Majnu ka Tilla: A legacy in exile

Buddhist prayer flags were fluttering on top of the footbridge that connects both sides of Majnu ka Tilla (Hillock of Majnu), the largest settlement of Tibetan refugees in Delhi. A pagoda gate welcomed us into a long alley, which seems blind at first glance. The sound of ‘Om Ma Ni Padme Hum’ from the CD stores, the assembly of colourful Tibetan thermos, the smell of barbecued beef and incense stick: all conspired to give you a feeling that you are in some exotic land.

As we made our way past Nor Khyil restaurant, Norling Gallery, Kham Coffee, Cho’s Pyod book shop and Sera Jey Dharamsala, it seems that this new civilisation survives by selling artefacts, Thangka paintings and by ferrying people to and from Dharamsala.


At Ama Cafe

We checked in at Ama (meaning mother in Tibetan) Café. The murals portraying a Buddhist monastery, lamp shades made of bronze wok with perforated bottom, and a prayer wheel next to our plunge sofa seem to recreate Lhasa.  As we sat down to drink Chinese Jasmine Tea and Banana Muffin, I came across a glossy cover page of the Tibetan Review (magazine) with the Dalai Lama peering at us.


photo credit: Sayantani Chatterjee

The first whiff of despondency was evident in the pages I flipped through. One of them read, “While the Dalai Lama’s popularity is becoming stronger than ever, he is not growing any younger.” Others admired the leader for his ability to “convert sorrow into benediction”. In another instance, I read one of the Indian ministers referring to the Dalai Lama as “the most powerful refugee in the world”.

Once back to the buzzing by-lanes, we headed to the monastery. The snaky walk led us to an open courtyard where women in their 60s sat weaving woollen sweaters, men in their 70s looked content with their prayer wheels and some of them in their 80s reflected a sagging hope for serendipity.

The history of this 50-year-old settlement is that of emigration and its future seems to lie in immigration. I am not saying this because I spotted a few immigration offices in this small neighbourhood of north Delhi, but the sense of living a borrowed life is palpitating. The desire to leave the ‘refugee’ tag and escape into a promised land looks inescapable.

Yet, they are graceful in times of despair.



Begum Hazrat Mahal: the freedom fighter and the last queen of Awadh

Until today, I didn’t know who Begum Hazrat Mahal was. My ignorance is unpardonable. Thanks to Delhi Karavan, now I know something substantial about the last queen of Awadh.  She was only 36 when her husband, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, conceded defeat and was sent to exile by the British. She inherited a kingdom steeped in chronic corruption and on top of that she had the onerous task of defending her territory from the formidable forces of British East India Company.

Hers is a story of a royal concubine’s ascension to the throne and a gradual metamorphosis into a military leader, a war strategist and an astute administrator who not only resisted British attacks but also inspired people across all religions to unify for the cause of their country.


Mohi-ud-Din Mirza’s 26-minute documentary screened at today’s event in Indian Habitat Centre was a glimpse into the veracity and compassion of a queen whose commitment to her country and countrymen made her achieve unimaginable feats.

The pages of history might inform you about her 10-month rule, the Siege of Lucknow and her 20 years of exile in Nepal, but they might miss out on the larger contributions of the young queen.  She stonewalled the British ploy to create a religious divide and heavily criticised them for desecrating temples and forcing people to eat pig fat.

Behind her beautiful appearance was a resolute soul that had the gumption to ignore Queen Victoria’s proclamations and lures of a luxurious life.  She lived to challenge oppression, and in death she continues to inspire valour.

It was heartening to see Begum Manzilat Fatima, the great great granddaughter of Begum Hazrat Mahal, beaming with pride for the legacy that her family has been carrying forward for generations. She has taken it upon herself to spread the story of her great great grandmother across the world. She wants the deeds of Awadh’s last queen to inspire girls who are looked upon as vulnerable and gullible.