Kalimpong: Tibetan times in days gone by

Kalimpong town as viewed from a distant hill. In the background are the Himalayan Mountains.

Kalimpong town as viewed from a distant hill. In the background are the Himalayan Mountains. Wikimedia Commons/Anuj Kumar Pradhan

By Laden Tshering Samdup

KATHMANDU, Nepal, 2 September 2016

Kalimpong is well-known and perhaps dear to many Tibetans. It was a major trading outpost to Tibet, and signs of its prosperity still stand in the form of huge unused and empty warehouses, majestic mansions of Marwaris in 10th mile, but now all rotting and in a dilapidated state after the jingling bells of the mule train from Tibet stopped. One of the majestic buildings in 11th mile area had been converted into Tibetan Government School.

Growing up in Kalimpong, donning the blazer and tie of St Augustine’s School was considered to be a privileged upbringing. No words can describe the dedication of the European fathers to impart to us the best of education. They gave equal importance to moral science or study of moral values, which did ultimately help us to be good and respected citizens. The students were mainly of Tibetan Buddhist faith from Bhutan, Sikkim, and Tibet, and some had been placed in the care of these fathers as boarders since childhood.

The school was at a distance from the town, and every day we used to walk down the meandering road in groups. Many a time a Tibetan friend, Tseten, used to stop and with misty eyes look across at the Himalayas and declare he would one day cross the Himalayas to visit his homeland. Whether he has done it or not is not known since we lost touch with each other after school.

One day in school our principal, Father Gressot, a Swiss missionary, in all seriousness began to shoo and usher us into a classroom to listen to the lecture of a serious-looking erudite gentleman. I remembered him as one of our seniors often seen hanging around with a group of friends who had formed a musical band and used to belt out Beatles numbers in school concerts. He was very soft-spoken and appeared to be more immersed in his own thoughts striding across the room than addressing us. We did not hear and didn’t bother to listen to him. Today the whole world recognizes and listens to Sogyal Rinpoche.

In one of my visits home on vacation from college, I found a lama had occupied the room adjacent to the chhoysom. He was incoherent in his speech and often lisping, so it was easier to communicate with him in sign language. I was surprised to notice he always sat in meditative posture even in the night and never found him in sleeping posture. I asked him what he did in the night sitting awake and he replied he chased away the evil spirits. Many Tibetan acquaintances used to come to our house to visit him and it was amusing to see them lying in full body prostration at the main door before entering.

After completing my college studies I had given an interview for a job in Delhi and was anxious to be selected. I had heard that our lama was also a fortune teller so I approached him. He told me not to worry and the letter is already on the way. Sure enough, after two days I received the appointment letter. He stayed for many years with us before shifting to Suntala Kothi. In one of my visits home, I went to meet him at Suntala Kothi. He was over-ecstatic to see me and giggling like a child his hands grabbed my bowing head and touched it to his head. His love overwhelmed me and I remained transfixed bowing before him, head touching till he overcame his emotions. Later I came to know he was Thakpa Rinpoche, probably from Sera Monastery, Lhasa.

My father was the president of Bhote kidduk in Kalimpong, and in addition to social welfare activities he was the sole authority to identify and recommend the Bhotes of India for the tribal certificate which would entitle the holder for many facilities from Government of India like scholarships and reservations in colleges and employment. Many have used this privilege and today are occupying senior positions in Government of India. Such noble and altruistic provisions for the backward communities in the governance of country make India truly ‘Mera Bharat Mahan.’

My father and I sometimes used to walk together to town, and at the 10th mile area I used to find him cheerfully waving at the many smiling Tibetans who would be doing Namaste to him and I could never fathom the reasons for such camaraderie between them and him. So, it surprised me no end and made me sit up smilingly when I recently read a news item about ongoing court case regarding granting of Indian citizenship to Tibetans born in India.

Now ‘Captain saab’ is no more, but I have as much faith in the Indian judicial system as in my father. I have come across many landmark judgements of Indian court giving expedient redresses where all other grievance machineries have failed. I have no doubt that justice will be done in the extant case also and the birthright of a child will not be forfeited just because he or she happens to be a Tibetan. It’s a matter of time only.

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