I expected the Tibetan colony at Majnu ka Tilla, Delhi, to be a grand, high-walled enclosure reverberating with chants of monks, where the red-blue-yellow Tibetan flag would be aflutter with pride. Instead, there stood a crowded neighbourhood with tiny square houses. The flags were flimsy and soiled.
The colony was interconnected with winding, confusing lanes lined by shops piled with Tibetan pickles and sauces, and badges that said “Free Tibet”. The restaurants, known for their chowmein, momos and thingmo, were full of youngsters either watching TV or playing carom. Monks dressed in their red and yellow robes, and men and women dressed in t-shirts and shorts, walked around solemnly. There were few Indian faces to be seen, which made the neighbourhood look like a mini Tibet.
It’s been 50 years since this Tibet has existed in the Capital—the same number of years since the people of the currently non-existent country have been floating without citizenship, in New Delhi.
The residents of Majnu ka Tilla plan a small celebration on 6 July, the birth anniversary of the Dalai Lama.
“We came here by foot,” said Choden, 56, who was amongst the first to flee Tibet and come to Delhi with the Dalai Lama in 1959. “It took us three to four months to complete the journey. Our parents carried us in their arms, tied us to their backs, dragged us on palm branches and brought us here,” she said, sitting in the grocery store opposite the colony’s temple courtyard.
When the refugees (almost 80,000 followed the Dalai Lama into India) reached Delhi, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru granted them asylum in the present Ladakh Budh Vihar and later allowed them to expand into the Tibetan colony at Majnu ka Tilla.
Choden recalled: “There was nothing here except for trees. No food, no water, no tents; just trees and the ground below. All of us worked together to build this colony brick by brick.” Choden was six years old when she made left Tibet with her parents, three brothers and two sisters.
Initially Choden and her family were torn between fear for the ones left behind in Tibet and joy at having escaped, but through it all, they were yearning to go back home. “But soon we realized we had to make a home out of this place.” The community did everything it could to keep its identity intact. Every colony ensured that it had at least a primary school where Tibetan language and Buddhist texts were taught, and that there was a clinic that practised Tibetan traditional medicine known as Soba Rig-pa. Choden said that all the children, including her grandchildren, are sent to the Tibetan Day School within the colony. Since it is a primary school, the children are later sent to exclusively Tibetan boarding schools in Dharamshala, Darjeeling, Dalhousie, Mussourie and Shimla: “If we send our children to the usual schools in Delhi our culture will be lost.” The Tibetan community in India is a closed one, who consider their “purity” sacrosanct. “India has been extremely good to us,” Choden said, especially our neighbours who are refugees from the Partition.”
Would she like to go back to Tibet? “Not till the day I have to tell the visa officer that I’m going to China. I’ll go when I’m allowed to say I’m going home to Tibet.”
On the Dalai Lama’s 74th birthday on 6 July, the community’s panchayat has organized a small celebration. “We don’t celebrate it grandly any more, too many people are dying in Tibet,” Choden said. Like most Tibetans, Choden is going to get up early in the morning on that day, and tie a prayer flag or wind horse for his long life and well-being.
Before I left, and jostled my way out of the quaint neighbourhood, Choden said, “He needs to act fast if I have to be able to see Tibet again in this lifetime.”