The Tibetan Buddhist roots of Dharamsala stretch back to the 8th century, although most of the local population long since reverted to (and remains) Hindu. “Dharamsala” literally means an “inn attached to a temple”, and it was so until the district headquarters in Kangra became too crowded and the British moved 2 of their regiments in the late 1840s to what is now Dharamsala. Over the years, this grew to be district headquarters of Kangra, and the very location is now known as the Police Lines.
Dharamsala or Dharmsāla, (literally; “Rest House”) is a town in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Dharamsala is located in the Kangra valley, in the Dhauladhar mountains. It became the capital of the Kangra District in 1852. Dharamsala has been connected with Buddhism for a long time, with many monasteries having been established there in the past. In the 8th century, however, these monasteries are believed to have declined, with Hinduism experiencing a revival. The local Gaddi people are now almost all Hindu.
In 1848, the area was annexed by the British, and a year later, a military garrison was established in the town. Dharamsala eventually became the administrative capital of Kangra District in 1852. It became a popular hill station for the British working in or near Delhi offering a cool respite during the hot summer months. However, the town was virtually destroyed in a massive earthquake in 1905, which killed an estimated 40,000 people. After this, the British moved their summer headquarters to Shimla (also written Simla) which, though not far away, is off the main fault line and, therefore, less likely to experience a serious earthquake.
When the Dalai Lama left Tibet, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru offered to permit him and his followers to establish a “government-in-exile” in Dharamsala. Since that point, many Tibetan exiles have settled in the town, numbering several thousand. Most of these exiles live in Upper Dharamsala, or Mcleod Ganj, where they established temples and schools. The town is sometimes known as “Little Lhasa”, after the Tibetan capital city.
The natural features surrounding the town are extremely beautiful and feature rich forests of pine and deodars. The town is divided between Upper Dharamsala or McLeod Ganj (which retains a British colonial atmosphere), and Lower Dharamsala (the commercial centre). Upper Dharamsala (alt. about 1,700m) is about 9 kms (5.6 miles) from Lower Dharmsala by road and is some 460m (or 1,509ft) higher.
McLeod Ganj, or Upper Dharamsala, is the residence of Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama. A substantial community of Tibetan exiles resides in the town. There is also a beautiful small Anglican church, St. John of the Wilderness, featuring some exceptional stained-glass windows, just a few hundred metres from McLeod Ganj. There are some excellent treks from here to Triund, (3,350m or 10,991ft), Inderhara Pass (4,300m or 14,108ft) and to other beauty spots in the Dhauladhar range.
Lower Dharamsala is at an altitude of 1,400 m, while McLeod Ganj is at around 1,750 m, making them considerably cooler than the plains below. Temperatures in January can dip below freezing, while June can go up to 38°C. The monsoon season from July to September is very wet. Even in March, when the Dalai Lama holds his teachings and the weather down in Delhi is downright balmy, you will still need a heavy winter coat. These can be purchased at reasonable prices in the town.
Gaggal Airport (IATA: DHM) is at Gaggal near Kangra, a distance of 15 km from McLeodganj by road on MDR44 and NH20. Flights are available from New Delhi by air liners as Spice Jet & Air India. Ticket can be booked as cheap as Rs. 2900
Most people come to Dharamsala by bus. It has good connections with other parts of North India, although the journeys are often slow due to the narrow winding roads in the hills.
The main bus terminal is in Lower Dharamsala, but some public HRTC buses to Delhi and Pathankot go all the way to the main square of McLeod Ganj, where you can also book advance tickets for the return trip. Unreserved HRTC buses from Pathankot cost Rs 75 and take 3/4 hours to Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj. Private bus companies are available for travel from Manali, Dehradun and Delhi. Overnight buses operate from Delhi with many leaving from the Tibetan colony of Majnu ka Tilla. These services take upwards of 13 hr and cost from Rs 450 for a basic bus to Rs 1000 for a plusher Volvo.Tickets for Haryana Road Transport Corporation ( HRTC- A State Government body) can be booked online at http://www.hrtc.gov.in/hrtctickets/, 236 km distant from McLeodganj, is a gruelling 8-9 hr trip in an ordinary bus.
When coming to Dharamshala from Pathankot, prefer to sit on the left side of bus to enjoy the valley.
