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date: 01 July 2022

Reimagining Tibet Through the Lens of Tibetan Muslim History and Identity

Abstract and Keywords

Tibet became the object of Western imagination in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Britain and Russia coveted the territory. During this time, images emerged in European writings either romanticizing or demonizing the region. Contemporary Tibetan studies scholars have examined how many of these depictions continue to shape master narratives about Tibet. This article presents an alternative to these master narratives through a historical and ethnographic study of the Tibetan Muslims residing in Kashmir, a diaspora community that migrated from Lhasa to India after the Chinese government took full control of central Tibet in 1959. A study of this community’s history and living memories presents new, diverse, and unique lenses through which to view Tibetan history, religion, and identity.

Keywords: Tibet, Tibetan Muslim, Lhasa, Tibetan identity, Khache, postcolonial studies, subaltern studies, Sufi, Islam, diaspora

The question of how to more accurately represent Tibetan history and identity has been the subject of much recent scholarship in Tibetan studies. These works can be divided into two groups: (a) postmodern and postcolonial studies that stress Western hegemony over Tibet and (b) ethnographic examinations of Tibetan self-definition as manifest in political discourse, religious praxis, and aesthetics. Studies in the first group,1 operating within the “Shangri-la Paradigm,” approach contemporary Tibetan historical master narratives and Tibetan identity as constructions based on Euro-American fetishes and power interests, out of which “real Tibetans” come to define themselves through foreign depictions of Tibet. Among these works, Donald Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and the West most clearly articulates the complex relationship between colonial power interests and Tibetan identity formation. According to Lopez, European fantasies of Tibet arose in the nineteenth century when Britain and Russia competed for sovereignty over the territory, and “the failure of European powers to dominate it politically increased European longing and fed the fantasy… Highly romanticized portrayals of traditional Tibet emerge, some of which continue to hold sway.”2 When Tibetan refugees encountered romanticized depictions of Tibet in their exchanges with foreign audiences, exiled Buddhists crafted their national identity based on these images.3

While works in this category deal almost exclusively with issues of Orientalism and colonialism, a second field has emerged over the last two decades that examines Tibetan identity through ethnographic studies engaging a wide range of topics, such as self-redefinition in diaspora,4 performance and self-expression,5 adaptations in religious life under the People’s Republic of China (PRC),6 and the Tibetan construction of gender.7 This scholarship engages the living traditions and diversity of contemporary voices in the Tibetan cultural sphere, highlighting the complex ways in which Tibetans define and redefine their notions of selfhood in response to “modernity.”8 The focus of most scholarship on Tibet, however, remains exclusively on Buddhism and Buddhist populations. Minority religious communities and ethnic groups have been for the most part neglected.9 By studying these minority groups, scholars can gain new perspectives on Tibetan history, as well as a broader framework for examining Tibetan identity.

In this article, I set out to broaden the conceptual imagination of Tibet beyond that of a timeless Shangri-la by offering an understanding of what it means to be Tibetan outside of colonial and Orientalist frameworks. I do so by exploring the history, memories, and narratives of Tibetan Muslims residing in Kashmir. Members of this community descend from the Lhasa Khache (khache), a Muslim enclave that resided in central Tibet since at least the seventeenth century. In 1959, following the fall of the Dalai Lama’s government and the rise to power of the Chinese Community Party (CCP) in Tibet, the majority of the Khache undertook a mass migration from Lhasa to India. Oral histories and international exchanges between India and China reveal that Chinese authorities initially prevented these Muslims from leaving Tibet. Tibetan Muslims, however, through promoting historical narratives that cast their community as being of Kashmiri ancestry, thus eligible for status as Indian nationals, gained diplomatic support from the Indian government, and they were finally permitted to migrate to north India from 1959 to 1960. The early settlers resided in northeastern India, primarily in Kalimpong, and gradually shifted to Srinagar, Kashmir, from 1961 to 1964.

Drawing on oral history interviews I conducted while doing fieldwork at Srinagar’s Tibetan colony in 2009, in this article I present Tibetan Muslim memories and narratives of pre-1959 Tibet as well as recount how they make intelligible and meaningful their sudden departure from their homeland. Tibetan Muslims remember pre-1959 as their motherland where they had complete religious freedom, enjoyed economic prosperity, and held equal status with Tibetan Buddhists. The period surrounding 1959 was a dark period in their history, during which the Tibetan Muslims lost their homeland to a communist government that, once in power, systematically dismantled their society and violently suppressed religious freedoms. Using Islamic conceptions of hijra (emigration), they narrate their journey from Tibet to India as a sacred event during which their Lhasa ancestors, inspired by the Prophet Muhammad’s emigration from Mecca to Medina, heroically saved Islam from a communist regime. These collective memories, therefore, place the story of the Tibetan Muslims within a broader pan-Islamic history in which their foremost identity is being Muslim, part of a larger global community of believers living in accordance with prophetic example. As we engage the history of the Tibetan Muslims along with individual voices in their community, we move outside the frameworks of Eurocentric discourse while acquiring new, unique, and diverse lenses through which to view Tibetan and Himalayan histories, religions, and identities.

Migration of Islam into Tibet

Lacking textual or material evidence, it is difficult to determine an exact time period when Muslims first entered central Tibet. Muslims encountered the region around the seventh to eighth centuries when Arab, Chinese, Turkic, and Tibetan forces vied for control over central Asia, bringing these powers into contact with one another through trade, diplomacy, and warfare.10 From records of these interactions, we can find some of the earliest mentions of Islam in Tibet in Arabic, Persian, and Turkic documents that discuss the geographic makeup of the country, missionary activities, conversion narratives, and political allegiances.11

Most likely, Muslim communities began to migrate into Tibet much later, when economic interests led them there via various trade routes. Given the plethora of Asian trade networks in which Muslim communities traveled, it is difficult to pinpoint all the precise paths from which Muslim traders may have visited Tibet. In his article “Islam in the Tibetan Cultural Sphere,” Tibetan studies scholar José Cabezón charts two general directions through which Islam likely entered central Tibet. One is via eastern trade networks, as Islam spread from Arabia through Persia and Afghanistan and arrived in China via the silk routes in central Asia. From various points in China, Islam spread into eastern Tibet. Chinese Muslims, the Gya-Khaches, after having settled in eastern Tibet, carried on trade with central Tibetan areas and eventually moved into Lhasa. The other is a possible western route, whereby Islam moved into the regions of Turkistan, Baltistan, and Ladakh. Arriving from this particular trajectory, according to Cabezón, Islam entered Lhasa primarily from Ladakh. Islamic studies scholar Marc Gaborieau traces another course by which Kashmiri Muslims traveled into Tibet from South Asia via a larger network of Kashmiri merchants settled in the cities of Lahore, Delhi, Banaras, Patna, Dhakka (in Bangladesh), and Calcutta. Members of this guild journeyed directly into Tibet primarily through Kathmandu where a Kashmiri community had settled.12 Kashmiri Muslims merchants, who first came to the region for commerce, then gradually settled in the major cities of central Tibet, such as Lhasa, Zhigatse, Gyangtse, Kuti, and Tsetang.

Muslims in Seventeenth-Century Tibet Under the Ganden Palace Government

By the seventeenth century, Muslim minority groups had become well-integrated members of Tibetan society under the auspices of the Fifth Dalai Lama and the Ganden Palace (Dga’ ldan pho brang) government. The Fifth Dalai Lama Nawang Lozang Gyatso (1617–1682) established the Ganden Palace government in 1642 with Mongolian military backing and at the expense of rival Buddhist sects. Contrary to images of an idyllic and inherently peaceful Tibet, the Fifth Dalai Lama’s rise sometimes relied on violent means to defeat opposing regimes. He even used Buddhist theology to justify and legitimate these violent measures.13 After solidifying its position in Lhasa in 1642, the Ganden Palace endeavored to create a government governed by the Dalai Lama and his regents in which religious and secular branches were to work in tandem (chos srid gnyis ldan).

