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"Eastern Gypsies": Damans in Tibet

  • Source : China Tibet Online Author : Time : 12/23/2014 Editor : Tenzin Woebom

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      Daman Children. [Photo/China Tibet Online]


    Pasang has a standard Tibetan name. She wears Tibetan clothing, speaks Tibetan, eats Tsampa, but she knows that she is different. With a high-bridged nose and deep eye-sockets, she is Daman.


    Pasang's home is in the southwest of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, in an area called Daman Village. Her village is located in Gyirong County, just 30km from the China-Nepal border. This is the home for all of the Daman people, but the entire village has but 49 households, totaling 197 people.


    The gypsies of the East


    Known as "the gypsies of the East", the Daman people don't have large covered wagons, and once lived as vagabonds. Pasang has never experienced the wandering lifestyle of her ancestors, because at the time she was born, her family had already settled down to live in Gyirong County. The Daman people's former way of life only existed in the elders' stories.


    In Tibetan, "Daman" means "descendents of the horse warriors". According to legend, the Daman's ancestors were the cavalry for the Nepali Gurkhas. Because of losses in battle, however, they were left in the border region. Starting from the Qing Dynasty(1636—1912), the Daman people traveled between the borders of China, Nepal and India – integrating with the people of these areas.


    The Gypsies of Europe once had blacksmithing as their main trade and the Daman people also used to rely on blacksmithing for their livelihood. Over a long 200 years, and because the "descendents of the horse warriors" didn't have a nationality, didn't have their own lands or residences, they relied on metal work and working as farmhands to survive from day to day.


    "Blacksmith" became a pseudonym imposed on the Daman people. Historically, the blacksmiths' social status was very low. They were often not accepted by others; they had no means of joining local society. Although they were very hard working, the best they could hope for was earning a little bit of grain. There was no hope for becoming educated.


    "My grandparents were born and raised in Gyirong County. I know that I have foreign blood in me, but exactly where from I do not know", a 60-year-old elder named Yun Dan said, his grandparents also didn't know when the Daman people began to live in Gyirong.


    "The most popular saying in the village is that the Daman people ancestrally come from Nepal. At the beginning, there were only three or four people, but as people began to slowly settle in Gyirong and reproduce, the population has increased and with this increase we are leaping out of poverty", the Daman village committee secretary Wang Dui said, there have already been six or seven generations of Daman people living in Gyirong County.


    Because of the small population, and also frequent migration and disperse residences, the Daman people do not have a record of their history. They only have preserved murky memories. But one thing can be certain, even though they finished their international wandering, they had no nationality, no clear identity and their time in Gyirong was incredibly difficult.


    Life changed


    From bitter difficulty to new life, the fate of the Daman people changed in 2003 when they formally became Chinese citizens. In 2005, when Pasang was 9, he got the first home of his life. The Chinese government has invested 1.47 billion yuan to renovate the new Daman village. All of the Daman people live together. Pasang entered school and became the Daman people's first generation of "intellectuals", having already graduated from high school.


    On December 1 of 2014, the Chinese-Nepali border crossing at Gyirong was formally enlarged, and so the local government is looking to establish a long term plan to attract international tourism.


    Pasang, who dances Indian, Nepali and Tibetan styles, says that the county will create a cultural team – and she plans to try it out. Pasang's father is still working with metal, but now the village has created a cooperative and the blacksmiths are receiving professional training.


    Not only are they able to create more metal tools, they can also have their wares be purchased by the government. Pasang's family has its own land and greenhouse, where they grow vegetables, melons and fruits. Their yearly income is several thousand yuan. When adding the government subsidies amounting to over 1000 yuan per person, the Daman peoples' lifestyle has begun to make many other locals jealous.


    But, anyone who knows the history of the Daman people will know, what makes them most content is finally having a home. Pasang's older sister Drolma went to other areas of China to work, wandering through Sichuan, Xinjiang, Shanxi and other places for a few years. In the end, however, she still returned to the Daman village, found herself a boyfriend and is preparing to settle down to a life at home.


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