The nearest broad gauge railhead is at Pathankot and the neighboring small station of Chakki Bank, a comfortable overnight journey from Delhi. Train buffs can continue on the very slow and rickety but pretty Kangra Valley Railway to Kangra, a journey that easily takes up to 6 hours and still leaves you 18 km from McLeod Ganj. Many travellers choose to continue by bus or taxi instead. If you do choose to go to Kangra then from the train station then you need to walk and auto rickshaw to the bus stop where buses are available to take you to Dharamsala.
A taxi from Pathankot to a distance of 88 km, takes about 3 hours, and the official fare from Pathankot is Rs 2,500 (return). However the asking rate is always Rs 2,200 and you can negotiate to around Rs 2,000 ( 250 rs is probably charged as a toll ). This is October 2014 rate for a sedan (Dzire ).
Taxis from Delhi are often available leaving from Majnu Ki Tila Tibetan settlement in North Delhi on the ring road. Many people take a taxi to Delhi which takes about 10 hours and pay the return fare simply because they don’t want to deal with the hassle and pain of taking a bus. These taxis need to return to Dharamshala, and many times will sell seats in their car for the same price as a bus ticket. To find these taxis, go to the Majnu Ki Tila Tibetan Settlement Bus Stand and look for taxis which have Himachal Pradesh License plates. You can negotiate with a driver. Often the taxis will leave in the evening and you will arrive in Dharamshala early the next morning.
There are some opportunities to volunteer whilst in Dharamsala. For longer term options such as 1 month or more ask at the Tibet World office near by post office. Staff there are very friendly and always welcoming if people wish to teach, tutor or get involved in conversational classes.
Tibet World Tibet World is a social organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Tibet’s legacy and culture through a variety of programs including. Tibet World is a place you can find everything related Tibet •Education(International Language Classes). Volunteers are needed for English, French, Chinese, and German classes, vocational training, health and environmental awareness education, distribution of clothes and medicine, a community kitchen and many other programs and activities.
McLeod Ganj is a great place for eating, and the town has an abundance of restaurants, especially in the mid to upper range that cater to foreign tourists. The newer among those upscale eateries increasingly tend to offer free wifi connections. Despite the restaurateurs’ claims to the contrary these wifi services are sometimes not fully operative or the connection may be interrupted and hence unsuitable for downloads. At the very least do not allow yourself to be lured into settling down for an extended session at an eating-place solely by their outdoor WiFi signage before first ascertaining the quality of that service.
Dharamsala is a good place to try Tibetan food and beverages.
- Momos – dumplings filled with meat or vegetables, steamed or fried
- Thukpa – a hearty noodle soup with veggies or meat
- Thenthuk – thukpa with handmade noodles
- Pocha – salty tea churned with butter, a Tibetan staple
McLeod Ganj has a wide selection of accommodation, most of which is located close to the main bus stop. Just walk around. It is easy to find somewhere suitable. There are also 2 smaller towns within walking distance, Bhagsu and Dharmakot. They are quieter than McLeod, whose main streets (esp. Bhagsu Rd) suffer from the usual Indian curse of lots of beeping cars/bikes/rickshaws pushing through the streets, and have a wide array of cool places to stay and courses to do.
If you prefer quieter places, a balcony with your room and a splendid view of the valley, choose a hotel on Jogibara road.
For long-term stays, head down the Yongling stairs on Jogiwara Road; there are about a dozen cheap good places down there, with great views.
Golden Temple (Amritsar)
The Golden Temple is the main attraction in the city, and the most important religious place to the Sikhs. It’s a stunning complex, and always full of thousands of pilgrims from all over India, excited to be at a place that they usually only see on television. The excitement to be here is infectious, and many people will be more than happy to tell you all about their religion and customs, and show you around the temple itself. Cover your head, remove your shoes and wander around one of the most amazing places in India. The complex is open almost 24 hours (06:00-02:00 the next day) and is worth visiting twice: once during the day, once at night, when it’s beautifully lit up.
As you arrive near the complex, you will more likely than not be accosted by hawkers trying to sell you bandanna’s to cover your head. It’s not a bad souvenir for INR 10, but there’s also a big barrel of free ones to choose from at the entrance itself. Deposit your shoes at the subterranean building to the left of the entrance, wash your feet at the entrance and head in.
All pictures by the author
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