When asked where I am staying in Delhi, my reply "MT", usually draws a blank stare.
Most budget travellers head for Paharganj, the congested area opposite the New Delhi Railway Station. Despite last year's devastating Diwali bombs it still remains popular with backpackers.
But Majnu ka Tila (MT) is a little speck of transplanted Boudha crammed with Tibetans, people from Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim. I had an appointment to interview the Karmapa, and his secretary had booked me a room at the Wongdhen House in MT.
Majnu ka Tila literally means 'Majnu's hill' after the famous lover in Indian mythology. It is a ghetto of narrow lanes near Delhi University crammed with shops, hotels and restaurants run by Tibetan exiles and is a magnet for the Tibetan diaspora making their way to and from Dharamsala. There are even direct daily overnight buses from here to Dharmasala and Kathmandu.
There are about 25 or so lodges shoehorned into this narrow riverside strip-a former garbage dump on the still green but fetid banks of the Yamuna. Aside from local residents it is a place of transients. This year it has been full of Tibetans some from as far away as Kham making their way to the Dalai Lama's Kalachakra initiations held this year at Amravati in Andhra Pradesh.
In contrast to their more hip (and occasionally hip-hop) brethren, the newly-arrived Khampas swagger about wrapped in their traditional sheepskin chubas. Due to overcrowding, some of these nomads camp out on the rooftop terraces, braving the bone-chilling Delhi fog.
They sit huddled as if they were still somewhere on the Tibetan plateau merrily eating tsampa mixed with salty butter-tea, as crows try to steal the dried yak meat hanging above them. In front of their hotel posters put up by a Tibet animal rights group plead for a vegetarian Kalachakra.
Aside from hundreds of exiles there are also, not surprisingly, professional beggars, mostly from Bihar. The aggressive beggars flock around Buddhist pilgrims because they are reputed to be compassionate.
Last year at this time, the local branch of the Tibetan Community Welfare Association was collecting donations for tsunami victims. Generally, the association takes care of its own welfare problems, which range from helping the local poor, sick and destitute.
"We also help young people with substance abuse problems," explains Lobsang Dorjee, himself a hip member of the community who attends Delhi University. Lobsang and his brother Palden also help their father run Dolma House guesthouse and a cyber cafe.
Lobsang's father Tobden is from Spiti and was one of the earliest settlers in Majnu ka Tila, having arrived in 1979. He has seen MT rise from being a garbage dump to a prosperous Little Himalaya in Delhi.
For travellers, there is almost everything that one could want: cheap but clean hotels (rooms ranging from IRs175-550), restaurants (which, unlike Dharamsala, have not yet catered to the muesli crowd) with authentic Tibetan dishes, bookstores, cyber cafes, laundry, shops, etc. The only drawback used to be that MT was nearly an hour from Connaught Place.
But thanks to the recent opening of Delhi's Metro travel time has been cut to 15 minutes by train, which costs only IRs10. Stepping into the immaculately clean and shiny Metro, you think you are in Bangkok or Singapore, not India. It was Christmas Eve when I checked out of Wongdhen House, Majnu ka Tila's most popular guesthouse for western dharmaphiles. There was a big twinkling Christmas tree in the lobby, and as I turned in my room key, Dolma the receptionist wished me "merry Christmas and happy new year" and handed me a candy.
Notorious international poacher and trader in illegal wildlife items, Tshering Nima, was recently arrested from Majnu ka Tila and a huge cache of 34 freshly-tanned leopard skins and four otter skins were seized. The raid was conducted by a team attached to Special Operations Group (SOG), Rajasthan Police, with the approval of the Delhi crime branch. Nima's accomplices are believed to be hiding in the area. According to sources, the absconding criminals are in possession of more banned wildlife items, including tiger skins. "We had been trailing the accused for the past few months in connection with a poaching case," an official investigating the case said. "The seizure of the skins came as a bonus. We also arrested the driver of the car."
A taste of Tibet
Tee Dee, also popularly known as 'Chung town' among the Delhi University crowd, is situated along the Outer Ring Road near Majnu ka Tila Gurudwara, inside Aruna Colony, down the lane to the right, up the stairs-to be precise. If you don't have private transportation the best way to get there is to get on to the Mudrika bus, get off at the Mall Road and take a rickshaw there.
The ambience of the place is unobtrusive. The huge picture of the Dalai Lama as soon as you walk in leaves you with no doubt as to where you are. It is a place where one can have an undisturbed conversation or even a loud discussion to the tune of Hindi/Nepali songs playing in the background. The installation of a colour television ensures that you can also watch ' the match' while you enjoy your meal.
Being within the Tibetan colony, the food served there is well Tibetan food. Tee Dee's serves a variety of food from traditional Tibetan to typical Chinese. A normal meal at chung town would consist of a plate of 'beef chili' and 'tingmo' (traditional Tibetan bread). The cost of this meal would be around IRS 40. For someone wanting more there are a variety of chicken/mutton/lamb items, rice, chowmein and vegetables to choose from, not to mention the soups and salads. Even for a meal that constitutes all the major food groups the total cost would be within IRS 80 to maybe slightly more than IRS 100 depending on how much you can pack away and trust me some people once they start eating here just don't stop.
For the more adventurous, the 'chele fried' is an excellent experiment. Chele fried is to put it very bluntly 'fried tongue'. Taste it and it guarantees that the chances of having tasted such a delight are slim. An exotic dish for vegetarians is the 'shabhakalep', a bit bland but perfect with the chilli chutney. The best way to finish off a meal at Tee Dee's is with their pancakes. It can be ordered with a variety of toppings such as jam, honey, bananas or all of the above. The biggest debate surrounding Tee Dee's is about whether or not it should incorporate a bar. Talking to students from the colleges around the area, there seemed to be a mixed view. Gaurav Anand of Shri Ram College of Commerce says " Ofcourse alcohol should be served" but he adds begrudgingly " though it might make it unsafe for girls but it would be nice to have a drink with dinner". The girls seem to be of the same mindset and would like alcohol but for the fact that a more riotous crowd might frequent it should alcohol be served. Says Jahnvi of Lady Shri Ram College " it would be nice but it would definitely make it more 'shadier'. Thus ended the debate on alcohol at Tee Dee's.
Tee Dee's is a place for college students on a limited budget but if you are in Delhi and would like a taste of Tibet on the way then it is definitely a cheap and reliable source for it.
Tee Dee Restaurant
H-32, Behind Tibetan School, Aruna Colony
Majnu Ka Tila, Delhi-100 054