Category Archives: India

Tibetans in Exile

I’m getting close to finishing my project on Tibetan refugees and the impact that being exiled from their country has on their culture, so I thought I’d share some more faces of the people I met. The work on the refugee centre in India is finished and now my focus is on finding Tibetans who have settled in Western countries to see if or how they are able to keep their culture alive. Luckily I found out that some of the people I interviewed in India have family living in Canada, so in the coming weeks I hope to round out the story with their perspectives.

For now, here are a few of the more interesting characters from the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre in Darjeeling, India.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

A view of the Tibetan refugee centre in Darjeeling, India as seen through some Buddhist prayer wheels, the Himalayas in the background.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

Karma is around 80 years old, but doesn’t know exactly. He fled the Chinese army and crossed the border into India where he worked in the Refugee Centre’s dairy. After suriving such dangerous times as a youth and emerging unscathed, his finger was bitten off by a cow in India – an irony that is not lost on him as he humorously displays his stump. “My heart says we will get Tibet back, but my brain says otherwise,” he says.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

Pema (82) walked from Tibet to India with her family flock of sheep. Her only child, a daughter, died of an unkown illness in the Indian state of Sikkim before they arrived in the refugee centre. She says she has no ill feelings towards Chinese people, only their aggressive government.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

Passang (91), left Tibet at age 35 after watching Chinese soldiers arrest and torture people in her home city of Sakya. She walked with a friend for nearly a month before settling in Darjeeling.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling India

Tsewang Rinzin (42) is a first generation refugee, meaning he was born in exile. In hopes of fighting against the Chinese for the freedom of Tibet, he joined the famous 2-2 regiment of the Indian army and became a personal bodyguard of the Dalai Llama. He left the army when his mother (background) became ill, and Tsewang is now an amateur bodybuilder.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling India

Tsering Chomphel (59) is better known as “Sap” to the Tibetan community. He escaped from Tibet on his mother’s back at age 3. Like many other Tibetans he joined the 2-2 regiment of the Indian army, hoping to fight back against the Chinese. Now, however, he believes that education, not fighting, is the answer to beating China

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

Samdup (87) was a soldier in the Dalai Llama’s personal guard. He and his unit retreated from the Chinese invasion and joined the royal entourage as it crossed the border into Nepal.

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Tibetans in Exile: Topgay

Topgay, 77, sits in a workshop where he rolls woolen threads into balls. He escaped from Tibet on foot, traveling accross the Himalayas on foot and settling in Darjeeling, India.

Topgay, 77, sits in a workshop where he rolls woolen threads into balls. He escaped from Tibet on foot, traveling accross the Himalayas on foot and settling in Darjeeling, India.

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.

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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.

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Tibetans in Exile

I’m now a week or so into documenting the lives of the Tibetan refugees living in Darjeeling, India, and thought I would start to share some of the stories I’ve heard. The plight of the Tibetan’s has long since been a favourite sympathy for Western activists, but it wasn’t until I got here and started talking to the elderly refugees that I felt a personal connection.

What I’ve found in Darjeeling is a community of some of the most harmless and lovely people I’ve ever encountered in the world. It’s hard to imagine them raising their voices at one another let alone bearing arms against the People’s Liberation Army of China.

The people in the center are happy and well cared for, if not rich. They have built a business for themselves producing traditional handicrafts made from organic materials that funds their daily needs. It would not be a particularly sad place if it wasn’t for the tragic events that brought the people there in the first place. But it is sad. Behind their welcoming smiles are stories of hardship and a hope for a future political landscape that doesn’t seem likely.

Once quite a thriving and lively place, the center is turning into a ghost town. The young people have left, pursuing education and employment elsewhere in India or abroad. Apart from a few youths home on school vacation, only the infants and the elderly remain. What will happen to their culture and traditions when the old generation dies off? If China decided to return Tibet to the Tibetans, would there be enough culture remaining to rebuild what was lost? Would the young generation, well-educated and ambitious, even want to go back?