This new government sought both theocratic and secular authority over Tibet. The Ganden Palace gained theocratic legitimacy via the figure of the Dalai Lama. Through myth,14 public ceremonies,15 and the construction of the Potala Palace, the Fifth Dalai Lama came to represent, in the eyes of Tibetans, the living embodiment of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion. The Ganden Palace solidified their rule on secular grounds with their efforts to transform Lhasa into a wealthy cosmopolitan city. The Fifth Dalai Lama envisioned Lhasa as an international hub in which travelers throughout Asia and the Middle East would come for pilgrimage, religious education, trade, and commerce. To develop domestic infrastructure, as well as to facilitate diplomacy and trade abroad, the Ganden Palace welcomed various minority groups to central Tibet such as Armenians, Newaris, Mongols, Chinese, Indians, and Kashmiris.

Within this context, at least four Muslim enclaves settled in central Tibet: the Nepalese, the Gharībs, the Gya-Khache or Hopalingpas (Ho pa/ po gling pa), and the Khache. Among all the city’s Muslim enclaves, the Lhasa Khache were the most well integrated into Tibetan society. The Tibetan Muslims in Kashmir look to the Lhasa Khache for their ancestral origins. According to oral histories preserved by members of the Srinagar community, the Khache first arrived in Tibet when various groups of Kashmiris fled to Lhasa during periods of famine and political turmoil in the Kashmir. Their ancestors viewed Tibet as a safe-zone “free from state politicking and a life of worldly stress and materialism, where there was no caste or communal differences.”16 Once they arrived in Lhasa, intermarriage occurred between Kashmiri men and Buddhist women who would subsequently convert to Islam.

Tibetan Muslims gained the direct aid from the central Tibetan government after the Fifth Dalai Lama ascended to power and granted them support in the form of exemptions, land grants, and entitlements. The Lhasa Khache enjoyed a tax-exempt status, which allowed them to use to their surplus income for their community’s well-being. They were also not expected to bow before lamas or other dignitaries, nor were they required to remove their head coverings in front of such figures, and they were excused from restrictions on eating meat during Buddhist holy months.17 The Tibetan government in the seventeenth century provided land on which the Khache built a mosque, park, madrasa, and cemetery.

The Fifth Dalai Lama’s government also bestowed distinct privileges, including the right of political autonomy. The Khache had their own self-governance unit, the Panch,18 which monitored the administrative affairs of the community. This group consisted of five officials elected to serve for three years after the final election results were approved by the Tibetan government through the Kashag Office.19 Once in office, members worked without pay governing civic affairs and acting as intermediaries to the Lhasa government on behalf of local Tibetan Muslims. The Panch mediated internal disputes by enforcing a legal system based on local interpretations of Islamic law. Being prestigious members of Lhasa’s elite, they received invitations to major public events at the Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace, where they were seated among the aristocracy.20

The generosity shown to the Khache by the Ganden Palace government was likely due to the vital roles that these Muslims played in the areas of diplomacy and economics. Some Khache were well connected to the ruling elite of Lhasa, often serving as emissaries for the Buddhist polity in its dealings with foreign powers, thereby facilitating international business relations, as well as diplomacy between central Tibet and neighboring countries. For example, in the aftermath of the Tibet–Ladakh–Mughal War of 1679–1684, relations between Lhasa and Leh were normalized by the 1684 Treaty of Temisgang (Gting mo sgang), stipulating that Ladkah send a triennial tribute of saffron, shawls, and other goods to the Dalai Lama as part of caravan called the Lopchag (Lo phyag). The Khwaja, a prominent Khache family in Lhasa, managed and organized these exchanges.21 Regarding neighboring China, Lhasa Khache leaders were called in 1909 to arbitrate disputes with the Qing Dynasty.22 When Tibetan leaders required diplomacy with the British Raj, they often asked Tibetan Muslims to serve as mediators. Sometime around 1774–1775, the Khache met the first British trade mission to Tibet and pledged to George Bogel (1746–1781), the leader of the envoy, that Lhasa would work with them to develop trade between Bengal and Tibet.23 Shortly before the Gorkha invasion of Tibet in 1788, the Panchen Lama sent two Tibetan Muslims as envoys to Calcutta to solicit aid from the governor general against the Gorkha Raja.24

The domain of the Lhasa Khache’s greatest influence, however, was central Tibet’s economy. Most of the members of the community were wealthy traders and merchants who facilitated the flow of goods between Tibet and South Asia via either the Lopchag from Ladakh or the Nepalese trade route.25 From Tibet they procured wool, musk, and salt, which they exchanged in India for shawls, cloths, saffron, dried fruits, jewelry, medicinal herbs, and gold. They thus provided markets for Tibetan products abroad while importing both practical commodities for locals and exotic luxury goods for Lhasa’s urban elites. Such items could be purchased at large stores in Lhasa, often managed by Muslim women while their husbands went off on trade expeditions. Tibetan Muslim women were known to have “a strong say in commercial matters.”26 Because of these enterprises, many Khaches accumulated considerable wealth and held tremendous prestige in the city. When French missionary Évariste Régis Huc traveled to Lhasa in 1846, he observed that the Tibetan Muslims were the richest merchants in Lhasa and so influential in money matters that one could almost always find a Persian character on Tibetan coins.27 This wealth and prominence elevated some Khache to the same level of social status as the Lhasa aristocracy. Thus when they walked down the streets, plebian bystanders moved to the side to let them pass, sticking out their tongues as a sign of respect—a custom commonly used to greet aristocrats.28

The Khache and the Ganden Palace thus formed a symbiotic relationship. The Khache relied on support and patronage from the central Tibetan government to successfully conduct their commercial activities as well to preserve and practice Islam within an overwhelmingly Buddhist state. The Ganden Palace in turn relied on these Tibetan Muslims to enhance the secular legitimacy of the state through trade, commerce, and diplomacy. Tibetan histories are often told primary through the lens of monastic Buddhism, giving the mistaken impression that Tibet is a homogenously Buddhist society. Studying interactions between political regimes and minority groups in the Tibetan cultural sphere, such as those that took place between the Ganden Palace and the Lhasa Khache, provides important insights into the complexities of government power, a region’s history of diplomacy and economic development, and the religious heterogeneity of Tibetan societies.

