The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:2381] Home, away from home.


‘’...When I was in my twenties, I was an ardent follower of the Holy Dalai Lama and wanted to follow his path. However, with the Tibetan uprising of 1959, I had no option but to flee from our country. With the taking over of Tibet by the Chinese Government, our guruji, the great Dalai Lama and several Tibetans fled for their lives and went into exile in India. To accommodate all these refugees,several camps were set up all over India, perhaps the most famous of them being Majnu Ka Tila, here in Aruna Nagar. Originally a point for crossing the Yamuna river, this region later developed into a place for the Sikh community, including the gurudwara (Sikh temple)....Our camp, now mostly known as Majnu ka Tila or Samyeling, was set up in this locality, adjoining the river Yamuna in north-east of Delhi, the capital city of India.The journey has indeed been tough for my family and me. For years, this place has been the abode of Tibetans living in exile. Since then, we, refugees, have been staying along with our children and grandchildren in Majnu ka Tila, or what is also known as Little Tibet...’’

Popo narrated his story to his grandchild Norbu, as they sat in the temple square on one fine Friday afternoon. Norbu had just come back from the Tibetan Children Village school, later than usual, because of the singing rehearsals. The school and locals had been preparing for the upcoming birthday celebrations of guruji, on this 6th of July. The school, a fine building within Majnu Ka Tila, would host the annual celebrations of the Dalai Lama in its small but warmly colored courtyard. Preparations were underway at large scale and everyone was super excited since this day meant a lot to the Tibetans. Along with the veneration, several dance and other performances were also being prepared for the occasion.

Popo and his friends would very often sit in the Gumba square in front of the temples. Evocative of the Tibetan tradition, this open square played a pivotal role in the community and became an important gathering place for the immigrants. At this time of the day, this central space would be filled with residents, who would come for their daily catch up on news with their peers, while simultaneously keeping an eye on their children who loved to play in the square. The central Gumba Square is the most important part of the colony, where the refugee camp had started evolving from. The square houses two temples and two monasteries with the mutual 100 square meters open space as their front court. Towards the North and Eastern side of the square stand the two temples in full magnificence.

The primary building is a mix of a temple on the ground floor and the monastery above. The second temple is only a single storey brick structure. These temples are very intricately detailed with floral motifs and murals depicting Buddha’s Nirvana carved on the temple columns. Both of these are square buildings with a central assembly hall. They house photos of the Dalai Lama and Buddhist Idols. One hundred and eight Prayer Wheels are located around the circumference of the temple. Rotating these wheels is equivalent to orally reciting the prayers, and is commonly used by the locals. There are several benches kept outside the temples and people can be seen sitting there at all times of the day, holding prayer beads in their hands. In comparison, the second monastery is relatively plain with a painted elevation and a very prominent cornice, with simple motifs in red and white.

As Popo was telling his usual stories to Norbu, the latter was trying to convince his mother, also present, to go collect his new clothes from the tailor. However, his mother Tashi was busy serving her famous Laphing to some customers. Norbu’s mother has a fixed spot next to the monastery, where she sells these tofu or soya filled yellow rolls, in hundreds per day. Similar to Tashi, other Tibetan residents also sell traditional dishes like noodles and soup. Several benches have been set up to accommodate visitors. The Gumba square hence not only serves as a space for the residents, but becomes a node in the settlement for the visitors too. Everyone loves to spend time looking around, observing the local life.

Having had a bad cough since a few days, Popo decides to visit the health center, on his way to meeting some friends at the registration office. These institutions all fall within the settlement and are collectively run by the Dalai Lama Trust. A local body, called the Tibetan Welfare Association, has been set up at Majnu Ka Tila to manage the community needs and requirements, which spreads around 60,000 square meters of area. They are responsible for maintenance and functioning of the habitation. Basic amenities such as the school, a health center, and even a Dharamshala (Lodging House) are provided. All these buildings have gateways painted with traditional Tibetan paintings symbolizing the journey of Buddha. All of them are brick constructions with plain stucco walls. What defines them is the use of colorful cornices and lintels in traditional colors of red, white and blue with simple square motifs drawn, symbolizing the traditional eaves that vernacular Tibetan buildings have.

