“The Guests”: Tibetan Muslims in Eastern Himalayas

Anup Shekhar Chakraborty

Following the Dalai Lama’s apposite use of the term ‘Guest’[1] for himself and the larger ‘Tibetan’s in Exile’ in India whom he represents, I would attempt to unravel the position of the Tibetan Muslims in the Eastern Himalayan settings of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Tibetan Muslims (Bhote Muslims/Bhutia Muslims), a micro-migrant group[2] of the Tibetan exiles in India, migrated alongside their Buddhist counterparts during the early sixties of twentieth century. Tibetan Muslims over the years have settled up North in Srinagar, and Gangtok, Darjeeling, and Kalimpong in the Eastern Himalayas.

The Tibetan Muslim community as a part of the larger ‘Tibetan in Exile’ have walked a tight rope first, in order to furnish evidence of their loyalty to the larger encapsulating Buddhist Tibetan identity and distancing themselves from the more controversial symbols of their religiously informed cultural identity. Such a strategy has enabled the Tibetan Muslims to elbow other Muslim groups (Bihari, Bengali, Kashmiri etc.) in Darjeeling and claim proximity to the exclusivist ‘Paharey Identity’ (‘Hill Identity’ akin to the hegemonic ‘Gorkhey Identity[3]) in hill towns of Eastern Himalayas. Second, in order to gain proximity to the Indian state they cling to their ‘Kashmiri-Ladaki Muslim’ lineage and flaunt the necessary symbols of their associated religious identity. These are much in congruence to the understanding how people as communities negotiate themselves into becoming ‘citizens’ in parts and degrees, and critics have typecast this in the hills of Darjeeling-Kalimpong-Gangtok as the “Chameleonizing tactics of ‘guest’ that is the Tibetan Muslims”.[4]

As a community the Tibetan Muslims have remained an interesting ‘hybrid.[5] The initial contacts between the Islamic World and Tibet dates back to the 7th Century[6]  and throughout the 12th Century.[7] Tibetan Muslims fall roughly in three groups: Kashmiri and Ladaki commonly referred as the ‘Kha-che[8] by the Buddhist Tibetans; the ‘Ho-po-lings’ that is the Chinese Muslims of Turkic and Central Asian origin; and the ‘Gharibs’ whose origin is obscure. The Za’idah[9] are naturalized Tibetans and speak Tibetan language, use the Tibetan traditional clothing and have married Tibetan women.[10]. However, following the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Tibetan Muslims of Kashmiri origin[11]  migrated to India during 1959 to 1962. The Tibetan Muslims organized themselves and approached themselves to the Indian mission at Lasha to claim Indian citizenship for their escape. They petitioned to the then the head of Indian counsel, Mr. P.N. Kaul, referring to their Kashmiri ancestry, they sought permission for them to return back to their ancestral place Kashmir. But the Chinese started torture and extortion to these Muslims for their demand.[12] In the mean time, the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s good office requested the Chinese government, through diplomatic channels, to allow these Muslims to ‘re-migrate’ to India.[13]

Over the years thanks to the benevolence of the Indian government the ‘guests’ have been elevated to ‘potential citizens’.[14] As many as 124 Muslim families were escorted by Chinese Army to the Nathula border of Sikkim in 1960 alone. They were welcomed by the Indian government and shifted to the temporary colonies of Gangtok, Kalimpong and Darjeeling. Thereafter a majority of the Tibetan Muslims relocated to Srinagar between the years 1961-1964. Presently approximately 50 families are in Darjeeling-Kalimpong town.

