For many Tibetans living in Koramangala, staying in touch with others from their community means a great deal

Amidst the recent explosion of colourful little shops that compete for attention around Jyothi Nivas College stands a tall, neat building that heralds the growing presence of one of Koramangala’s most increasingly visible communities in the area. Tibet Mall offers more than just the clothes, shoes and accessories that draw in a steady stream of college girls — it houses everything from a handicrafts emporium to a hotel, and is a popular hangout among youth in the Tibetan community.

“Koramangala is a happening place,” says Tashi Wangdu, CEO of the Federation of Tibetan Co-operatives in India Ltd. that has been running the mall for a year, when I ask him if the choice of location was deliberate. The response from customers in Bangalore has been so good, Tashi says, that the mall has even expanded to the building behind it. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that the neighbourhood is home to several Tibetans.

A safe neighbourhood

Tsering Dolker, who runs In Style, a clothing store in the mall, moved here from Himachal Pradesh a year ago, and likes living in Koramangala with her siblings. “It’s very safe and clean,” she says, with plenty of good restaurants nearby. Of course she was scared to leave her house during the exodus of northeast Indians last year, for fear that she would be mistaken for one of them and targeted, but that period proved rather uneventful. “It was very boring, we closed the shop for 3-4 days and had to sit at home. We could only go up to the terrace,” she says, after which it was back to business as usual.

A brisk walk through Koramangala 5th Block is enough to reveal just how many Tibetan establishments have sprung up in recent years, with clothes stores and hairstylists chief among them.

While some Tibetan families have lived in Koramangala for years together, the vast majority of Tibetans here are young, primarily because of the Tibetan youth hostel located in S.T. Bed nearby, which serves as a cultural centre and locus of emotional support for the large number of Tibetan students that live in the area.

‘Tibetanisation’

Dhondup, who is in charge of the hostel’s administration, says it was set up in Koramangala in 2002 as it was still considered the outskirts then, and land was not expensive. Its primary purpose is to facilitate higher studies for the community’s youth, and with over 200 students in its care, the hostel promotes “modern education with a traditional touch,” Dhondup says, explaining that the hostel exposes the students to Tibetan language, customs, songs, food and upbringing, or “Tibetanisation”. If his talk of building Tibetan identity seems strange at first, conversations with some of the hostel’s students soon make things clearer.

At the hostel, I find Tenzin Tsephel, who is studying for a diploma course in Computer Science at an institution in Nelamangala, visiting his sister Passang Dolma, a BSc. student at Jyothi Nivas College. Away from their parents, who live in Orissa, Tenzin and Passang don’t hesitate to say that living in a hostel for young Tibetans makes a huge difference to them. Apart from keeping them in touch with their culture, they say that it helps to be in the company of people who understand their peculiar political situation.

Many of the youth at the hostel are from Tibetan families settled in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, while a few were born in Tibet, and made the dangerous journey across the China-Nepal border as children. Sent to India by their families in the hope that they would have access to good education and build a better life for themselves, and with little prospect of returning to visit, many of them have spent most of their lives separated from their parents and siblings.

Incredible journey

When Tenzin (name changed) was around eight years old, his parents entrusted him to a guide in the hope that he would be able to get across the border safely and make it to India. After an incredible journey involving travelling on foot by night, a stay at a detention centre after being caught, and going hungry for days, he arrived in India. “My Indian friends find my story hard to digest,” he says with a smile.At boarding school in Mussoorie, he says, the feeling of separation from his parents and younger brother was most acute during holidays, when everyone else would go home to their families. But like some of the others I spoke to at the hostel, Tenzin is keen to count his blessings, acutely aware that not everyone survived the journey he made unscathed.

Now, Tenzin is a final-year MSc. student at St. Joseph’s College, and lives on his own. But having lived at the youth hostel in Koramangala for three years while he was studying for his undergraduate degree, he knows where to go when loneliness sets in. “I find release at the hostel, it’s a real stress buster to be able to see friends, socialise. Then I can go back to work, renewed.”