Islam and Tibetan Culture

Tibetan culture is often represented as a product of Buddhism. For example, Tibetan studies scholar Matthew Kapstein writes, “Culturally Tibet is distinguished by the use of classical Tibetan as a literary medium, by shared artistic and craft traditions, and by the important role of the religious system of Tibetan Buddhism.”29 While Kapstein’s definition of Tibetan culture may offer an ideal type that is practical for the sake of analysis and comparison, it reinforces the view that being Tibetan means being Buddhist. More scholarship needs to engage how minority groups outside of “the religious system of Tibetan Buddhism,” such as the Lhasa Khache, have both adopted and contributed to the development of Tibetan culture. As the Khache integrated into Tibetan society, these Muslims Islamicized facets of Tibetan culture while simultaneously Tibetanizing their religious practices and traditions. This “double movement”30 occurred in the domains of language, clothing, culinary arts, architecture, and religion. The Khache developed a reputation for speaking the purest and finest Lhasaké (Lhasa skad), “Lhasa-language” or dialect, an urban vernacular they used in their business dealings as well as in various religious contexts. Tibetan language was the medium for religious education, prayer, festivals, and the delivering of sermons by local imams. In the area of dress, the Khache adopted Tibetan-style clothing—the women in particular had a reputation for wearing exquisite Tibetan-style dresses (chu bas) at festivals and social events—yet the Khache also set themselves apart by their head coverings—many of the men wore white embroidered caps (sozenis) and the women wore silk hijabs. For their daily cuisines, they prepared Tibetan-style foods and teas and served special Tibetan dishes at weddings and religious ceremonies. Although they consumed most Tibetan staple foods, such as steamed dumplings (mog mog) and roasted barley flour (tsam pa), the Khache prepared only halāl meats and avoided any items deemed harām under Islamic law: pork (phag sha), beer (chang), and alcohol (arak).31 While residing in the city, they lived in Lhasa-style homes (minus Buddhist ornamentations) and even incorporated Tibetan designs into their mosque. Based on such examples, Cabezón observes that the culture and customs of the Khache provided “glimpses of two worlds simultaneously: the Muslim and the Buddhist, the Tibetan and the Arabic.”32

The Lhasa Khache also made contributions to Tibetan culture through literature and music. One well-known book of aphorisms, the Khache Phalu, is thought to have been written by an erudite member of the Lhasa Muslims, Faidhullah; Buddhists even valued his moral advice.33 The Lhasa Muslims also introduced a popular style of music into Tibet around the nineteenth century called nangma (nang ma). Khache musicians were invited to perform at the homes of. aristocratic families.34

Reimagining the Religious Landscape of Tibet

Tibet invokes images of stupas, ornate monasteries, sacred mountains, and, in the case of Lhasa, the Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace. Non-Buddhist communities such as the Tibetan Muslims also had their own unique sacred spaces around which religious life and identity crystallized. According to both the oral histories I gathered in Srinagar and textual sources such as Tibet and Tibetan Muslims written in 1979 by Abu Bakr Amir-Uddin Nadwi, a member of the Tibetan Muslim colony in Kashmir, the Khache burial ground served as a particularly important sacred space because the cemetery contained the tombs of Sufi saints where Tibetan Muslims would gather to worship the saint’s spirit for protection and material aid. Nadwi reports, “On the occasions of Id… From morning onwards, people would be visiting the cemeteries to recite ‘Fateha,’ and visitors were provided food there on behalf of the Muslim Committee. Such events were called Urs.”35 In the context of Sufism, urs are death anniversaries for Sufi pīrs, which for centuries have been held in many parts of South Asia at a given saint’s dārgah (shrine). During these festivals feasts are prepared and special prayers are recited. Lhasa, according to Nadwi, “has many such ‘dargahs’ holy places associated with the names of various former (Muslim) saints, which people used to visit to pray for the fulfillment of their wishes. They would bring from there yellow rice as holy ‘prasad.’”36 These practices transpire within a Sufi worldview according to which saints or pīrs act intermediaries between humans and the divine. A local pīr serves as a walī (friend and governor) of Allah. God bestows upon these saints the responsibility of governing the universe on his behalf.37 The living presence of these figures, moreover, resided in their burial places. For the Muslims in Tibet, therefore, the special tombs in their graveyard provided them with living links to the sacred, situated within the very landscape of Lhasa.

According to the travel diary of Khwājah Ghulām Muhammad, a Kashmiri Muslim merchant who lived in Kathmandu and traveled to Lhasa in 1882–1883, 38 the Khache particularly revered Khair-ud-dīn, the mythic founder of their community who had a magical encounter with the Fifth Dalai Lama. After Khair-ud-dīn spurned invitations to meet with the Dalai Lama, who observed the saint worshipping on a mountain facing the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama attempted to confront Khair-ud-dīn. As Khair-ud-dīn saw the Dalai Lama approaching, he transformed into a dove and flew off to his homeland of Patna in Bihar. But after he did this, the Dalai Lama morphed into a hawk and gave chase. As soon the saint entered in India, he informed the Dalai Lama, “You have reached your limit. Go back! Otherwise your strength will disappear.” The Dalai Lama immediately retuned to Tibet. After Khair-ud-dīn arrived in Patna, he was scolded by his guru, who argued that if the saint had met with the Dalai Lama, perhaps the Buddhist leader would have converted to Islam, paving the way for the Islamicization of Tibet.

In his analysis of this tale, Gaborieau identifies many themes prevalent in Sufi hagiographies: magic contests between Sufis and local religious figures, conversion to Islam through defeat of the non-Muslims by the pīr, and even the association of holy men with birds.39 Such elements “provide an illustration of the Sufi according to which saints are indispensable intermediaries between the Muslim community and the local forces… By using their authority and powers to confront these forces, they appear as the founders and the protectors of the local Muslim communities.”40 Thus the figure of Khair-ud-dīn provided the Khache with a mythic founder whose power and prestige was on par with that of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of their Buddhist neighbors. Memories of this narrative, moreover, presented a specific time and specific place from where there community originated, thus linking these Muslims’ self-understanding to both a Sufi Islamic worldview and the Tibetan landscape.

Buddhist and Muslim Neighbors in Pre-1959 Tibet

Buddhism and Islam invoked radically different images in Western philological, missionary, and scholarly writings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Philologists considered Buddhism as the only scientific and rational religion in the Orient, a religion that eventually degenerated as it spread through the Asia and intermingled with other indigenous traditions. Islam on the other hand, was considered a savage, uncivilized, and hypersexualized religion that stood in diametric opposition to the values of the West. In The Invention of World Religions, Tomoko Masuzawa demonstrates that within European philology the difference between these two religious has often been articulated in racial terms, with Buddhism constituting a Sanskritic-based Aryan tradition that is inherently superior to a Semitic-based Islam. In short, within Orientalist frameworks, Buddhism and Islam are antithetical to one another. This view is not shared by the Tibetan Muslims in Srinagar who are old enough to remember pre-1959 Lhasa. According to their memories, the two religions coexisted and intersected with one another in Lhasa.

During oral-history interviews I conducted in Srinagar in 2009, I asked members of the community who were born in Lhasa to reflect on their life in the city, particularly their interactions with Buddhists. One eminent figure I spoke with was Imam Walli Ullah, the colony’s senior religious leader—“the Bara Imam”—and the then-president of the Tibetan Muslim community. He was born in the central Tibetan city of Zhigatse and lived in Lhasa until the age of fifteen, when his family, like most of the other Khache, left for India. He described to me a deep and intimate connection between the two religious communities:

When I lived in Lhasa, life was very peaceful. There was complete freedom… There was no tension like we have in India. There was no communal feeling41 between two people. There were only two religions: Buddhism and Islam… In Tibet there was no gap between Buddhists and Muslims. We considered ourselves like family members. If there was any problem, we use to go and ask about it. If our family was having any problems, the Buddhists would come and ask, and solve our problems. We were living very happily among ourselves. When we left Tibet, our neighbors, even though they were Buddhists, came to us, crying and weeping, asked, “Why are you going to India? Please stay with us.”42

Here Imam Ullah points out central themes in how Tibetan Muslims from the Lhasa-born generations narrate their days in Central Tibet: this was a time during which Buddhists and Muslims lived together as a “family” with no animosity or differentiation between the two. In Lhasa, Buddhists and Muslims lived together as friends and neighbors who did business with one another, attended each other’s ceremonies, and even occasionally intermarried. Their lives were so interconnected that the departure of the Khache from Tibet became a heartbreaking event for both communities.

