Tibetan Muslims

Features Issue 33 Aug, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai / Photo: ECS Media

We don’t eat pork,” they said. Still in the dark, I asked, “Why?” Then it suddenly dawned on me that two out of the three Tibetan girls I was talking to, were Muslims. Looking at their faces one easily forgets that their names make it obvious  they are not Buddhists, but Muslims. A Muslim need not look like an Arab, Kashmiri or a Pakistani. Many Africans and African Americans including Muhammad Ali are Muslims. So also, there are Chinese Muslims, Thai Muslims and there are Tibetan Muslims. Most people are taken aback when they first hear someone mention Tibetan Muslims. Jill’s (the one with the Hasselblad) reaction was typical, “Tibetan Muslims! What do you mean Tibetan Muslims?”

The history of Tibetan Muslims goes back to the time of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama of 17th Cent. Tibet. The present one is the fourteenth. It all began when Kashmiri Muslims traveled to Tibet to trade with the Tibetans there. They arrived with goods from India but returned to Kashmir soon after trading was over. The presiding Dalai Lama then showed his greatness. Reaching beyond religious boundaries, he urged them to

stay in Tibet. And so they did, but only after certain rights were guaranteed to them. Two of their major demands were that they be allowed to build mosques and have their own burial grounds. However, much more was granted, and they even enjoyed the right to buy land and to follow Shariat Laws if they so wished.

As time went by, these migrants intermarried with the Tibetans just as the Newar traders did. The wives who were Tibetan Buddhists by birth embraced Islam, and thus was born the Tibetan Muslim community. Slowly a large community of Tibetan Muslims grew around Lhasa. The main regions from where these Muslims trace their ancestry are Kashmir and Ladakh. In general Tibetan Muslims are known as Khache. The word is derived from Khache Yul which is Tibetan for Kashmir. They are also known as “Lhasa-Khazi”.

Further privileges were granted and they were allowed to elect a five-man committee known as “Ponj”. The committee looked after the affairs of the community. One member among the five was selected as a leader known as Mia. Tibetan Muslims were also allowed to establish commercial enterprises and exempted from taxation. But the privileges lasted only until the Chinese took over Tibet in 1959.

There are four mosques in Lhasa, two in Shigatse and one in Tsethang. Naturally most of the Tibetan Muslim settlements are around these areas. As for burial grounds, there were two cemeteries around Lhasa, one at Gyanda Linka 12 km from Lhasa town and the other at Kygasha which is 15 km away. The latter is predominantly used by Chinese Muslims. There were two Madrasas (primary schools) in Lhasa where Muslim children were taught about Islam, the Koran and how to offer namaz. They also needed to learn Urdu as part of their curriculum. For further studies however, they went to India where many Tibetan Muslims completed their stuthes.

But the Kashmiri Muslims were not the first Muslims to arrive in Tibet. It is believed that as early as the 8th century, Islamic missionaries came to Tibet from Persia. Caliph Umar is said to have sent Salah bin Abdullah Hanafi to Lhasa. Muslim migrants are said to have first entered Tibet around the 12th century AD.

In spite of their new found religion, the Tibetan Muslims did not completely abandon their culture and traditions. They still revere the Dalai Lama and still visit their Buddhist relatives during Lhosar. They have also made exceptional contributions to Tibetan culture such as the Nangma, which is a popular classical Tibetan music. The word “Naghma”, meaning song has its origins in Urdu. The songs are high pitched and were once a craze among Lhasa residents.

After 1959, the Tibetan Muslims dispersed and many were granted Indian citizenship on the basis of their Kashmiri ancestry. They are now settled in Indian towns like Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Srinagar and Gangtok and further out in Saudi Arabia,Turkey and other middle-eastern countries. Many live in Tibet and Nepal. It is believed there are about 3000 Tibetan Muslims living in Tibet.

Our photographer, Dash Bahadur and I met many Tibetan Muslims around Kathmandu. We visited their shops, their homes and met them again at the  masjid (mosque) during their Friday prayers. Surprisingly, we were allowed to photograph them. Here are their personal stories as told by some of them.

Karimulla Batt of Kwabahal
Karimulla Batt was nominated by the Tibetan Muslim Welfare Association to head the organization. This is an informal association with no office. The committee consists of usually seven or eight people. According to Karimulla, there are 60 to 70 families of Tibetan Muslims living in Kathmandu.

He arrived in Nepal in the 1970’s. In the beginning they were just visits and he would always return to Kalimpong. Born in Lhasa, Karimulla left Tibet in 1961 and migrated to Kalimpong. In the 1980’s he came to Nepal and opened the shop at Kwabahal, Thahiti where even today he sells Tibetan ornaments like beads, rings, amulets, bracelets besides ritual objects and Tibetan furniture. His family consists of seven people including four daughters and one son. He has sent his eldest daughter and son to study in the UK while two of his daughters are studying in Delhi.

