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Little Lhasa on the tilla

December 8, 2010

By: Daipayan Halder
Date: 2010-12-06

Beyond Delhi's Punjabi exterior lies a piece of Tibet. This is where butter tea mixes well with instant nirvana, finds Daipayan Halder

With his spiked hair, casual tee and boxers, Lobsong Dolma, 29, looks a little out of place below an imposing portrait of the Dalai Lama. He looks the kind that would rather groove to Pentse's Tibetan pop than carry the weight of Hollywood's favourite burden on his lanky shoulders. But Dolma says he does both.

It's a dimly-lit room and though it's the middle of the day outside, inside, it looks as if the sun is about to go down. This play of light and dark extends right through Majnu ka Tilla, Delhi's mini Tibet, situated on the right bank of the Yamuna on GT Road. It attracts all kinds from foreigners looking for eastern solace to students from the city's elite colleges taking Momo breaks.

And Dolma House, where Lobsong spends much of his time, is one of the biggest draws.

Mutton Curry for the soul
It was his mother, Tsering Dolma, who opened the now-iconic Dolma House 29 years ago to sell Mutton Curry to refugees from Tibet. Hers was the first building (House no. 1) to come up in the new camp of this north Delhi colony that the refugees later made their own.

To make a living, Tsering opened a hole-in-the-wall eatery that, strangely, didn't sell Momos, but Indian Mutton Curry, since the ingredients were readily available. "So, mamma started selling the Curry and rice to Tibetans seeking a new life and livelihood," says Lobsong.

Such stories are part of the folklore that the restaurant serves its trivia-hungry clients, along with a big flask of Tibetan Butter Tea and Tibetan bread that comes for less than Rs 60.

And if the lazy evening
chatter drags until dinner time, there are more than just Momos to satiate you. For a taste of real Tibet, try the Sliced Lamb Chilli Gravy with Tingms (Tibetan steamed bread). The more adventurous should pick fried or steamed Chelay (beef tongue; a Tibetan delicacy) while listening to rosy-cheeked monks on the next table
pontificate on the concept of "dukkha" (grief).

Eat, pray, ponder
No lessons in molecular gastronomy here, but food is the main draw at Majnu ka Tilla. Want authentic Tibetan without scrimping on the air-conditioning? Check out A-ma, which opened three years ago and caters mainly to foreigners looking for authentic food sans nostalgia. The d ©cor is like any middle-rung Chinese joint in the capital, but the food is more Lhasa than Lajpat Nagar. The Sha Bhaklef (momos stuffed with beef) and Gyuma (Tibetan sausages) can even make the Chinese more forgiving!

The Coffee Shop close by is for the university crowd. For regulars like Aashish Raheja, 20, the black coffee and the fruit cake is a relief "from the unpalatable canteen food", and the solitude is perfect for going online on his MacBook. It's more intimate and affordable than Barista and CCD, and regulars want it to remain that way.

Food apart, Majnu ka Tilla is also a perfect setting for a lazy stroll on a chilly winter evening, away from the bustle of a busy city. Browse through Tibetan pop CDs, drive a hard bargain for a traditional wall hanging or visit the monastery at the principal square to hear the chanting - time here is well wasted. For a feel of faraway Mcleodganj in the heart of Delhi, there's no place like Majnu ka Tilla.

Smiling Buddha, angry Lama
Buddha and the devout Dalai Lama smile down upon you from everywhere - on T-shirts, bronze and silver busts in curio shops, attached to lockets, chains and trinkets, and on silk and brocade Thangkas. But be careful of clicking monks if they are with gullible foreigners. It's easy to make a quick dollar selling spiritual solace here, but nosiness is not encouraged.

That, though is a minor hiccup in an otherwise unusual experience in a corner of the city where the mundane effortlessly mixes with the magical.

Getting there
From New Delhi railway station, Majnu ka Tilla is 9 km away.

Where to stay: There are quite a few hotels with fancy names here. Sample this: White House, Potola House, Ga-khyil House. And they are absurdly cheap. But if you are not a Buddhist firang, you would do better to stay somewhere else. The monastery does the bookings in most cases and has strict rules.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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