DHARMSALA – THE LAND OF LAMAS
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 bungalows. 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 metres, 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 metres. The upper Dharamshala or McLeodGanj is three kilometres away and 500 metres higher. To get to McLeodGanj from Dharamshala by road, it is a 10 kilometres 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 the 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!
McLeodGanj - 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. McLeoclGani not-so-scholarly souls, a cultural bonanza awaits.
First lets look at what hasMcLeodGanj 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 inmost 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 places 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. Richard Gere’s favourite is the Cafe Shambala! 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 hill sides.
Whether one believes as much as the Hollywood icon Richard Gere does in Buddhism and Dalai Lama (his moving speech at the Oscar awards night a couple of years ago not withstanding), a visit to at the Namgyal Monastery, ensconcing the Centre 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 kilometres downhill on the way to Dharamshala and the Norbulingka Institute which has become a major centre of learning. You could see young artists learning Thangka Painting.
The hotels and guest houses are all full at this time of the year when Dharamshala is at its colourful best. If you really want to savour 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.
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