Behind the visual distinctiveness of Majnu Ka Tilla lies the story of hundreds of bamboo shacks, tarpaulin roofs and ‘Chang’, the Tibetan barley wine
“The growth of Majnu Ka Tilla and its gentrification is the story of the Tibetan community in exile”, says former executive director of the Tibet Policy Institute and veteran journalist Thubten Samphel.
In the late 1970s, among the first generations of Tibetans in exile, Samphel was a student at St Stephen’s, Delhi University. He and his friends, putting away the last of their History exams, rushed to Majnu Ka Tilla, to get hold of the cheap Chang, Tibetan barley wine.
In those days, Majnu Ka Tilla was not anywhere near how it is known now. The prayer flags, the temple, the people were all layered with thick coats of dust, sweating under tarpaulin roofs with their bamboo huts providing no relief. And all that the place could brew was the smell of Chang.
With its reputation for cheap Chang, Samphel says, “It was even called Changistan.”
Changistan was unlawful but given the resources of the time, it was the only way Tibetans could eke out a living from poverty.
A 75-year-old Youdon, who now has several tenants living under her roof, first came to Majnu Ka Tilla in her 20s. She was a member of the Majnu Ka Tilla Tibetan Women’s Association for 10 years and even worked as a member of the Local Tibetan Assembly.
Living alone in a hut with a pillar made of bamboo, she sold momo, thukpa, chowmein and Chang, like the rest. “There used to be no light, no AC. I had a handheld fan made of shoots, and that was it”, she adds.
Majnu Ka Tilla is “a product of history’s injustice”, Samphel wrote in his book, Falling from the Roof.
From being punned by the Tibetans elsewhere in India in their heavy Tibetan accents, “Ma-jon pai Tro-lha: the dregs of failure” to what the Delhiites now call, MKT or as the Tibetans prefer, MT, is a unique case.
The alleys breeding with mosquitoes and lines of buckets waiting in desperation facing the water pump have now been replaced with slices of luxuries at every corner. With hotels, cafes, and restaurants in fancy Tibetan ethnic designs, some even with pools, MT has risen to the very top of the Tibetan refugee heap.
Brimming with entrepreneurial industries and feeding on precarious prosperity, the journal, From Refuge to Rights: Majnu ka Tilla Tibetan Colony in New Delhi says, “Majnu Ka Tilla is a unique repository of Tibetan exile experiences not replicated in other Tibetan settlements in India.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, thousands of Tibetans along with the Dalai Lama were welcomed by the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Guaranteeing asylum to the Tibetan refugees, the Indian government introduced a Tibetan rehabilitation regime and set up designated settlements across the country. These settlements are administered under the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) through a representative/welfare office in each of the settlements.
However, with more people coming in after the 1962 India-China war, these settlements proved to be inadequate and “spontaneous settlements” had to be established.
MT was one such spontaneous settlement.
In its initial days, it didn’t have the representative/welfare office of the CTA. In 1965, the Tibetans residing there constituted the Residents Welfare Association (RWA), a self-administration group. However, RWA was registered only in 2004. By then, in 1984, the Central Tibetan Administration had established their settlement/welfare officer at MT. It was named “Samyeling”, by the Dalai Lama.
Currently CTA representative administers CTA’s official announcements across Tibetans in Delhi while RWA is limited to Tibetans residing in MT.
Karma Dorjee, the current president of RWA, says, “There used to be a huge open space in Budh Vihar, where the Indian government had built tents for the Tibetans.” Before MT, Tibetans lived in Ladakh Budh Vihar, a transit point for Ladakhi pilgrims on the outskirts of Delhi.
Dorjee adds, “Later with the Tibetan population growing and Indians complaining about the Yamuna river being polluted because of the Tibetan encroachments, they decided to relocate us to Majnu Ka Tilla, in 1963.”
In 1981 during the Delhi Asian Games, Delhi Development Authority (DDA) established a new camp on an adjacent tract of Majnu Ka Tilla. According to From Refuge to Rights, the DDA identified 33 houses in MT to be demolished and resettled in the new colony, extending the colony by 1.1 acres.
