Though Bylakuppe is over 8,000 miles away from Worcester, both towns have one important thing in common: Their local histories were shaped more from external forces than internal ones.
Bylakuppe is unique, especially in historical terms. Located just to the west of the Mysore District in Karnataka, South India, the older section of the Tibetan settlement was founded in 1961 by Lugam Samdupling, and the new section was established by Dickyi Larsoe in 1969, according to Palyul Ling International, an Buddhist organization in the area. Taken together, they constitute the largest Tibetan settlement in India.
The settlement is home to many landmarks such as the Golden Temple in Namdroling Monastery, which is the largest center of the “Nyingma” tradition of Tibetan Buddhism in the world, with over five thousand monks and nuns, according to the monastery’s website. Bylakuppe also features major monasteries from each of the other major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and different areas of the settlement are associated primarily with Tibetans from different regions of Tibet, each with their own unique culture and dialect. The village is full of bright and vibrant colors and has a life all its own, unique as the people found here.
Worcester is similarly vibrant and diverse, but for very different reasons: within about a 100 year period, it went from being a rural area to a global industrial superpower. This industrial boom brought people of Irish, French, Swedish, Finnish, Lithuanian, Polish, Italian, Greek, Syrian, and Armenian descent to the city, making it the strong cultural mosaic it remains to this day. These ethnic groups brought their cultures, traditions, and labor to Worcester, and each left their own distinct mark on the city.
Like Worcester, Bylakuppe was largely shaped by people from other nations making their home there. Primarily, the refugees in Bylakuppe come from Tibet, but others come from places such as Nepal or Bhutan. The main reason for the Tibetan migration to South India was China’s annexation of Tibet in 1951, when the newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC) enacted the Seventeen Points Agreement, a document that claimed Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.
On March 10, 1959, however, a Tibetan uprising took place in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Armed conflicts between the Tibetan fighters and the People’s Liberation Army were documented as early as 1956 in the Kham and Amdo regions, but these were minor skirmishes; this was a full scale uprising involving mostly guerilla warfare that lasted until 1962.
The conflict forced many Tibetans to flee their country, leaving them as exiles without a home nation, but in India they were able to preserve their culture, Buddhist traditions, and even a government-in-exile. In particular, Tibetans were able to take refuge in settlements throughout Southern India, including Bylakuppe.
This had a major impact on the region, as there is a stark contrast between the Tibetan settlements and the rest of India. Everything from the architecture and art to the culture and people is a unique fusion -- much like Worcester.
Tashi Tsering, a 77-year-old Tibetan living in Bylakuppe, remembers what the early days of the settlement were like: When he first arrived in Karnataka, he was about 11 years old, and the area was primarily a jungle roamed by dangerous wild elephants. Today, one would be hardpressed to find an elephant in the settlement’s villages and patchwork of farms. This development is the result of Tibetan refugees settling and building places to live, work, and carry out their religious traditions.
Tsering spoke about how pleased he is with the environment Tibetans have made for themselves here.
“Our country was left behind, but it is still important to us,” he said. “We have done our best to bring our home to India and have done well doing so.”
An 83-year-old Tibetan woman named Yango from the Kham province of Tibet, who traveled to India by foot in 1959, shared a similar sentiment about the way Tibetans have been able to make a home in exile in Bylakuppe.
“We wanted to go to where our people were, and we made our own place here,” she said.