Little Tibet

The Survival of a Refugee Colony in North Delhi

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In 1959, eight years after the Communist Party of China implemented the Seventeen Point Agreement affirming Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, a revolt erupted in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa during which the 14th Dalai Lama and his retinue fled to Assam, India. In the years that followed, many fleeing Tibetans settled in Dharamsala along with the Dalai Lama and the newly established Central Tibetan Administration, but many refugees continued farther south and set up a ramshackle colony in the city of Delhi. Journalist Divya Manoharan visits the colony of Majnu ka Tilla, known as MKT, and explores what the notion of “home” really means to the refugees, many of whom have no memory of Tibet.


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Patches of blue, green, yellow, red and white sway in the breeze as the rickshaw pulls over, motoring to a halt. Paying the auto-wala and sending him on his way, I shield my eyes against the mid-afternoon glare and gaze up at the footbridge that leads to the other side. The flags flutter lightly and the letters on them darken, catching the sunlight.

Each color of a Tibetan prayer flag is supposed to represent one of the five elements. Often found strung along high ridges in the Himalayas, parts of Nepal, India and Tibet, the flags are a symbol of peace and compassion. But the irony is hard to miss for anyone who is visiting the refugee colony of Majnu ka Tilla (MKT, officially New Aruna Nagar Colony) in North Delhi.

I had heard a lot about this little Tibetan community. I was expecting a charming visit to a quaint neighborhood where the locals would sell cozy cashmere shawls, offer up their traditional dishes to curious visitors and provide snippets of history with indulgent smiles to tourists like myself. But, the hard-hitting reality of MKT catches first-time visitors off guard.

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Situated on National Highway 1, the entrance to MKT is hidden amidst a row of shops. The Tibetan influence along this part of the road is obvious. It envelopes the visitor in a murmur of Tibetan culture: college boys carryjholas (cloth sling bags) past petite Tibetan women with straight silky hair and bald monks who are draped in saffron robes. It is a world of its own, a little Tibet cut off from India’s enormous, hectic capital.

The red and yellow ISBT Shahdara Link Flyover arch welcomes visitors to “New Aruna Nagar Colony, refugee camp for Tibetans”. Past the arch, narrow alleyways snake in and out of a long passage that leads to the rest of the colony. One alley appears to be a cramped meeting place for a group of young Tibetans. Out of another alley, an Indian student with a camera emerges, proclaiming a little disgruntledly that he does not have the required lighting for a shot. Farther down the alley, compact stalls hawk winter boots, thick-soled sneakers, high heels and fur-lined coats.

Across from the stalls is a small momo stand run by a young Tibetan woman, easy to miss were it not for the constant stream of customers lining up for a plate. Tibet introduced the world to momos — little steamed white dumplings stuffed with cabbage and carrots, or beef, or chicken and served with a spicy red sauce. They seem well represented here in MKT.

Deeper still, small shops and stalls continue to line the passageway. One stall sells beauty care products and colorful cutlery while another is a travel agency offering tickets everywhere from nearby Dharamsala to far-away Australia. I go in deeper and deeper, unsure of the dingy path until it suddenly curves to the left to reveal a huge clearing that is lined with even more shops, food stalls and restaurants.

In the center of the clearing stands the colony’s two monasteries. Rimmed with green and red tapestry and vibrant prayer flags, the monasteries are dark maroon with yellow walls and red and mustard pillars. It is a pop of color in an otherwise monochromatic clearing. This plaza is evidently the centerpiece, the cornerstone of the colony. It is here that the locals gather in the evenings to knit or to chat over cups of tea.

Old women sit on benches watching passers-by and exchange the occasional word, monks sit at the foot of the stairs leading to the monasteries and fiddle with their cell phones, children run around kicking a football with all their six-year-old might nearby carts that are selling fruits, vegetables and laping — spicy, cold, mung bean noodles with soy sauce.

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Sonam is short and stout with eyeglasses perched on her nose. She sits with her arms folded, wears a long skirt below a maroon pullover and a green jacket. As I watch, she adjusts her monkey cap and leans over to straighten a shawl on her display. She is a silent spectator, her presence barely noticeable as visitors and residents mill about the clearing. She is 71 years old and sells shawls to support her 20-year-old unemployed son.

Sonam and her shawls for sale
Sonam and her shawls for sale

She first came to India in 1958, a few months before the start of the Tibetan uprising. “I came with my parents,” she begins, her voice a soft, hesitant drawl. “We traveled by foot over the mountains, drank from the rivers we crossed, and ate only tsampa.” Tsampa, a staple Tibetan porridge made from roasted barley flour and salted butter tea, gained political significance in 1957 when the India-based Tibet Mirror addressed all “tsampa-eaters,” encouraging them to rise in rebellion against the Chinese Central People’s Government. Speaking different dialects, following different traditions and worshipping different deities, tsampaunified all rebelling Tibetans during the uprising. Its taste served as the only reminder of the land they were leaving behind. The 28-day-trek over the Himalayas was a hazardous journey for Sonam and her family. “Many times, I thought we would never make it,” she says. “When I got too tired, one of my parents would carry me on their shoulders.”