In these transit settlements the Tibetan Muslims have easily put to use their ancestral community forte in trade-mercantile activities and have excelled as shopkeepers selling an array of items from cheap Chinese clothes, shoes, to Tibetan handicrafts etc., supply of meat to the butcher khana in the towns and as hoteliers providing services to the tourists in these hill towns. In Darjeeling town, the Tibetan Muslim families control a majority of the garments business selling woolen garments, Tibetan dress and contemporary ‘western’ styled garments. Most of these shops are in Mahakal market (near GPO building) and Chowrasta. Some have enterprisingly ventured in tourist taxis in the hill towns of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. The younger generation being trilingual (able to speak Tibetan, Hindi/Urdu and Nepali) have taken the advantage of educational facilities assured by the Government of India in the form of the Central School for Tibetans at the Hermitage and higher education (colleges, ITI, Hotel management etc.) in the hills as well as outside West Bengal. The visibility of the Tibetans (Bhote, Buddhist and Muslims alike) in the economic sphere has been perceived as ‘threatening’ by the larger Gorkha people claiming to be true ‘locals’ of the ‘Pahar’ (hills).[15] In fact their marked presence in public offices in the hills has been humorously put as the ‘Gumbaization’ (conversion to a Monastery due to the overwhelming presence of the ‘Bhote’ aka the ‘Lama/Pala’) of the office.[16]

As ‘Guests’ the Tibetan Muslims have circumvented the fence bordering ‘citizenship’ and absorbed the various benefits of the Indian State and at the same time craftily retained their connectedness to the larger encapsulating Buddhist Tibetan call for retention of the ‘Tibetan in Exile Identity’.[17] Parallelly, they continue to weave their connections through the inherited memory of their ancestors and cling to the ‘Kashmiri-Ladaki identity’; and safely anchor themselves to hang on the fences and retain their connectedness to the larger Muslim groups in the region.[18]


[1] ‘Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama said he was the “longest guest” of the government of India and has now become a messenger of Indian culture’. PTI. Guwahati, April 2 2017. NewsNation (http://www.newsnation.in/india-news/dalai-lama-praises-indian-government-and-culture-article-166813.html)

[2] Tibet’s Muslims have been largely set outside the chronological accounts of Tibet’s history and also the history of Islam in South Asia. It might be due to the fact that Tibet’s history strongly resonates with the Buddhist monastic aspect while remaining tight lipped on any other possible histories. Another reason is that these groups remained cut off for a long period of time from the Muslim brethren elsewhere due to the lack of communication of Tibet with other world. It is very difficult to say how and when the preaching of Islam in Tibet initiated as because history throws a meager light on it. Tibetan Muslims in Tibet are of three main ancestral roots – Central Asia, Kashmir-Ladakh, China and Nepal. See, Butt, Masood. (1994). “Muslims of Tibet.” Tibetan Bulletin, January-February. 8-9, 16

[3] For this study I use the term ‘Gorkha’/Gorkhey’/‘Gorkhali’ as a blanket term to denote all ethnic tribes/people who migrated from Nepal to British India and who speak the ‘Khas Kura’ the lingua franca of Nepal. The present work does not intend to delve on the debates on the correct nomenclature for the said group as argued by A.C. Sinha in the Prologue to A.C. Sinha & T.B. Subba (ed.) (2003). Moreover, I consider it more appropriate to refer to the said group as ‘Gorkha’/Gorkhey’/‘Gorkhali’ because of their colonial linkages as migrants either recruited in the British Indian Army or Administration. What is interesting to note is the fact that the term ‘Gorkha’ is basically the name of a district in present day Nepal, and later the term acquired a special meaning in British martial discourses. The term ‘Gorkha’ or ‘Gorkhey’ has got a community appellation and transformed its culture-historical underpinnings into an ethno-political one. (Golay, Pravesh Jung. 2009; Golay, Bidhan. 2009). I use ‘Gorkha’ and ‘Gorkhey’ interchangeably while referring to the community’s self-defined identity. The latter though has more poetic connotations associated to it. I acknowledge the insights provided on this by Dr. Radha Sharma, Associate Professor, Department of Nepali, St. Joseph’s College,Darjeeling.

[4] The rhetoric of the ‘Chameleon’  is interesting at one level because of the more superficial ability to mix with the disparate communities in the hills; second, because it bring to fore very strongly the issue of ‘trust’, and trust issues question and further reverberate community social imaginaries in operation and unleash a wave of doubt/suspicion rooted in their religiously garnered identities as ‘Muslims’.

[5] Though ‘Hybrid’ is considered to be largely banal, I prefer to retain the word ‘hybrid’ for this enmeshed identity rather than the more convenient term ‘Creole’ precisely because the latter is more relevant in the context of colonization and the colonial experience while the former can be safely used in any other social, cultural, political context. (ASC).

