Paharganj is old news, Tibetan refugee colony is Delhi’s new hub of backpackers
The Tibetan refugee colony is now a hot spot on the city’s tourism map, attracting tourists looking for a dose of Karma Cola from all over the world
Lhagyal Tsering runs a travel agency in Delhi’s Tibetan refugee colony. On the wall of his office, there are quite a few clocks showing the current time in Delhi, Lhasa, New York, London, Paris, Tokyo in that order. Before you ask him about the choice of cities, he says: “No one really goes to Lhasa, and no one really comes from there anymore. For us, it is an act of defiance, an act of remembrance.” Tsering pauses for a while, pours some water into the glass and speaks again: “It is also a way to remind ourselves and our children who we are and where we came from. Besides, these clocks signify that our colony attracts tourists from far and wide.”
The Tibetan refugee colony in north Delhi, which from the outside looks like a messy jumble of multi-storied buildings with prayer flags fluttering over rooftops, has emerged as hot spot on the city’s tourism map, attracting tourists looking for a dose of Karma Cola from all over the world. Steeped in Tibetan culture, the colony, officially known as New Aruna Nagar, boasts of new trendy cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and guest houses, which now feature on Lonely Planet. This is a complete transformation for a place which until a decade ago had a few nondescript curio and garment shops and small Tibetan restaurants that mainly attracted Delhi University students.
“Till a few years back, most of those who stayed in my guest house were monks and nuns. Now 30% of them are foreigners from England, France, US and Canada,” says Sonam Wangdue, who owns a guest house and a restaurant in the colony. “These are budget travelers who would earlier go to Paharganj.” It is a Tuesday afternoon and Tara House, his restaurant, is doing brisk business. His guest house is full too. “We have 100% occupancy during this time of the year.” The president of the Guest House and Restaurant Welfare Association, Sangyal Dorjee, who owns KS House, adds: “A lot of the guest houses here were opened and run by monasteries to cater to traveling monks, but now many belong to individuals.”
Interestingly, every guest house is named after the family or monastery that runs them. So you have a Dolma House, Gangchen House, Apha House, Wongdhen House, Lobsang House. Every shop, restaurant or a guest house has a picture of the Dalai Lama, and interestingly, a few such as The White House—named so because its facade is painted white--also has the pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
The association, which has about 70 members -- 65 of them guest houses -- boasts a plush office where the secretary, Dhundup Gyaltsen’s main job is to send details of the foreigners living in the colony’s guest houses to the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) office in Form-C. And Gyaltsen says he sends about 150 forms on an average every day. “For most foreigners, the main attractions here are restaurants that specialize in authentic Tibetan and Bhutanese cuisine.”
Set up in 1963 and a home to about 4,000 refugees, the colony is an exotic world. It has a monastery, its narrow alleys are filled with the aroma of burning incense and one can see Buddhist monks and Western tourists savouring Tibetan dishes in the plush restaurants. “Food and Tibetan culture are the main reasons why I come here,” says Richard Turere, an American tourist.
Talking of the growing popularity of the Tibetan colony, Kinzum, manger, Living Room, a plush restaurant which opened three months ago, says, “We bring a different culture, a different taste, adding to the multiplicity of the city experience for locals and outsiders. I think social media has played a great role in popularizing the place.”
Some like Tashi Dolma, who runs Tee Dee, one of the colony’s most popular and oldest restaurants set up by her in-laws in 1982, says while she is happy that there has been a steady rise in the number of foreign tourists to the place, she is worried about the increasing commercialisation of the colony. “People have constructed on every inch of the place. A lot of the old residents here are moving to places like Dehradun because it has become too congested here,” she says. There are, in fact, many streets in the colony where shops and guest houses are constructed so close to each other that they look more like dark tunnels that never see light of the day. They are lit up by flickering neon signs of restaurants.
Karten Tsering, president, New Aruna Nagar Colony Resident Welfare Association, contends that the commercialization is the result of the livelihood needs of the refugees. “Most people do not have jobs. The youth is educated and have aspirations, and are getting into business to survive,” he says. His first-floor office has pictures of the young Dalai Lama, a wooden chair used by him when he first visited the colony 34 years back. There is a CCTV monitor showing images of the colony and a public address system for announcing messages to the community.
Tsering works in close coordination with Lekyi Dorjee, the welfare officer, who is the link between the local community and the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala. Dorjee’s office has the distinct feel of a typical government office with many files marked ‘health’, ‘education’, ‘finance’, etc., denoting the various departments of the government. His big cabin has a sofa and a large framed picture of the Dalai Lama with Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi on the wall. Next to it is a wooden board listing the names and tenures of the previous welfare officers. Of late, there have been quite a few thefts in the guest houses in the colony and that has left Dorjee a worried man. “I have asked guest houses to take strict measures to ensure the safety of guests, and follow all rules,” he says. “The problem is that earlier people would seek our guidance before they started a new shop or restaurant, now they do not.’
But there are many local youngsters who are proud of what the Tibetan colony, once a camp of tarpaulin huts by the river on the fringes of the city, has come to be. “There is no place like MKT (Majnu Ka Tila) in the city—here spirituality and commerce go hand in hand. It may be commercialised, but we keep it clean. This place symbolises our hard work and enterprise,” says a local youngster who does not want to be named. “Young Tibetans living in India come here to expose themselves to a larger world. It is the commercial capital of the Tibetans in exile in India.”