Tibetan Market fire in Varkala, one year later

By Lobsang Wangyal

VARKALA, India, 12 February 2016

In a beautiful setting atop a cliff overlooking a beach, Varkala figures among the top South India destinations for both domestic and international tourists when the North reels under winter cold, and Kerala’s most popular backpacker hangout.

From December the place gets busy and prices rocket till end of February. The cliff-side, decked with shops, restaurants, hotels, massage parlours, and other tourist-related businesses, gets busy with tourists strolling after the sunset. There are a few restaurants with Tibetan names such as Tibetan Kitchen, Little Tibet, and Lhasa Restaurant. They are not run by Tibetans, rather by locals, Nepalis, and foreigners, yet they are the most popular ones!

A few Tibetans come here every winter to sell to the tourists. One group of Tibetans set up a Tibetan Market association a few years ago, and there are other Tibetan shops all along the cliff.

Tibetan market fire

Many of the vendors came in October to rebuild their shops: In April last year, all the seven shops comprising the Tibetan Market were gutted by a fire caused by a short circuit.

“I lost about 85,000 rupees worth of things in the fire. I told the authorities honestly how much I lost. I know CTA has no funds,” says Tenzin Paljor. “It cost me 2.3 lakh rupees (3,500 USD approx) to rebuild the new shop.”

“We received some help from CTA, rupees 50,000 each from the swami of Sivagiri Mutt (ashram) in Varkala, and cash donated by some locals and foreign tourists. We are all very thankful to their kindness and generosity.”

Paljor didn’t want to speak much about the fire as that has caused him much distress. “So many people ask me the same thing again and again. So I want to get over it.”

His wife served as the liaison for the association after the fire. “She was speaking to everyone, including the Chief Minister of Kerala. But still some of the members were not satisfied with her works.”

Rift in the Tibetan Market

A group of Tibetans set up a Tibetan Market association a few years ago which now has seven shops as members. The land was taken on lease from the local community.The other Tibetan shops along the cliff are on separate locations and properties, and so are not part of the Association.

The seven shops at the Tibetan Market are allocated to members according to lottery every year. This year two member families came early and chose the first two shops without the usual lottery procedure. Due to this breaking of the rules, and the perception that the first two shops do better business as they are close to the main road on the cliff, this has caused a rift among the members of the association, and these two families are no longer part of the association.

Polling booth in Varkala

Each of the 17 Tibetan shops has around two members running the business, and therefore there are about 30 Tibetans in Varkala who are all eligible to vote in the upcoming exile Tibetan elections on 20 March. In addition there are Tibetans at nearby Kovalam, Kochi, and Ernakulam.

Speaking about the upcoming Sikyong election, Paljor said he may not be able to participate as there will not be a polling booth here. “I would vote if there is a booth here.” The nearest polling station for Tibetans in Varkala and Kerala is Bangalore, which is 16 hours by train.

Another long-time shop owner is Ngawang, 62, from Bir, who has been coming to Varkala since 2001 for the winter tourist business. He sells Tibetan handicraft items, and says the business is not so good this year. “May be it’s because of the falling European economy.”

Ngawang, who is an ex-soldier of the Tibetan army Establishment 22, is well-informed about Tibetan politics. He talked about the ins and outs of the book The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong, the story of Gyalo Thondup, the elder brother of the Dalai Lama. He suggested reading this book to know better about contemporary Tibetan history.

Ngawang agreed with Tenzin Paljor that it would be good if the Tibetan election commission could set up a voting centre in Varkala, as then all the Tibetans in Kerala could try to come to vote here. It is a central location, and the other Tibetans in the nearby areas are only a few hours by train from Varkala.

He said that there are 17 Tibetan shops in Varkala, and the total number of eligible voters here are about 30. Nearby Kovalam, which is half hour by train, has four Tibetan shops with eight Tibetans there who could vote. There are a couple of shops in Kochi, with five eligible voters, and about ten people in Ernakulam, making 53 eligible voters in Kerala

But since the total number of Tibetans in all Kerala during the time of the Tibetan election could be less than 50, they are not expecting to have a polling booth in Varkala.

“If a polling station could be made in Varkala, it will be very good, and I am sure all in Varkala and the people in the nearby places would be willing to participate in the elections. I have my green book with me, and I know who to vote for.”

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