The ‘Scotland of India’ is one of the 80 hill resorts established by the British. It is set elegantly set on the spur of the Dhauladhar range and the snow line easily accessible as compared to other hill resorts. Mcleod Ganj and Gorsyth Ganj, the suburbs of Upper Dharmshala still retain the British flavour, while the Lower Dharmshala is a busy commercial centre. It is also known for beign the headquarters of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and referred as the “Little Lhasa in India”.
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, chose Dharamsala as the capital-in-exile of the Tibetan people after fleeing Chinese oppression in 1959, and whether it’s the endless spinning of Buddhist prayer wheels or simply the divine presence of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan enclave at Dharamsala draws seekers of spiritual enlightenment from all over the world. Admittedly, a visit to Everyman’s spiritual center of the universe seems like the ultimate New Age cliché, but the town and its environs have much more to recommend than the fervent chanting of Om mani padme hum (“Hail to the jewel in the lotus”). The natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and mist-soaked valleys compares favorably with that of any of Himachal’s best-loved resort towns, and for those not single- mindedly wrapped up in a quest for spiritual fine-tuning with Buddhist lectures and meditation courses, this is an ideal base for walks and treks into the Dhauladhar range. It’s also a good place to simply experience a toned-down India at a more leisurely pace. The hillside town stretches along a spur of the Dhauladhar mountain range and is divided into two very distinct parts—Lower Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj (often called Little Lhasa). Only the latter is worth considering as a place to stay and explore; here you will encounter brightly robed Buddhist monks with umbrellas and Doc Marten boots, traditionally attired Tibetan women reciting holy mantras, and spiritual tourists in search of enlightenment. A former British hill station rocked by an earthquake in the early 1900s, McLeod Ganj today harbors several institutes and organizations dedicated to raising funds for the Tibetan people and promoting and preserving Buddhist culture. Among these is the Government-in-Exile’s administration complex, or Gangchen Kyishong, where you’ll find the fascinating Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
If you have the time and want to veer slightly off the beaten track, definitely head southeast of Dharamsala toward the gently undulating tea-covered hills of Kangra Valley. Although it lacks any particular charms of its own, Palampur is a popular starting point for Kangra Valley—but you’ll be better off passing straight through and continuing for 14km (9 miles) to romantic Taragarh Palace, now run as a heritage hotel (reviewed below). Nearby is Tashijong Monastery, a colorful gompa established in the years after the Dalai Lama made his home in Dharamsala. The neighboring town of Baijnath is the site of the beautiful Saivite Vaidyanath Temple complex (Baijnath Main Rd.; daily 5am–9pm in summer and 6am–8pm in winter), one of the more interesting and best-preserved Hindu shrines in Himachal Pradesh, dating back to the early 13th century. Surrounded by a wall decorated by fine carvings, the main temple enshrines a squat Shiva lingam protected by a five-headed metallic cobra; devotees usually cover the lingam with flowers and other offerings.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
It’s possible to drive from Shimla or Chandigarh to Dharamsala, and there are two great overnight options along the way—choose between Taragarh Palace, outside Palampur, or The Judge’s Court, in Pragpur (see later in this chapter). The most pleasant way to get to the Kangra Valley directly from Delhi is by train (driving by car takes almost 12 hr.). The overnight Jammu Mail from Delhi allows you to rest up before hiring a car for the scenic 3-hour road trip from Panthankot to Dharamsala (80km/50 miles). At press time, no flights were operating to Kangra’s Gaggal Airport, 15km (9 miles) from Dharamsala.
Thekchen Chöling Temple Complex
Life in McLeod Ganj revolves around this Buddhist temple complex, linked to the off-limits private residence of the Dalai Lama. A good example of Buddhism’s spiritual and artistic traditions, the complex comprises Namgyal Monastery and Tsuglakhang Temple, both worth a visit if you’re keen to get a sense of active lamaistic practice. You’ll often encounter monks debating in the courtyard or meditatively preparing colorful sand mandalas, diagrams that symbolize the universe and are used in the ritual of spiritual empowerment known as the kalachakra ceremony, after which the meticulous designs are destroyed. The gompa houses various cultural relics brought from Lhasa during the Cultural Revolution, including a 1,500-year-old idol of Guru Padmasambhav, and a life-size image of Avalokiteshvara, of whom the Dalai Lama is believed to be an incarnation. Public appearances by the Dalai Lama occur from time to time; consult the local authorities for information. The complex courtyard is the venue for an all-day festival of traditional dance held in honor of His Holiness’s birthday on July 6, although the Dalai Lama is not always in attendance on this auspicious day. It’s worthwhile to take a break from the prayer wheels and settle in at the tiny, laid-back cafe in the temple complex (which serves primarily as a vocational training opportunity for young Tibetans) to try out the international vegetarian dishes ranging from Indonesian gado-gado to Cuban arro a la cubana. This is a great place for a cup of pure South Indian coffee or Tibetan herbal tea. Snag the window-side table for beautiful views over the valley below.
War memorial (3km)
It lies near the entry point of Dharamshala and was erected in memory of the post independence war heroes of Himachal Pradesh.
Kangra Art Museum
It exhibits rich art and crafts of the Kangra valley.
St John’s Church (7km)
The church on the road between Mcleod Ganj and Forsythe Ganj has a memorial of Lord Elgin, one of the Viceroy’s of India.
