Tibetan Muslims: A treasured legacy

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Tibetan Muslims: A treasured legacy

A youngster from Tibetan Muslim community praying in Kathmandu's Jame Masjid

"My ancestors were Nepalis," says Karimulla, 52. He's just arrived to join a group of Tibetan Muslims who are sitting on the carpet-adorned floor outside the prayer room in Kathmandu's Jame Masjid before evening namaz, conversing with each other in Tibetan language. "My great grandfather was a proper Kathmanduite," he smiles. "My great grandmother a Lama from Yolmo [Helambu]. She was a Buddhist." The great grandfather worked in Nepali consulate in Tibet. After marriage, they converted to Islam and mingled among Tibetan Muslims.

Tibetan Muslims sprang out of a blend of cultures – mostly a mix of Kashmiri and Tibetan – and, for centuries, they lived in Tibet, giving continuity to their distinct culture, but allowing other cultures, like Karimulla's Nepali ancestors', to mingle with their own. But when the community felt a threat to its heritage, it left its ancestral place.

Jame Masjid has become one point for them to express their faith and to preserve their culture. "Everyone is fasting during Ramadan," one member explains to me why people were not heeding to my request to share information about their community. "Most of them might not be in the mood to talk." He convinces an elderly to talk with me the following day.

Ibrahim Naik's family moved to India and later to Nepal after 1959 

Ibrahim Naik, a 73 year-old Kashmiri Tibetan Muslim, says Kathmandu's Tibetan Muslim community has 300-400 members spread across 72 households. This is a tiny minority of Nepal's Muslims that makes 4.4 percent of the country's population. Naik speaks in a soft voice and has a kind expression, a quality that's telling of his community, which for centuries have quietly and peacefully given continuity to the rich heritage that dates back almost 1,000 years.

History has it that the traders from Kashmir settled in Lhasa in the 12th century. They married Tibetan women, and their offspring became the ancestors of today's Tibetan Muslims. This community accepted and blended with other cultures too. Newar traders from Kathmandu as well as other Nepali men, who were working in Nepali Consulate in Tibet married Tibetan women and converted to Islam. Tibetan Muslims, for whom Tibetan identity is as close as their religious identity, held their heritage dearly for centuries in Tibet.

"Following political changes in China in the mid-twentieth century, Tibetan Muslims felt restrictions in the freedom to exercise their religion," Naik says. "So we decided to leave." Naik left Lhasa with his four sisters, cousins and other relatives in 1959. They came to Kalimpong first and eventually spread to settle in Darjeeling, Sikkim and Kashmir. His family lived in Kalimpong. He was 17 then.

Unlike their Tibetan Buddhist brethren, who escaped Tibet as refugees, things became a bit easier for Tibetan Muslims because the Indian government granted them citizenship based on their Kashmiri ancestry.

Just like their Kashmiri ancestors, Tibetan Muslims were also businesspeople by profession in Tibet. Their business skill also helped them settle in their new home. Naik's family set up a jewelry shop in Kalimpong. Others also set up businesses, mainly in jewelry and garments.

But a search for business opportunities also led to further dispersal of the community which was mostly clustered in Lhasa. Naik's family moved to Sikkim where they lived for nine years. Later, Naik migrated to Kathmandu. "My sisters' families migrated to Kathmandu for business in 1972/73. I followed them in 1980."

Many families moved to Kashmir. Others like Karimulla moved to Kathmandu because of their ancestral roots to this place.

Eventually the 124 families that had left Lhasa along with Naik's family spread to different places. Today, Tibetan Muslims are mostly clustered in Kashmir, Kathmandu, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Sikkim. There is a group in Tibet. By citizenship, most Tibetan Muslims are Nepali or Indian, shares Naik.

However, the identity of Tibetan Muslim is so strong a fabric that binds individuals within this community that the divisions resulting from citizenship or geography hold little value. A family, irrespective of where it lives – in Kathmandu or Kashmir, Ladakh or Darjeeling and Tibet - is related to another in some ways. Function like marriage is a collective event. When Naik wrote invitation cards for his daughter's marriage, he had to be extra careful, he says, lest he missed any of the 72 families in Kathmandu. And when in the immediate aftermath of the recent earthquake, panic made many to leave the Kathmandu, several went to live at their relatives' places in Kashmir.

When a marriage has to be arranged, a family in Kathmandu reaches out to a family as far as Kashmir, Sikkim, Darjeeling and other places, and vice versa.

In fact, one reason that has helped preserve this heritage is because the community largely adheres to marriage within the community. "We hugely encourage marriage within the community," Naik says. But this is no strict rule, and the community accepts if the children wish to marry outside the community. Naik's own wife is a Nepali of Thapa Chettri ethnicity. One of his three daughters too is married to a Muslim convert Nepali of Rai ethnicity.

Increased mobility of the younger generation has augmented chances of such blending. Many in Kathmandu have sent their children to schools in Kalimpong and Darjeeling. Even most of those who attend schools in Kathmandu eventually go abroad for higher education. Many seek employment opportunities abroad.

The intermingling of and interactions between cultures in the modern age certainly pose challenges to preserving the distinct culture of this minority group. "They understand Tibetan. But they speak a mix of Tibetan, Nepali and English," Naik says, not complaining though, but understanding it as a natural outcome of education in English and exposure to other cultures. With equally considerate feeling, he says today's children tend to feel embarrassed to attend madrassa, much in the same way any children, irrespective of their religion, are likely to show disinterest in religion.

But the community is passing its culture to the children. Each family ensures the children get education on Islam. As a young boy, Karimulla attended madrassa in Jame Masjid with other Tibetan boys. These days, he says, most families invite moulanas at home to tutor their children on Arabic, Urdu and Quran.

Karimulla feels it's only natural for children to be influenced by other cultures they interact with. "But in their families, they grow with the culture and values our ancestors passed to us," he says. "Obviously they will adopt the same culture and values."

Naik says his daughters can't read Quran in Arabic. "But they do read it in English and Nepali," he adds. He shows me a family photo on his mobile phone. In the photo, his wife and three daughters are standing beside him. All three daughters decked in traditional Tibetan dress.

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