The horror of the uprising and subsequent deaths has become a somewhat obscure tale for most people. Known within China as part of the Autonomous Region, Tibet is today most famously known as the highest region on Earth, located 16,000 feet above sea level. But very few know of the country’s Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet that was signed with China’s Central People’s Government in 1951 after having lost a battle to The People’s Liberation Army. The agreement affirmed China’s sovereignty over Tibet. Though it initially provided for an autonomous administration led by the Dalai Lama, tensions arose in 1955 after China formed a parallel administration along Communist lines.

Unwilling to be party to such an administrative system, in 1959, the Dalai Lama renounced the agreement, fled to India and gave rise to a mass exodus amidst clamoring protests for a free Tibet. Heedless to hunger strikes and even protests from other nations, China formed the Tibet Autonomous Region in 1965, officially making Tibet part of the Chinese province. And with that, Tibet slowly began to lose that which defines a land and its people: its identity.

When Sonam’s family finally crossed from Tibet into India over the Nepalese border more than a month after having left their home, they fled straight to MKT. Back then, the colony lay right beside the Yamuna River, a tributary of the mighty Ganges. It was just a nameless and neglected patch of land in northern Delhi.

“The place was a garbage dump for the city, an enormous landfill,” Sonam explains, a wistful smile stretching across her face. “Under the garbage was a cemetery. This is where we made our homes, in small bamboo tents, hoping and praying for things to get better. There were quite a few of us who had escaped. We managed to put up our tents by the dump and slowly we started calling it home. We faced difficulties, especially during the monsoon [season] as our tents would start to leak. But we survived and made lives for ourselves here. Summer months saw us head off to Shimla or Manali [hill stations in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh] for construction work. With the money we saved up, we would head back to MKT for the winters.”

As more refugees began to arrive, the colony started to grow and the landfill was eventually cleared around 1960. In 1995, residents of MKT were given a “formal assurance” from the Indian government that they would be able to remain at the site until the now-infamous Tibetan dispute was resolved. The colony continued to grow, accommodating more and more newly-arrived families. But in 2006, the colony was served with a court-issued eviction notice that indicated that the site was to be demolished in connection with the Delhi government’s “road expansion and Yamuna River beautification project.” Only two buildings were ever demolished, and fortunately, in 2012, yet another court order was issued that officially prohibited eviction of the refugees and regularized the status of the colony.

Today, nearly 57 years after Sonam’s arrival, life in the colony is all that she can remember. She recalls very little of her time in Tibet and even her journey here has become but a faint memory. “I suppose I can’t complain,” she sighs, her voice growing a little agitated. “We have more here than most others. But at the end of it all, we are refugees who don’t belong in our own land. What is the use of having all this independence if it is not in our country?”

During the summers, Sonam takes buses to Ludhiana in the state of Punjab. There, from a wholesale market, she carefully selects the thick woollen shawls she will sell during the winter in Delhi. She then transports them back herself. There is a short silence as she looks straight into my eyes. “I do not have big dreams,” she confesses, “I will leave it up to time to say what will become of us. But for now, I have no visionary thought – not for myself, not for my country.”

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Sonam is just one of the nearly 2,500 people in the colony who lead similar lives. Divided into 12 blocks, MKT houses 360 registered families along with even more tenants and visitors. The colony is self-sustaining with its own Tibetan Day School and health clinic. The main source of income for all these families comes from restaurants, lodging houses and shops that sell Tibetan trinkets. For them, India is a home away from a land that drove them away, a land that did not let them live out their stories the way they were supposed to.

In 1959, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru granted asylum to all fleeing refugees and provided shelter for them in camps across the country. With Tibetans escaping to Nepal and emigrating to other countries as well, the Tibetan identity was splintered. They no longer knew what it was to be Tibetan. And so, in a conscious move, a sense of Tibetan nationality was deliberately created by the exiled Central Tibetan Administration that had set up headquarters in Dharamsala, a small mountain town 490 kilometers (304 miles) north of Delhi.

The dialect of Lhasa, capital city of Tibet, became the adopted language among the refugees. A drawing depicting red and blue stripes and a pair of snow lions devised by a Japanese wanderer in the 1920s became the national flag. A song written by the Dalai Lama’s tutor became the national anthem. And the Dalai Lama’s birthday became a day of massive celebration.