Mcleod Ganj (9km)
It is he headquarters of HH the Dalai Lama. Places worth seeing are the Monastery, Tibetan Institute of performing Arts and Tibetan Handicraft Centre. There is a large presence of Tibetan community and Mcleodganj teems with Tibetan restaurants, antique and curio shops.
The beautiful site 2km from Mcleodganj has an old temple and water spring. About 0.5km from here is the spectacular Bhagsunag waterfall.
The pretty lake amidst forest of Deodar is 12km form Mcleodganj.
Dharmshala Tour Information
Chamunda Devi Temple (16km)
The famous temple is on the banks of river Baner with Dhauladhar in the backdrop. On the rear side is sacred Shivalinga.
The historic town set on the confluence of the Bener and Majhi streams, overlooks the torrent of Banganga River. This capital of the Kangra rulers attracted many invaders. It was conquered by the forces of Jahangir in 1620, and was re-captured by Raja Sansar Chand Katoch in the 18th century. Kangra is famous for its temples, fort and paintings.
The fort mostly in ruins with stood the onslaught of the forces of Mahmud of Ghazni and Mughal emperor Jahangir. The earthquake of 1905, almost ravaged the fort. The splendid view from its ramparts is truly awesome.
Brajeshwari Devi Temple
The shrine noted for its legendary wealth was invaded in 1009, by Mahmud of Ghazni. It is said that he looted the rich treasures of the temple. The earthquake of 1905, completely destroyed the shrine and was rebuilt in 1920.
Jwalamukhi Temple (30km)
This unique shrine of Jwalamukhi, the ‘goddess of the flaming mouth’ is one of the most important pilgrim centres of northern India. There is no idol in the shrine and an eternal flame rising from the rocky sanctum is worshipped here. The ‘Shaktipeeth’ is believed to be the site where the tongue of Goddess Sati, the consort of Lord Shiva fell.
Picturesque Palampur set amidst tea plantations and pine trees are endowed with exceptional scenic beauty and bracing climate.
The sacred shrine built in ‘Nagari’ style is dedicated to Lord Shiva as Vaidyanath, the ‘Lord of Physicians’. The Shivalinga enshrined within the sanctum is said to be one of 12 jyotirlingas in India. A large fair is held here on Shivaratri festival.
It is known for an old fort, a temple of Brij Raj and Nurpur shawls. Jahangir named the town after his wife Nurjahan.
The Tibet Museum
If you’d like to learn more about the plight of the Tibetan people, then step into this sophisticated but rather depressing installation that provides a historical overview of the situation in Tibet. A Long Look Homeward, the main exhibition, consists of two parts. The downstairs display highlights the atrocities that have been carried out against millions of Tibetans during the Chinese occupation. Although events are detailed primarily through textual displays, the collection of data is emotionally challenging. Upstairs, the exhibition focuses more on Tibetan history. Particularly moving is the “testimony corner,” where visitors can record the names of loved ones whose deaths are a result of the occupation. Lectures, presentations, and video screenings are presented in the small lecture hall; visit www.thetibetmuseum.org if you’re interested in upcoming events.
If you’re interested in getting a firsthand understanding of the techniques (and unbelievable patience) required to produce authentic Tibetan arts and crafts, the institute is a good starting point. Set in well-tended grounds some 40 minutes from Dharamsala, it comprises workshops, training centers, a temple, a guesthouse, a cafe, and a doll museum. You can contact the management in advance to organize a tour through the facilities, where you can witness the creation of colorful tantric thangkas (embroidered wall hangings), paintings, metalware, furniture, and traditional garments. Tibetan language lessons are available for interested foreigners. The beautiful Seat of Happiness Temple features astounding murals, including impressions of all 14 Dalai Lamas and 1,173 images of the Buddha, which decorate the 13m-high (44-ft.) temple hall. The gilded copper Buddha Shakyamuni was crafted by Norbulingka’s master statue-maker, Pemba Dorje, and is one of the largest of its kind outside Tibet; the arch behind the statue is decorated with sculpted clay images. Head for the richly ornamented temple rooftop for magnificent views of the surrounding landscape. The Institute’s Losel Doll Museum features dioramastyle displays of miniature figures (Tibetan dolls) in traditional costumes and historical regalia.
Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts (TIPA)
One hour from McLeod Ganj is TIPA, one of the first institutes set up by the Dalai Lama when he settled in McLeod Ganj, for the study and preservation of traditional Tibetan opera, dance, and music. Tibetan opera (Lhamo) performances can be long (some last 6 hr.) and are best experienced during the annual 9-day-long Shoton Opera Festival held in February and March (usually in Dharamsala, but in 2005 at the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe, Karnataka). Many other performances are held throughout the year as well, and interested visitors are welcome to watch classes. Ask at your hotel, check bulletin boards in local cafes for announcements, or go to the website for details.
Church Of St. John in the Wilderness
Church Of St. John in the Wilderness Ten minutes of downhill walking from McLeod Ganj brings you to the Church of St. John in the Wilderness, surrounded by deodar cedars. It’s a neo-Gothic stone construction, with its original Belgian stained glass intact in spite of a severe earthquake in 1905 that leveled the rest of town. Buried in the grassy adjoining graveyard is British Viceroy Lord Elgin (whose somewhat infamous father was responsible for the controversial Elgin Marbles).
Dharmshala Distance Guide