"Two and a half millennia after the buddha walked on earth, another walks in his foot steps" - welcome to dharamshala, the land of dalai lama, a charming little town with elegant bungalow. Dharamshala enjoys the unique distinction of being the chosen home of the spiritual and temporal head of the tibetan people.
set against the magnificent backdrop of the towering dhauladhar ranges, which rise up to more than 4000 meters, dharamshala, which literally means the holy refuge, lies perched up on the high slopes in the upper reaches of the kangra valley. Founded in 1855, it is one of the 80 hill resorts developed in the seventeenth century by the british to beat the heat and dust of the sweltering plains.
the colonial origin, the tibetan influence and the kangra air make an invigorating cocktail with a unique blend. Dharamshala stands out amongst the other hill-stations of india. It is also an archetypal getaway for the jaded city souls with thatched cottages nestling amidst thick coniferous forests. As one looks up, the green fringes merge with the snow-clad mountains and as your eyes shift downwards, the vast panorama of the kangra valley embraces you. It is a no holds barred battle of the eye with the scenery and one wonders how much the eyes can behold this quiet rhapsody of the nature.
Is it a tale of two cities? The town is divided in flesh and soul into two halves, each with its own character. The lower dharamshala is the main town at 1250 meters. The upper dharamshala or mcleod ganj from dharamshala by road, it is a 10 kilometers drive, which takes almost the same time as you would, walking up the steep path. The only reason that you would like to visit lower dharamshala would be to see the kangra art museum, which has a treasure trove of the art and crafts of region.
The vestiges of the raj dot the town - foremost is the church of st. John in the wilderness. There is a well-maintained, old graveyard. It reminds one of other old graveyards in hill-stations like mussoorie and shimla. These are perhaps the only peaceful places left in the hustle and bustle of these touristic places and your best bet if you are looking for peace!
cleodganj - the little lhasa is thick with the tibetan cultural feel. It is an altogether different world where the crisp breeze is broken by chanting of the hymns along with the tinkling of the prayer wheels. The place was once full of hippies who have since moved out with the crowds inundating the town. For a research scholar, mcleodganj offers a host of possibilities and to the not-so-scholarly souls, a cultural bonanza awaits.
First lets look at what has mcleodganj got to offer to the hungry palette and then we will look into spiritual stuff! The tibetan run restaurants give you an ample respite from dal, chapatti and rice that you get in most other places. If you are fond of momos, thukpa, and the likes, you have come to the right place. Tsongkha restaurant, yak restaurant, snowland and shangrila are some of the place, which serve excellent food. A constant flow of westerners has brought in its wake a number of restaurants and eateries, which offer the kind of food that is not so commonly available in india.
Abode of the dalai lama
but dharamshala is better known as dalai lama's abode and tibet's government-in-exile after the chinese invasion of lhasa in october 1959. Needless to say, a visit to dharamshala would be considered irreverent without a peek into the various monasteries dotting the hillsides. A visit to the namgyal monastery, ensconcing the center of tibetan studies is nothing short of mandatory. 'Tsuglagkhang', opposite the dalai lama's residence reminds one of lhasa - it contains large gilded bronzes of the buddha, avalokiteswara and padmasambhava.
The other places of interest are the museum at the nechung monastery which is three kilometers downhill on the way to dharamshala and the norbulingka institute which has become a major center of learning. You could see young artists learning thangka painting.
When the dalai lama is in residence, he heads the prayers. For an audience with the dalai lama who is also believed to be the reincarnation of buddha, special permission needs to be taken with a proper request in writing at the security office near hotel tibet. The best time to see his him is after the tibetan new year, which falls in march. The living deity gives spiritual discourses for 10 days.
The hotels and guest houses are all full at this time of the year when dharamshala is at its colorful best. If you really want to savor the place, the best thing to do is to stay at a family run place. Himachal tourism also runs a few comfortable rest houses to suit all budgets.
If one is into meditation, there are a number of classes held by monks for the beginners, as well as advance practitioners. Tushita meditation center is one such outfit, which offers clean residential accommodation as well. There are also a number of alternate medicine doctors in the little town. It is not unusual to find monks from the western countries.
After satisfying your palette and your soul, you could go out for a nice long walk or an arduous trek. Bhagsunath, three kilometers away is an easy option after momos and beer. There is a temple, a spring and also a waterfall. Dal Lake is a major disappointment, as it does no justice to its name. An annual fair is held here in the month of September. It is worthwhile walking up to Naddi, which offers a splendid view of the Dhauladhar ranges. If you are adventurous enough, the Mountaineering Institute can organize treks, rock climbing and rappelling. They normally would like to do this for groups of 10 or above.
However, the best thing about Dharamshala is the easygoing pace, the peaceful expression on everybody's face. It is a place where you would like to do the ordinary things in life, where you would like to let yourself loose and forget about hectic schedules and maddening self imposed deadlines!