Buddhism and Islam also intersected in Tibet through shared religious festivals. The Bara Imams recalls, “In Islam we have two Eids and during that time Buddhists would come to participate, and when there was a Buddhist festival, we would go and participate.”43 According to Imam Ullah, during their respective festivities they would exchange gifts, feast together, and “share in each other’s joy.” During these occasions the Buddhists would also be mindful of the dietary restrictions of their Muslim neighbors and refrain from serving them alcohol or pork. Muslims in Tibet went to their mosques five times daily for their obligatory worship (namāz/ṣalāt). Occasionally when visiting the homes of their Buddhist neighbors for social events, these Muslim would hear to the call to prayer. Respectful of the religious obligations of the Khache, when there was a call to prayer, Imam Ullah recalls, the Buddhists would graciously excuse the Muslims from festivities saying to them, “my friend, go and offer your prayers.”44

Aman Malik, the Principal of the Tibetan Public School, was only eleven when he left Lhasa but nevertheless has many vivid and fond memories of early childhood in Tibet. He recollects, “A handful of Muslims—1,000 to 1,100—lived more independently than Muslims who live in Muslim countries… The Buddhists would refer to us as ‘Bhai-lags [brother].’ We had the reputation for never cheating, lying, or stealing.”45 Here Principal Malik references both the political freedom and the religious pluralism that the Khache enjoyed in Lhasa. With special rights granted to them, such as self-governance through the Panch, the Tibetan Muslims were able to administer their own affairs and thus live independently as a religious minority within a Buddhist theocracy. However, their Muslim enclave was never isolated from the rest of Tibetan society; instead, they were looked up by other Tibetans as brothers and compatriots. Principal Malik also recounted that during the holy month of Ramadan, a gong was struck at 3:00 am to awaken the Muslims who lived around the Barkhor (bar khor) for the early morning worship (namāz). Although the noise awoke Buddhists as well, not one of them would complain. Other Tibetan Muslims shared with me similar memories of such religious harmony, nostalgically describing playing games with Buddhist childhood friends, doing business with Buddhist associates, and attending each other’s homes for weddings and religious holidays. For Lhasa-born Muslims living in Srinagar, the pre-Mao era of Tibet thus represents a golden age when Buddhists and Muslims were one family, bound together by a shared language, homeland, and culture. This memory of interreligious harmony between Buddhism and Islam, moreover, exemplifies for these Muslims all that is dignified and admirable about being a Tibetan.

The Question of Tibetan Muslim National Identity

Tibetan national identity is often viewed as intricately bound with Buddhism. According to Tibetan studies scholar George Dreyfus, exiled Tibetans use “traditional discourse to re-present themselves as belonging to an independent country defined by its Buddhist values.” 46 This concept of Buddhist nationalism excludes non-Buddhist minority communities, such as the Muslim enclaves who were living in Tibet. As we have seen, however, the Lhasa Khache were important subjects under the Ganden Palace government since its inception. Living with the support of central Tibetan authorities, the Tibetan Muslims became an affluent community who contributed to the cultural and economic development of Lhasa. Free to practice their religion, they continued their Islamic traditions in a city that housed their mosque, madrasa, and the dārgahs of their saints. Narratives of Khair-ud-dīn and other pīrs sanctified the territory and provided the Khache with religious connections to Lhasa. Therefore, for these Muslims, Tibet was as much their homeland as it was for their Buddhist neighbors. The issue of citizenship was simply unproblematic for them.

After the overthrow of the Lhasa government by the Chinese Communist forces and the ensuing turmoil that resulted in 1959, the Khache were forced to rethink their national identities. Circumstances forced them to chose either proclaiming a Tibetan national identity or opting for Indian citizenship on the grounds of their Kashmiri ancestry. Under the new regime, the Khache saw their choice of nationality as vital to the preservation of their Muslim identity. The politics and social upheaval in 1959 Tibet forced these Tibetan Muslims to prioritize either being Tibetan or being Muslim. The Lhasa Khache’s response to the politics of 1959 demonstrates the complexities and ambiguities of defining Tibetan national identity.

From 1959 to 1960, following the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s exile, the majority of the Lhasa Khache were compelled to abandon their homes, livelihood, and sacred sites in Tibet and migrate to India in response to the policies of the Chinese Communist regime. To inquire about the circumstances of their departure, I interviewed Imam Abdul Majeed Massali, one of the three Tibetan imams in Srinagar. Born in Lhasa, Imam Sahib, as I referred to him, endured tremendous difficulties when he and his family left Lhasa to start a new life in India. His father, a former member of the Panch committee, was imprisoned by Chinese authorities in 1959 under charges of assisting the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in his escape from Tibet. I asked him: “Imam Sahib, what was the main reason that the Tibetan Muslims came to India?” He replied,

We left Tibet for Islam. Everyone knows that the China is a communist country… and they do not like religion spreading in their territory. And they used to ban all practices whether Buddhist or Muslim. Our forefathers thought if we were to stay under the rule of the Chinese government, one day they will come, they will ban all practices of Islam in Tibet… When we were in Tibet, we were very much the minority… Over the past years [in Tibet] we practiced Islam and we did not have any problems. No Buddhists prohibited us from following Islam… But when China invaded Tibet, the Chinese government started banning both Buddhist and Islamic religious practices. But our forefathers thought to save Islam for future generations they would have to migrate to India on the grounds that we were not originally Tibetan. We were originally Indian Muslims who migrated from different parts of India, especially Kashmir and Ladakh, and then settled in Lhasa… So we approached proper authorities and said that we are Indians, and so we want to go back to our country. But the real reason we left is for Islam.47

With these remarks, Imam Majeed summarizes the key dynamics that compelled the Lhasa Khache to migrate to India by claiming Indian citizenship. For centuries, the Khache lived in Tibet with complete religious autonomy. However, with the annexation of Tibet under the CCP, the Khache envisioned that under the new regime’s policies, their religious traditions would come under attack, leading to the eventual extinction of Islam in Tibet. In order to fulfill their duty to preserve Islam for posterity, the Tibetan Muslims left Tibet by claiming to be Indian, not Tibetan. With this move the Khache officially declared, perhaps for the first time, a national citizenship, one that necessitated a disavowal of any ties to the country they inhabited since at least the seventeenth century. The underlining reason for claiming Indian nationality, as Imam Sahib emphasizes, was that India represented a safe zone for their Muslim traditions; Tibet did not.

Tibetans Under the Chinese Communist Party

In 1949 Mao Zedung (1893–1976) and the CCP consolidated their rule over China. A central aim of the CCP was the “liberation of Tibet,” a goal they considered of paramount importance for their larger project of bringing “Chinese National Minorities” into the dominion of the PRC.48 This “liberation” involved two phases: first, taking over the geographic territory of Tibet and second, winning over the Tibetans by extricating them from their religious and class-based ideologies, thereby encapsulating them within the CCP’s socialist vision of the future. The Muslims and Buddhists in Tibet would come to view both objectives as threatening to their religious identities and political autonomy.

China’s arrival in Tibet is often cast in black-and-white terms: godless communists brutally conquered peaceful Buddhists. From 1951 to 1959, however, Chairman Mao Zedung endorsed a policy of gradual and peaceful reform in Tibet, encouraging authorities to slowly win over the Dalai Lama and the ruling elite without spilling any blood.49 Relations between Tibetan and Chinese leaders eventually deteriorated for various reasons, including economic strain placed on Tibetans by the presence of People’s Liberation Army troops, conflicting visions of Tibet’s future, outbreaks of rebellions in Kham and Amdo, and Tibetans’ perpetual fears of the CPP’s antireligious ideologies. Tensions culminated on March 10, 1959, when popular uprising in Lhasa forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India. In the aftermath of the 1959 uprising, CCP leaders concluded that the initial policies of gradualism were a resounding failure. Violent measures, propaganda campaigns, and mass socialist reforms were subsequently implemented to secure China’s position in Tibet. Amidst this turmoil, Tibetan Muslims, like many of their Buddhist neighbors, viewed escape from Tibet as the only means of preserving their community.

