Topgay is a 77 year old who is clearly the joker in the room of five men. They are sitting on raised platforms above a wooden floor and wrapped in thick wool blankets to deal with the winter chill. While all the men are more than willing to talk about their past, Topgay seems genuinely excited to share his story.
On a June night more than 50 years ago he decided it was time to leave Tibet. He had recently witnessed the shootings of some of his fellow Tibetans, and the threat of capture and torture was constant. When it became clear the main force of the invading Chinese would reach him soon, he simply walked away from his house and into the Himalayas. He left behind almost all of his possessions, including four yaks and over two hundred sheep.
The fact that he walked to the border of India and Nepal in just five days is more of a testament to the hardiness of the Tibetans than the difficulty of the journey. The air is so thin that, for the unacclimatized, walking up a flight of stairs can be exhausting. Topgay did it with a week’s worth of food and water on his back.
He stayed in Nepal for nearly ten years, working as a casual labourer, until he heard that the Tibetan government in exile had settled in India. Along with his parents he crossed into India, where he was granted refugee status. Initially intending to head to the southern city of Bangalore, Topgay changed his plans when he heard that a centre had been established for Tibetans in the nearby city of Darjeeling. He has now been there for more than forty years.
When asked about the future of Tibet, Topgay says that he believes a “sun of joy” will shine on Tibetans and they will be free again. He admits that some of the younger generation seem to have moved away from their cultural traditions, but feels that the Dalai Lama is doing such a good job of educating the world about Tibetan issues that the culture will persevere.
This is the second in a series of profiles about Tibetan refugees.
Anyone interested in supporting these people, particularly the very elderly in the center who may not have a family to help them, can email me at lfphotographs “at” gmail.com, or use the contact form. Without pointing fingers at any individuals, it has been made clear to me by certain people at the center that there are some avenues of donation that are much more effective than others. If you want your money to go directly to those who need it, contact me directly and I will point you in the right direction.