Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Brick Tea

Delhi, India
North along the Ring Road, just as national highway begins to wind its way out of Delhi, hidden amidst a line of shops and shanties, lies a red gate. Once you step through it, you leave the rich local Dilli chatter, the noisy auto-rickshaws and the broad roads behind. This is the entrance to Samyeling, a Tibetan settlement in New Delhi's New Aruna Nagar neighbourhood whose lanes, no more than a meter wide, are lined with Tibetan art shops, restaurants, guest houses and travel agencies, while the air is filled with the delicious aromas of Tibetan cuisine. Monks stroll by in their maroon robes, children run around and the shops are abuzz with haggling customers.

Samyeling is one of the more accessible Tibetan resettlement areas in India, and certainly adds a nice piece of variety to Delhi. It provides shelter to around 3,000 Tibetan residents, refugees caught in a struggle to earn a living in the foreign land.
One such family was mine, with my mother being the only other member of my family.
After completing my schooling up-to the eighth grade in the settlement school, I joined my family deli to provide a helping hand, serving some of the most exotic Tibetan cuisine.
Be it Balep korkun, Tibetan flat-bread cooked on a cast iron skillet,
or a heavier version of steamed bun Tingmo;
The cold-weather soup made with noodles and vegetables - Thenthuk,
or the stir-fried meat tossed with celery, carrots and fresh green chili - Shab Tra;
my mom prepared each dish like a genius chef, putting her heart and spirit inside the Tibetan stew.

Despite several attempts I couldn't parallel her culinary skills, an exception being the "Brick Tea", of which I was the master. Its recipe was quite intricate:
Water is left to boil and when it does, a great handful of the stuff is crumbled into it and allowed to stew for seven and a half minutes (perhaps this was the key to my success, figuring out the precise cooking time for the perfect flavour). The whole infusion is so opaque that it looks almost black. At this stage I add a pinch of salt; never sugar. Then I add my secret ingredient - a pinch of soda, in order to give the beverage a pinkish tinge. I empty the saucepan into a big wooden churn, straining the tea through a colander made of reed. A large lump of butter is dropped into it, and, after being vigorously stirred, this brew is transferred to a huge copper teapot and then comes the final task - serving it hot.

These dishes may sound lavish, but ours wasn't a booming business. People appreciated the food, but the customer base was just enough for the two of us to make a decent living in a small rented house in that settlement.

There was a strange silence in our deli today. The rich aroma coming from the kitchen was also absent. My mother passed away early in the morning due to a chronic heart failure. And I was silently mourning her loss. Suddenly, I felt as if I was a complete stranger. I had a house, but no one inside it to call it as my home. The only chaperon who sheltered me underneath her love and kindness was resting in peace.

The next day, I pocketed the money we saved all these years. It was little still it was sufficient to set on a journey to fulfill her last wish.
Kathmandu, Nepal  
My neighbours told me the cheapest and the most bureaucratically hassle free way to reach my destination.

Firstly, I boarded an overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi. The next step was to catch a direct bus to the Nepalese frontier at Sunauli, the small border town to Nepal. In the darkness, I walked 100 meters along a rough road across the border into Nepal. There was no actual border, just a tiny dimly lit Nepalese Immigration Office alongside the road in the middle of town, easy to miss if one was not looking. Two Immigration officers charged everyone, except Indians, 30 american dollars for a visa. Indians and Nepalis went freely back and forth as if it were one country. After a few minutes I reached the Bhairawa bus station where I boarded my bus to Kathmandu and dozed off.

The early dawn road to Kathmandu went up and down the beautiful, cool, terraced hills and valleys where villages squat along streams and people lived at a leisurely pace. Some Nepalis looked like a mixture of Tibetan and Indian, some looked Indian, some looked Chinese and some even looked European. Since most villages were separated by mountains, many tribes had kept their unique customs and bloodlines.