International Contestations Over Tibetan Muslim Identity

The majority of the Lhasa Khache managed to leave Tibet by “repatriating”50 to India in 1960; they were able to do so, however, only after a difficult and costly campaign for Indian citizenship. Their leaders first approached local authorities in Lhasa and claimed that historically they originated from Kashmir and therefore were Indian nationals. Initially the Chinese authorities refuted their claims, citing a lack of substantive evidence. In response to this, Yusuf Naik, a Tibetan Muslim and former officer of the central Tibetan government in exile, informed me that the Khache pointed to their Muslim and Kashmiri names to distance themselves from Tibetans: “First the Chinese did not agree. They needed proof that we were all originally from Jammu and Kashmir. So we searched and searched and came to know through our family background that there is no Butt or Naik in Tibet or in China, but if you come to Kashmir, you will find… Butts and Naiks.”51 Through their surnames, which were common to north India, they argued that their race52 was ultimately Kashmiri and that it was only for trade purposes that they resided in Tibet as Indian citizens. Regardless of their prolonged domicile in Tibet, their paternal bloodline still linked them to Kashmir and therefore they had all the rights of Indian nationals. The Khache also pointed to their special privileges such as tax exemptions and their self-governance through the Panch as additional proof of being a politically independent minority. With no formal documents to submit, however, the Chinese authorities did not agree; its position was that the Muslims were Tibetans and therefore belonged among the Chinese National Minorities subject to PRC jurisdiction.

To counter this hard-line stance, the Khache sought aid from India. A delegation from their community approached the Indian Embassy in Lhasa where they appealed to the Consulate General P. N. Kaul, who subsequently relayed their dilemma to the Indian government. Initial response by the Indian officials was tepid—most likely weary of causing further frictions with neighboring China53—and so potential citizenship was acknowledged only to those who had permanent domicile in Jammu and Kashmir and whose parents or grandparents were born in “undivided India.”54 However, fortunately for the Khache, India changed its position and acknowledged that the Tibetan Muslims originated form Kashmir, making them eligible for Indian citizenship. This new policy is outlined in an important document titled the “Note Given by the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, to the Embassy of China in India, 24 September 1959,” which is part of the White Paper series of exchanges between the governments of India and China between 1954 and 1959. This particular memorandum highlights the Indian government’s justification for accepting the Khache as citizens and their responses to objections by Chinese officials. It is this document that leaders of the Tibetan Muslims of Kashmir point to as historical evidence to legitimate their claims of being both Indian and Kashmiri. A concise overview of the premises and propositions in this memorandum sheds light on the process whereby the Lhasa Khache became “repatriated Indians.”

The letter opens by proclaiming frustration to the Chinese government for obstructing the efforts by “Indian nationals in Tibet” to return to India:

The Government of India cannot but express their surprise and regret at the unhelpful attitude by the Chinese Government. They wish to clarify the position in the following paragraphs and trust that the Chinese Government will after reconsideration permit persons of Indian origin entitled to Indian citizenship to contact the Consulate General of India and return to India, should they wish.55

These statements indicate that the Chinese Government was apprehensive of allowing anyone in Tibet to claim foreign nationality; such assertions would have been seen as threats to the PRC’s claims to sovereignty over the territory and its inhabitants. The White Paper identifies three distinct groups “residing in Tibet at the time of the 1959” who were qualified for Indian nationality under Articles V or VIII of the Indian constitution: registered Indian nationals, Ladakhi Lamas, and Muslims of Kashmir origin.56 Within this last group, the government recognized at least 129 Khache families in the areas of Lhasa and Shigatse with a population of 600 who were eligible for repatriation.

Chinese government officials, however, maintained that the Khache were in fact Tibetan and therefore Chinese nationals. Their Tibetan-ness was evinced by various factors: they were historically subject to the Tibetan courts; Panch members needed to be confirmed by Buddhist leaders in Lhasa; the Muslims recognized the leadership of the Fifth Dalai Lama; they traveled with Tibetan documents; and some Khache even fought alongside Tibetan troops against foreign threats. The Indian consulate responded to these considerations by positing, “Even if these assertions were accepted, they would not by themselves constitute conclusive evidence regarding their Chinese/Tibetan nationality.”57 According to the Indian embassy, Khache reverence for the Dalai Lama could have simply been symbolic recognition of his status as the head of the Ganden Palace government. Moreover, any dealings they had with Tibet’s judicial system was part of any Indian national’s obligation to obey the jurisdiction of the foreign government in which they resided. Muslims accepted travel papers issued by the Tibetan government simply for convenience. Indian officials also claimed that while the Khache resided in Tibet, “they continued to live in their traditional manner without taking the trouble of registering themselves as Indian citizens not suspecting at any time that there would be danger of their connection with their homeland being arbitrarily severed.”58

Thus from this government document it is evident that in 1959 two nations vehemently contested the nationality of the Khache, with one highlighting their Tibetan-ness and with the other distancing them from all things Tibetan in order to prove their Kashmiri-ness and Indian nationality. Amidst such diplomatic quarrels, Chinese authorities sought to circumvent the government of India by coercing Tibetan Muslims into renouncing their claims to foreign citizenship. The White Paper describes some of these measures:

on 14th July[1959]… [Khache] persons sent a joint written representation to the Consul General of India drawing attention to… the pressure that was being put on them by the Chinese local authorities to renounce their claim to Indian citizenship. The Chinese armed sentries at the gate of the Consulate General building having steadfastly barred entry to these persons… the local authorities have apparently threatened and intimated these persons on account of their persistent demand to be treated distinct from Tibetan nationals. Registration forms… were confiscated by the Chinese local authorities… No facilities have been given to the Consulate General to meet members of the Indian community held in custody by Chinese authorities. Persons who have been anxious to seek assistance of the Indian Consulate General have been denied any facility whatsoever.59

Chinese authorities decided that if India insisted on granting the Khache citizenship and if the Muslims continued their public claims to being Kashmiris who had the right to depart from Tibet, forceful measures were required to keep them within the classification of Chinese National Minorities. The Khache’s decision to disavow connections to a Tibetan/Chinese nationality and to accept Indian citizenship brought on violent punishment by local authorities. For example, between 1959 and 1960 all of the community’s leaders were arrested on charges of espionage, urging insurrection, and inciting the people to leave for India.60 Four of the five Panch members died within the first five years of their imprisonment because of cruel treatment and harsh living conditions.61 Local authorities probably thought this move would demoralize and destabilize the community, thereby preventing any further possibility of mobilizing campaigns for Indian citizenship.

