Located in the beautiful Himalayas and rich in Tibetan culture, the refugee colony of Dharamsala has been home to the exiled Dalai Lama since 1959. Indeed, it’s not surprising that it holds such great appeal to the spiritual seekers, hippies and tourists who are drawn to this remarkable destination.
We went to Dharamsala a couple of years back and we enjoyed its laidback vibe so much, that we lingered much longer than anticipated. Our choice of accomodation was the Greenwoods Inn, close to the hippie village of Dharamkot. We had views of the mountains and watched eagles flying over the valley below. The guys at the hotel were really kind and helpful. Even budget hotels in India have room service and the Greenwoods Inn was no exception. We relied on it a lot while we were there as we were both recovering from a bout of Delhi Belly, and the food was good.
Dharamkot is a tiny village with just one path cutting through it and is lined with cafes, guest houses and yoga schools. It’s the kind of place that travellers stay for months on end and it’s easy to understand why – the views are spectacular.
A Flavour of Tibet
The town of McLeod Ganj is the main attraction. The narrow streets are lined with cafes, Buddhist bookshops and stalls selling Tibetan crafts. In fact, a meander through town feels more akin to walking the streets of Lhasa than India.
Monks mingle with dreadlocked backpackers. Prayer flags flutter in the breeze and cows wander past coffee shops. Meanwhile, traders attempt to entice passers-by into their laden stores. It is here that the Dalai Lama himself lives, in a modest residence behind Tsuk Lakhang Temple.
No visit to McLeod Ganj is complete without a walk around the temple complex. Although the building itself isn’t particularly inspiring, it nevertheless provides an opportunity to experience something that is unique to Tibetan Buddhism. Every day in the courtyard, monks gather to hold surprisingly lively debates.
Usually working in pairs, one of the monks sits (the defender) while the other one stands (the questioner). There is much gesticulating and single hand claps are used to emphasise a point. It’s absorbing to watch and although it occasionally appears to be a fierce exchange, it is done in good humour as can be seen by the frequent smiles on the monk’s faces.
A large gold Buddha sits in the temple on the first floor. Bare-footed pilgrims pay their respects and spin the prayer-wheels, walking in a clock-wise direction. The Dalai Lama no longer conducts public audiences, but if you are really lucky you may be able to catch one of his rare public teachings.
The Tibetan Museum
The Tibetan Museum offers an important reminder of the horrendous plight that the Tibetan people have endured at the hands of the Chinese invaders. The story is told via exhibits in words and pictures. There are some fascinating photographs, including one of the Dalai Lama arriving in India on horseback in 1959. Although it’s a simple museum, it is nevertheless very poignant and thought-provoking.
A magnet for those seeking spiritual enlightenment and well-being, there are consequently numerous courses available in Dharamsala. Whether you are interested in ayurvedic massage, yoga, meditation or the study of Buddhism, you will find what you are looking for. As a matter of fact, many of the retreats are hidden away in tranquil areas of the forest. The Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre and Tushita Meditation Centre both have a very good reputation.
The Culture of Tibet
About twelve miles from McLeod Ganj, The Norbulingka Institute is an oasis of serenity. Dedicated to preserving the art and culture of Tibet, the complex consists of traditional style buildings. Additionally, there is a temple, doll museum and various workshops to explore. The Japanese-style gardens are a pleasure to wander around, and there is a lovely restaurant with indoor and outside seating.
For those who enjoy a walk in the mountains, there are a variety of treks from the overnight Triund to the six-day hike across the challenging Bhimghasutri Pass. Indeed, there are numerous trekking companies in town which can provide guides and equipment.
If your idea of fun is more a stroll than a major hike, the trail to Bhagsu Waterfall only takes about twenty minutes. The route has several cafes, many providing an ideal spot to sit and take in the view of the mountains. Alternatively, you can head down to the stream, where there are plenty of waterholes in which to take a refreshing dip. Afterwards, soak up the rays from one of the large rocks at the water’s edge. Bhagsu, situated in the valley is a popular spot with Indian tourists.
A Fascinating Destination
Whether or not you are a spiritual seeker, Dharamsala is, in fact, a culturally fascinating, yet chilled destination. In fact, it’s a place that invites visitors to slow down, enjoy the fresh mountain air and soak up the its unique Himalayan vibe.