I reached Kathmandu that morning. While strolling past the local shops in the Thamel area, I was astonished to find, amid Hindu and Buddhist temples and shrines, large bookshops, high quality hiking and mountaineering gear, the latest western music on CD, high end camera shops, restaurants and cafes offering western cuisine, pastries, breads and cakes, and shops selling the most garish clothes as well as the usual tourist junk. It came as a small surprise to find that the average young Nepalis in Kathmandu were also very westernized in looks, clothes, speech and mannerisms, not what you would expect from a completely landlocked kingdom in the Himalayas. Most of them were laid back and easygoing, content with a comfortable job and good friends. Indian currency was acceptable only till Bhairawa, so I exchanged some currency with the bus conductor who dropped me at Kathmandu.

Soon I became a part of the group traveling by road from Kathmandu to Lhasa. We left Kathmandu at 2 pm and drove alongside the whitewater Sun Kosi River which winded through villages set among beautiful, rugged, green hills for 114 km to the Tibetan border at Kodari. The border was chaotic and muddy with dozens of trucks lined up waiting to go through.

I was about to reach my destination.

Lhasa, Tibet
Arriving in Lhasa, my first feelings were, "At last, I'm here."
But my first impressions of Lhasa were, "Where am I? Is this Lhasa?"
It looked like a big Chinese town for that matter. I was searching for the Potala, some landmark that would tell me that I really am in Lhasa. There were roads lined with grey factories, shops and traffic. Sometimes I could catch a glimpse of telltale signs: a Tibetan in Chinese clothes would drive past in a tractor, his cheeks reddened by the weather, or a group of raffish Tibetan youths with longish hair would be leaning against the railings at the roadside.

A few blocks further I saw it and shouted with joy, "There, the Potala!"

The Potala was massive, an imposing palace overlooking Lhasa. My mother had told me that according to legend, ancient Tibetan King Songzan was looking for a site for his capital when his Chinese wife, using feng shui, divined the valley to be the ideal spot. First, the existing lake had to be filled in, not just by workmen, but by using white goats to carry the earth. After many years this was accomplished and work on the palace could then begin. Later generations of kings added to it and when the secular and spiritual rulers combined, the Potala became the monastic seat of government that lasted until the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959.

But my destination was not Potala, it was Zuglagkang (Jokhang Temple) located on Barkhor Square in Lhasa. The Jokhang was the place of worship. After I reached there, I noticed that while the Potala's neighbourhood had been modernized, the Jokhang and its surrounding Barkhor Square remained frozen in time. It was busy with monks chanting sutras, ringing bells, bashing cymbals, blowing trumpets and conch shells; lighting yak butter candles; old people twirling prayer wheels; people prostrating themselves full length on the ground.

"Where can I find the Twins?" - I asked a kid who was playing with his brother.
He pointed his finger towards the east side of the temple. I continued strolling until I reached the Twins.
The 'Twins' were actually two huge Cedar trees just like my mother told me, but it was even bigger than I had imagined.
Prayer flags were hanging on the Twins at varying heights, flitting with the breeze.

I was tired after this long journey.
Also hungry.

At a few yards distance, an old man was sitting on the stairs leading to the monastery grounds. He wasn't dressed like a monk, but was holding a prayer wheel engraved with the mystical words - OM MANI PADME HUM. He was turning the wheel gently and reciting the mantra. The atmosphere was so peaceful and serene that I sat beside him.

After a few minutes he spoke,
"You are not from here, are you?"
"No. I'm from India."
"But, you have a Tibetan descent. What's your name?"
"It means the fortunate one, isn't it?"
"Yes, my mother told me that I brought her good fortune. But I never felt the same. It is perhaps my ill luck that the only person who cared for me is no longer with me."
The old man observed me in silence.

