Many Indians have walked the narrow lanes of Majnu-ka-Tilla, a Tibetan settlement on the banks of River Yamuna in Delhi, and fallen in love with it. And for good reasons.
A group of photography enthusiasts called the Delhi Photo Expedition, we scouted around the settlement for good frames last month. We too were distracted by the inviting sight and smell of spicy meat curries. We gave in to the temptation, but only after achieving our mission, which was to scratch beneath the surface and discover the soul of “Mini Tibet”, as Majnu-ka-Tilla is often known.
While that description matches the area’s visibly distinct cultural manifestations, what drew the attention of our cameras was the local people – the old, the young and the children – and the posters that helped us peep into their lives.
Showing us around was Miss Tibet 2015, Pema Choedon, a PhD student at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Though not a resident of Majnu-ka-Tilla, Choedon displayed the same trait that characterises the entire Tibetan community there, and elsewhere in the country – a deep and persistent sense of longing for their homeland.
“Sometimes I feel my heart is in Tibet but body is in India,” Choedon said.
But she has never visited Tibet. She was born in Sikkim. “Deep down inside me, I know I’m a refugee without a country,” Choedon said, explaining the strange feeling.
“When I was in the Philippines last year for an international beauty pageant, I longed to come back to India, though I knew I am just a refugee.”
More than 150,000 Tibetans live in India, hundreds of miles away from their homeland. Many of them fled Tibet along with the 14th Dalai Lama after the failed 1959 uprising against the Chinese regime.
What Choedon verbalised was visible on the faces and gestures of the Tibetans who live in Majnu-ka-Tilla. We could not miss their quiet confidence and sense of pride in being rooted in their culture either.