Tashi manages to convince Norbu to go visit his father on his plantations on the river Yamuna bank. He should have time to help Norbu pick up his dress from the tailor. Father Mipham rents a plot of land from the authorities on the river bank, barely a 100 meters away. Norbu jumps on his feet and begins his jog towards the river side. He runs along the narrow alleys. These pathways, barely a meter wide at some places, form an organic web within the settlement. They all eventually connect and lead one to some point. As Norbu crosses the most frequented paths, he encounters many tiny stores that stock traditional Tibetan delicacies and tattoo shops. Several ladies sit along the pathways, selling traditional Chupa (traditional Tibetan dress), pashmina scarves, wooden nick-knacks and even simple things like socks and head caps.

Almost reminiscent of their homeland, narrow lanes and mid rise buildings distinctively mark the building style of Majnu ka Tila. Emerging out of a need to go vertical, most of the buildings are four to five stories high, often with mixed functions. This typology emerged as a need to deal with increasing population and limited availability of land. Buildings located in the mountains are usually very colorful with bright palettes of green, orange, tan, pink etc., to make them eye-catching in case of natural disasters like landslides or earthquakes. While there is no such danger in Delhi, the houses of Majnu ka Tila display a similar trend with a beautiful array of colors painted on the otherwise plain stucco walls. Harsh climatic conditions of their homeland had ended up in development of an vernacular military fortification style of architecture, which has perhaps manifested in similar inward-looking, hard to access buildings in the refugee colony.

However, being an unauthorized colony, high encroachment and lack of municipal control have led to some parts of the settlement developing high density such that sunlight never reaches the lower floors. In the case of Majnu Ka Tila, being sandwiched between the Ring Road and the river, the impossibility to spread on the ground led to buildings growing vertically. Consequently, the closely packed buildings mushroomed up to several storeys. The structures erected barely have any setback from each other and the rooms above face neighboring buildings within two meters. This resulted in narrow meandering roads, that are dimly lit and barely ventilated. The crowded settlement is in constant need of more residential space. As of now, the population density of Majnu Ka Tila is thirty thousand inhabitants per square kilometers, almost seventy times that of New Jersey. Occasionally, different floors within one building are sold off to different users, due to which access has to be given separately from the ground floor. Multiple narrow and steep metallic staircases are constructed in the least space available to meet the requirement of new tenants, post-construction of the main building. Several of these buildings have basements that are permanently rented out commercially, usually as clothing stores.

On his way, Norbu crosses by his house, where he drops his bag. He lives in a simple brick house on the second floor, where the ground floor has been rented out to a shopkeeper and the upper floors have been converted into lodgings. Thw house a simple 40 square meters house. One enters into a large drawing room, where the photo of the Dalai Lama is kept on an ornate wooden altar at the side with several incense sticks burning. The wall behind the altar has stone tiles, a break from the otherwise plain plaster walls. This leads to a bedroom where the family sleeps and an adjoining toilet. There is nothing Tibetan here.

Apart from the residents which range about 400 families of 2000 inhabitants, these lodges accommodate followers of the Dalai Lama on their pilgrimage. To adapt with changing usage, the colony has developed a highly commercial zone; a market, in its center with several Tibetan, Bhutanese and Korean restaurants and shops selling wares, a lot of which are imported from China and Nepal. In order to assure the refugees of their security, the Government of India has made a rule such that only Tibetans can buy property within Majnu ka Tila. This has also led to the development of a highly inclusive colony with a distinct architectural style, because of which the refugees do not want to shift out to better places. The colony remains unauthorized, due to which no one is willing to invest money and improve their living conditions.

