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The best Tibetan food and cultural traditions at Majnu ka Tilla

You haven’t had the best momos of your life if you haven’t visited Majnu ka Tilla – a small ethnic pocket in north Delhi by the banks of the Yamuna river.

Momos at Majnu ka Tilla - a small ethnic pocket in north Delhi
Momos at Majnu ka Tilla – a small ethnic pocket in north Delhi

Intrigued? Well, there’s more to this place than the delicious momos, home to refugee Tibetans and the go-to place for all foodies who love to explore new cultures and cuisines.

There is something for the fashion freaks, the ones who cannot stop buying quaint aesthetic artifacts of Buddhist culture, and the ones that have been in awe of the solitude that Buddhism has to offer!

The History that it holds

If you haven’t guessed it by now, It’s Majnu Ka Tilla in Delhi. It was built on land granted to Tibetan refugees fleeing Chinese occupation, in 1960. Since then, the community has established a thriving commercial hub, while preserving its communal identity. 

It has also been frequented by tourists and students alike for a taste of their culture.  Now you must also be curious about why the name?  During Delhi Sultanate, a kind Sufi mystic Abdulla “Majnu” met Guru Nanak here.  He generously ferried devotees of cost across the Yamuna river to meet the Guru and with the leadership of Baghel Singh, they built the Majnu ka Tilla Gurudwara.

This is what has given this community its current name, wherein Majnu refers to the saint and Tilla translates to the hillock.

At first glance

Welcomed by the smell of the incense sticks burning almost at every nook will set you in the right mood, and relax you as it shudders away the stress from the hustle-bustle of the city.

The red huge prayer flags, smiling Mongolian faces, and tiny shops embellished with Tibetan flags will give you a glimpse of their faraway home, and what it means to them.  As believers of Buddhism here, prayer wheels and statues of Lord Buddha with portraits of His Holiness Dalai are an inseparable feature of every house.

For the first-timers, this may even seem like a different country and even confusing as the tiny lanes are all similar, so are the shops. The neighborhood is thriving because we love everything about it: the food, the culture, and the fashion. You will find the latest fits displayed in the stores. You will see the lanes filled with college-going students and foreign tourists enjoying what all it has to offer.

For food lovers who love to try something new

When you are done strolling and capturing the quaint architecture for your Instagram, you will have variants of food choices waiting for you. 

Food at Majnu ka Tilla
Food at Majnu ka Tilla – Ama Cafe

From the piping hot Laphing the Churpis (dried cheese), dried meat the momos, the herbal tea to the heavy authentic Tibetan platters; finger-licking goodness is assured.  The restaurant owners there firmly believe that the unpronounceable food names keep their culture alive, it indicates the food’s origin and the story behind it, perhaps why instead of changing the names. the staff encourages you to write down your order.

Some of the street vendors are women and are ecstatic to see you. They speak to you about their culture and share the stories held dear to their hearts and the importance of different foods in their culture.

Who doesn’t love a good story with some steaming hot momos or a Thukpa?  If you are a vegetarian, you’re in luck! The canteen at the  Drepung Loseling Monastery is a textbook favorite of all and serves hands down the best Thukpa– a noodle soup with a mix of veggies like carrots, cabbage, and spices, basically all vegetables that can be grown on the cold Tibetan plateaus.

This monastery canteen is one of Majnu Ka Tilla’s most serene eateries, and you will find yourself sharing the room with Buddhist monks during their lunch and break hours. You come for the food but stay for the love and warmth they have to offer. ( and even the secret recipes, if you are lucky enough!)

If you’re into fashion you must visit here

Not only foodies, but we even have good news for shopaholics who love a good deal. First copies of shoes and bags of brands like Kanken are displayed at the storefronts and are being sold for only  Rs.1,500 as compared to the 20,000 at Amazon. 

Shopping at Majnu ka Tilla
Shopping at Majnu ka Tilla

When the temperature drops in Delhi, this place is the hot spot to buy all things warm. The pure yak wool shawls are a must-buy to brave through the Delhi winters.  Tiny trinkets from the stall present across the monastery will leave you in awe. The clothing shops are super pocket friendly as the apparel items starting from 350 rs will leave you asking for more.

But it goes beyond fashion and food as one can also find Tibetan artifacts being sold at very reasonable prices, and will bring an aesthetic to your house corners. One may also find the Tibetan people’s sentiments about their homeland on products as the bags read “Free-Tibet”.

Beyond food & fashion and for the soul

All streets lead to a crossroad which is made into an open verandah, where lies a beautiful Buddhist monastery in the heart of this place. You will feel at peace with the chanting prayers, the warm smiles of the monks, and the beautiful color contrasts of the monastery that makes it stand out so much.

The life-size prayer gong is situated right next to the monastery, embellished with prayer symbols and contrasting colors.  You can spend time here sitting peacefully for hours and witness women, children & men of all ages frequenting the monastery at different times of the day.

This would remind some of the Dharamshala and McLeodGanj monasteries. And if you make up your mind to visit these places, good news! You can find bus services that start from Majnu ka Tilla and reach Dharamshala with a scenic view.

Pro tip: if you are a non-vegetarian make sure you don’t visit here on Wednesdays as they don’t cook or serve meat on Wednesdays.

Not only livelihood but culture

This community’s culture is it’s the largest source of sustenance, the food that you will eat here are recipes being passed down from generation to generation.

The prayer flags, bags, and clothing that you will buy are hand woven/ stitched by people who have mastered these skills through ages.

The monastery is their place of solitude where they feel one with their people who have been left behind or lost due to the invasion.  The business that students and tourists bring to this community is helping them preserve their culture and share its joys with other people.

This community is also providing livelihood to migrants from other states you will easily find workers from Odisha or Bihar employed in the stores and restaurants. Although Majnu ka Tilla has dealt a hard blow during the series last year due to the pandemic.

The residents have already started recovering from the economic loss as the colleges reopen and they see more tourists every day. But the marketplace would still take some time to recover from the economic shock, say the shop owners.

Majnu ka Tila from afar might seem like any other settler community but a closer look at the prayer flags, the food, and the language is a constant reminder of the culture.  The settler community has not been recognized by the government which might seem like a failure of their cultural assimilation.

But the local people have accepted their culture and their food. By holding onto what matters, they have flourished in a new space and created a little bit of Tibet in Delhi.

When are you visiting Majnu Ka Tila?

So next time when you are in the mood to do something different, Majnu ka Tilla has to be the place for you.  Till then practice your “Tashi Delek” (Hello in Tibetan) and Thu-chi che (Thank you) for the time you visit Majnu ka Tilla. 

A quick guide on how to reach this happening place: The closest Metro stations are Vishwa Vidyalaya and Vidhan Sabha. From there, an e-rickshaw will take you to Majnu Ka Tilla for Rs 10. The road is a bit narrow and parking facilities are bare minimum so get ready to walk around like a tourist and explore this little ethnic part of town.

( The author: A best-selling fiction author and a food and lifestyle blogger, Karan Puri has been blogging for a decade. His passion to meet new people, discover new places, and penchant for delicious food make him travel to distant places.)

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