A walk on the Buddhist side of life: Delhi’s Mini Tibet

Guest post by Seep Gulati, an active DelhiByFoot community member. Pictures with respective credits wherever applicable is given.

Foodie, traveller, adrenaline junkie and life enthusiast, is how Seep describes herself. She believes in the concept of loving, laughing and learning throughout the journey of life. When she isn’t chasing dynamic life, she is fighting ‘world-war’ battles with her niece and nephew or drafting new promotional PR and Marketing strategies for her clients.
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Buddhist Prayer Drums outside a Buddhist Temple

A love-struck majnu (Romeo), unable to claim the object of his affection, sacrifices his life on a tilla (hillock) and over time the place gets transformed into a historical or religious edifice and comes to be known as ‘Majnu-ka-Tilla’ or Romeo’s Hillock!

Raised on a steady dose of Bollywood movies, this rather romantic plot was how I imagined Delhi’s mini Tibet or ‘Majnu-ka-Tilla’ to be.

So when I went on a walk in the lanes and bylanes of ‘Majnu-ka-Tilla’ with DelhiByFoot (DBF), I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the place was actually a beautiful Gurudwara immortalizing the memory of a kind hermit who was blessed by Guru Nanak Dev, the first Sikh Guru, for his selfless devotion to mankind.

DBF’s walk leader Jaya explained that the hermit, incidentally a Muslim, was so lost in his search for ‘God’ that he forgot about the world and people started calling him ‘majnu’ (or the crazy one, like being crazy in love as Romeo was for his Juliet).

Majnu used to ferry people across the Yamuna River and instead of charging a fee he would spread the word of the ‘Almighty’ amongst them. On one of his trips, Majnu met Guru Nanak Dev who blessed him and prophesized that history forever shall immortalize his name. So it came to be true when in the 18th century a Sikh shrine was established in this place — Gurudwara Majnu-ka-Tilla.

Buddhist Colony in Delhi
The once mighty River Yamuna, now flows listlessly just behind the Majnu Ka Tila area, more a dirty sewage drain, than a perennial river as it was once described in Indian Vedas and historical notes of the past.

With this tale from the pages of Delhi’s history began my first walk with DBF, the beginning of my attempt to experience India’s capital – a city I have been born in, but seems have not actually seen!

A few blocks away from the Gurudwara was our destination of the Sunday morning walk, the Tibetan refugee colony, also known as ‘Little Tibet’ of Delhi.

Buddhist Colony in Delhi
Technically in Delhi the Buddhist Colony is called New Aruna Nagar, but Majnu Ka Tila is how Delhites know this place as

DBF had arranged for us to meet a practicing Buddhist, Gelek, to help us navigate the intricacies of Buddhist spirituality and the lifestyle of the Tibetan community of Delhi.

What struck us we reached the colony were the vibrant prayer flags hanging from every nook and corner of these narrow by-lanes, seemingly inviting us on a mystical journey. Gelek explained that each flag has a different texture and its own story. Five elements of nature – land, water, air, fire and sky merge in these flags. Powered by sacred mantras, they purify the air wherever they are hung as the wind spreads the positive energies in the atmosphere.

Buddhist Colony in Delhi
Buddhist Temple facade with multiple flags on the roofs
Prayer flags flutter in the morning wind
Prayer flags flutter in the morning wind

Tibetan shops lined on both sides of the streets here sell everything from decorative wall hangings, Tibetan jewellery, music CDs, and T-shirts with Buddhist mantras (chants). There are many guest houses also offering cheap accommodation and obviously Tibetan food!

What struck me the most was the immense amount of colour on the streets and inside the temples we visited. The sight was worth the effort of waking up early morning on a Sunday!

Shops selling curios and prayer drums and flags
Shops selling curios and souvenirs like Buddhist prayer drums and flags
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Altar and offerings inside a Temple of the community

As we walked through the colony and were assaulted by the multiple hoardings of steamed momos, thukpa, shabalay etc, the participants, each an early bird on this 8AM walk, had a sudden urge to satisfy our breakfast cravings!

