INDIA. Mcleodganj: With less than seven million speakers of the various dialects of the Tibetan language, the chances that you know what “Woeser” means in Tibetan is remote. A trip to the charming small town of Mcleodganj is incomplete without a visit to the top-rated cafe, Woeser Bakery, which means “rays of light” in Tibetan. Located close to the central square on Jogiwara Road on the first floor of a commercial complex, it offers a breath-taking view of the snow-capped peaks of the Dauladhar mountain range. While the tarts and cakes sold here have an iconic status, it is the journey of the founder that is very inspiring.
Tendill Sangmo, the founder of Woeser Bakery is now a middle-aged petite woman, always smiling masking her spectacular journey to entrepreneurship. Unsure where she was born, her earliest memories are of growing up in Uttarakhand. Born in a traditional Tibetan family, her family does not recall her date of birth and get visibly agitated on being asked about it. She recalls a day when she saw flowers in full bloom and was so enthralled that she adopted that day, 25th April as her birthday. Three unsuccessful attempts at obtaining a high school certificate were just the start of her tumultuous journey.
Escaped from horrors
Married to a person ten years older, at the age of twenty against her wishes, she endured a philandering husband addicted to every kind of mind-expanding substance. Two years of the most horrendous physical and mental abuse, she could take it no more and decided to run away. But not before she had called a family meeting and recounted her trauma. Ironically, she got support from everyone except her mother. She had to leave her baby daughter behind as she escaped from her horrors. Life had dealt her a cruel blow and multiple failed attempts at suicide made her come around to the view that may be a different life calling awaited her. She recalls thinking, “Sangmo, you have tried many times to kill yourself, now let’s give you a chance to live”.
With just Rs 500 and an earring she ran as far as Darjeeling. Helped by a monk she made her way back to Uttarakhand doing odd jobs. A failed reconciliation with her husband and she went through a brutal divorce proceeding. She became the first woman to divorce her husband in her community and endure life as a single mother in an ultra-orthodox community. There were times where she describes living hand to mouth like a beggar with a two-year-old daughter to support.
Sangmo moved to Dharmashala in 2009 to start afresh. Her excellent spoken and written English made her apply for the job of a kindergarten teacher in Dharmashala. She got the job but her Korean boss instead put her in charge of her cafe as she could converse with tourists in English. Her defining moment came when she tried to bake a lemon tart at the café, only for the owner to spit it out in disgust as she had burnt the dish completely. Her boss put her two hands together and urged her, “Sangmo please never bake anything in your life”. This public humiliation in front of customers and the staff was her moment of truth that kindled a deep desire to prove herself. Three years of self-learning resulted in a day when the same boss exclaimed she had never eaten a better brownie in her life including the ones she baked herself.
In 2012, against all advice from her family and friends, she took a loan of Indian Rupees Two Lacs, and coupled with her hard-earned savings of One Lac Rupees, she opened a small cafe. She chose a basement for her cafe, something everyone warned her as a location doomed to fail. Within six months, the leading national and international travel sites had her bakery as the number one cafe and a must-visit destination in Mcleodganj.
Baking special cakes
Then started an experiment that became an annual ritual. In 2016, she started baking special cakes on the birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and gifting it to him. This led to another moment to cherish in 2019 when His Holiness so enjoyed the walnut tart that was presented on his 85th birthday that he served it personally to some of his assembled guests, who had come to wish him and seek his blessings.
Not one to sit on her laurels, she repaid the loan over the years and relocated the café to its present location with a view of the snow-capped mountains with a fresh loan. Deeply passionate she explains the logo of her bakery that has a Tibetan mother wearing a traditional cap and apron, “Pangden.” She has been trying to get the community to learn baking and plans to start classes with the support of the Tibetan government in exile. To prepare herself to be a better teacher in her self-taught field, she spent a fortune traveling up and own to Delhi to learn the finer aspects of cake design and other refinements.
A firm believer in the right to education, she now spends time and money supporting children in schools who need books and equipment. In a community ravaged by the enduring trauma of living in exile, Sangmo is a beacon of hope to the women in her community apart from the youth in general. A role model that has set up a world-class business defined by her obsession for quality and her customer’s wellbeing.