Mission Delhi -Leden, Majnu ka Tila
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Namaste ji. Better still, say Tashi delek, for Leden is a bashinda of the Tibetan enclave of Majnu Ka Tila (MT). “Guruji” Leden is the most senior tailor of traditional Tibetan costumes in the entire Delhi, and owns one of very few shops in the capital region showcasing these dresses. He also teaches the tailoring of these finely finished elaborate outfits to Tibetans as well as Indians, for free.
“These dresses are a part of our (Tibetan) culture, I must pass on my knowledge to the new generation,” he says, his forehead furrowing. “I want to help youngsters to be independent, to build their own businesses.”
This slow-moving afternoon, Leden is in his showroom, discreetly watching a densely tattooed foreign backpacker browse the dresses, each toethung (shirt) paired with its chuba (gown) and kera (sash). Shop manager, the gentle Sonam Yangtso (partially pictured with Leden), informs that only few other such “studios” exist in MT, like Norgyal, Norwang and Tringkar. Their owners/tailors too trained under Guruji, she adds. Leden shrugs as if saying, guilty!
Picking up a violet ensemble, he holds its long sleeve, his penetrative gaze running unblinking across the woollen fabric. “Chuba comes in many versions, this one is khampa.”
At this hour, MT’s many cafés and restaurants are packed with the North Campus students of nearby Delhi University. And with young Tibetans, too. Hardly anyone is in such a garb. Neither is Leden. “Delhi’s weather is too warm… we wear these on special occasions.”
In his 50s, Leden spent the first 30 years of his life in his village in Kham Dege, “amid mountains, forests, sheep, yaks, goats… father was a nomad… in the summer, flowers everywhere; in the winter, all is snow…. And our air so clean, so fresh—O my God!” Guruji himself didn’t learn tailoring from any Guruji. Since his village was far from any market town, the family clothes would be seamed and hemmed within the family and “I picked up the skills at home.”
As is inevitable, the casual chitchat eventually touches on Delhi’s toxic air, prompting the obvious question. Why leave a pollution-free village in the pristine high-altitude Tibetan plateau for this smoggy city of the plains? “To live in freedom,” Leden answers matter-of-factly. “Our country is occupied by China.“
[This is the 538th portrait of Mission Delhi project]