We decided to sample local Tibetan food and try a delicious snack locally known as ‘Laping’ which the locals almost pronounced as ‘laughing’ or maybe they were just teasing us!

Picture this: Potato starch dried cakes cut into bite-size pieces, enclosed with minced garlic/ garlic -water, vinegar, soya sauce, sesame oil and red chilli sauce creates a spectacular cold snack. Laping can be consumed dry or with cold soup. We tried the dried version as a starter and then ordered for Laping soup along with fluffy Tibetan bread.

Budh Purnima Walk Buddhist Colony in Delhi
Applying a fiery paste and rolled-up the Laping, cut into bite-size mini-rolls!
The cold and soupy version of the Laping..
The cold and soupy version of Laping

Post the food-adventure, we headed towards the two Buddhist temples in the locality, where Gelek answered all our questions regarding rituals, culture, prayer wheels, butter lamps, sculptures and how a Buddhist monk would lead his life.

Budh Purnima Walk Buddhist Colony in Delhi
Incense burns at multiple prayer zones, at alley corners which spread the musky fragrance all over the colony

It was interesting to note that two adjacent Buddhist temples were so different in terms of their decoration, the offerings and how the locals worshipped. While silver lamps with butter were being used in one temple, artificial lights were lit in the other. Similarly offerings at one temple included fruits while at the other temple even a bottle of beer had been put up as an offering for the gods!

Polished lamps await butter for readiness of
Polished lamps await butter for readiness of lighting at special prayer sessions!
Budh Purnima Walk Buddhist Colony in Delhi
And the Butter Lamps once lit, will remain un-touched through 8-10 hours at a stretch!
Inside the temple, the Altar remains lighted throughout the day and even at night!
Inside this temple, the altar remains lighted using electricity! The bowls contain saffron infused water act almost like air-freshners inside these old temple rooms

Defining the concepts of how Buddhism is practiced around the world, Gelek explained the meaning of ‘Boddhistava’ and ‘Buddha’ and how each of us can also walk on the path to liberation from ‘Samsara’ (cyclic existence of life and birth) to attain ‘Nirvana’ (Enlightenment).

Budh Purnima Walk Buddhist Colony in Delhi
Gelek, DBF’s walk specialist throws more light on finer nuances of prayers and the rituals of Buddhism!

Ironically, Buddhism which was started by Buddha in India and was popularised by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC has flourished in countries such as China, Japan, Thailand, Burma etc before coming back to the country of its origin through Tibetan and Japanese Buddhists.

The Tibetan refugees who in the early 1960s followed His Holiness the Dalai Lama into India, to escape Chinese oppression in Tibet, were a boon for our country as it was largely these people brought back the basic philosophies of Buddhism – to lead a moral life; to be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions; and above all, to develop patience, deeper wisdom and understanding.

Lamps and ready for lighting!
Lamps, ready for lighting!

We also discussed Tibetan Buddhist practices, including the Honourable Dalai Lama’s personal teachings, the philosophies of Ladakh’s Buddhists and how the Tibetan people are fighting peacefully to free their homeland from China which continues with human rights violations in Tibet.

However, the extremely congested lanes, dearth of civic amenities and lack of employment opportunities for Tibetan refugees in India told us another sad tale of our country’s neglect of these culturally rich and proud people.

We continue our chat on Buddhism, Tibetian people in exile and Spirituality inside one of the many, very interestingly laid out cafes!
We continue our chat on Buddhism, Tibetian people in exile and Buddha’s Spirituality, inside one of the many, very interestingly laid out cafes!

Another eye-opener was that the largest teaching centre for Tibetan Buddhism in the world, Namdroling Monastery is actually situated in Karnataka, home to approximately 5,000 Tibetan monks and not in places usually associated with Buddhism like Dharamsala, Sikkim or Ladakh!

This walk not only connected the dots on the heritage front, it also empowered me to engage in enriching conversations with like-minded people on how Delhi is the melting pot of people and cultures from all over the world.

