A centre to be proud of. Tibetans learned to help themselves in Darjeeling India.

Stretching wool for drying
One of the larger buildings at the
Tibetan Self Help Centre

I really didn’t know what to expect when I left for the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre from the always popular heritage Windamere Hotel where I was staying in Darjeeling’s Observatory Hill.

I knew it would be a major contrast. One has white gloved service while, I assumed that the centre certainly didn’t. Only about ½ drive, the tortuous and narrow roads leads to a lifestyle so different that they could well be on another planet.

Along the roadside, as cars and trucks zoom by, always honking to let the other vehicles know their presence, there are stalls with vendors selling everything from hand knit children’s wear to food.

Soon my driver stopped the car in an unpaved courtyard where young children were playing soccer. My first sighting of the work done here, was that of a man on top of a tin roof building stretching wool for drying purposes. This was the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre. The buildings surrounding this area have signs over the doorway, describing the work indoors. Knitting, carpets also carpet trimmers, carpentry, wool spinning and weaving section, tailoring, painting, wood carving, woolen yarn spinning and a house for dyed woolen yarn stock. There is also a food stock department, provisions store, crèche for babies and a more recently established permanent photography exhibit of the progress and history of this impressive centre.

This is a community with a difficult past. When The Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre started in 1959, it was after the escape of the His Holiness, the Dalai Lama from Tibet and the persecution of the Tibetans who lived there. History tells us of the thousands of men, women and children who fled for their lives, brought nothing before heading to India over the difficult Himalayas. One of the main destinations for these refugees was India and the nearest centre was Darjeeling. They came in droves without much more than, in some cases, a skill of sorts. But, without any knowledge of the language or customs in a new country it was a most difficult adjustment.

Thousands of Tibetans started their new life in India (other went to neighbouring countries). But what they soon realized was that they would have to take complete responsibility for themselves and rely on their own efforts and resources to survive. Looking at photos in their new gallery building, the original site taken in the late 1959s shows a very barren and isolated land with a few old foundations from former buildings. But for the Tibetans, this country has more significance since the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama had spent his exile in India from 1910 to 1912.

The sign says it all
The weaving quarters

Self Help was the answer and they state very clearly that it had to come from “within our own selves”. And to their credit the main task was to help the orphans, the old and infirmed and the needy.

At the start, to get this centre going, a 10 people committee was organized and the rehabilitation centre became known as Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre. Now there are several buildings which sit on top of a mountain on a four acre area aptly called Hill Side. Originally leased to the immigrants eventually the property were purchased from Darjeeling’s St. Joseph’s College

As I walked around, seeing a few of the children edge along the unfenced area on a narrow piece of pavement over a high decline, my heart sank worried about their falling off this cliff. But obviously , it seems these youngsters have done it often, so sure footed were they, that I soon was off visiting the various craft buildings realizing that there was no need for any show of heroism.

The population to date is just about 700. There is free housing, food, medical care, schooling, uniforms which adds up to the bulk of their expenses. So many orphans have been educated in other Indian cities and with no relatives or anyone else to care for them, they had to rely completely on the centre. There is an importance and great emphasis placed on education and now there is 70% literacy.

Each morning classes are held for reading and writing and learning some Hindu and English, the latter being the one language that unifies this country. Approximately 45 nursery school age children are enrolled in their school and the education goes right up until college. The centre has done a great job since there has been an inspiring success with employment in the hospitality industry and various other career oriented positions.

My timing was a bit off since it was just after their noontime break, ending at about 2.30pm, so there were very few visitors. Although by the end of my one hour stay, many small tourists vans had pulled into the parking area.

As I entered each small building, the workers seemed aged, many here from the beginning. However, their appearance could be also from the difficult times and perhaps the often severe weather. There was equal balance between being warmly greeted or completely ignored to see yet another tourist. I certainly felt a difference in attitude in each segment. However, with hand motion from a few women sitting on small benches or on the floor they waved me over to come and watch them knit and weave.

Handicrafts are their main occupation and their source of income. Many workers had no experience before coming to this sanctuary but underwent long periods of apprenticeship. With their clever workmanship, the centre now exports to 36 countries. Tibetan carpets are certainly the best selling items, clients willing to wait a year before their made to measure, colour specific floor coverings can be sent. But there are other crafts that captivate the outside world like the hand knitted pullovers, mufflers, socks, gloves and coats, most with Tibetan motifs. Also wall hangings, metal items like bronze and copper pots and wood carving.

Hard at work
Chatting and knitting at the centre

Coats that I saw on the rack seem to attract a lot of attraction by the few shoppers that were there. Colourful and with pleasing designs, I was amazed, when I felt one. It was surprisingly soft -obviously the wool used for these outer wear styles is different from the sweaters which are heavy and rough to the touch although splendidly hand knitted. The styling is traditional Tibetan, however one of the young men on staff told me that they are trying to modify the styles, designs and colours to suit modern Western tastes.

Tibetans like Indians are very religious and here they have erected a small monastery for their spiritual needs. And if and when the Dalai Lama does visit, which would be a very rare event, a suite to accommodate His Holiness has been constructed. Along with all the important life issues, a medical program has been established and now there is a small infirmary cum 20 bed hospital for the old and infirmed staffed by a certified doctor, two nurses and volunteers from other countries. Blood tests, screening for TB, vaccinations, pre and post natal care, home visits for the weak, lab tests and even an x-ray clinic on the premises and most recently a dental clinic are now part of the services provided. And they make no bones about it; contributions for the hospital are always appreciated.

But not all is work, these innovative, hard labouring people have cultural programmers and stage their own dramas and traditional cultural shows for the people of the Centre. But the most popular and looked forward to events are the various and many Tibetan festival s especially, Losar and Tibetan New Year, and the birthday of the Dalai Lama. On these occasions traditional comes back in full force with butter tea and specially prepared Tibetan food. On hand is always the popular Chang, a Tibetan beer.

With a modern offset printing press with well trained, hands -on staff, the community can read about the centres activities of which they are so very pride and their well deserved recognition is also a giant step for this self reliant group of people.