From 2007 until 2015, I navigated through Majnu ka Tilla, a Tibetan refugee neighbourhood in Delhi, conversing and building relationships with its inhabitants, for whom this place has been home after their exodus from Tibet in 1959.
Until 1959, the Dalai Lama, who heads the Dge-lugs-pa (Yellow Hat) order of Tibetan Buddhists, was not only the spiritual leader of Tibetans but also perceived by many Tibetans to be their ruler. He had been designated as the 14th Dalai Lama in 1937 when he was two years old, and became head of state in 1950. Ironically, that was also the year when Chinese forces occupied Tibet. After an unsuccessful revolt against the Chinese in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India, with about 80,000 Tibetans following in his wake.
When he entered India near Tawang on March 31, 1959, he was provided military protection and escorted to Mussoorie where Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru welcomed him and formally offered him asylum. The Dalai Lama set up a government-in-exile in Dharmshala in Himachal Pradesh; he stepped down in 2011.
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As I sought to understand the complexities of identity, nationhood and faith with the people who reside in Majnu ka Tilla, I maintained a diary. Slowly the portraits of the people found themselves on the pages of the diary, and they became authors of the diaries too when they shared their words and writing on the same pages.
This work was collated into a photo book that was released recently titled Majnu ka Tilla Diaries. The book contains some of the voices that shaped my relationship with the community and replicates the diaries created over the eight years of visiting Majnu ka Tilla.
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Serena Chopra is a Delhi-based photographer whose first body of work, Bhutan, A Certain Modernity, was exhibited in New York, Thimphu and across India. She has held recent exhibitions at FotoFest Biennial, Houston, Harvard Art Museums, Boston, and the Partition Museum, Amritsar.