To check out more pics from the walk, click here

Buddhist Walk, Majnu Ka Tila Delhi
An almost 12 feet tall Prayer Drum inside the Majnu Ka Tila colony

36 thoughts on “A walk on the Buddhist side of life: Delhi’s Mini Tibet”

    1. Hi Rajiv, thanks for coming on our blog…and worry not…we can always mail you when we are doing it next. If you wish us to mail you weekly updates of our upcoming walks, drop in a line to ‘explore@delhibyfoot.in’…. Cheers, Ramit, Chief Explorer, DBF

  1. Quite an enlightening article by Seep. It was as if One was actually travelling the Tibetan by lanes near the Majnu Ka Tilla while reading this post. It is interesting to note, that while Buddhism originated in India, it spread to other parts of the world fairly well, and then later popularised in India. More intriguing is the way Buddhism is practiced from country to country. I have had the privilege of staying as an exchange student for a year in Japan and during that time I realised that Buddhism in Japan was extremely different from that in India. While in India, the Buddhists are extremely particular about adopting non violence as a way of life even towards the animals and living beings, in Japan, the Buddhists are pretty liberal and freely consume eggs, meat and even alcohol.

    1. Yes Rashi, I believe Seep actually wanted that to happen…almost a ‘virtual tour’ with her words… 🙂
      Buddhism, as you point out has taken up many hues with mixing of cultures and people and lands where it spread over the past 2500yrs…India lost touch with what Lord Buddha preached, so maybe what we consider as sacrosanct to Buddhism may not be so in the way it was taught in other lands. It is interesting that you shared this aspect of your knowledge from Japan, which maybe implies that unlike India, in Japan Religion does not seem to impose restrictions and rigid rules on each and every aspect of day-to-day life…Thanks Rashi for sharing your thoughts too..Ramit, Chief Explorer, DBF

    1. So true Ruchika, Seep has captured the walk with her words beyond what I had expected when I requested her to write a story for us…. Thanks Seep once again. Thanks Ruchika for visiting our site. Cheers, Ramit, Chief Explorer, DBF

  2. Hi!

    I would like to join some walks… Please add me to your mailing list.

    Looking forward to seeing Delhi…

    Thank You!

    Michie Abraham

  3. Kindly add me to your mailing list look forward to joining an event.

    Warm regards
    Bhagyashree Bhansali

  4. hi
    I have visited India many times and would like to see Delhi and especially the walk, Buddist temple etc. could you add me to your mailing list please?

  5. I was actually searching for some material on Buddhism and unfortunately there is not much in Delhi, I was looking to be there for some time to see and experience that peace you could get from them. It’s a good written article seep. Thanks. Would like to read more and if possible since I am in Delhi myself would like to join one of these walks myself.

    Thanks.

    1. Hello Gaurav….Thanks for your appreciation,

      Thank you for showing interest to join our walk events on weekends, your mail ID was duly added and we hope you are receiving the mails of our events. If not, then do check SPAM/OTHER/PROMOTIONS folders of your Gmail/Yahoo mail Inboxes.

      Hope to see you walking & enjoying Delhi very soon

      Cheers
      Ramit
      Team DBF

    1. Hello Mani,

      Thank you for showing interest to join our walk events on weekends, your mail ID was duly added few weeks back and we hope you are receiving the mails of our events. If not, then do check SPAM/OTHER/PROMOTIONS folders of your Gmail/Yahoo mail Inboxes.

      Hope to see you walking & enjoying Delhi very soon

      Cheers
      Ramit
      Team DBF

    1. Hello Om Shukla,

      Thank you for showing interest to join our walk events on weekends, your mail ID was duly added and we hope you are receiving the mails of our events. If not, then do check SPAM/OTHER/PROMOTIONS folders of your Gmail/Yahoo mail Inboxes.

      Hope to see you walking & enjoying Delhi very soon

      Cheers
      Ramit
      Team DBF

  6. Please add my email id i would like to join you !! To be part of your amazing walk’s !! Please

    Warmest regards
    Prabhleen kaur

  7. Hey DBF…. I would love to be a part of such culture rich walks/events. Please do let me know about your next such event.
    Regards
    Vishakha Bhagat

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