There was a time when Delhiites used to flock to Majnu Ka Tilla (MKT), Tibetan refugee camp in north Delhi, to grab ‘Made in China’ products, from toys to candies, from knives to locks. This was the time before Indian economy was opened up for integration into world economy in 1991.
Selling Chinese goods was one of the means of livelihood for thousands of Tibetan living in exile at Majnu Ka Tilla. With the economy liberalised, the products available at MKT could be found at any shop in Delhi. MKT, which straddles between Yamuna and outer ring road 2 km north of Delhi’s Vidhan Sabha, lost its radiance.
An additional means of earning livelihood was by selling chhang, Tibetan alcoholic beverage. In fact, in 1970s and 1980s, MKT was notorious for this. Ask any old timer in Delhi the meaning the Tibetan word chhang; prompt will come the reply. However, with the advocacy and works of various Tibetan NGOs and the government in exile manned by educated second generation Tibetans, the selling of chhang was discouraged. By 1988 selling chhang was completely banned in MKT.
Along with this, in early 2000s leaders of Tibetan freedom movement also started to push for boycott of Chinese products, a cue taken from India’s freedom struggle. Their call was well taken and almost every Tibetan trader all over India stopped selling Chinese products. With this larger background of changes in Indian economy and alteration in strategy of Tibetan freedom movement, the local economy of MKT had to change for them to survive.
From being a place infamous for selling chhang, little Tibet or Majnu ka Tilla has become well-known for Tibetan restaurants, Tibetan street foods, exotic Tibetan jewellery, Buddhist artefacts, handicrafts and religious items as well. Big Apple, Ama, Dolma, Rigo, Norkhil, Himalaya are some of the renowned restaurants which woo Delhiites to MKT.
“Small business has been the chief source of livelihood for the Tibetan refugees settled here. Access to education was difficult to early settlers and Indian government jobs were not available for us. It was necessary for them to stay afloat by becoming small time traders. Within this lies the seeds of the now famous restaurants,” says Karten Tsering, President of Resident Welfare Associaion of MKT.
Explaining the growth for the restaurants in MKT, Tsering, says, “Many of the fancy restaurants like Dolma, Teedee were actually very small restaurants, more like food stalls serving Tibetan food to mainly Tibetan consumers.
Who in 70s and 80s come to eat Chinese and Tibetan cuisines to a non-descript MKT. With the incoming of increasing numbers of foreign tourists from 1990s and simultaneous increase in the income level of Indians after liberalisation of economy, more and more people started to come to eat at restaurants here. So the previously small restaurants grew fancier to cater to costumers literally from all over the world.”
Tashi Phuntsok, owner of the Himalayan House restaurants says, “My costumers are not only Tibetan but also foreigners and Indians. In fact, proportion of Indian costumer is increasing day by day.
Majority of them come from near-by places like Model town, Gupta colony, and so on. Not only this, students from Delhi University’s north campus come in large numbers to my restaurant.” Nowadays, Chinese as well as Tibetan restaurants can be found everywhere in Delhi. Notwithstanding, MKT is a famous destination for lovers of oriental cuisines. “Nowhere in Delhi can someone find such cheap and good quality oriental cuisine as in MKT,” believes Phuntsok.
Leky Dorjee, Settlement officer (MKT) of Tibetan government-in-exile recalls, “MKT used to be a very dirty place. This would invariably turn down visitors. In 1990, we (Tibetan government in exile) started cleanliness and sanitation drive here. It also focused on creating awareness within our community. This helped in creating the necessary environment for the now popular eateries business in MKT.”
Many of the restaurants in MKT are owned by various Tibetan monasteries scattered all over India. Skashya restaurant and Rigo restaurant are example of such enterprises. “Monasteries need money to feed monks and nuns in monasteries. So they have to run commercial enterprises like this. Moreover, most of the guest houses here are owned and run by monasteries,’ says Dorjee, explaining the rationale behind such enterprises.
Aside from restaurants, MKT has also become famous for Tibetan street food. Road-side barbecue selling non-veg; Gyuma, Tibetan sausages, and the most famous Laphing, chilly dry-soybeans in rolls are very popular among Tibetans as well as Indians. Tsering, who sells Laphing on the northern end of MKT says, “Initially only Tibetan came to eat at my stall. But nowadays, more than half of my costumers are Indians who are mostly students.”
Other than food, MKT has been drawing crowd to its Tibetan Buddhist artefacts, handicrafts and religious items on sale. ‘Om Mani Padme Hun’ marked small prayer-flag are sourced from MKT. Other major attractions of MKT are Tibetan artistic religious objects like Thangkhas, Buddhist scroll paintings etc. Thangkha seller Lodoe Phuntsok opines that commercialisation of Thangka started early in 2000s.
He said, “Thangkas are purely religious thing found only in Monasteries. Even now, major buyers of thangkas are various Tibetan monasteries scattered all over India from Leh in J&K to Bylakuppe in Mysore. However, these days many people are buying it for aesthetic reasons. In fact, many western tourists and Indians, who buy Thangkhas, buy it for its aesthetic value.”
MKT has gone through another important transformation, that is, in citizenship of its residents. Most of the residents of MKT have been granted Indian citizenship. In fact, many of them voted in 2014 general elections and in 2015 Delhi assembly polls. MKT is now regularised. All 365 families are registered with DDA. They pay property tax like any Indian does.
The colony is officially named new Aruna Nagar.Many in the Tibetan freedom movement believe that accepting Indian citizenship can take fire out of their movement. Dorjee, however, strongly disagrees. He opines, “Accepting citizenship will ensure that our poor people get access to Indian government’s development schemes. It means that our children would get immunised. It will not, in any way, affect the rigor of our movement. It will not make us a lesser Tibetan. Although I am born and brought up in India but my dil will always be Tibetan.”
Tsering says, “Delhi has progressed dramatically in last 20-25 years. Malls, metro, high rises, have come up and more importantly income level has increased. How can Majnu kaTilla be not affected by it?”
MKT has also progressed. Its narrow alleys are studded with famous restaurants, shops selling Thangkha paintings and other religious items, guest houses, travel agencies and so on. Its glitzy, ritzy bazaar conveniently hides struggles of the first generational settlers from Tibet.