Up the sharp, winding stretch leading to the Kangra valley, along a five km stretch
at a height of 4,780 feet above sea level, one comes across a hub of what may be described as the ultimate in street fashion. This is the little pocket where ‘prisoners of conscience’ tailor, cheek-by-jowl with Tibetan escapees and the appointed guardians of the Tibetans in-exile, steeped in the craft of their land. McLeodganj in Dharamsala, also called ‘Little Lhasa’, is that patch on earth where fashion takes a new meaning from shop to shop. As the bus lumbers its way up the valley, one can inevitably find oneself in the company of three kinds of people —the Tibetan monks in their maroon and yellow robes talking on their mobile phones or listening to music on their walkmans; the foreign tourists, mostly Israelis and Japanese, with their backpacks, dressed in capris or jeans teamed with kurtis or t-shirts, an ‘Om’ emblazoned on the scarf or stole wrapped around the neck; and of course, the increasingly ubiquitous domestic tourist —either noisy college goers from Delhi in their branded shoes and cheap t-shirts, or Bengali families with trademark monkey caps worn by the males and children, and women in tangails or silks, accompanied by the unmistakable tinkle of the shakha-pola (red and white bangles) that marks their married status.

Get off at the bus stand, and the eyes notice two parallel streets running around a Buddhist temple. Endless stores — mostly emporia, handicraft centres and fashion outlets lined up on either sides, rubbing shoulders with momo kiosks and colourful restaurants serving everything from Israeli to Punjabi cuisine. Quite like the company in the bus, people of all hues and race come to McLeodganj and add to the richness of its cosmopolitan culture and fashion. Young Tibetans are clearly in awe of trends that blow in from the West. Whether it is the market place or the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, youngsters are much at ease in their jeans and tees. Don’t be surprised if a Tibetan girl strolls down the street, a shovel on one shoulder and a chic looking bag on the other. More than 50 years in exile, Tibetans have opened up to change, and fashion definitely features high on their priority list. And, in tune with the winds of change is the move to hold beauty pageants each year. Started in 2002 by a young entrepreneur Lobsang Wangyal, the Miss Tibet contest is seen as an important chapter in the Tibetans’ entry into modernity. “There were murmurs of protest from some quarters of the society, but
people now realise that we have to move with modern times to survive. Younger generations respect their tradition, and yet love the modern fashion,” says Wangyal.

The market at McLeodganj is a shopping haven for tourists. While it may not offer the
existing popular brands, the collection of handicraft is amazing. Some may find the
pricing prohibitive, but for tourists like Marie Naudascher from Paris, it’s cheaper here than in her country. “I bought three knitted slippers and three chapka (fur cap with flaps) at prices much less than home. The best part is that I know what I have is authentic,” she smiles. The streets here are a riot of colours. From the dominant Tibetan hues of red and yellow to the simple blue jeans, from floral patterns on chupaas (the Tibetan traditional dress) to multicoloured bangles, from plain red t-shirt to striped scarf in red and blue — the place captivates the visitor’s sartorial senses. Traditional Tibetan prints, signs and symbols are a rage with the tourists. Almost all of the handicraft-cum-fashion outlets store some or the other form of the traditional Thangkas (pronounced ‘tong-ka’), which is a piece of handpainted silk with amazingly intricate designs of deities and scenes from the Buddhist faith. Fabric thangkas, mostly made of silk, some woven, some embroidered, and others made using a technique similar to appliqué, goes back many centuries in Tibet. The appliqué artists at Norbulingka Institute of Tibetan Culture (NITC) structure hundreds of handcut pieces of silk and brocade for their elaborate creations, which often take months. Skilled at creating and painting thangka, they are equally adept at woodcarving and carpentry, sewing and clothes making. Jamyang Nyima is a stitching instructor at NITC. He learnt his craft from the tailors of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. After escaping to India, he taught his skills to others escapees. “Clothing for Tibetans has changed. It’s much warmer here which requires a major change in dressing styles. However the basic design has stayed the same,” he claims. As more and more Tibetans pick up western fashion, traditional wear like chupaa is limited to festivities. Nyima says foreigners are more interested in Tibetan fashion and culture than the locals.

From sleeveless blouses to dragon-print shirts, belts, waistcoats and Chinese shirts –
there is an impressive variety of Tibetan dresses to pick up from at the Norbilingka
showroom. The prices begin at Rs. 1500 and can go up to Rs. 50,000. For something more affordable, one should visit the Tibetan Handicraft Centre in the main market at the
end of those parallel streets. There is also a small tailoring unit where one can find ready-to-wear Tibetan shirts for as less as Rs 220. There is also the option to select the fabric of
choice and get a made-to-order customised dress. Not shirts alone, they also sell chupaas,
chapka hats, shawls and even Tibetan flags. Across the street from the tailoring unit, lies
the main showroom of the Tibetan Handicraft Centre, selling almost every kind of handicraft —from carpets to bags, from incense to lamps. The price again is affordable and genuine. A few metres away on the other lane stands the store of the Tibetan Children’s Village. Children who are unable to study further are taught skills like tailoring and designing, and the products they make are sold in this store.
For Tibetans, fashion is not just about preservation, it is also about economic empowerment. That is one reason why a number of organisations, like the Tibetan Children’s Village, have chosen this route. Another such group is Stitches of Tibet. Started by the Tibetan Women’s Association in 1995, the organisation helps unskilled Tibetan women, most of them recent escapees, to become self-reliant. The range of traditional and modern Tibetan garments and handicraft that are produced during the training period are sold at the Stitches of Tibet store. Another organisation, the Gu-Chu-Sum movement of Tibet, was formed by former prisoners settled here. They began with a small tailoring unit, and later got associated with Tibetan Collection, a wholesale trading company that promotes Tibetan handicraft and garments in India and the USA.
Situated right in the heart of India, this undoubtedly is a unique retail market. One can only hope it retains the flavour of the land even as the winds blow in from across the mountains.