In spite of the fact that all of their leaders were incarcerated,62 the Khache continued their struggle to leave Tibet, because the new regime destabilized their economic livelihood,63 denied them political autonomy, and restricted their religious practices. Although a variety of factors contributed to their decision to migrate, according to Imam Majeed, the Tibetan Muslims’ obligation to preserve Islam was the primary reason for their departure. Imam Sahib told me that this was a religious duty that their forefathers would have been accountable for before a divine authority:

We have faith that this is a temporary world and after this world we have a life after death. Once we entered the afterlife, standing in front of Allah, we would have had to answer “Why, if you are Muslim… Why did you abandon the next generation? Why did you leave them in Tibet under the communist rule?” So we thought that on that day we would be very embarrassed in front of Allah because we followed Islam but we could not save our coming generation. That is why we migrated from Tibet to Kashmir.64

From 1959 to 1960 this conviction motivated the Khache to sustain their historical narratives of being Indian citizens. This public discourse, however, brought on fierce punishments by communist authorities. False promises were made to the Khache allowing them to believe that they could to migrate to India in exchange for their property; once they handed their belongings over, Chinese authorities still refused them permission to leave Tibet.65 A social boycott was also declared that placed restrictions on selling food or doing business with the Tibetan Muslims. With their trade routes closed and with no means to acquire food and other essential items, many of the older Khache died of starvation.66 In response to the boycott, the Indian Consulate General in Lhasa provided emergency provisions to the Tibetan Muslims.67 Some members of the community who desired to go to India were rounded up by Chinese soldiers and then placed in lines where bullets would be fired near their feet and above their heads, and following each gunshot, death threats were issued to dissuade them from departing.68 Nevertheless, the Tibetan Muslims maintained their claims to Indian nationality and with concomitant diplomatic pressure from India, China acquiesced. In 1960 about 120 families were escorted out of Tibet by Chinese officials and received by the government of India in the north Indian towns of Kalimpong and Gangtok.

The Hijra of the Tibetan Muslims

This point in history marked a major difference between the Muslims and Buddhists of Tibet; the former had an internationally recognized means to obviate the jurisdiction of the Chinese government whereas the latter would have to leave Tibet clandestinely as refugees. Today the Tibetan Muslims of Srinagar understand their Indian nationality as a distinct identity marker setting them apart from the rest of the Tibetan diaspora communities. As one Tibetan Muslim told me, “We cannot say that we are Tibetan refugees because we carry Indian passports and we have a totally different status than that of Tibetan Buddhists… They don’t carry this Indian passport; they carry RC refugee certificates that they have to have renew every few years. We are treated as Indians.”69 It is important to emphasize, however, that for the Tibetan Muslims, Indian citizenship and accompanying rights and privileges were not the prime objectives of their forefathers. As Yusuf Naik states, “We should keep in mind why we left Tibet. We have not come here to build houses, do business, to eat, drink and be merry. We have come for one reason… to stick to our religion.”70 Thus the Tibetan Muslims in Kashmir remember the Lhasa Khache of 1959, first and foremost, for their sacrifices to preserve Islam. The Khache claimed Indian nationality simply as a survival strategy; for if they publicly embraced being Tibetan, they would legally fall under the jurisdiction of the Chinese government.

The Lhasa Khache’s migration from Tibet to India marks an important period for the contemporary Tibetan Muslims because it is a common reference point in the oral histories that they tell, and it is thus an event foundational for their collective identity. During my time in Srinagar, I met numerous Tibetan Muslims, spanning multiple generations, who expressed tremendous pride in their forefathers for overcoming great obstacles as they made heavy sacrifices to preserve Islam for posterity. A twenty-five-year-old Tibetan youth told me, “It is because of religion we are here in Kashmir. I am proud that our ancestors came here for Islam.”71 This statement was given to me by a founding member of the Tibetan Muslim Football Club (TMFC), an intramural soccer team formed in Srinagar in 2005 to play against local Kashmiris.72 When forming the team an argument erupted between him and a teammate who suggested that the “M” in TMFC was superfluous, because the whole valley knew that they were Muslims, plus the team could save 50 rupees per jersey by omitting the extra letter and calling themselves the Tibetan Football Club (TFC). The captain objected, maintaining that the “M” was the most important letter because the community came to Kashmir so that they could be Muslims; therefore, the team needed to play in memory of the migration of their ancestors. For these younger generation Tibetan Muslims in Kashmir, their team jerseys symbolized a link to the hardships and sacrifices of their forefathers who left Lhasa.

In 1986 the Tibetan Muslims constructed an enduring symbol of their journey from Tibet to Kashmir at the Hawal Tibetan settlement in Srinagar: the Hijra Masjid. During my first visit to the Tibetan colony, Dr. Arif Qazi, a young scholar in the community, brought me to this mosque, where he explained to me that the community chose the title “Hijra” to link their story to that of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers, who performed the hijra in 622 ce from Mecca to Medina in response to suppression and religious persecution by tribal leaders in Mecca. For most Muslims, this migration is the beginning of Islamic history, and of the Islamic calendar, because those who performed the hijra in defense of Islam became the first umma (Community of Believers). Therefore, the hijra, as Islamic studies scholar Daoud Casewit points out, serves as a “landmark of eternal relevance,” one that demonstrates “the sublime confidence in God exhibited by those who undertook it” and “accounts as a choice of the ‘Higher’ over ‘the lower’ and as a steadfast heroic refusal to compromise with evil.”73 Similar themes manifests when Tibetan Muslims in Kashmir recount the story of their elders with an emphasis on them courageously giving up all that they had to migrate in the name of Allah, all the while remaining fearless toward the powerful anti-Islamic government who endeavored to impede their hijra.

Doctrinally, for many Muslims hijra also indicates a legal mandate under Islamic law to migrate from countries antagonistic toward Islam to those where Muslims can practice to their religion freely.74 This imperative influenced the Lhasa Khache in 1959, as Mr. Naik informed me, “The main reason why we left is because the Chinese were not allowing the practice of Islam. In our religion if you are Muslim and you are not allowed to practice Islam, then one has to leave the nation.”75 Thus the departure from Lhasa placed the Khache within a broad pan-Islamic narrative in which the 622 hijra of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers served as the divine paradigm for defining the Tibetan Muslim community as they contended with the policies and practices of the CCP. For the Lhasa Khache, Tibet under the PRC in 1959 had become their Mecca and India represented their Medina; thus inspired by their faith in Allah, they followed the sunna (example) of their prophet as they embarked on their own hijra. By remembrance and retelling of the story of their ancestors, with 1959 and 622 as synthesized focal points, Tibetan Muslims imbue their own history with an aura of sacredness. Within this narrative framework, the Khache’s departure from Lhasa as “Repatriated Indians” constitutes not a traumatic loss of their homeland but a heroic triumph of a small Muslim enclave over a powerful communist regime—a victory that serves for them as historical evidence of the Khache’s commitment to Islam.

Hayden White posits that historical narratives place “putatively real events” within an imagined moral order of existence, thereby making the remembered past conducive to creating social order.76 Bruce Lincoln might qualify White’s observations by adding that specific past occurrences can be elevated to the status of “myth” by transforming a historical phenomenon into a “paradigmatic truth” capable of evoking the sentiments “out which society is actively constructed.”77 In the case of the Tibetan Muslims, the 622 hijra of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers becomes the sacred model in reference to which the events of 1959 are remembered and retold. Moreover, just as the prophet and his followers departed from Mecca to Medina under divine law (Sharia), for the Khache, submission to God’s will and accountability to him—both in this life and in the next—mandated that they repatriate to India. Within this narrative structure, the Khache can view the tragedies of 1959 as finite components of a larger master plan designed by the creator and ruler of the universe. Thus for the Tibetan Muslims, narratives imbue their departure from Tibet with multiple levels of significance—moral, mythical, and teleological—and through remembering and retelling their past, with 1959 and 622 as synthesized reference points, they cast themselves as members of broader Muslim community (umma) who live in accordance with prophetic example (sunna) and partake in a divinely guided pan-Islamic history.


