Stories from Delhi’s Little Tibet.
The air in Delhi is thick with dust and smoke that I breathe sitting in the rickshaw. I was on my way to ‘Little Tibet’, located in Majnu ka Tilla, a colony in Northern Delhi. It’s also known as New Aruna Nagar Colony, Chinatown and Sampling. Established in 1950, it was home to some of India’s Tibetan refugees turned immigrants. I have always been intrigued by Tibetan culture and couldn’t wait to reach my destination, along with my photographer friend, Eric.
As the auto came to a halt, a footbridge hung overhead, rusty and adorned with ragged Tibetan prayer flags. Two large iron gates marked the entrance. A few steps beyond lies a place unlike the rest of Delhi. Buildings are packed together, rising from the sides of the winding alleys, littered with shops and kiosks. This is New Aruna Nagar Colony.
Little Tibet in Delhi
In 1958, 8 years after being seized by China, the people of Tibet rose in a revolution hoping to oust the totalitarian government that had been plaguing them. The political unrest that they had been in, reached boiling point when the Dalai Lama fled the country and came to Dharamshala. The first few Tibetans that trickled into India did so following him, leading to an exodus of Tibetan refugees in the years to come. Many I met today had fled home, leaving behind the crime, pain and their entire life. In 1960, the Indian government, as a sign of condemnation towards the Chinese aggression, granted parts of erstwhile Majnu Ka Tilla to these displaced migrants. The locality was then renamed New Aruna Nagar Colony. The second generation migrants I met have transformed the Delhi gullies into a beautiful Tibetan market.
Authentic gems and stones, handicrafts, crockery, grocery stores selling local Tibetan supplies like titora (a dry spicy tamarind pickle), tsampa (the toasted barley Tibetan staple) and sunflower seeds. I walked into boutiques with mannequins dressed in kimonos, and buckets full of Tibetan prayer scrolls. But what caught my attention was the food. The fresh smells of gyuma (Tibetan sausage) being fried in pork fat drove me to the kiosks. My favourite was a local dish called La Phing, a crepe filled with chilli paste and chopped soya chunks rolled and cut into tiny pieces. I devoured my bowl of La Phing and then walked into a monastery.
It was Wednesday, the day Buddha was born. An auspicious day. The courtyard was filled with people sitting on mats, as monks chanted and recited prayers into a microphone, their prayers interrupted only by the resounding vibrations of a large gong. Aged, wrinkled men and women sat in front of their prayer scrolls, rocking back and forth as they chanted. I learnt that this was a holy month for them, besides being Wednesday.
Monks celebrating the birth of Buddha
As I moved deeper into the lanes, shops disappeared and were replaced by restaurants and guesthouses. The Himalayan Rigo restaurant was one of the few places that served beer. I treated myself to a cold mug and a vegetarian clay pot meal.
On my way out I decided to speak to a few second generation migrants, many amongst them hoped to go back to Tibet. For even though they had their houses here in Majnu Ka Tilla, their origins were far away, in Amdo or Lhasa.
A Tibetan migrant
Walking through the jewelry shops I met Sonam. He had changed his name and was open to being interviewed about his life and the hardships he faced. “It was hard for me to find a shop and this space is on rent. We were facing the threat of relocation with the Yamuna project but thankfully that’s over. People have worked very hard to make this place what it is,” said Sonam.
Originally from Amdo in Tibet, Sonam moved to India at the age of seven and spent a large part of his life in Dharamshala, until he moved to Delhi to pursue the business of trade and sale in authentic Tibetan handicrafts, woodwork and souvenirs. The decision to come to India was almost as abrupt as deciding to go the movies. Of course, none of this extravagance was part of life in Tibet, which has been under constant political turmoil since 1960 when it fell prey to Chinese aggression. Sonam claims it was like any other evening. He was playing in the courtyard with his brothers when his uncle came and asked them, “Who wants to go to India?” The question alone made the little boy think he was off for an adventure, he didn’t know much about life beyond the four walls of his home. “I didn’t even understand what India was then.” Everything happened quickly and before he could grasp or understand the gravity of his decision, he was escaping his country.
Accompanied by his uncle, Sonam reached Tendu, and then Lhasa, where he spent seven days alone, until his uncle sent a man in a jeep to pick him up. “I hid under the dashboard. I slept there, crouching for 6-7 hours until we reached the Nepal Tibet border. I was really small so thankfully we didn’t get caught,” added Sonam. Near the border, he was reunited with his uncle, who hid him in a toilet for three hours until two Nepali men came to pick him up. “I was crying when they pulled me out of the toilet, they asked me to stop immediately. We loitered around the border, window shopping and I thought that finally my adventure had begun. I was happy, though now I realise that they must have done that to make it look like I was their child to the Chinese troops stationed there.” Fortunately they managed to enter India and spent the first few days at a refugee camp in Buddh Vihar, after which he was sent off to a home in Dharamshala.
Refugee Sonam living in darkness
Sonam says the experience was like rebirth for him. He had to change his name and date of birth to be eligible for admission in school and completely lost touch with his family in Tibet. “Under the circumstances it was risky for them to make international calls so I would speak to them once a year. Naturally I forgot my native language with time and then it became very hard to communicate. I don’t even know if they are alive.” He says even if he wanted to, it was impossible to keep in touch with his family who resided in a country under the grip of a totalitarian regime without technology, Facebook or Instagram, all of which have been blocked by the Chinese government. “We have WeChat, but I don’t think my parents are educated or informed enough to make use of something like that. There is also WEIBO which is like Chinese Facebook but how can they expect Tibetans to use it when we don’t know Chinese?” questions Sonam. He came across as a person who had come to terms with fate, accepting the fact that he had no family, accepting the fact that he was alone.
He also struggled to maintain a relationship. “After I moved here I was all by myself, it was up to me to make something out of this life. I have become used to living alone, which is why I have a hard time with women. I don’t want to get married or be in a serious relationship if that means living together.” Some of the things he said bore testament to the deep level of emotional damage done to refugees and immigrants.
Sonam’s store in Majnu Ka Tilla
Recently a man who came to his store asked him if Tibet had given up. “He really made me think about how we are dealing with the situation. If he comes around again I would like him to know that we haven’t given up at all! It’s just that so many of our people are being killed, tortured and ostracized on a daily basis that we cannot afford to react violently. Which is why we have been concentrating on intellectual projects and observing Satyagraha. Just because we aren’t making a noise doesn’t mean we aren’t arguing for our rights!”
Talking at length, he mentions, “We have no problem with the Chinese. Our problem is with the Communist Party and their government. If people around the world knew exactly what was going on - arbitrary arrests, lynching, mob violence, people kept under house arrest, suspension of all our rights and most importantly how the military used violence to suppress us, they wouldn’t condemn the Chinese government any more than the world condemned the Nazis.”
Sonam’s clarity was an example many Indians could use, instead of hating our neighbours in the name of a war that only the governments are fighting.
Before I left, I went back to the monastery and stood there for a while thinking of these people and their lives, and how little we know about them even though they are living right amongst us.
101 Majnu Ka Tilla
1. There is no non vegetarian food sold on a Wednesday.
2. Most Himachal buses leave from MKT, so if en route to the hills, bid adieu with a Tibetan meal.
3. Pocket friendly : Rs.500-600 for two in most restaurants.
4. Pick up a few Tibetan spices from the local grocery stores.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Suman Quazi
Cover photo credit: photojournale.com
Photographs by Eric Massey