Photo feature

Photos: The sights and sounds of Delhi’s Mini Tibet

‘Sometimes I feel my heart is in Tibet, but body is in India.’

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
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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.