Unlike other Tibetan settlements, it says, “Moving on the banks of Yamuna, there was no formal handover of the Majnu Ka Tilla to the Tibetans here and the colony continues to have a precarious claim to the land.”
In June 2006, a court notice indicating MT to be demolished under the Delhi government’s road expansion and Yamuna River beautification plan was served.
Youdon, who had a cemented two-storeyed house at the time says, “Out of anxiety, some Tibetans sold off their beds, while others sold their relatively expensive doors.”
However, in 2012, the court order was avoided and Delhi’s former Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit named it New Aruna Nagar. The old Aruna Nagar is the Punjabi Basti, Rajasthani Gali, and the neighbouring area lying on the opposite side of MT.
But, the colloquial name MT/MKT remains famous amongst the auto drivers outside the Vidhan Sabha Metro Station.
MT/MKT became popular as younger Tibetans, with better access to resources, set up restaurants and opened stores selling jewellery, Tibetan ethnic artefacts, and clothes.
They started selling Lhaphing, a spicy Tibetan snack made of wheat and “araarot”. Youdon says, “Not even half the number of Indians that now come to MT, was there in the older days. They started coming only after we started selling Lhaphing.”
In the temple area, Delhiites gathering around the benches of the Laphing stall, waiting for their wet (with soup) and dry Laphing, has become a common sight. Once in Pitampura, Youdon recalls an Indian student telling her, “Please come to Rohini and set Lhaphing shops here. It is a trouble to go all the way to MT.”
Gradually it replaced the old Chang selling practice.
Dorjee says, “By that time, most of the Tibetans had stopped selling Chang and moved onto new businesses, except for the 20 families that sustained on it for a couple of years.”
Later, they promised the Dalai Lama that MT Tibetans would terminate the Chang business and never indulge in it again.
“If we were still selling Chang, we would have never seen today’s MT”, says Youdon.
The change started quite differently for the Tibetans in MT unlike other Tibetan settlements, where the major business was the weaving of Tibetan rugs. In MT, they started exploring various entrepreneurial activities. MT became a transit point for Tibetans across India, especially with its travel agencies. The buses connecting MT with other important Tibetan settlements across north India and Nepal began to be stationed on the backside of MT.
For parents dropping their children to Tibetan Children Village Schools located in these Tibetan settlements, sweater sellers leaving for their winter business, and students from Delhi University, MT has become the core of Tibetan travels in exile.
Dorjee says, “Buddhists from across the world, visiting the Dalai Lama first make their stop in MT.” He believes it gives them a sense of “peace” and connection with Buddhism. “It’s also true for the people of Himalayan regions of India.”
With such international connections and being located in the capital of India, its visually distinctive ambience has become a tangible Tibetan culture to outsiders.
Apart from its booming economy and culture, Majnu Ka Tilla has been a major centre for Tibetan political activism. On every 10th of March, Tibetans galvanise themselves and take out a protest from MT and assemble in front of the Chinese Embassy.
In 1981, during China’s foreign minister Huang Hua’s visit to India, Samphel says, “The Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) along with the Tibetan camp, bristled with action encircling a big map of Delhi spread on a table, in the Majnu Ka Tilla school hall.”
According to Dorjee, the Chinese Communist Party in Tibet, in its attempt to manipulate the Tibetans, has been establishing the narrative that, “Your brothers and sisters in exile are living under India’s oppression and are facing problems with the new way of life.”
Under such circumstances, Dorjee demands that MT Tibetans, who are registered under “The Pradhan Mantri UDAY Yojana, a Central scheme that authorises the illegal colonies in the Delhi-NCR”, be treated like any other citizens of the country. He says, “This will give India an edge in the international community.”
Under RWA’s guidance, Tibetans in MT have submitted documents claiming ownership certificates over their land.
“In future, even if Tibet gains its freedom and Tibetans go back to Tibet, MT remains important for the Tibetans.” Dorjee adds, “Tibetans will surely have to come to India even after Tibet’s independence, so under such circumstances, having a ready-to-stay Tibetan settlement in Delhi is important.”
The writer is a student from the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. Views expressed are personal.