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Photo Essay

Tibetan diaries

Print edition : Sep 03, 2022 T+T-

Tibetan diaries

A mother and her child with all their possessions on the road bordering Majnu ka Tilla. A 2012 photograph.

A mother and her child with all their possessions on the road bordering Majnu ka Tilla. A 2012 photograph. | Photo Credit: SERENA CHOPRA

Vignettes from a Tibetan settlement at Majnu ka Tilla in Delhi.

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.

A house in Majnu ka Tilla by night.
A house in Majnu ka Tilla by night. | Photo Credit: Serena Chopra
The temple square is also the centre of social life. Here, children playing in the square, a 2009 photograph.
The temple square is also the centre of social life. Here, children playing in the square, a 2009 photograph. | Photo Credit: udaya Shankar

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.

Thar, Serena Chopra’s first assistant, with a dog in the temple square. A group of Tibetan youths hang out in the background. A 2008 photograph.
Thar, Serena Chopra’s first assistant, with a dog in the temple square. A group of Tibetan youths hang out in the background. A 2008 photograph. | Photo Credit: SERENA CHOPRA
The temple square in Majnu ka Tilla, the centre of its political activity. A 2011 photograph.
The temple square in Majnu ka Tilla, the centre of its political activity. A 2011 photograph. | Photo Credit: udaya Shankar

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.

Also read:Captured in time

A prayer assembly in the renovated Tibetan school in Majnu ka Tilla. A  2015 photograph.
A prayer assembly in the renovated Tibetan school in Majnu ka Tilla. A 2015 photograph. | Photo Credit: SERENA CHOPRA
Rinchen Norzon at home in Majnu ka Tilla. A 2009 photograph.
Rinchen Norzon at home in Majnu ka Tilla. A 2009 photograph. | Photo Credit: SERENA CHOPRA

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.

Inside the home of Donzin, a resident of  Majnu ka Tilla. A 2009 photograph.
Inside the home of Donzin, a resident of Majnu ka Tilla. A 2009 photograph. | Photo Credit: udaya Shankar
Shooting the breeze, Donzin and a friend. A 2009 photograph.
Shooting the breeze, Donzin and a friend. A 2009 photograph. | Photo Credit: Serena Chopra

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.

Also read:Postcards from Khasi hills

An elderly woman saying her evening prayers in Majnu ka Tilla. A 2011 photograph.
An elderly woman saying her evening prayers in Majnu ka Tilla. A 2011 photograph. | Photo Credit: Serena Chopra
Wangdue Tsering of Majnu ka Tilla sports a tattoo reflecting the aspiration for a “free” Tibet.  A 2009 photograph.
Wangdue Tsering of Majnu ka Tilla sports a tattoo reflecting the aspiration for a “free” Tibet. A 2009 photograph. | Photo Credit: Serena Chopra
Serena Chopra
Serena Chopra

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.