"She never told me why her family left Tibet to live in a state of misery in a foreign land."
"Do you know why Dalai Lama left this country?" - He questioned.
"No. I never questioned her." - Quick came my reply.
"In 1950 People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet. The natives had no chance against the big Chinese army. One million Tibetans were killed; and thousands of monasteries were destroyed. Despite many requests for help by the young Dalai Lama western countries didn't support Tibet. Mao Zedong prohibited Tibetan religion. The Dalai Lama even went to India to ask for support, but his request was rejected. He returned disappointed. Afterwards the Dalai Lama was invited for a theatrical performance in a Chinese military camp outside of Lhasa. He was instructed to come alone. He didn't go and Mao Zedong impeached him of high treason. His life hanging by a thread the Dalai Lama fled to India on 17 March 1959."

"But why did the people leave their motherland?"
"Here Tibetan laws and rights were abolished, cultural heritage was destructed. Buddhism was forbidden. Even the property of a picture of the Dalai Lama got punishable. No one wishes to be tortured in a Chinese prisoner’s camp. Chinese people looked upon Tibetans as no human beings. Education was given only in Chinese. Many Tibetan children didn't have access to education at all, or their parents could not afford to pay the towering school fee. Even today things haven't changed much. We are oppressed in our own country."
He continued -
"I was 10 year old orphan back then. I saw everything from my very own eyes. Friends and families disrupting. The agony of leaving their "roof" was at times unbearable. I had no one to lead me, so I stayed back. Even the dearest of my friends left Tibet. Probably now they are living in India."

I could see the pain in the old man's expression. After hearing his story even my eyes had turned wet. The colorful prayer flags looked beautiful, fluttering with the breeze - sometimes waving gently, sometimes raging; dancing with the wind making the ambiance musical in its own unique way.

"So why have you come here son?"
I took out a piece of fabric and unfolded it. It was a set of prayer flags.
"To fulfill my mother's last wish by tying it to the Twins."
He was taken aback after he saw the flag.
"What happened?" I enquired.
"Prayer flags come in sets of five, one in each of the five colors - Blue, White, Red, Green, Yellow. The five colors represent the elements -Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth respectively, and are arranged from left to right in a specific order. Your set is different - Yellow, Orange, Black, Turquoise and Purple. Was you mother's name Sangmu?"
"Yes! How did you know."
"Because I made this one for her while she was leaving for India with her parents during the Tibetan diaspora. The first letters of these colours put together spells her name -
yellow - སེར་པོ (ser po) - S
orange - ལི་ཝང (au wang) - A
black - ནག་པོ (nag po) - N
turquoise - གཡུ (g.yu) - G
purple - མུ་མན (mu man) - MU
Sangmu, which also means the kind-hearted. She promised me that one day she will meet me at the Twins and bring it along with her. And even after dying she kept her promise."
He started crying.
Tears dripping like raindrops falling from the sky.

"Then I think it belongs to you. Keep it."
"No, son. Fulfill her wish and tie it to the Twins."
I tied it to the cedar, gazing it for quite some time with teary eyes.

"Do you want to have some Brick Tea son. My small establishment is nearby."
"Only if you allow me to prepare it." - I said with a smile.

Then we silently drifted away from the temple, sharing our stories with each other.

For the first time,
I felt as if I had someone who could care for me,
I am surely the fortunate one just as my mother said.
It was as if I had not come back to my country, but to my home.

I was on the roof of the world,
But I wasn't roofless anymore.


  1. Hello Ankit. Nice piece of work. i liked the way it ends. Brick tea - wish i could taste it now. Good luck. :)

  2. Heart touching and very well written ! :)

  3. Lovely Story..
    Really liked the ending ...

  4. I loved the story, The ending was unpredictable, very heart touching and heart wrenching in a way.

    Is it non-fiction?? it is so detailed, full of emotions....

    I don't think my comment can do justice to this story...

  5. Riveting read, Ankit. And the details make the write up even more interesting!
    Nice work~

  6. What a touching story. Brought tears to my eyes. And beautifully written.


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