The streets of MKT
The streets of MKT

Somehow, the new, cobbled-together identity worked. A sense of unity arose, and refugees arriving from all regions of ethnic Tibet bonded, earning MKT the name “little Lhasa”. The unison is present even today among residents and is especially visible at the clearing in the evening when people of all ages gather to mingle, chat and laugh — united in a place they cannot call their own.

While these refugees escaped the worst of the uprising and its after-effects, revolt and armed resistance was well underway in Tibet before 1959. The formation of the parallel administration in 1955 led to the delay of certain socialist reforms such as the redistribution of land within traditional Tibetan provinces in China. The Amdo and Kham provinces — Tibetan strongholds — broke out in rebellion.

By 1957, there were daily reports of rebel civilians being arrested, brutally beaten and starved by Chinese police officials. Prisoners’ wives were raped until the prisoners broke down and swore to stop rebelling. Monks and nuns in monasteries were forced to renounce their celibacy vows by having sex with each other.

Years later, here at MKT, the two monasteries possess not even a faint echo of that terrible time. Silent, calm and lit by golden bulbs in candle holders, they are places of contemplation, of silent reverence. Mini-shrines of money, cookies, packets of chips, water, juice and soda are placed before photographs of various monks as a sign of worship. The monasteries are typically used by the monks at MKT to perform rituals and chants at the request of the residents. “None of us monks here were educated at MKT. We are all from different parts of India like Kulu and Ladakh [in the northern-most state of Jammu and Kashmir] and even the state of Karnataka in the south,” says Lopzung Chunpil, a 31-year-old monk at one of the monasteries.

Twenty years ago, Chunpil was summoned from Kulu to MKT by the head monk of the colony. He has lived here ever since. “The head monk is no more,” says Chunpil. “He died three years ago and we haven’t appointed one since. There are around 14 or 15 of us and we carry on performing our daily duties.”

When not performing rituals, the monks read their holy text. “We don’t have any performing monks from Tibet here either,” says Chunpil with a gentle voice. “With strict Chinese restrictions in recent years, many do not cross the border anymore.”

While MKT is a friendly place, it is easy to feel like an intruder here, amidst people with a weighted history. But my initial sense of apprehension starts to fade as I take in the atmosphere and begin to feel a little more comfortable.

Water from last night’s rain drips into puddles on the path toward the Monastery Market. Vegetable vendors take up the already minimal space selling traditional Tibetan pak choi. I can smell the roasted pork being doled out by a dainty Nepali woman with jet-black hair and a cell phone attached to her hip.

At the market, stall after stall of clothing, accessories, CDs, footwear, jholabags, prayer flags, purses, perfumes, butter tea, fruits and vegetables. The smell of cigarette smoke, the fizzing of Cokes, the clinking of rosaries. Apartments are neatly tucked above the shops. Robed monks take a narrow turn that leads to one of the colony exits, presumably heading to the metro station and into the city. This is the MKT that Delhi’s people talk about so famously. The street where everything is a bargain, where every little nook and cranny delivers a surprise, every café offers a different cuisine. It is all just so completely Tibetan. A mini Lhasa. MKT’s residents have improved their circumstances, a far cry from the bamboo tents the first refugees slept in over five decades ago.

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Sangpo is young, deceptively so. He is the owner of Nor-Khyil restaurant and also the head of the small Guesthouse and Restaurant Association for the colony that looks into the daily worries of shop and hotel owners. He is also associated with the Resident Welfare Association of MKT that takes care of the administrative concerns of the colony by keeping in touch with the exiled government in Dharamsala.

He is 34 years old and is married to an Indian woman who is a lawyer at Justice Ventures International, a non-profit organization. They have a five-year-old son who stays with Sangpo’s parents in Sikkim, another north Indian state roughly 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) away. Sangpo only sees his son on holidays.

“My wife and I just feel that our son will be much better educated [in Sikkim] than here at MKT,” Sangpo tells me as we settle down with cups of tea, his slight but sturdy frame holding the rickety table steady while a cold breeze whistles through the room. “I, by luck, have had the best of what India has to offer. I graduated from a top college in Delhi in international finance and worked as a recruitment manager with a finance company for five years. I even traveled to China on business and set up offices there.”

A monk on his cell phone in MKT
A monk on his cell phone in MKT

Disillusioned by the finance industry, Sangpo quit in 2011 and came back to MKT. “This place is where the rest of my life began,” he smiles, nursing his tea with both hands as he looks around fondly, his Tibetan accent pronounced. “I came here when I was about 12. I escaped Tibet in 1992. My parents sent me hoping that I would have a better education here, more human rights.” Sangpo’s statement is in keeping with many refugees who, arriving in the years after the first wave of escapees had slowed, fled as children, sent by their parents who wanted them to study Tibetan religion, language and culture.

