NEW DELHI: The temperature seems to drop as soon as you enter the haphazard lanes ‘Little Tibet’, the Tibetan refugee colony in North Delhi’s Majnu-Ka-Tilla. “It is because the sunlight never penetrates through these congested buildings. The ground is spared of the sun”, says Ngwang, a Tibetan man sitting at the counter of a curio store called Akama. The store sells a diverse selection of Tibetan merchandise: brocade shawls, bags, and the quintessential “Free Tibet” T-shirts.

In the midst of a global refugee crisis, the Tibetan diaspora in India presents a very different picture from the grim reality of Syrian refugees today. The community at Majnu-ka-Tilla exemplifies a successful balance of cultural preservation and assimilation into their host nation. Ngwang suggests that this has been possible through India’s cooperation in preserving the sovereignty of the Tibetan diaspora despite their refugee status within the country. “They (The Indian Government) have even made separate Kendriya Vidyalayas for Tibetans.” says Ngwang earnestly. There are currently 71 such schools teaching about 10,000 Tibetan children in India.

The attempt to preserve a Tibetan identity is not limited to provisions made by the Indian state; it extends to the personal sacrifices made by the community itself. One such sacrifice is the rejection of Indian Citizenship. According to the Citizenship Act of 1955, anyone born in India has a claim to apply for Indian citizenship. Ngwang suggests that claiming citizenship will be a betrayal to his Tibetan Identity. “We don’t want citizenship. If we take it, our future generation will forget where they came from. We should stay here as guest, not as residents.”, he claims fervently.

Indeed, the refugee hamlet at Majnu-Ka-Tilla showcases the efforts made to preserve a culture that could have so easily been lost due to the physical displacement of a people from their homeland. Apart from the climatic miracle that makes the whole colony seem five degrees cooler than the rest of Delhi, and the narrow streets that make it seem like you are traversing a higher altitude, the entire economy of the place is rooted in a capitalization of Tibetan culture. Apart from the locals, the streets are full of tourists sporting DSLR cameras and Delhi University students looking for a budget meal at one of the colony’s various café’s offering authentic Tibetan cuisine.

This photo essay attempts to reflect this preservation of Tibetan identity.

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Tibetan Merchandise and Buddhist artifacts inside the curio store Akama

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Ngwang sitting at the reception of Akama

Posters outside the wall of a café


The narrow market street

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A CD store selling Tibetan, Chinese, Korean and even English movies


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Prayer procession in the main courtyard outside the monastery

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The Tibetan Flag inside a store