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Dalai Lama thrills a corner of Kashmir

Srinagar, July 14: A locality in Jammu and Kashmir has been yearning for the Dalai Lama’s visit for years, so when he finally agreed to drop by a month ago, the people leapt for joy.

Hundreds turned up for a glimpse of the Buddhist spiritual leader today but preparations to receive him began weeks earlier. The locality was spruced up, the road leading to it macadamised, welcome banners in Tibetan put up at several places and the venue hosting him refurbished.

Such a sight might be familiar in Buddhist-dominated Leh but today’s reception was in Srinagar’s old city — Kashmir’s separatist hub — and the people behind the event were Muslims.

The old city’s Sangeen Darwaza is home to around 200 Tibetan families of Kashmiri ancestry, with dozens more living in adjoining localities. They say they are the children of Tibetan women and Kashmiri traders who had settled in Tibet seven centuries ago.

They have surnames like Qazi, Sheikh, Bhat, Wani and Tramboo but their features resemble those of the Tserings and Lamas of Ladakh. What distinguishes them from other Tibetans is their religion.

They are Muslims, who had fled Tibet during a Chinese crackdown in 1959. But what they share with Buddhist Tibetans is their love for the Dalai Lama. It is they who played host today.

“His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is our king, our leader. We all love him. That is why we are here,” said Masood Bhat, a Tibetan Muslim volunteer who had joined dozens of others to organise the programme at Tibetan Public School.

“It is not just Tibetan Muslims who are here. As you can see, a majority of students in this school are Kashmiris and they, along with their parents and others in our locality, are here.”

The participants, including girls in colourful clothes but in purdah and elderly women in traditional Tibetan Chuba dresses, lined up to receive the Dalai Lama along with chief minister Omar Abdullah and other dignitaries. A cultural programme, in which students presented Kashmiri and Tibetan folklore, preceded the speech by the Dalai Lama.

“We should all strive to create a harmonious society where we will care for each other,” the Dalai Lama said. He later visited a mosque built by Tibetan Muslims, and joined the prayers.

Nasir Qazi, the chairperson of the school management committee, said they offered him Kashmiri wazwaan, Ladakhi momos and other dishes.

“He relished the food,” Qazi, whose office has a portrait of the Dalai Lama, said. “But more important, he loved the way we spoke fluent Tibetan.”

The last time the Buddhist spiritual leader had visited Srinagar was in 1988.