I’ll be shooting for another two weeks in an effort to understand these questions, if not answer them definitively, and will post a complete photoessay when it is finished. For now, though, I though I’d start sharing the personal stories in more detail than is possible in a two sentence photo caption.

Hope you find them as interesting as I have.

Luc.

Nawang Chonzom, 83.

Nawang Chonzom, 83, sits inside her house in the Tibetan refugee center in Darjeeling.

Nawang Chonzom, 83, sits inside her house in the Tibetan refugee center in Darjeeling.

Sitting in her small room in the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center in Darjeeling, Nawang Chonzom seems much younger than her 83 years. She lucidly recalls being a young mother in 1959 when rumours of the invading Chinese army reached her. She had heard that the soldiers were capturing and torturing Tibetans, but it wasn’t until they tried to kill her husband that she decided to leave. He had been stockpiling a secret cache of wheat for his family, knowing that hard times were coming to Tibet, and when the soldiers discovered it they tried to shoot him. Somehow escaping, he returned to the family home and announced that it was time to go.

Because of the urgency of the situation, there was no time to liquidate any of the family’s assists or to collect their valuables. With no money to her name, Nawang tied her baby daughter to her back and set out on foot to Nepal. With one child on her back and two more following at her side, she survived the trek by begging along the way.

Crossing into Nepal and living on the streets in the small town of Walung on the Nepal-India border, Nawang heard that a refugee centre for Tibetans was being established in the Indian city of Darjeeling. She immediately led her family out of Nepal and into India, arriving in Darjeeling a few days later. Initially she had to continue begging on the streets, but she was quickly invited into the newly-established refugee centre and given a job rolling woollen threads into balls.

When I asked her how long she did this work for, she pauses and looks absently at her hands. “I don’t know. 40 or 50 years maybe. But now I have problems with my knees and it’s getting harder to leave the house.”

Now an old woman, she makes it to work when she can. He son died many years ago of a disease she cannot remember the name of, and her two daughters (including the one she carried on her back) live in New York City. They send money home to their mother when they can, but Nawang says she doesn’t need much money, that the refugee centre provides her with the things she needs to live.

“I don’t know about the future. I am old and don’t know anything about politics, but I want to live to see Tibetan independence,” Nawang says when asked about the future of her country. She prays to the Dalai Lama every day, along with nearly every other Tibetan in the centre, but says she can’t be sure her wish will come true.

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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.

 

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Darjeeling: Beyond Tea

A woman prepares the mornign tea for her household just after sunrise.

A woman prepares the morning tea for her household just after sunrise.

I came to Darjeeling knowing nothing about the city beyond the fact that they produce some world class tea. Originally I was meant to spend just a few days here before heading east to the border states of Assam and Nagaland, but Darjeeling has been such a captivating place that I haven’t managed to leave.

Perched on the top of a mountain 2 200 meters above sea level, Darjeeling is sometimes referred to as the “Queen of Mountains,” a moniker I think of bitterly whenever I am gasping for breath. Due to a mixture of thin air and the fact that I am terribly unfit, even a short walk is a minor ordeal.

Though technically part of West Bengal, the people of Darjeeling look nothing like their neighbours in Kolkata. They don’t really look Indian at all, at least in the way that I think of Indians. Considering that I can see across the valley to Nepal on a clear day, maybe this shouldn’t be surprising, but it is. In many ways Darjeeling feels like a country within a country. The differences are so clear that the locals have tried to separate from West Bengal and form their own state – Ghorkhaland.

Regardless of how the political situation plays out, the Ghorkas are fantastic people: quick to smile, wonderfully photogenic, and extremely welcoming.

These images are from my wandering around Darjeeling’s streets and villages and I wanted to share them before I shift the focus of my posts to my current project about Tibetans in exile.

Enjoy.

 

Two men sit in a black market bar which serves homemade rice whiskey. Alcoholism is an increasing problem in the area. This photo was taken at 7am.

Two men sit in a black market bar which serves homemade rice whiskey. Alcoholism is an increasing problem in the area. This photo was taken at 7am.

The Ghorkaland flag flies above a residential area of Darjeeling. Ghorkas are of Nepalese ancestry and many would like to form a state seperate from West Bengal.