Non-Buddhist communities, including Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs, inhabit the greater Tibetan cultural sphere within areas such as Ladakh, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, and the northeastern Indo-Himalayas. Studying these groups provides insights into the heterogeneity of Tibetan societies, thereby negating the overly simplistic Orientalist representations of Tibetan history and identity. After examining the history and memories of the Tibetan Muslims, we see a Tibet that is not a homogenous and timeless Shangri-la; instead, pre-1959 Tibet is a diverse and complex region in which from the seventeenth century onward, minority enclaves such as the Lhasa Khache worked with the Ganden Palace government to develop the social, political, and economic infrastructure of central Tibet. From the vantage point of Tibetan Muslims, it is insufficient to simply equate Tibetan culture with Tibetan Buddhism; the Khache blended together Islamic religion and Tibetan culture in the domains of fashion, language, architecture, and cuisine. Through practices and narratives centered on Sufi shrines, we have seen a broader vision of the Tibetan religious landscape. Being Tibetan does not necessarily mean being Buddhist. Through the voices of contemporary Tibetan Muslims, we hear perspectives on Tibetan identity that are not products of either Buddhism or Western hegemony. Tibetan Muslim selfhood crystallizes around notions of a unique Tibetan culture and homeland, as well as deep religious commitments to Islam. The ambiguity and contestability of Tibetan national identity becomes apparent when we look at the Tibetan Muslims’ claim to Indian citizenship in the wake of the 1959 uprising along with the subsequent responses by the governments of India and China. The Tibetan Muslims have navigated and negotiated multiple levels of identity—religious, racial, and national—in response to changing historical circumstances. Narrating their departure from Tibet to India through the Islamic ideal of hijra, contemporary Tibetan Muslims prioritize their Muslim identities by placing themselves within a broader pan-Islamic conception of time, history, and community. This case study thus has shown that engaging Tibetan identity necessitates analyzing how multiple notions of selfhood found within a specific community have historically intersected with one another.

The narratives of the Tibetan Muslims provide an alternative to colonial and Orientalist master narratives concerning Tibet. Their history constitutes what Dipesh Chakrabarty defines as a “subaltern past,” because Tibetan Muslims participate in “life-worlds subordinate by major narratives of the dominant institutions.”78 Postcolonial theorists like Chakrabarty have discussed in detail how Western notions of time, history, and modernity have remained at the center of European and American scholasticism leading to the neglect and suppression of “subaltern voices.” Some recent critiques fault postcolonial and subaltern studies for prioritizing deconstructing colonial power interests over writing histories of subaltern populations.79 The challenge now at hand is: How does the task of uncovering “subaltern pasts” transform from an abstract theoretical problem into a practical scholarly enterprise? This article has shown that engaging the subaltern Other entails not perpetual critiques of Western discourses, but instead combining historical and ethnographic methods to explore how underrepresented communities such as the Tibetan Muslims have historically developed indigenous conceptions of history and identity.


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(1) See Peter Bishop, Myths of Shangri-La: Tibet. Travel Writing and the Western Creation of Sacred Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); Donald Lopez, The Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); and Thierry Dodin and Heinz Räther, eds., Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies (Boston: Wisdom Publication, 2001).

(3) Donald Lopez states, “Introduced by Western supporters to the notion of culture, Tibetan refugee could look back at what Tibet had been. But this gaze… saw the Land of Snows only as it was reflected in the elaborately framed mirror of Western fantasies about Tibet. It was only through this mirror… that a Tibetan nation could be represented as unified, complete, and coherent.” Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-la, 200. Tibetan studies scholar Tsering Shakya, however, states in response to Lopez’s assertion of Western hegemony over Tibetan refugees, “neither western romanticized popular discourse nor the writings from the world of high academic discourse have penetrated the Tibetan social world and the Tibetan definition of self.” See Tsering Shakya, “Who Are the Prisoners?” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 69, no. 1 (2001): 186.

(4) See Christiaan P. Klieger, ed., Tibet, Self, and the Tibetan Diaspora (Boston: Brill, 2002).

(5) See Keila Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala: Music in the Life of a Refugee Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

(6) See Melvyn C. Goldstein and Matthew T. Kapstein, eds., Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

(7) See Charlene E. Mackley, The Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revival in Post-Mao China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

(8) For a series of essays dealing with the social scientific category of “modernity” and its applicability to Tibetan studies, see Robert Barnett and Ronald Schwartz, eds., Tibetan Modernities: Notes from the Field on Cultural and Social Change. (Boston: Brill, 2008).

(9) A notable exception comes from Chinese scholars who have conducted studies of Tibet’s Hui communities. See Fang Jianchaing, “Research on the Huis and their Mosques in Tibet and on the Spread and Influence of Islam in Tibet,” Tibetan Studies 2 (1989): 202–222. See also Chen Bo, “A Multicultural Interpretation of an Ethnic Muslim Community: The Case of Hui Tibetan in Lhasa,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 23, no. 1 (2003): 41–61.

(10) See Christopher Beckwith, The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987). See also Anna Akasoy, Charles Burnett, and Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim, Islam and Tibet: Interactions Along the Musk Routes (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010).

(11) For a survey of these documents see W. Barthold’s article in Encyclopaedia of Islam, New Edition., s.v. “Tubbat.” 576–577.

(12) Marc Gaborieau. “Power and Authority of Sufis among the Kashmiri Muslims in Tibet,” Tibet Journal 20, no. 3 (1995): 21.

(13) For a study of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s writings on violence and warfare, see Derek F. Maher,” Sacralized Warfare: The Fifth Dalai Lama and the Discourse of Religious Violence” in Buddhist Warfare, eds., Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 77–90.

(14) For a history of the Avalokiteshvara cult in Tibet and its significance to Tibetan identity, see Matthew Kapstein, The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). For a study of the connection between Avalokiteshvara and the Dalai Lama reincarnation line, see Leonard Van der Kuijip, “The Dalai Lamas and the Reincarnate Lamas of Tibet” in The Tibetan History Reader, eds., Gray Tuttle and Kurtis R. Schaeffer (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 335–347.

(15) See Kurtis R. Schaeffer, “Ritual, Festivity, and Authority under the Fifth Dalai Lama” in Power, Politics, and the Reinvention of Tradition: Tibet in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, eds. Bryan J Cuevas and Kurtis R Schaeffer (Boston: Brill, 2006), 187–202.

(16) Abu Bakr Amir-Uddin Nadwi, Tibet and Tibetan Muslims, trans. Paramanda Sharma (Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 2004), 51.

(18) Panch is an Urdu and Persian word meaning “five.”

(19) Yusuf Naik, “Memories of My Father, Abdul Ghani, in Tibet,” Tibet Journal 20, no. 2 (1995): 31–34.

(21) For details on the Khwaja family, see Abdul Ghani Sheikh, “Tibetan Muslims,” Tibet Journal 16, no 4 (1991): 86–89.

(22) This was the case in 1909 when relations between the 13th Dalai Lama and Beijing deteriorated to the point that Manchu forces were ordered to seize Lhasa. Tibetan Muslims were part of a special delegation that brokered a settlement between Lhasa’s polity and the Manchu representatives. See K. Dhondup, The Water-Bird and Other Years: A History of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and After (New Delhi: Rangwang Publishers, 1986), 33.

(23) Ram Rahul, “Kashmiri Muslims in Tibet,” International Studies 3 (1961–1962): 182.

(25) For an overview of the enterprise of trade in central Tibet as well as the role of “foreign merchants” see Luce Boulnois, “Gold, Wool, and Musk: Trade in Lhasa in the Seventeenth Century” in Lhasa in the Seventeenth Century: The Capital of the Dalai Lamas, ed. Francoise Pommaret, (Boston: Brill, 2003), 133–156.

(26) Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark. “The Moslems of Central Tibet,” Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society 39 (1952): 237.