Tibetan Muslims live in many different parts of the city like Chhetrapati, Thamel, Naya Bazaar, Thahiti, Kamalpokhari and Kamaladi. Karimulla lives quite close to his shop in Kwabahal, Thahiti. These Muslims strictly follow the dictates of Islam and therefore do not drink alcohol nor do they eat pork. They attend Friday prayers at the mosque near Ghanta Ghar.

Karimulla’s father lived in Tibet and later moved to Kalimpong where he died many years ago. Talking about relationships between Buddhists and Muslims he comments, “The Tibetan Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists enjoy a cordial relationship and live in harmony. The Tibetan Muslims have never been made to feel like minorities.”

 Ramzan Batt from Darjeeling
Ramzan Batt lives in Darjeeling and was here on a short visit. His brother owns a jewelry store in Thamel. He relates the story of how Tibetan Muslims came to Darjeeling from Tibet. He says, “Many families left Tibet in 1961 and reached Darjeeling by crossing the Nathula pass. There are about 50-60 families of Tibetan Muslims living in Darjeeling. Most of them run shops or have opened hotels. In order to keep their identity intact, they have maintained very good relations with Tibetan Buddhists.” They also have very good relations with the Dalai Lama, who Ramzan claims has been very generous to them.

Mohammed Omar from Taiwan
Mohammed Omar lives in Taiwan. He was born in Kalimpong and spent 18 years of his life in Darjeeling. He then left for Taiwan and has been living there ever since. He has been in Taipei for the last 25 years. “I first went to Taiwan to study. Then I married a local Chinese girl and settled there,” he says “At present I work for a multi-national company there and it’s a very fast life. There are very few Tibetan Muslim families in Taipei.” His brother and sister visited him in Taiwan. The sister is at the moment living in the US, while his brother has set up his own business in Kathmandu. Mohammed comes to Kathmandu on holiday about twice a year since his brother now resides here.

Sophia Khatun (Cover Girl)

Sophia Khatun was born in Kathmandu on April 8th 1978. Her parents sent her to Mount Herman in Darjeeling for her education. She later moved to Bangalore to do her + 2 and then on to Delhi to earn her bachelors degree from Indraprastha College for Women at Delhi University. She spent three years majoring in English Literature. Then it was off to UK to do her masters in journalism.

Sophia’s first job was with an NGO called Platform where she worked until late 2000. Then in 2001 she joined the PR and marketing department of Hotel Yak & Yeti. “I was also working as a radio host for KATH 97.9 fm whilst I was working at the hotel. It was a weekly, bilingual telephone based show on social issues related to the youth,” she says. After a short stint at Yak & Yeti, she worked as a trainee with Daniel Lak. Along with Lak she visited eastern Nepal, going to Kakarvitta and parts of Jhapa, filming for BBC. It was during this phase of her life that she made up her mind to take up broadcast journalism.

By the end of August 2001 Sophia was off to Taipei in Taiwan. She elaborates “I landed there intending to study Mandarin but found a job as news editor for Taiwan News, an English language daily. This company also started a radio station called ICFM, where I worked as a news reader producing my own shows.” Never one to stay put, Sophia then left for London to do her masters. There she attended the University of Westminster and worked part time for Morgan de Toi. She also worked as a fashion trend editor for the London branch of “Cool Hunt” for about a year.

Sophia has written for the Kathmandu Post and also did a column on social issues and a bit of politics. Later she worked as a producer with Daniel Lak and made films on “Tilganga Eye Camp” for which they went up to the Khumbu region to shoot. Some of the filming was done at Kunde Hospital built by Sir Edmund Hillary. They also went to Birgunj to do stories on the “Disappearances caused by the state”. She has worked freelance as a fixer and producer for Star TV (Hong Kong), BBC and  is the contact for Channel 4 in Nepal. She worked with the Star TV crew when they came to film in Nepal. During May, they made short films on “Maoist Abductions”, “Maiti Nepal”, “Bhutanese Refugees and the “Blue Diamond Society”. Simultaneously she herself filmed short reports for Kantipur Television. The entire job took two weeks.

This is not the first time that Sophia has appeared on the cover of a magazine. She has been featured on the covers of Wave magazine and Vision. Asked about her present occupation Sophia says, “Soon after coming back from London, I got a job at Kantipur Television in late March 2004. Working in the news department, I double as a reporter and a sub editor.”