A flag flies above a residential area of Darjeeling. Ghorkas are of Nepalese ancestry and many would like to form a state seperate from West Bengal.

A boy is seen walking through a tear in a poster which is urging for unity among India's people.

A boy is seen walking through a tear in a poster which is urging for unity among India’s people.

A small Catholic cemetary on the outskirts of Darjeeling.

A small Catholic cemetary on the outskirts of Darjeeling.

Part of a ten meter blood streak resulting from a leopard attack. Leopards have begun to attack inside the city more frequently as the natural enviroment around Darjeeling is increasingly transformed into tea plantations.

Part of a ten meter blood streak resulting from a leopard attack. Leopards have begun to attack inside the city more frequently as the natural enviroment around Darjeeling is increasingly transformed into tea plantations.

A woman and her granddaughter walk towards the city center. Darjeeling is known as "the Queen of Mountains" since it is built on a mountain top. Even short walks leave the unfit breathless.

A woman and her granddaughter walk towards the city center. Darjeeling is known as “the Queen of Mountains” since it is built on a mountain top. Even short walks leave the unfit breathless.

A tiny shop overlooks Darjeeling's Happy Valley Tea Estates. Darjeeling produces some of India's highest quality tea, sometimes exlusively for large companies like Harrod's of Knightsbridge.

A tiny shop overlooks Darjeeling’s Happy Valley Tea Estates. Darjeeling produces some of India’s highest quality tea, sometimes exlusively for large companies like Harrod’s of Knightsbridge.

A retired school teacher sits in a small tea shop. Darjeeling has a respected education system, with some of its schools ranking in the top 20 of India's best.

A retired school teacher sits in a small tea shop. Darjeeling has a respected education system, with some of its schools ranking in the top 20 of India’s best.

A 27-year-old Ghorka man poses for a portrait. The Ghorka's are exceptionally friendly people and many love to be photographed.

A 27-year-old Ghorka man poses for a portrait. The Ghorka’s are exceptionally friendly people and many love to be photographed.

A woman looks out the window of her small shop in one of Darjeeling's outlying villages. While the city center is a tourist hotspot, the surrounding villages are seldom visited.

A woman looks out the window of her small shop in one of Darjeeling’s outlying villages. While the city center is a tourist hotspot, the surrounding villages are seldom visited.

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The Road to Darjeeling

After a few interesting weeks in Kolkata I’ve been heading slowly north towards the mountain city of Darjeeling. Though the travel itself was gruellingly slow and uncomfortable, I was able to spend a few days in the small towns of Rampur Hat and Tarapith. While Tarapith is famous as a spot for ceremonial cremations, Rampur Hat is famous for nothing. Since virtually no tourists stay in Rampur Hat for any length of time I found that the locals were extremely welcoming and curious about me – a refreshing change from the big-city indifference of Kolkata.

Here are a few selected images from the two days in these small towns. Newer work from Darjeeling to follow.

A group of men warm themselves around a fire at sunrise. Temperatures in the north of West Bengal regualrly drop below freezing in the winter.

A group of men warm themselves around a fire at sunrise. Temperatures in the north of West Bengal regualrly drop below freezing in the winter.

A woman and her baby wait for their morning chai to be ready.

A woman and her baby wait for their morning chai to be ready.

A crow hops between ledges in a residential area of Rampur Hat.

A crow hops between ledges in a residential area of Rampur Hat.

Straw figures waiting to be covered in clay in a small artists workshop.

Straw figures waiting to be covered in clay in a small artists workshop.

A group of men in blue lungis take a break after lunch on the streets of Rampur Hat.

A group of men in blue lungis take a break after lunch on the streets of Rampur Hat.

The local representative of the National political party sits in his small office in Tarapith.

The local representative of the National political party sits in his small office in Tarapith.

An old woman sits inside a Hindu shrine in Tarapith, chanting prayers for those who make donations.

An old woman sits inside a Hindu shrine in Tarapith, chanting prayers for those who make donations.

 

 

 

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Kolkata: City of Joy

A woman walks down an alley to her home.

