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.



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