Norbu continues his route and eventually reaches the outer road of the settlement that separates the river plains. This road is vehicular accessible only from the Ring Road and is the only space available for Tibetan residents owning a car to park, amidst the clustered area. Otherwise, the settlement is only pedestrian and cycle friendly. After a small boundary wall, there is a constant level drop to the riverbed, where land has been cultivated. He notices his father Mipham ploughing the fertile soil for plantation. Although the land falls into the floodplain zone, the soil is very fertile and is used to grow vegetables like the Bok Choy (Chinese cabbage), mustard and lettuce. These vegetables, an essential to Tibetan Cuisine, are not indigenous to Delhi and are hence grown by the Tibetans themselves. While these floodplains might seem a boon, due to closeness with the Yamuna river, the colony is always in danger of being inundated. In 2013, due to high rainfall levels, several low-lying areas got submerged and family friends of father Mipham had to shift temporarily to relief camps for the same. Even high raised plinths of the buildings did not solve the issue. Because of lack of development norms and high densities, drainage is a problem. The colony’s hard paved roads drain out to the Yamuna river through open rainwater channels that run through the fields.

As soon as Mipham was finished with his work, father and son both started to move towards the opposite end of the colony to reach the foot over bridge. They have to pick up Norbu’s traditional costume, given to the tailor across the road to sew. Even though the roads grew organically, they all eventually lead to the temples and monasteries, before continuing to the exit. They hence cross by the Gumba square and meet mother Tashi before continuing their journey. They notice that the locals have gathered to decorate the temple square for the prayer and birthday celebration. Everyone is helping with dedication since festivals are celebrated with pomp and all the residents come together to pray and meet their relatives and friends at the square. It is one of the most important day of the year, second only to Losar (Tibetan New Year), which is celebrated on the same date as the Chinese New Year.

As they reach the main road, having crossed the threshold gate, they feel the perceptible change in the environment. The otherwise peaceful and quiet atmosphere within the colony is suddenly disturbed with the traffic and congestion of Delhi. They reach for the foot over bridge to cross the road. The bridge, covered with Tibetan multi colored flags, is a landmark that is hard to miss. As they cross, Mipham meets his hawker friends selling vegetables on the bridge while Norbu is mysteriously approached by beggar kids from the nearby settlements. Beggars are usually found on the bridge as they ask for money and food from the visitors coming to visit Majnu Ka Tila. Mipham shoos them away, as they continue their way. Norbu eagerly walks towards the tailor, impatient to see his new costume being sewn for the birthday celebrations.

As they come back walking towards the bridge, Norbu tightly holds the bag containing his new outfit. He is impatient to be wearing it for the performance and celebrations. As they climb the steps to the bridge, father Mipham and Norbu cannot overlook the silhouette of the tall buildings with flags fluttering, as a backdrop to the bridge. Majnu ka Tila is there, with its bright colors and flags dancing in the wind, displaying its unique character and struggle to find a place of its own. These flags symbolize the five elements of nature- land, water, air, fire and sky and are said to spread positive energy. Mipham realizes that through his father and other elders, they will never lose their identity and looking at the excitement on his son’s face for the Holy Dalai Lama’s birthday, his son would never be lost.

While Majnu ka Tila is not where he or Norbu really belong, it is now their home and the birthplace of perhaps even Norbu’s children. India has provided them with enough for some of the locals to even spread their wings and settle in the USA and Canada, where they are actively creating awareness for the plight of their homeland. He is happy that despite living in another country, their community is extremely close-knit and still in sync with its roots. There might be little assurance of their permanence or for how long they will stay. They have been thrown out of their place and are not being accepted in their given area. Unable to return, Little Tibet has now become the home for the refugees. Staying with people of the same background gives them a sense of security, where they can confidently affirm their identity. As of now, Mipham and his family might be happy about where they are, but it is not where they really belong. It is just a home, away from home.

The Gumba Square, where mother Tashi sells traditional Tibetan food.(Source: Author)

Narrow winding corridors and tall buildings. (Source: Author)

Vegetables grown on the floodplains of River Yamuna, with Majnu Ka Tila on the left.(Source: Author)

Tibetan flags,symbolizing peace and hope. (Source: Author)

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