The City of Joy has been many things, but easily photographed is not one of them.

A huge sprawling metropolis, the former British colonial capital always seemed like an impossibly foreign place to me when I was younger. Hearing the name Calcutta on a news report or reading it in a book was always synonymous with poverty and underdevelopment in my mind. Growing up in small town Canada, Calcutta (now Kolkata) was the land of Mother Theresa and sweatshops, definitely not a place I ever thought I’d be. I suppose that’s why I chose it as my first stop in India, as a way to dispel some of my preconceptions – and I’m glad I did.

It can be a difficult city to work in; the people are busy in a big-city sort of way and don’t have the time or the patience for having their picture taken. In some cases there is open hostility in the eyes of people when they see me carrying a camera. I have been physically shooed away by irritated housewives on several occasions while lingering around an interesting location. This can be extremely frustrating (as I use quite a wide angle lens, I have to get so close that I generally require some level of acceptance from people), but it’s also understandable. I’d be equally discourteous to someone standing outside my house taking photos of me. India has to be one of the most photographed countries in the world, so it shouldn’t be surprising that people get fed up with it. I would.

But it’s an easy place to like, and I’m not quite sure why. There is something indefinable about its energy and mood. The old British architecture is decaying in a wonderfully colourful way and it makes for a great backdrop to this city of millions. It is the principle education center of Eastern India and has produced some of the countries most famous academics. It hasn’t been as modernized as many of India’s major cities. For whatever reason, Kolkata is just an interesting place to be.

Despite my growing fondness of the city, I’ve been here for the best part of three weeks and haven’t yet found a story or subject that has grabbed my attention. Though the street photography has been great, I’ve decided to head north towards the border regions of Assam and Nagaland to see if I can get inspired.

These images are a selection from the past few weeks of wandering through the city on foot.

The residential side streets between New Market and Old Town.

Movie posters coat the walls in the east of Old Town.

Movie posters coat the walls in the east of Old Town.

 

A Muslim girl stands in the entranceway to a small community church. Kolkata is home to a diverse cultural and religious population.

A Muslim girl stands in the entranceway to a small community church. Kolkata is home to a diverse cultural and religious population.

Kolkata's government was communist until very recently and support for the party can be seen painted on many walls around the city.

Kolkata’s government was communist until very recently and support for the party can be seen painted on many walls around the city.

A Sadhu man, or Baba, smokes a cigarette in his small tent. Sadhus are traveling monks and hundreds of them arrive in Kolkata ahead of a religious festival.

A Sadhu man, or Baba, smokes a cigarette in his small tent. Sadhus are traveling monks and hundreds of them arrive in Kolkata ahead of a religious festival.

A semi-wild horse trims the grass near the Eden Gardens cricket ground. Kolkata has some of the biggest park areas of any city in India.

A semi-wild horse trims the grass near the Eden Gardens cricket ground. Kolkata has some of the biggest park areas of any city in India.

A man takes a break from his job shovelling coal.

A man takes a break from his job shovelling coal.

 

An electrical business closes every Sunday. Much of the city uses Sunday as a day of rest.

An electrical business closes every Sunday. Much of the city uses Sunday as a day of rest.

A food vendor fires his charcoal stove in the early evening ahead of the rush hour diners. Street food is ubiquitous in the city.

A food vendor fires his charcoal stove in the early evening ahead of the rush hour diners. Street food is ubiquitous in the city.

A batsmen approaches the wickets during an afternoon practice. These players are members of club teams and many aspire to play at the state or national level.

A batsmen approaches the wickets during an afternoon practice. These players are members of club teams and many aspire to play at the state or national level.

 

Police patrol the streets on New Years Eve, 2012. Kolkata has been rated the safest major city in India.

Police patrol the streets on New Years Eve, 2012. Kolkata has been rated the safest major city in India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Merry Christmas from Kolkata

A man smiles as he receives a text message on Christmas eve in Old Town, Kolkata.

Arrived safely in Kolkata after a hellish flight via China and being held for several hours in detention (for the second time) by the kindly people at Shanghai immigration.

Merry Christmas to all.

Luc

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