After more than twenty years of coming to Kashmir from time-to-time, I thought I knew Srinagar tolerably well. But today I discovered an aspect of the city that's completely new to me.
Srinagar is home to the biggest community of Tibetan Muslims anywhere. More than 200 families - that's about 2,ooo people - have made their home here since the early 1960s, They live mainly in an area known as the Tibetan colony, near the wondrous almond gardens (Badamwari) and within the shadow of Hari Parbat fort. There are smaller Tibetan communities, I was told, in Darjeeling and Kalimpong in north-east India and in the Nepalese capital, Katmandu, There's also about a hundred families still living in Lhasa.
The story of this tiny community reflects the ancient trade routes across this part of the world - and the way in which modern nation states have disrupted these patterns of commerce and migration.
If you go back far enough - a few centuries, that is - Tibetan Muslims are of Kashmiri (and Ladakhi Muslim) origin. Kashmiri traders travelling to Lhasa sometimes settled there, married Tibetan women and brought their children up as Muslims. They became a distinct community - known in Tibetan as 'Kachee', which means simply Kashmiri. And although there was no overt discrimiation, they were always regarded in Tibet as outsiders, even though they spoke Tibetan and ate Tibetan cuisine.
In 1959, when many Tibetans escaped from Chinese rule, the Muslim community was given a choice by Beijing: stay if you want to, go if you want to. Unlike the many Buddhists who made their way amid great hardships across the Himalayas, the Muslims who left - the greater part of the community - were allowed to take their possessions.
Once in India, they were regarded not as refugees, but as returning Indians. Unlike Tibetan Buddhist refugees, Tibetan Muslims are Indian passport holders and have full voting and other rights. They arrived in Kalimpong, but resisted efforts by the Indian authorities to resettle them alongside other Tibetans in south India. They argued that as Tibetans of Kashmiri origin they should be allowed to return to Kashmir - and they also preferred to go to an area in which Islam is the majority faith.
"We belong to this soil", Nasir Qazi told me. He's a Srinagar-based businessman who heads the Tibetan Muslim Youth Federation. He was born in Kashmir and has never been able to travel to Lhasa and meet his few remaining relatives inside Tibet.
Many Tibetan Muslims in Srinagar work in embroidery - decorating burqas and women's garments in traditional Kashmiri style, or embroidering the top-end T-shirts sold to tourists visiting the remote Ladakh region (sometimes called Indian Tibet).
The Tibetan Muslim community does not regard the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader but reveres him as Tibet's onetime king. "We honour and respect him", Qazi says, "and he loves us a lot". With the help of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the community has established its own well regarded school in Srinagar, the Tibetan Public School.
Of the 700 pupils, boys and girls up to the age of about fifteen, under a third are Tibetans, the rest being local Kashmiris. The principal and most of the teaching staff are Kashmiri. But the school is run by the Tibetan Muslim community.
"I feel proud that this is something we have offered to our Kashmiri brothers and sisters", says Qazi. He's also pleased that the school has managed to keep fees down to an affordable 600 rupees (£7.50) a month. The Dalai Lama visited five years ago, and photos of that occasion or on display.
So is the pledge which the students made in the presence of the Dalai Lama: 'I shall uphold all human values through my words and deeds and shall not be a cause of suffering of any other being.'
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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