This is home away from home


At this place, the taste is Tibetan. But for me, exploring other horizons is more important,” says Tenzin. The youngsters here admire him for his work. The “earlier generation”, of course, does not relate to him.

After dabbling in fashion designing and hair dressing, Tenzin has now set up a tattoo studio in Select City Mall in Saket. “When I started of as a tattoo artist, people in the colony considered it as an odd career option. But it was meeting people from across communities, which excited me the most.”

At Majnu ka Tilla or New Aruna Nagar Colony, the Tibetan resettlement area in the Capital, the aspirations of the younger generation is not restricted to “dealing in winter garments” or “selling momos” anymore. The colony’s proximity to the Delhi University (DU) has also given it a multi-cultural dimension, further driving the change.

Though most Tibetans marry within their own community, the situation is gradually changing with some of them marrying Nepalese, north-easterns and even foreigners.Most Tibetan families are still confused about their legal status in India. They, however, do not feel discriminated against. With the young entering the mainstream professions, most feel well-accepted.   

“The stable source of income for most families is selling winter garments across India. This business lasts about three-four months. In Delhi-NCR, the common selling points are Lal Quila, Faridabad and Gurgaon. Several people are now into nursing, medicine and corporate jobs,” says Tenzin Chodar, President, Regional Tibetan Youth Congress, Delhi Chapter. Chodar runs a travel agency in the area.

“Otherwise several Tibetans run travel agencies and restaurants here. Indian students love to hang around here due to the liberating ambience and reasonably priced food items. The place also attracts a lot of foreigners which has helped the travel agencies thrive,” he adds.

Currently, there are around 365 permanent houses here and the population is estimated to be around 3,000. The colony was authorised in 2012. A few more Tibetan families live in Punjabi Basti.  

“We are officially refugees. But we too are confused about our legal status. Many of us have voter identification cards for a long time now. But there are a significant number of people who have come in at different points of time and have to get registered every year or once in five years,” says Karten Tsering, Pradhan, Majnu ka Tilla.

He adds there is a steady supply of water and electricity at the colony. “Also, people from our community are into all top professions now. There are certain sensitive issues where we differ with the Indian government but we do not feel discriminated against.”  

However, more than 200 people were refused voter identification cards in the recent Lok Sabha elections. “The reason cited was birth certificates could not be verified,” says Chodar. 

Some people do not want to procure voter identification cards as they feel this would help them preserve their last connection to their motherland. But the Tibetans here are not struggling to keep their culture intact. Tibetan students studying in DU organise cultural programmes in the colony frequently.

Majnu ka Tilla has also emerged as the most popular transit point for Tibetans from other parts of India. “Foreigners too find this place exotic. We do not encourage bargaining here,” says Wangdue, who deals in garments.

Putting up at a hotel in the colony is convenient for most Tibetans. “An air-conditioned room comes at Rs 500. Plus, you are staying among community members,” says Nima, who hails from Darjeeling.

For Dawa, an elderly professor of philosophy from Karnataka, Majnu ka Tilla means “old friends and eating at favourite Dolma House”.  

With Tibetan tourists thronging the hotels, a sister-brother duo has come up with Tibet Taxi in the locality. The services are similar to those offered by radio taxis. “But Tibetans do not like to be charged on the basis of kilometres. We have fixed rates for pick-up and drop points. Services are available round-the-clock”, says Peripalhamo.

Launched last year, Tibet Taxi is now planning to branch out. “We promote the concept of peace and comfort.”

Though the restaurants have been modernised in terms of décor, the authentic dishes continue to attract customers over the years. 

“I am in India after a year-and-a-half. And I came straight to Dolma’s for my favourite dish meat shapta at Dolma’s. Also Dolma and I used to be neighbours back in Himachal Pradesh. Her recipe is still magic to me,” says Thokmui, who works as a receptionist in the US.

Dolma, however, takes her ‘popularity’ in the colony with a pinch of salt. “I think they like it because the food is not too spicy. They like it simple.”

For those Tibetans in Delhi whose residential address is not Majnu ka Tilla, visiting this place means reconnecting to the roots. Currently, Lajpat Nagar, East of Kailash and Defence Colony have concentration of Tibetans too. 

“But visiting relatives in Delhi means coming to Majnu ka Tilla and experiencing the food and local flavour,” says a 20-year-old. 

At home, the Tibetans like their meal simple – dal, chawal and subzi.

The mushrooming of hotels, restaurants and garment stores has helped engage  from other communities and eke out a living in this Tibetan colony.

Meet Guru from Bodh Gaya in Bihar. Employed by a Tibetan man nine years back, Guru is now famous for doling out the best ‘laphing’ in the area. Laphing is a signature Tibetan vegetarian dish available at Rs 25 per plate. “It took me time to master it. Now I feel confident,” says Guru.

“There is an over-300-strong Bihari community who do odd jobs in the colony itself.” The Nepalese are also in strong numbers at Majnu ka Tilla. Making religious Buddhist items is a common profession for them. Ram, now 20, has been engaged in this for the past 10 years. 

“In this shop, we exclusively make religious items on advance orders. These are mostly made of silver or copper.” He hails from Nepal.

For Choeki and Sonam, Buddhists from Bhutan, the market is a once-a-month stop to pick up religious items.

 “These are items like incense stick holders and other prayer items,” say Defence Colony residents.

Life at its pace  

Though business has picked up pace and student groups hang out in large numbers making it a commercial destination, life has its own pace at Majnu ka Tilla. 

When asked what he does for a living, Norbu – a resident – says, “I do nothing apart from looking after my father.” The 43-year-old’s siblings deal in winter garments in Germany and helps them with the living expenses.

The middle-aged residents also show a remote interest in politics.

But life is more challenging for the likes of Dehradun-born Chowang, 21. His political affiliations are strong. So is his “belongingness to India”.  

He was among the first few to protest Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India a few days back. “We never feel victimised in India. But the protest was in solidarity with the situation in Tibet,” says Chowang.

Currently studying commerce, the DU student aspires to be a journalist in India. And he nurtures this dream here – in Majnu ka Tilla.

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