Shopping for trinkets and anecdotes

Renowned flautist, Milind Date, rummages through the makeshift street markets of McLeodganj … and finds some emotional cargo. Photos and text by Milind Date.

As tourists from all over the world started pouring into McLeodganj, many things unusual to this, once small, quiet and laid-back Himalayan town happened. Hundreds of hotels and eateries, big and small, opened up. And so did dozens of Yoga and music classes. What bloomed alongside was a big marketplace – with tiny makeshift shops, rickety shelves, and counters that appear in the morning, and disappear before night.

You can find the most interesting things on sale in the McLeodganj market. The focus is mainly on ethnic or traditional trinkets and artefacts. A good chunk of brassware – though made in Uttar Pradesh – is also sold here in big numbers and happens to be a big hit among Western tourists. You are also likely to notice that at least one side of the market is devoted to jewellery – colourful ear and neck pieces made from stones and beads have been in fashion here for years. You could get these in any Indian city, but the quality is said to be better here.

Most Tibetans who run small stalls for food or jewellery move to Chandigarh or some other city in the winter (not many tourists visit McLeodganj during winter). Around March, the shopkeepers are back in full force… as are the tourists!

I have taken to wandering these street markets whenever I can. The random arrangement of the goods in all the stalls made for lovely colourful patterns – some by design, others by accident. While I shop for things to buy for Vinita (my wife), I often chat up the sellers. Most of them are happy to talk and each has a story to tell. The common factor being the journey to India as teenagers, several years ago, and how India supported them. They are generally grateful to India, but not necessarily to everyone that crosses their path. I remember a particular incident from a while ago. I was looking for some nice incense sticks at a tiny stall on the street, when an elderly vendor burst out shouting at a buyer, who had apparently insulted him. The buyer must have really crossed the limit as he quickly disappeared from the scene. I walked up to the upset Tibetan vendor. I couldn’t have missed the tiny teardrop in his eye. He mumbled to himself about being a refugee but still human… and needing respect. The street soon went back to normal as the onlookers lost interest in the incident. I continued chatting with him nevertheless. He soon calmed down. I decided to buy a few things from him and he offered me a good discount. I politely declined: “You talked with me and I am happy for that.”

Of course, in the course of time, I have purchased many necklaces and earrings for Vinita and each time have happily tested all my bargaining skills with the younger sellers – successfully (I think).

When you visit McLeodganj, do set aside some time to visit the marketplace – for the shopping, the bargaining, and the conversations.

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