A Sufi mystic, a Sikh guru and now a bustling Tibetan settlement — the story of North Delhi’s Majnu ka Tilla spans several centuries and faiths. Located close to Delhi University in North Delhi, the area includes New Aruna Nagar and Magazine Road, borrows its name from Majnu ka Tilla gurdwara. Legend goes that Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, visited the area during the reign of Sikander Lodi in 1505. Here, he met a Sufi mystic from Iran, Abdulla, popularly known as Majnu by locals for his eccentricity.
“Majnu was a simple man who meditated and ferried people across the Yamuna. Guru Nanak blessed him and at that spot, the gurdwara exists. Most gurdwaras have been built at places where a Sikh guru visited,” said Dr Swapna Liddle, convener of INTACH.
Since the mystic lived atop a mound or a hillock (tilla) near the Yamuna, the area came to be called Majnu ka Tilla. At the Majnu ka Tilla gurdwara, a “history” board talks about how Guru Nanak and Majnu “heard loud cries one day and found out that a mahout was crying about the death of the emperor’s elephant… Then Guru Nanak ji made the elephant come alive”.
According to Bhai Baljinder Singh Ji, head granthi of the gurdwara, “Sikh military leader Baghel Singh built the gurdwara in 1783 to commemorate Guru Nanak’s stay”. City chronicler and author Rana Safvi shared an archival ASI image of a “tomb and a minar at Majnu ka Tila” dated 1935-41. The head granthi said that in the 1950s, a new gurdwara building was constructed by the sangat.
The urban legend about Majnu ka Tilla being named after star-crossed lovers Laila-Majnu, historians say, is not true.
For decades, Majnu ka Tilla, or MKT as its colloquially known, has been synonymous with the Tibetan settlement near the gurdwara. Popular among college students and tourists, it boasts a range of Tibetan restaurants, a monastery and tiny garment shops.
Its lanes are home to over 365 Tibetan families who have been settled here since the early 1960s. RWA president Kara Dorje said, “Earlier people sold rice beer or chhang here, so the area was also called Chhang Basti, Chhangistan and then Majnu ka Tilla. When Sheila Dikshit was CM, she named it New Aruna Nagar. It felt nice that a Tibetan resettlement colony was given a name but people still call it Majnu ka Tilla. We don’t mind.” Close to New Aruna Nagar is Aruna Nagar, a Punjabi colony of Partition refugees.