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.

Large prayer wheels are often a delight for tourists, who may or may not understand what it means to spin them. Image: Vishal Arora
Large prayer wheels are often a delight for tourists, who may or may not understand what it means to spin them. Image: Vishal Arora

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.

Numerous Tibetan youth in exile are involved in various campaigns for genuine autonomy in Tibet, or the freedom of Tibet from Chinese rule. Their struggle remains one of the very few non-violent conflicts in the world. Image: Meagan Kay Clark
Numerous Tibetan youth in exile are involved in various campaigns for genuine autonomy in Tibet, or the freedom of Tibet from Chinese rule. Their struggle remains one of the very few non-violent conflicts in the world. Image: Meagan Kay Clark

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.

Tibetans says the Chinese government is destroying their culture in Tibet, in an attempt to assimilate the Tibetan population. Image: Amelia Andrews
Tibetans says the Chinese government is destroying their culture in Tibet, in an attempt to assimilate the Tibetan population. Image: Amelia Andrews

“Sometimes I feel my heart is in Tibet but body is in India,” Choedon said.

'Free Tibet', is the name of a campaign, and a popular phrase among supporters of the Tibetan struggle against China. It is also used by those who support the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way, which seeks to resolve the conflict through dialogue, and calls for a higher level of autonomy. Image: Sanjukta Basu
'Free Tibet', is the name of a campaign, and a popular phrase among supporters of the Tibetan struggle against China. It is also used by those who support the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way, which seeks to resolve the conflict through dialogue, and calls for a higher level of autonomy. Image: Sanjukta Basu

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.

Majnu-ka-Tilla was initially a refugee camp, after the arrival of thousands of Tibetans in 1959. Within a year, the Indian government allotted land to the refugees, and they have lived here ever since. Image: Rajeev Frederick
Majnu-ka-Tilla was initially a refugee camp, after the arrival of thousands of Tibetans in 1959. Within a year, the Indian government allotted land to the refugees, and they have lived here ever since. Image: Rajeev Frederick

“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.”

Almost all Tibetan youth appear to be religious, at least culturally, and adhere to the traditions of their homeland. Image: Sanjukta Basu
Almost all Tibetan youth appear to be religious, at least culturally, and adhere to the traditions of their homeland. Image: Sanjukta Basu

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.

Tibet’s culture, which is deeply rooted in Mahayana Buddhism, is closely linked to the Tibetans’ sense of nationhood. Image: Meagan Clark
Tibet’s culture, which is deeply rooted in Mahayana Buddhism, is closely linked to the Tibetans’ sense of nationhood. Image: Meagan Clark

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.

While the Dalai Lama’s representatives have held talks with the Chinese government on the Tibet conflict in the past, there have been no official meetings in the recent past. At least 145 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibet and China since February 2009. Image: Saraswati Sundas
While the Dalai Lama’s representatives have held talks with the Chinese government on the Tibet conflict in the past, there have been no official meetings in the recent past. At least 145 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibet and China since February 2009. Image: Saraswati Sundas
Tibetan Buddhists believe they can help spread spiritual blessings and well-being by setting in motion prayer wheels, which contain copies of mantras and sacred texts. Image: Meagan Clark
Tibetan Buddhists believe they can help spread spiritual blessings and well-being by setting in motion prayer wheels, which contain copies of mantras and sacred texts. Image: Meagan Clark