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A new backpacker ghetto in town.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
A Tibetan refugee camp since the 1960s, Majnu ka Teela is emerging as the new Paharganj.
This is odd. Unlike Delhi's original backpacker paradise, it flaunts no Hebrew graffiti or German bakeries. Here wrinkled momolas, and not Nigerian hash addicts, kill time sitting on pavement benches. Chummy uncles drink butter tea, not masala chai. CD shacks play Phurbu T Namgyal, not Ravi Shankar. While rosy-cheeked boys, fresh from Lhasa, smoke Marlboros in street corners.
MT, as locals refer to it, used to be a popular dormitory neighborhood for Tibetan travellers. These were refugees settled in India or new arrivals from 'home', visiting the city. However, a noticeable number of western backpackers have now started patronising it. "It started around 5 years ago. Today one in every three is a foreigner," says Tenzing, who works in a travel agency and would only give her first name.
Whether its due to the hip appeal of Dalai Lama (smiling on every wall), the pull of Free Tibet romanticism, or Richard Gere's sex appeal, more and more white faces are to be seen in MT's sunless alleys transforming it into the new Paharganj.
The new edition is neater than the original. No filth, no stink, no Kashmiri touts, no stoned hippies. "We don't welcome those kind of backpackers," says Lobsang, who runs the popular Dolma restaurant which warns on its menu that the "consumption of alcohol is restricted".
In fact, most westerners who put up here are sober tourists, almost half-Buddhist. They gladly ditch Paharganj's hippie-cow chaos for the pop spirituality of MT-- bookshops selling Buddhist prayer booklets and Tibetan-language newspapers; monasteries mystified with incense smoke and Om Mani Padme chants.
These backpackers skip trance trips to Goa for the pilgrim tours of Dharamshala, Sarnath, and Bodh Gaya (there are daily bus services to Dharamshala from here). Their tribe is increasing. The challenge is to earn Paharganj-isque profit and yet retain the MT-isque individuality.
Om Mani Padme Hum
Game over - Paharganj's touts & hippies