Majnu Ka Tilla Re-visited
By Thubten Samphel
The Delhi Development Authoritys recent demolition of two buildings in Majnu Ka Tilla, following a court order for a wider demolition to beautify the city, brought the fate of the Tibetan refugee camp in north Delhi into headline news and within the gnawing concerns of the exile Tibetan community.
The Tibetan camp, within walking distance of Delhi University, is a unique Tibetan refugee creation. It is completely self-sustaining. It came into existence through hard work and an obstinate refusal to be daunted and overwhelmed by the grinding poverty within the camp and in the surrounding areas.
Dharamsala is considered the heart of the Tibet world. But it is Majnu Ka Tilla that constitutes the commercial centre of the exile community. It is the hub of Tibetan commerce and spreads its limited prosperity along its many spokes to other Tibetan communities in all four directions of the subcontinent and beyond.
Long ago in another time and age, Majnu Ka Tilla was a part of our educational experience. We were trying to graduate from Delhi Universitys hallowed precincts, but more importantly trying our very best to graduate from the heat of Delhi. Recently taking two days off from work in Dharamsala, I spent most of the time exploring every nook and corner of the Tibetan camp and my memories of it. There were earlier visits to the Tibetan camp. These were rushed ones, to catch the Dharamsala-bound bus, not enough time to soak in the place and get an idea of how the place has changed. During this visit I had two full days all to myself.
Majnu Ka Tilla
A definite new idea of the place came to my mind. My first observation is how transformed the place is and how astounding the transformation is. The transformation is not limited to the swanking new buildings that have sprung up. The real transformation is one of change of the attitude of the people. Whereas in the old days Majnu Ka Tilla gave an air of resigned weariness, Majnu Ka Tilla today is a beehive of industry, energy and enterprise, all laced by an attitude which says, I can improve my lot.
Although hotels and restaurants are the main service industry of the Tibetan camp, there are other services also offered. Travel agencies offer tours throughout the Himalayas and even as far afield as Tibet. Curio shops and trinket hawkers rely on a non-Tibetan clientele. Majnu Ka Tillas numerous cyber cafes allow its inhabitants and visitors to communicate across the globe. There are two gold and silver smiths, busy hammering away and churning out gold and silver ornaments and a beauty parlour to match the customers tone of skin, or style of hairdo, with these expensive ornaments. There is a cargo service offering to ferry goods across the globe. Pavement hawkers hawk CDs of Tibetan pop songs from Tibet and within the exile community. Three bookshops within shouting distance of one another specialise on books on the Dharma, teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other great lamas, Tibetan culture and medicine. Most of these books are in English. The three bookshops also sell books and scriptural texts in Tibetan. Which means that the teachings of the Buddha are an actively pursued vocation in this truly globalised camp by increasing numbers of travellers and visitors from a Majnu-Ka-Tilla-ised world.
Majnu Ka Tilla is the first port of call for all Tibetans. In the early days, the only non-Tibetan presence in Majnu Ka Tilla was the Delhi University students, relishing the novelty of wolfing down momos and digging into their noodles with chopsticks. Now it seems to be the first port of call for most foreigners, going to Dharamsala to receive teachings or coming down from Dharamsala after the teachings. Because of this the crowd in Majnu Ka Tilla is global. You come across groups of excited Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Taiwanese. Whereas, Americans and Europeans, in different shades and sizes, prefer to walk the crowded bylanes in pairs or alone. Notice Western individualism and Asian groupism at work. Or, should this be interpreted as Western unilateralism and Asian cooperation?
All this gives Majnu Ka Tilla the ambience of a new Silk Road oasis town. The original Silk Road was once the worlds greatest thoroughfare, along which travelled much of the ideas and commerce that have shaped the West and Asia. Majnu Ka Tilla gives the same cosmopolitan air of commercial activities accompanied by rigorous spiritual pursuits. In keeping with its new big city image, a variety of languages work here: Tibetan, Hindi, English and Nepalese. But when there are teachings in Dharamsala, many tongues wag on the streets and pass through the refugee camp: Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Italian, French and German. There are restaurants that have their menu translated into Chinese.
A part of the speakers of these tongues and eaters at these restaurants visit not Dharamsala but Ladakh, a growing favourite with internationalism tourism.
One day, equipped with prayer beads and murmuring a prayer, I ventured forth on the footpaths of this new Silk Road encampment. Immediately a beggar tugged at my elbow, a weary palm extended. The impression I created of myself might have given the beggar the bright idea that here was a new and easy prey, full of loving-kindness. I was certainly full of that but short of cash. Given the steep hotel rent and high meal costs in Majnu Ka Tilla, I might just as well returned the beggars favour by salaaming some change out of him, or better still, joining his ranks. I felt I was in Hong Kong where the prices of things were as high as the citys high-rises.
When darkness descends Majnu Ka Tilla revives itself by switching on the TV sets in the shops that specialise in selling Tibetan pop music and the teachings of various lamas. One shop had its TV set screening a CD in which His Holiness the Dalai Lama stresses on the importance of developing a good heart. Further down the main street, Majnu Ka Tillas version of Manhattans Fifth Avenue, another shop had its TV playing a Tibetan pop. This attracts the attention of a Chinese crowd. On the screen a woman, in full nomadic regalia, sings a lilting song before her flock of sheep and herd of yaks that graze on a vast, open grassland, canopied under a cloudless blue sky. Perhaps the Chinese crowds fascination with this particular song might stem from the open, limitless horizon on display on the TV screen, as only people who live in claustrophobic Beijing or Shanghai, cursed by pollution and worried sick by rising crime, are fascinated. Or, the crowds fascination might stem from its wonder of how one woman could, just by singing a song, put such discipline into animals of such disparate character, the sheepishness of the sheep and the stubbornness of the yaks.
As a mark of how good things are going in Majnu Ka Tilla, the place is graced by a fairly big parking lot. Globalisation has taken a free-ride into the refugee camp and a variety of expensive brands advertised globally sit self-importantly on the lot.
Majnu Ka Tilla is certainly going up-scale. In recent years it was the preferred location of several films of the Tibetan exiles infant but energetic film industry. Immortalised and glamourised in films, it is a far and certainly a welcome cry from the Majnu Ka Tilla of our college days when you despaired of the place. As a mark of its new repute, the place is bestowed three new names, two officially and one informally. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has named the place Samyeling, and the chief minister of Delhi, Shiela Dixit, recently gave the place the name of Anand Nagar. The MTV generation of Tibetan exiles refers to the place as MT.
The inhabitants of Majnu Ka Tilla take all this attention very seriously. By six in the morning, they are up and running and humming. They water the footpaths, sweep them with certainly brooms but also with a conscientiousness and civic sense that would make the mayor (if there is one) of Singapore very proud.
I wondered what was happening to Majnu Ka Tillas other neighbour, Punjabi Basti, across the Bela Road. A wide iron bridge high above the Bela Road connects the two neighbourhoods. Punjabi Busti has expanded and smells of money. Gone were the grovelling hutments. The same spirit of enterprise animates the place. Majnu Ka Tilla, in the true spirit of globalisation, has outsourced many of its important services and commerce to Punjabi Busti, including the printing and sale of prayer flags, khatas and smaller, cheaper and laminated thangkas to its neighbour. The cloth and garments shops are full of Tibetan customers. Despite the talk, hanging heavy like the heat of the city, of the danger of avian flu, the chicken shops do a brisk business.
Majnu Ka Tilla and Punjabi Busti, two neighbours, once shared the same degree of poverty. Now they are linked by the same kind of uncertain prosperity.An occasional contribution
(www.tibet.net is the official website of the Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.)