“It took me almost a month to cross the Himalayas and get to Nepal. There is an official Reception Center at the Nepal border to receive refugees from Tibet,” Sangpo explains. “From there, they are sent to either Delhi, Dharamsala or Mussoorie. I was sent to Mussoorie where I completed my schooling at the Tibetan Home School.”

Sangpo was one of the lucky ones who made it past the border. There are many who never make it that far, succumbing to the cold or worse, are shot by the Chinese Army who cite incursion. The ones who make it into India have often lost a few fingers or toes to frostbite and are weak from the arduous journey. “I survived on tsampa and river water. It is hard to imagine that I survived an ordeal like that as a child, but I did. And today, I run a successful restaurant and guesthouse here, and I help the people of this colony with their issues,” he says, his voice laced with pride.

Nor-Khyil is one of the few restaurants in the colony to also offer lodging. “I do not want to stop [at] this though,” he continues, draining his tea and signalling for another cup. “I want to pursue an MBA in Asian Business and I want to go to China for that.” According to Sangpo, it is possible for Tibetan refugees to travel internationally even if they do not own a passport as long as they are in possession of an Identity Card (IC), provided by the Indian government. The IC serves as a refugee’s proof of existence.

“But times are changing for the better,” he adds. “We [Tibetan refugees] are now allowed to vote. Recently, the Indian government passed a policy granting us equal rights to all the welfare programs available for Indian citizens. This will help us enormously. There are more than 150,000 of us in India now,” he claims of the refugees (this number could not be confirmed). “This legislative move goes to show that we will be here for a good while to come. Tibet has never been at the forefront of the world’s concerns. But every now and then, something will occur that will splash Tibet across front pages. It happened when Ngodup burned himself during a hunger strike demanding freedom for Tibet.”

Thupten Ngodup Compass CulturaThe incident Sangpo is referring to occurred during a strike in Jantar Mantar, Delhi on April 27, 1998. Thupten Ngodup, a refugee who had escaped Tibet after the Chinese Communist regime began, set himself on fire in the name of Tibet’s freedom and victory. Ngodup had worked for the Tibetan section of the Indian Army before becoming a helper at the Tsechokling Monastery in the Himalayan village of McLeod Ganj. He was 60 years old when he died during his act of patriotism. “That got the world’s attention for a while. We had international press rushing down to cover the story,” says Sangpo. “But we fell back into obscurity after that.”

The evening is slowly fading, giving way to an early moonrise on a cold winter’s night. “India has looked after us. But to go back to my country will, I fear, remain a dream.” Sangpo sets down his cup. “I want to see my parents. I haven’t seen them since the day I left. I talk with them but how can that ever be the same? Tibet is my land. And I can never see it.”

Heart-breaking words. And true for thousands of refugees across India. Since 2012, the number of people coming in from Tibet has reduced drastically. According to Sangpo, the Reception Center in Nepal has even closed down, open only occasionally when a straggler makes his way across the border. A major reason for this is the clampdown of the Chinese Army on those attempting to cross their borders. For those who have created lives here though, no amount of compensation from a friendly foreign government can ease the pain of living so near their home country yet so far away.

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Through a gate at the edge of town there lies a path covered with bougainvillea flowers that leads to a large litter-strewn park. There are a few scattered benches where residents sit and read the paper, chat, or simply gaze off into the distance. Sparse trees adorned with faded prayer flags are scattered around the park. On the other side of the park, I look out at the mighty Yamuna River.

Park at the edge of town
Park at the edge of town

In all these years of turmoil, the river has been the one constant in the lives of these Tibetans as they continue to struggle to make peace with their lot. Out of all the people I have spoken with during my time in MKT, it is the older residents, the ones who arrived here first, who seem to have accepted that they will live out the remainder of their lives in this cramped two-kilometer-wide little Tibet.

For the younger ones though, the ones who were born here and have never known Tibet, for the ones who escaped when they were too young to understand what identifying with a land meant, there is a thirst to fight; a thirst to see their country become theirs once more.

Walking back across the colony, there are children hanging onto their mothers’ hand like it is their only anchor, little ones kicking a ball around and squealing with laughter. What is the Tibet they will grow up to see if they see it at all? Will they live out their lives here in a foreign land? Or will they fight, too? It is a heavy burden for those who do not yet understand what it means to be Tibetan.

Most visitors to Majnu ka Tilla see the place as a visitor’s haven, a place to get their money’s worth in cheap bargains. But MKT is more than that. Within these close quarters lies an entire land. A land that was lost, is now in limbo. A land whose people want only one bargain: a country to call their own.

All photos, with the exception of the cover image, by Richa.