 Mohammed Saeed of Saeed Embroideries
Mohammed Saeed lives in Kwabahal, Thahiti and has been living in Nepal for about 16 years. He left Tibet in 1960 and went to live in Kalimpong. His father was born in Tibet. Mohammed lives with his wife, a son and a daughter. At present his son studies in Kalimpong, while his daughter pursues her education here in Kathmandu. When he came to Kathmandu he established a business making embroideries. Today at Saeed Embroideries, he leaves the work to his workmen and only supervises. His business is mostly retail and to a large extent his clients are foreigners, usually tourists. “The shop is about ten years old, but business these days is low because of the decline in tourist arrivals,” says Mohammed. During his years in Kalimpong he was a young boy and hence spent most of his time studying in school. He has been to Tibet only once since he left. He visited his cousins who are still living there. He proudly says, “The embroidery business in Nepal was started by Tibetan Muslims,” and his friends Karimulla and others agree with him.

Amina Banu of ‘Banu’s Total Fitness’

Amina and Salima Banu are well known figures (no pun intended) when it comes to fitness. The two sisters opened Banu’s Total Fitness in Kamal Pokhari in December 1994. Fitness centers had not proliferated then and Banu’s earned fame quickly. The Banus have twelve years of teaching experience in the fitness industry and Salima is a Master Member of IDEA, the international association of fitness professionals. She was awarded the Priyadarshini Award as the best women entrepreneur of Nepal in 1997.

At present, Salima is in the US and Amina visits every year to keep up with the latest developments and to upgrade her fitness center. She along with manager Ahmed Kamal, attends World Fitness IDEA in Las Vegas, USA to update and keep abreast of the latest trends in the fitness industry. Ahmed specializes in personal training and fitness/nutrition, while Amina is an aerobics instructor and had her own shows aired by Channel Nepal. Ahmed is her nephew and they have recently hired Zahid Kamal as office supervisor. Two other trainers supervise the daily fitness programs at the gym. Banu’s, located at Kamalpokhari, is also open on Saturdays  besides weekdays. Besides the regular gym training and aerobics, Banu’s also conducts classes in Japanese Shotokan Karate, Latin American Dance, Arabic Belly Dance, Nepali Dance, Hatha Yoga and Traditional Japanese Accupressure Massage (Shitsu).

Amanulla Tako’s Story

Amanulla lives in Naya Bazaar, Kathmandu. He has a jewelry and ornaments store named Shangri-la in Thamel, which is run by his son, Enayat and daughter, Tahira. He left Tibet in 1959 and reached Kalimpong in 1960. During the 1962 war between India and China, he went to Kashmir. There he was engaged in the tailoring trade and ran a lucrative business stitching Police uniforms. Looking back on his younger days, Amanulla recalls, “In Srinagar, I remember, there were about 120 families of Tibetan muslims. Most of them were engaged in the tailoring business. Then in 1965 I moved to Kalimpong at a time when the road to Tibet from Nepal was via Sikkim.”

In 1972, Amanulla arrived in Nepal and took up residence in Thahiti Chowk. He remembers there were only 35 families of Tibetan Muslims then. He made a living making Tibetan dresses. For their Friday prayers they used to go to the Jama Masjid as he still does today. He says, “Around 1985 I visited Tibet again. Soon after that visit I started selling precious stones and jewelry here in Kathmandu. Most of the stones come from Tibet, some from Afghanistan and others from India. In the early days Tibetan Muslims sold clothes (mostly Italian tweed), watches, German cameras, which they also repaired, perfumes, cosmetics, radios, etc.” To buy the goods these hardy people went to Calcutta (Kolkata) via Kalimpong. From Kalimpong, the goods were then transported by donkeys or yaks. At that time, most businesses were run by Tibetan Muslims and Newars from Nepal.

In Nepal most Tibetan Muslims live in Kathmandu. According to Amanulla, at present there are about 60 families living here.

Leaving his business in the hands of his son and daughter, Amanulla can be often seen in the afternoons, chatting with friends at Karimulla’s shop further down the road. (See first photo on page 42)

We left Karimulla, Mohammed, Amanulla and others to their animated conversation in Karimulla's shop to visit others. One Saturday we visited Amanulla's house in Naya Bazaar. One of the three Tibetan girls I mentioned earlier is Farida, Amanulla's daughter. We shared their lunch sitting on the large rug, Muslim style. The old man taught us the rules of washing your hands but not wiping with a towel before eating. “You only use a towel after the meal,” he said. We watched the little kids read the Koran. We spent two Friday afternoons at the Masjid (mosque) meeting more people and photographing them at prayer. Then finally on the last day of our assignment, we had a totally different experience-meeting Sophia, our cover girl at 8:30 in the morning to take her for the shoot at Raj Bhai Suwal's studio in Khichhapokhari. We started out on what was meant to be a week-long assignment but wound up spending three weeks on it. Yet, we couldn’t catch Amina Banu for a photo shoot. Meeting all these Tibetan Muslims has been a rewarding journey of discovery.