[6] For the influence of Arabia and Persia on Tibet see, Beckwith, C.I. (1979). “The Introduction of Greek Medicine into Tibet in the 7th and 8th Century. Journal of the Amrican Oriental Society. Vol. 99, No. 2, April-June, pp. 297-313.

[7] Hoffman, Helmut et al. (1975). Tibet: A Handbook. Bloomington, pp. 30-32.

[8] Jest, Corneille. (1995). Kha-che and Gya-Kha-che, Muslim Communities in Lhasa (1990).  Tibetan Journal. Autumn. Vol. XX. No. 3. pp.8-20.

[9] Za’idah is the term used to denote the Kashmiri Muslims born in Tibet

[10] Historical records regarding the penetration of Islam in Tibet establishes the fact that there was a close trade relation with Arab traders who often came to Tibet via Samarkhand, Kashgarh and Ladakh. Muslim rulers of these places later attacked Tibet and successfully preached Islam in the places adjoining the traditional old Tibet trade route. It is agreed that the Tibetan Muslims are the descendents of Muslim traders or merchants who came from these regions between 12th centuries to 16th centuries, married Tibetan women and settled permanently. They enjoyed special privileges and were treated as the ‘Ornaments of Lasha”. For details see, Akasoy, Anna, Burnett, Charles and Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim. (2011) 2016). Islam and Tibet – Interactions along the Musk Routes. New York: Routledge.

[11] The Muslim people often said that, there was a severe famine in Kashmir once upon a time which pushed the Muslims to migrate various neighbouring countries. One such group came to Tibet and settled permanently as the place appeared congenital to them. See, Nadwi, Abhu Bakr Amir-Uddin. (2004). Tibet and Tibetan Muslims. (Trans. P. Sharma). Dharmasala: Saujany Books

[12] The Chinese Army jailed a number of senior Tibetan Muslim leader. Haji Habibulla Shami, the panch or chairman of Muslim councel at Tibet, was thrown into jail. Bhai Abdulgani La, Rapse Hamidulla, Abdul Ahad, Haji Abdul Quader Jami, Haji Abdul Gani Thapchi Shawa were under Chinese detention under various severe charges.

[13] Nadwi, Abhu Bakr Amir-Uddin. (2004). Tibet and Tibetan Muslims. (Trans. P. Sharma). Dharmasala: Saujany Books.

[14] Butt (1994) mentions that initially the Indian mission at Tibet accepted a few Muslim families as Indian and gave them white paper for citizenship on the basis of the following criteria: 1) Permanent domicile remained in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir; 2) Who visited India time to time; 3) One of the parents or grandparents was born in undivided India. For details see, Butt, Masood. (1994). “Muslims of Tibet.” Tibetan Bulletin, January-February. 8-9, 16

[15] It is to be noted that the Gorkha people don’t fine tune the distinction between the Indian Bhote community residing in the same region and the Tibetan Bhote (Buddhist or Muslims or Christian). For the Gorkha, that is the Nepali speaking community all Bhote can be clubbed into the image of the ‘Pala’ and ‘Amala’.

[16] ‘Humour’ at times reflects the societal actuality or popular sentiments through popular aphorism.

[17] It is interesting to note that the Tibetan Muslims like their Buddhist counterparts revere His Holiness Dalai Lama.

[18] Also the discussions in this paper subtly add to the already existing scholarships on Islam in South Asia that there were marked time frames in which Islam waved and weaved itself into South Asia through diverse routes, and embedded its coming in milestones, monuments, and memory thereby ensuring that ‘Islam would present itself to the peoples of South Asia in many different epiphanies seen from many angles. See for instance, Hardy, Peter. (2008). ‘Islam and Muslims in South Asia’, Chapter 18, 282 in Mushirul Hasan. (Ed.). (2008). Islam in South Asia: Theory and Practice. Vol. I. New Delhi: Manohar Publications. pp. 277-309.

[Dr. Chakraborty works at Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata. He can be reached at anupshekharc@rediffmail.com]

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