A Tibetan in Goa

By Lobsang Wangyal

ARAMBOL, India, 26 January 2016

Goa — a traveller’s dream of relaxation on beaches, some delicious seafood along with port wine or the local drink Fenny, and parties at night. All this in a balmy sub-tropical winter climate with temperature around 25 degrees during the season, in the smallest state of India dotted with plenty of beaches bounded by the Arabian Sea, attracting many domestic and international tourists.

Western hippies discovered the beauty and charm of Goa in the 1970s. They first stayed at Calangute, and later on moved to south Anjuna, and then to Vagator beach. More international tourists followed, until it became the popular holiday destination that it is today.

A Portuguese colony for almost 500 years, Goa became a part of India in 1961 after the Indian Army waged war when Portugal refused to negotiate on a deal to cede Goa and other enclaves of Daman, Diu, and Dadra & Nagar Haveli to the Republic of India. A Treaty signed between Portugal and India in 1975 acknowledged the full sovereignty of India on these territories.

Jigme Damdul from Kollegal Tibetan settlement in South India’s Karnataka state has been coming to Goa’s Arambol beach during the winter season for the last seven years. But not for the traveller’s dream — he is one of many Tibetans who come to the coast of Goa selling trinkets and souvenirs to tourists. A handful of Tibetans run massage parlours. Damdul comes here in October and remains till mid-April to make his living from the tourist trade. After he returns to his settlement in May, he begins farming. He has a little over three acres of land. His crop is mainly potatoes, that he sows in May and harvests by the end of August. He takes his harvest to Mettupalayam in Tamil Nadu.

Fifty-eight-year-old Damdul was born in Nagchuka in eastern Tibet. He was two years old when his mother carried him on her flight to India after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959. “So I was too small to remember anything about Tibet and the journey to India,” he says. His parents first settled in Ladakh.

He was admitted to school when he was about six years old. He was in Dharamshala for a year, but was then sent to Mount Abu in Rajasthan. Then he was sent to Pachmarhi, a hill station in Madhya Pradesh. But the school was closed down, and he was transferred to Shimla. He says that after about two years his parents didn’t sent him back to school at all. He then worked in road construction in Manali until 1975.

In that year the Dalai Lama helped many Tibetans in India to start a new settlement in Kollegal in South India. The area for the settlement was completely covered with forest. The Indian government helped them clear the forest with bulldozers. It took about three years to clear the land for farming. Later, houses were built and the land was distributed among the people, where they settled down.

Damdul says he once tried the sweater-selling business, like many Tibetans do during the winter season, making makeshift shops by the roadsides in busy Indian cities. It proved very difficult for him. It takes a lot of capital to get started, so a loan from the bank is usually needed. He now sells items like messages by the Dalai Lama, Buddha statues, kettles, locks and keys, door handles, singing bowls, incense, lungta flags, purse, malas, and jewellery. He admits the “antique” items are all fake. He said that this kind of business does much better than sweater business.

Damdul can speak many languages: Tibetan, Hindi, Kannada being chief, followed by English, Nepali, Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu. He has picked up some Russian in the last few years due to the increasing number of Russian tourists in Goa. “I can do business with Russians in Russian language,” he says.

Business is not so good this year. He says that last year by now, he would have made one more round with new merchandise. It is not going to happen this year. But compared to Calangute and Baga, other two popular beaches, he says he is doing much better: “My friends there told me that many didn’t sell anything for days.”

Damdul has eight children. With his meagre income, as well as sick family members, he hasn’t been able to afford to give them proper education. His two youngest daughters are in school now, and he is hoping to provide them better opportunities.

Many foreign tourists show interest in the message of the Dalai Lama, lungta flags, and the like, but they don’t necessarily ask about Tibet. In the last two years, Indian tourists are also showing interest in the Dalai Lama messages, lungta flags, and hand-held prayer wheels. They buy lungta flags to decorate their cars and put in front of their motorcycles. But none of the tourists in Goa show any interest in Tibet or Tibetans themselves.

Tibetans will go to vote for a new Sikyong (Prime Minister of Central Tibetan Administration) on 20 March. In all there are 400 to 500 Tibetans in Goa — with the majority in Calangute and Baga. Damdul says he wants to vote, if there was even a polling station in Panjim or Calangute and Baga. He feels that a polling station in Calangute would be ideal. But he says, “I am not sure how many people might have brought their green book to cast their vote. I have mine with me.”

Damdul says he keeps himself updated on Tibetan politics using Facebook and Wechat. He says he asks his friends on Wechat about who to vote for Sikyong in the coming elections. Friends in South India tell him that they are voting for Lobsang Sangay, and friends in North India in Dharamshala and Dekiling say that they will vote for Penpa Tsering. “I am confused and don’t know who to ask now. So I don’t know.”

Updated on 27 January.
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