put off by the rustic exteriors, I discovered some true gems, many of which had been run for decades by Tibetan families.

“How are the momos in Darjeeling? The best, right?” the hotel receptionist asked unprompted and without knowing where I ate.

To understand more about how the Tibetan cuisine came to be served up in the hill station, I headed to the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center. After a steep 1.5 kilometer walk from the central Chawrasta Mall down through the residential area of town, I spotted the prayer flags marking the entrance flapping in the wind.

ABOVE: Woman at work in the Tibetan Refugee Center.

The complex seemed quiet and I passed only a child and an elderly man on my way down to the courtyard, both of whom gave me shy smiles. The photo exhibition hall showcases a moving collection of old photos documenting the 1959 uprising, the arduous journey many Tibetans took, and how they came to rebuild their lives in India. At first glance, the black and white images were heart-rending: the resilient faces of those who fled their homes and snapshots of the struggle they and the Dalai Lama faced in subsequent years.

ABOVE: Courtyard of the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center.

The main courtyard of the center is encircled by workshops open to visitors to enter and meet with the residents as they produce various handicrafts. The center was set up in October 1959, just months after Tibetans escaped to Darjeeling. It began with just four workers aiming to independently support themselves. Today, the center is home to over 650 refugees, many of whom have come to learn new skills and become a part of the self-help philosophy.

One of the workshops had bolts of material piled against the walls and boxes of complete garments ready to be exported to over 35 countries around the world. There were just two elderly men inside working together to cut out a sweater from a piece of dyed yak wool. Neither spoke English, but both were happy to show me the pattern and some of their finished products that the material spread out on the table would eventually become. Meticulous work goes into the garments.

There is a showroom where the finished products can be purchased knowing that the money will go straight back into supporting the center’s work, which also includes a school for the children.

“Many of the children all want to go off to further study and move away to the cities,” the woman behind the counter tells me. “Many don’t want to stay and learn painting or sewing anymore.” She seemed to understand the desire of the young Tibetans to move on and find new lives in the larger towns, but the community was still determined to preserve as much of their heritage as possible.

Whilst wandering the outdoor mall in Darjeeling, I happened across the small and relatively new Himalayan Tibet Museum, run by a local not-for-profit organization. The exhibition is ornately decorated with stunning paintings and colorful displays of the history of the Tibetan people, from the first king in 127 BCE to the scattered diaspora of today’s community. The Dalai Lama himself also donated artifacts; artists created a 3D display of the Himalayas and the Tibetan communities inhabiting its slopes. It’s an underrated attraction of Darjeeling and offers a further insight into the history and culture of its people.

“I think the Tibetans must have a very difficult life,” a local Indian woman told me towards the end of my time in the town. Perhaps she was right. However, on a visit to Darjeeling, the refugees have managed to hold boldy onto their traditions; here, in this small corner of Darjeeling, visitors can learn about their culture, appreciate their history, and eat their momos.