India: Little Tibet in the Lanes of New Delhi
January 1, 1970
by Avantika Chaturvedi
Majnu ka Tilla- Then and Now
Majnu ka Tilla, literally meaning the hillock of Majnu is said to be named after the tilla where a local Iranian Sufi mystic called Abdullah nicknamed Majnu met Guru Nanak Dev Ji, a Sikh Guru, during the reign of Sikandar Lodhi of Delhi Sulatnate. It is said that Majnu used to ferry people across the Yamuna River for free as a service to God.
The Tibetan refugee colony had started to build in this area of Delhi around the 1900s but most people left Tibet and sought asylum in India after the Dalai Lama went into exile to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh during the period of the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Till this date, this refugee colony remains unauthorized. Also known as Samyeling, Majnu ka Tilla presently accommodates second generation Tibetan refugees.
Getting There- From the Delhi Metro to the Tuk Tuks
You can recognize it almost as soon as you step out of your rickshaw- the huge green foot bridge laden with green blue and red tattered Tibetan prayer flags resonating the chant Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ. It’s absolutely unmissable. After climbing over to the other side of the National Highway- 1 of New Delhi, a gate in a very Buddhist architectural style welcomes it’s visitors to the “Tibetan refugee colony” of New Aruna Nagar, New Delhi- very famously called the Majnu ka Tilla.
The easiest and the most cost efficient way to this little haven for food junkies and shopping lovers is to take the Delhi Metro till the Vidhan Sabha metro station, on the Yellow Line, and then take one of the many battery operated rickshaws- also called tuk tuks– ready to take you till Majnu ka Tilla for not more than 40 Indian Rupees.
Places To Shop
As soon as you enter this colony, the atmosphere seems to be very different from that of mainstream Delhi. The close-knit buildings and the very narrow lanes provide relief from the scorching Delhi’s summer sun. Majnu ka Tilla, also called MKT, is known for its food and fashion and the locales of the area are all very well dressed- be it in their traditional Tibetan clothes, or the Western attire. You can also find a lot of well maintained, air conditioned shops selling clothes, shoes, bags, and what not at dirt cheap prices. They have the dupes of almost every shoe in trend- such as Ugg boots or the Adidas Superstars- and one can grab these at throwaway costs, feeling like a million dollars!
Little Trinkets from Little Tibet- Jewellery and Souvenirs
The tapering lanes of this market are lined with jewellery shops selling silver and turquoise jewellery. Search through the lot, hawk eyed and you might just find a gorgeous silver ring or a pair of silver earrings for as low as 250 rupees. The Norling Gallery is my go to spot for all things Tibetan. They have various trinkets for souvenirs and countless books on Buddhist and Tibetan culture and history.
Traditional Indian Kurtas
Upon walking ahead, you will find a shop stuck in the narrow-congested lanes, selling bright and colourful kurtas. These are available in in either flannel or pure cotton, for both men and women. Once the bargaining skills are set to work, these kurtas can be grabbed for prices as low as 50% of the original quoted rate. The one drawback here is that the shopkeeper only sells ‘free-sized’ kurtas, and does not have sizes as per various body types.
The narrow lanes further open up to a colourful open courtyard at one end of which is a beautiful Buddhist monastery, breathtaking with its colours of yellow, green and red, its serene atmosphere. The soft hum of the gong and the smell of incense in the air will make any passerby stop and stare.
Eating at Majnu ka Tilla- Street Food, Desserts and More!
Majnu ka Tilla is famous for the various eating options it provides. The cafés here are small, cozy and aesthetically pleasing. Various street food hawkers also line the roads of this little colony serving various traditional delicacies. Students of the University of Delhi are often found here hopping from one café to the to satiate their hunger pangs- economically.
Street Food for Starters- Laping
A few steps ahead is a very small shop on the right, selling basic groceries. The catch is that the it also sells the delicious laping– a traditional Tibetan street food. It is a spicy cold mung bean noodle dish. The dry variant has soy chunks wrapped in the noodle and the soupy one will have the noodles in a water based soy sauce gravy with soy chunks floating around in the bowl. The dish is served with red chili and green onion sauce. A bowl of this will cost you as less as 30 rupees and you can devour your serving sitting inside on the low plastic stools in the shop. The whole rustic vibe of it gives it a very homely feeling.
Buff Kothe at Dolma House Café
After starting the meal with laping, the best place to move on for the main course is Dolma House Café. Their buff kothe are to die for. Kothe are momos influenced by the Tibetan and Himalayan cuisines. These are first steamed and then pan fried till they are slightly brown and charred from the outside. They are then served with a red chili and garlic chutney, spicy enough to leave you in tears. The kothe are also available in chicken, pork, and vegetable variants beside the buffalo meet one. A glass of cold fruit beer compliments this hot dish very well. The seating arrangement at Dolma House overlooking the rest of the market, through a huge glass window is breathtaking. One can sit there for hours watching the tourists wandering about and the locales running errands and doing their chores.
Dessert Therapy at Ama Café
After the main course at Dolma, a little ahead on the right, comes a narrow staircase leading up to Ama Café. Of all the eating joints in MKT, this one seems to be the most popular, and definitely has the best ambiance. It is almost always completely occupied and their desserts are to die for. Ranging from cakes to donuts to pies, you name it, they have it. The Tibetan cheesecake, traditionally called the thue cake is very peculiar out of the lot. It is made of yak butter, and is definitely not for everyone, but definitely worth a shot. There is nothing in this world that cannot be solved with Ama’s dessert and a cup of a nice cappuccino. The woody look of the place gives a very authentic hilly touch to it. The walls are adorned with wood logs and beautiful paintings. The café also provides free Wi-Fi, and for those who like it the good old fashioned way, there are shelves stacked with books that the customers can help themselves to. A cozy little balcony serves as a good spot for those who like a nice smoke after their meals.
Very small, yet very rich in culture, this place can satiate any traveller’s needs- friendly faces to chat with and hear about their stories and legends, souvenir and books on all things Tibet, aesthetically pleasing shops and lanes, delicious food and fashionable clothes and jewellery- all at the cheapest prices one can imagine. Majnu ka Tilla is a must on any traveller’s trip to the capital of India.