(27) Evariste Régis Huc, Huc and Gabet: Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China, 1844–1846: Vol. 2, trans. William Hazlitt. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1928), 184. Most likely the coins spotted by Huc originated from Nepal and were brought in by the Khache during their trade expeditions. For a history of Tibetan currency, see Nichola Rhodes, “The Development of Tibetan Currency,” in Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson, eds. Michael Aris and Aung San Suu Kyi (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1979), 261–268.

(29) Matthew Kapstein, The Tibetans (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 1.

(30) Here I borrow a term that Richard Eaton uses to describe the spread of Islam in South Asia. The “double movement” refers to the introduction of pan-Islamic elements into local Indic settings as indigenous South Asian traditions enter a pan-Islamic milieu. For a collections of essays on this topic, see Richard Eaton, ed., India’s Islamic Tradition: 711–1750 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

(31) According to oral histories that I gathered in Srinagar, when Buddhists in Lhasa invited Khache to social events, the Muslims would only be served halāl meats. Also according to my sources, while the Khache traditionally avoided alcoholic beverages, some Tibetan Muslims currently living in Lhasa are believed to now drink wine because they have “succumb to Chinese cultural influence.”

(32) José Ignacio Cabezón, “Islam in the Tibetan Cultural Sphere,” in Islam in Tibet & the Illustrated Narrative: Tibetan Caravans, ed. Henry Gray (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 1997), 22.

(33) For a full English translation of the text, see Dawa Norbu, trans., Khache Phalu’s Advice on the Art of Living, (Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1987).

(38) Khwājah Ghulām Muhammad, Récit D’un Voyageur Musulman Au Tibet, ed. and trans. Marc Gaborieau (Paris: Labethno, 1973), 115.

(41) Here Imam Ullah brings in the term communal, which in the South Asian context refers to sectarian conflicts, often violent in nature, between Hindus and Muslims. Imam Ullah might be implicitly contrasting the history of religious pluralism in Tibet between Buddhists and Muslims with the Hindu-Muslim tensions that have plagued South Asia. It is important to note that British colonial administrators first introduced the concept of communalism to South Asian audiences, thereby constructing communalist identities in the process. See Gyanendra Pandey, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

(42) Imam Walli Ullah, interview by author, Srinagar, Kashmir, August 10, 2009.

(45) Personal correspondence, Srinagar, Kashmir, July 29, 2009.

(46) Georges Dreyfus, “Are We Prisoners of Shangrila? Orientalism, Nationalism, and the Study of Tibet,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 1 (October 2005): 14, (accessed September 16, 2013).

(47) Imam Abdul Majeed Massali, interview by author, translated by Dr. Arif Qazi, Srinagar, Kashmir, July 26, 2009.

(48) Tsering Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 3.

(50) Here the term repatriating refers to the process of returning back to one’s place of citizenship.

(51) Yusuf Naik, interview by author, Srinagar, Kashmir, July 26, 2009.

(52) The term race occurred quite often in oral histories I gathered in Srinagar, particularly among younger and middle-aged Tibetans. While their claims to Kashmiri ancestry were key to gaining diplomatic aid from India in 1959, the state government in Kashmir does not recognize them as Kashmiris because they are “racially” Tibetan. Because the Tibetans are not recognized as state subjects of Kashmir, they have limited economic and educational opportunities in Srinagar. Youth in the colony have also complained to me of “racial discrimination” by local Kashmiris who view the Tibetans as a race foreign to the Kashmir Valley.

(53) After the 1947 Partition, Nehruvian foreign policy endeavored to build strategic ties to neighboring China, an objective aimed at bringing peace and stability to all of Asia. The arrival of Tibetan refugees into India beginning in 1959 coupled with the Indian government’s decision to grant political asylum to the Dalai Lama exacerbated tensions between the two nations. China accused India of complicity in supporting Tibetan independence. Given this tense situation, Indian government leaders, by claiming to have Indian nationals (such as the Lhasa Khache) residing in a highly disputed area such as Tibet would have undoubtedly further aggravated hostilities between the two governments. For additional analysis of the impact of Tibetan refugees on Sino-Indian relations see Pia Oberoi, Exile and Belonging: Refugees and State Policy in South Asia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 77–103.

(54) Masood Butt. “Muslims of Tibet,” Tibet Bulletin (January–February 1994): 9.

(55) Ministry of External Affairs Government of India, “Note Given by the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, to Embassy of China in India, 24 September 1959,” in Notes, Memoranda and Letters Exchanged and Agreements Signed Between The Governments of India and China: White Paper (New Delhi: Ministry of External Affairs Government of India, 1959), 2. This document was given to me by leaders of the Tibetan Muslim community in Srinagar.

(62) The Panch never made it to India; they remained imprisoned when the majority of the Khache left in 1960.

(63) Traditional trade routes were closed off by the new regime, thereby preventing the Khache from carrying on their most profitable enterprise. For example, the Lopchak trade caravan, a highly lucrative triennial exchange between Lhasa and Leh, came to an end after the fall of the Dalai Lama’s government.

(64) Imam Abdul Majeed Massali, interview by the author, translated by Dr. Arif Qazi, Srinagar, Kashmir, July 26, 2009.

(67) Yusuf Naik, interview by the author, Srinagar, Kashmir, July 26, 2009.

(69) Personal correspondence in Srinagar, Kashmir, July 28, 2009.

(70) Yusuf Naik, interview by author, Srinagar, Kashmir, July 27, 2009.

(71) Personal correspondence, Srinagar, Kashmir, July 31, 2009.

(72) The team was in existence for roughly a year and half until the captain moved to Delhi to work at a call center. Although they had a winless record, the captain told me wining championships was not his goal in forming the team. Instead, he wished to mobilize youth in the community to honor their ancestors by playing football in memory of them.

(73) Daoud Casewit, “Hijra as History and Metaphor: A Survey of Qur’anic and Hadithh Sources,” The Muslim World 88, no. 2 (1998): 106.

(74) It is important to note that the doctrinal meaning and legal significance of hijra has been disputed for centuries. For a survey of scholastic and jurist debates on this topic, see Muhammad Khalid Masud, “The Obligation to Migrate: The Doctrine of Hijra in Islamic Law,” in Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination, eds. Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 29–49.

(75) Yusuf Naik, interview by author, Srinagar, Kashmir, July 26, 2009.

(76) Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 7, no. 1 (1980): 26.

(77) See Bruce Lincoln, Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual and Classification (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 32–37. While audiences view both history and myth as authoritative discourses, myth enjoys a higher degree of authority than history because of its capacity to evoke emotional sentiments. Lincoln brings in the example of the Iranian Revolution to substantiate this argument. During this revolution, two historical periods were placed in contestation with one another for the status of paradigmatic truth, the defining of the Iranian nation-state being at stake. On the one hand, the Shah sought to elevate the rule of Cyrus the Great as symbolic of the nation; on the other hand, the Shi‘i community of scholars (‘ulama) invoked the martyrdom of Husayn at Karbala as the rallying point for the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. While both eras were considered credible by Iranian citizens, only the events at Karbala held the mythic authority capable of arising national sentiments.

(78) Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 101.

(79) For example, focusing on the writings of Dipesh Chakrabarty and Gayatry Spivak, David Gordon White argues that the field of subaltern studies is founded on a problematic assumption that the “experience of the colonial adventure of the European powers was so unusual that the deconstruction of the latter’s discourse of power… is more urgent than the retrieval of India’s precolonial past, or the linking of that past to the postcolonial present through historical methods, however flawed they may be.” White maintains that by overemphasizing colonial power interests and the exceptional otherness of the colonized subject’s past, one renders historical studies impossible. See David Gordon White. “Digging Wells While Houses Burn? Writing Histories of Hinduism in a Time of Identity Politics,” History and Theory 45, no. 4 (2006): 6.