Behind the visual distinctiveness of Majnu Ka Tilla lies the story of hundreds of bamboo huts, 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 earliest generations of Tibetans in exile, Samphel was a student at St Stephen’s, University of Delhi. He and his friends, putting away the last of their history exams, rushed to Majnu Ka Tilla, to get their hands on the bargain ChangTibetan barley wine.
At that time, Majnu Ka Tilla was not at all close to what it is known today. The prayer flags, the temple, the people were covered in thick layers of dust, sweating under tarpaulin roofs with their bamboo huts offering no relief. And all the place could brew was the smell of Chang.
With its reputation for cheap ChangSamphel said, “It was even called Changistan.”
Changistan was illegal but given the resources at the time, it was the only way for Tibetans to live off poverty.
Youdon, 75, who now has several tenants living under her roof, first arrived at Majnu Ka Tilla in her twenties. 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 bamboo pillar, she sold momo, thukpa, chowmein and Chang, like the rest. “Before, there was no light, no AC power. I had a hand-held fan made of sprouts, and that was it,” she adds.
Majnu Ka Tilla is “a product of the injustice of history”, writes Samphel in his book, fall from the roof.
From being punned by 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.
Mosquito-breeding alleys and rows of buckets waiting desperately at the water pump have now been replaced with slices of luxury around every corner. With hotels, cafes and restaurants in sophisticated Tibetan ethnic designs, some even with swimming pools, MT has risen to the top of the Tibetan refugee heap.
Brimming with entrepreneurial industries and feeding on precarious prosperity, the magazine, From refuge to rights: the Tibetan settlement of Majnu ka Tilla 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 as well as the Dalai Lama were welcomed by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Guaranteeing asylum to Tibetan refugees, the Indian government introduced a Tibetan rehabilitation scheme and set up designated settlements across the country. These colonies are administered by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) through a representative/welfare office in each of the colonies.
However, with the arrival of more and more people after the Indo-Chinese War of 1962, these colonies proved inadequate and “spontaneous colonies” had to be established.
MT was one such spontaneous establishment.
In its early days, there was no CTA representative/welfare office. In 1965, the Tibetans residing there formed the Residents Welfare Association (RWA), a self-governing group. However, RWA was not registered until 2004. By then, in 1984, the Central Tibetan Administration had established its settlement/welfare officer in MT. He was named “Samyeling” by the Dalai Lama.
Currently, the CTA representative administers the official CTA announcements to Tibetans in Delhi, while the 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 built tents for Tibetans. Prior to MT, Tibetans lived in the Ladakh Budh Vihar, a transit point for Ladakhi pilgrims on the outskirts of Delhi.
Dorjee adds: “Later, with the growth of the Tibetan population and the Indians complaining about the pollution of the Yamuna River due to Tibetan encroachments, they decided to relocate us to Majnu Ka Tilla, in 1963.”
In 1981, during the Delhi Asian Games, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) established a new camp on land adjacent to Majnu Ka Tilla. According to From refuge to rights, the DDA identified 33 homes in MT to be demolished and relocated to the new settlement, expanding the settlement by 1.1 acres.
Unlike other Tibetan settlements, it says: “Moving to the shores of Yamuna, there has been no official handover of the Majnu Ka Tilla to the Tibetans here and the settlement continues to have a precarious claim to Earth”.
In June 2006, a court notice that MT was to be demolished as part of the Delhi Government Roads Expansion and Yamuna River Beautification Plan was served.
Youdon, who at the time owned a cemented two-story house, said: “Out of anxiety, some Tibetans sold their beds, while others sold their relatively expensive doors.
However, in 2012 the court order was averted and former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit named her New Aruna Nagar. Ancient Aruna Nagar is the Punjabi Basti, Rajasthani Gali and the nearby area across MT.
But the household name MT/MKT remains famous among motorists outside Vidhan Sabha metro station.
MT/MKT became popular as young Tibetans, with better access to resources, opened restaurants and opened shops selling jewelry, Tibetan ethnic items and clothing.
They started selling Laphing, a spicy Tibetan snack made from wheat and “araarot”. Youdon says, “Not even half the number of Indians who come to MT now, were there in the old days. They started coming only after we started selling Laphing.”
In the temple district, Delhiites gathering around the pews of Running-in stall, waiting for them wet (with soup) and dry Laphing, has become a common sight. Once in Pitampura, Youdon recalls an Indian student telling him, “Please come to Rohini and get settled. Laphing stores here. It’s a problem to go up to MT.
Gradually it replaced the old Chang sales practice.
Dorjee says, “By then most Tibetans had stopped selling Chang and started new businesses, except for the 20 families who lived there for a few years.
Later they promised the Dalai Lama that the MT Tibetans would end the Chang business and never do it again.
“If we still sold Changwe would never have seen today’s MT,” says Youdon.
The change started quite differently for the Tibetans of MT, unlike other Tibetan colonies, where the main activity was the weaving of Tibetan carpets. At MT, they began to explore various entrepreneurial activities. MT has become a transit point for Tibetans across India, especially with its travel agencies. Buses connecting MT to other important Tibetan settlements in northern India and Nepal began to be parked at the back of MT.
For parents dropping off their children at the Tibetan Children’s Village schools located in these Tibetan settlements, sweater sellers heading out for their winter business and Delhi University students, MT has become the heart of travel Tibetans in exile.
Dorjee says, “Buddhists from all over the world, visiting the Dalai Lama, make their stop at MT first.” He thinks it gives them a sense of “peace” and a connection to Buddhism. “This is also true for people living in the Himalayan regions of India.”
With such international connections and being located in the capital of India, its visually distinctive vibe has become a tangible Tibetan culture for foreigners.
Besides its booming economy and culture, Majnu Ka Tilla has been a major center of Tibetan political activism. Every March 10, Tibetans galvanize themselves and stage a MT protest and rally in front of the Chinese Embassy.
In 1981, during Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua’s visit to India, Samphel said: “The Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) together with the Tibetan camp, bristled with action encircling a large map of Delhi spread out on a table in the Majnu Ka Tilla school. entrance.”
According to Dorjee, the Chinese Communist Party in Tibet, in its attempt to manipulate Tibetans, has established the narrative that “Your brothers and sisters in exile are living under the oppression of India and facing problems with the new mode of life”.
Under such circumstances, Dorjee demands that MT Tibetans, who are registered under “The Pradhan Mantri UDAY Yojana, a central scheme which allows illegal settlements in Delhi NCR”, be treated like any other citizen of the country. He says, “It will give India an edge in the international community.”
Under RWA’s guidance, Tibetans in MT submitted documents demanding certificates of ownership of their land.
“In the future, even if Tibet gains its freedom and Tibetans return to Tibet, TM remains important to Tibetans.” Dorjee adds, “Tibetans will surely have to come to India even after Tibet’s independence, so in such circumstances, it is important to have a ready Tibetan colony to stay in Delhi.”
The writer is a student at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. The opinions expressed are personal.
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