The long and winding road: finding Tibet in Darjeeling

“It’s just a short walk from the Dekeling,” said jolly Mrs Dekeva, our homestay hostess.

I wonder how much longer Jamie and I are going to believe our dear Gorkha friends when they tell us somewhere is only a stroll away. My antennae should have been twitching when I discovered it wasn’t marked on my Darjeeling street plan. The Tibetan Self Help Refugee Centre does, however, appear as an innocent dot at the top of the small scale Lonely Planet map of the whole mountainous area. But a quick check, using my finger tip to measure, convinced me it was only 4 kilometres from our starting point.

“It’s not far, just round the corner from the zoo,” I said, overflowing with confidence.

What the map fails to show you is all the twists and turns in the (seemingly continuously uphill) path. The short walk took two hours. I’m just glad I swapped my flip flops for walking boots before we left. By the time we arrived at the bottom of the hillside centre we were parched. And just as we needed it, like so often in India, across the road was a tiny shack of a chai stop. As we knocked back two cups of sweet milky tea in seconds, we contemplated the vertical climb to the Tibetan enclave. Rather than continuing along the never-ending mountain bend to the official road entrance (probably a further 8 kilometres at the rate we were going) we decided we’d prefer to tackle the rock face—OK, I’m exaggerating, but it was a steep hill covered in woody tea bushes.

One or two inhabitants stood inside the gate observing our sweating, panting faces with dead-pan expressions. A wide and well-tended path stretched upwards to the main group of buildings. We had walked into another country: there were no plastic bottles, crisp wrappers, bright blue tangles of frayed nylon rope, plastic bags, sweet wrappers, turds or stinking puddles anywhere. Just nice green grassy borders either side of the well-trodden path, and a hand-built wooden stairway. A sign pointed to the carpet weaving building.

When China invaded Tibet in 1949 life became difficult for its inhabitants, but after the failed uprising in 1959 it became downright dangerous. The Dalai Lama fled to India. Eighty thousand of his countrymen followed him at the time, and refugees continued to flood into Tibet’s neighbouring countries for years afterwards. The rest of the world, horrified by China’s brutality, soon sent aid, but the Tibetan Self Help Refugee Centre was a spontaneous reaction by those Tibetans who made it to Darjeeling. The centre says “… right from the start, we realized that what was needed was the determination to stand on our feet and rely first and foremost on our own effort—in short, the spirit of Self-Help (rang tsho). It is no exaggeration, in fact, to say that without self-help there can be no rehabilitation, be it economics, social, psychological, cultural or spiritual.”

The two storey carpet weaving centre contains rooms for each part of the process. We stepped back 500 years into the wool spinning room where, stretching the full length of the building, thick hardwood beams support the walls and a bank of windows maximises the natural light. Hand spinning wheels line the room on both sides, old bicycles having been cannibalised for the wheels.

I half expected to see Rumpelstiltskin spinning gold in a corner, but instead I found rows of tiny Tibetan ladies quietly spinning, while mounds of lanolin-rich sheep’s wool dotted the floor in rough woven sacks. There is no heating and, apart from the windows, there is limited lighting (one or two bare light bulbs hung down and a few candle stubs lay around).

In the wool store, where shelves are stacked with roughly dyed balls of yarn grouped by colour, I asked about the dyes they use.

“All natural,” I was told.

“Great,” I said.

“But some chemical.”


I walked further into the gloomy warehouse-cum-shop (there were no lights) and it was soon easy to tell the difference between the two: natural dyes are more ‘earthy’ and muted, whereas the chemically dyed yarns are bright and clean. An old Tibetan man showed me a display of the natural dyestuffs, among which I noted walnut, indigo, tea, rhubarb root, myrobalan nut, madder root, rumex leaf and barberry plant. I wondered if the dyes are permanent.

“Very good. yes, we use potassium permanganate and ash as mordant.”

Pinned to the walls and beams in the wool shop are newspaper cuttings, posters, faded photographs and hand-written notices, all documenting the plight of Tibet and its diaspora. On the landing, next to a newspaper piece showing photographs of missing Tibetans, the Dalai Lama’s famous words gave me pause:

The Paradox Of Our Age

We have bigger houses but smaller families;
more conveniences, but less time;
We have more degrees, but less sense;
more knowledge, but less judgement;
more experts, but more problems;
more medicines, but less healthiness.
We’ve been all the way to the moon and back,
but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbour.
We build more computers to hold more
information to produce more copies then ever,
but have less communication.
We have become long on quantity,
but short on quality.
These are times of fast foods
but slow digestion;
tall men but short character;
steep profits but shallow relationships.
It’s a time when there is much in the window,
but nothing in the room.

– His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

The carpet weaving room contained four rows of enormous weaving frames, made from polished ancient hardwood. Each frame produces one carpet at a time, and sitting on low stools at the bottom of each loom, were one, two or three people (depending on the size and intricacy of the carpet’s design). Children ran in and out of the room, quietly playing among the looms, occasionally stopping to sit with their older family members. Tourists must pop in all the time, because although polite the weavers seemed pretty de-sensitised to us being there. Apart from a loud bang from wooden mallets packing the weft tightly down, it was a peaceful place. The workers occasionally spoke to each other, but were silently lost in their work for most of the time. The atmosphere was very different to the persistent chatter and calling which accompanies groups of workers in India’s cities.

We spent a few hours in the centre, visiting all the little ateliers round the main courtyard: a few wizened old men worked hand sewing machines in the tailoring section, cigarette smoke billowing around them during their break; a woman painted intricate flower designs onto greetings cards with fine paintbrushes, proudly explaining that she used poster paints bought from town; a room full of jaunty ladies knitted woollen bags, mitts, hats and clothes; and to complete the feeling of having stepped back into the Middle Ages, monks appeared to be illuminating manuscripts.


When we were ready to leave we agreed that another walk would do us good. Once again it seemed to be uphill all the way, until in the dark of early evening we stopped off at the Windamere Hotel, where—our time travel not having finished for the day—we sank a few gin and tonics in the bar of this British Raj hillside mansion.

Mrs Dekeva was right, the final kilometre turned out to be an easy downhill stroll.

View the complete set of photographs in the slideshow below:


The thirteenth Dalai Lama fled to India during the 1910–1913 Chinese invasion. He made his home on the same small plateau which is now the Tibetan Self Help Refugee Centre. Darjeeling has strong connections to the Buddhists of Tibet, and the words of the current (14th) Dalai Lama are pinned up all over the town’s walls and doors.

A precious human life

Every day,
think as you wake up,
“Today I am fortunate
to have woken up.
I am alive,
I have a precious human life.
I am not going to waste it.

I am going to use
all my energies to develop myself,
to expand my heart out to others,
to achieve enlightenment for 
the benefit of all beings.

I am going to have
kind thoughts towards others.
I am not going to get angry,
or think badly about others.
I am going to benefit others
as much as I can.”

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