In all these centuries, in all its reincarnations, Dharamsala, or the Pilgrims Rest House, has unfailingly lived up to its name, welcoming tired travellers in search of spiritual bliss providing a brief, noisy, colourful, hectic respite before the snow-clad Dhauladhar Range beckoned them onwards.
It was the pilgrims' last temptation a final backward glance at all the pleasures they would forgo for the hard climb ahead. But somewhere along the way, in less than 40 years, it has reinvented itself from halting station to destination this is the end of the journey.
Dense rows of brightly lit hotels with their fake Lhasa rooftops and bazaars now seem to dwarf the giant deodar pines and oaks that split it into upper and lower towns, perched like a spiritual Las Vegas on a spur of the Himalaya. And the town especially the upper half, better known as McLeodganj is still celebrating its total conquest of the pilgrims soul.
The upper reaches of the Kangra Valley are a curious mish-mash of cultures Tibetan and Kashmiri curio shops, pizza shacks vying with alu chaat and tandoori dhabas, Tibetan hippies and American monks, prayer gongs and Hindi film songs, quaint English and Jalandhar mod. And dominating it all, as pristine as in its original home on the other side of the Himalaya, a brand new Lhasa --- Dalai Lama, summer palace, temple, monasteries, and all.
The British first discovered the little hill station 150 years ago, when they were searching for a suitable place in the district to which they could shift their civil administration and cantonment. McLeodganj, at that time, was a dozen or so scattered English homes, each perched precariously on the ridge above the cantonment for the best view of the spectacular snow-capped Dhauladhars. These sturdy wooden country houses preserved their very English privacy behind walls of giant deodar pines and rolling green lawns. All roads led at that time to Nowrojee & Sons.
Established in 1860, five years after the British administration shifted here, this three-storey, glass-fronted kirana shop of the Raj Cantonment still stands where it was, balefully watching over the towns transformation. Business began to dwindle when the British shifted themselves and their offices to Lower Dharamsala, after the devastating earthquake of 1905. But the Nowrojees battled on, keeping the shop going on --- the few pensioners and missionaries and the odd summer visitor, selling everything from newspapers and medicines to arms and ammunition, even running their own dak service until India's Independence drove even these few customers away.
It was the customer-starved Nauzer Nowrojee, an eccentric who ruled over the family shop for 63 years, the inspiration behind the unbending shopkeeper in Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance who, in 1960, persuaded the exiled Dalai Lama to settle down here. Fleeing from the Chinese, his people dying in the heat and dust of the Indian plains, the 14th Dalai Lama found the perfect refuge in this little pine-covered spur of the mountains, with snow peaks round the corner. From the day the Dalai Lama stepped into his temporary home --- the abandoned summer mansion of one of Lahore's gentry, Rai Bahadur Gopal Das --- that is now the Indian Mountaineering Institute, McLeodganj has never looked back.
In a little over a decade, McLeodganj was transformed from a decaying Raj district town into the thriving Little Lhasa of India. The meagre years saw it growing with the Dalai Lama's snowballing fame from a one-shop-town into a cosmopolitan centre where serious Buddhist scholars and the Dalai Lama's international admirers rub shoulders with backpackers in search of New-Age entertainment.
Nauzer Nowrojee lived to regret his invitation to the Dalai Lama, complaining in an interview, given before he died, of his beloved McLeodganj becoming a victim of its own success, railing against the filth and noise and pollution. But the victim is showing no signs of collapse as yet, rising maniacally upwards by the day, defying nature, space and all rules of traffic and architecture.
But that was never the intention of either the Dalai Lama or his government-in-exile. In fact, the real nerve centre of the town, the Dalai Lama's residence, with his private office and temple, is so unobtrusive that it blends effortlessly into the landscape.
True to the Dalai Lama's principles of not disturbing the natural vegetation, the elegant two-storey temple, called Tsuglhakhang, with its large square overlooking his palace --- really a modest cottage where he lives with his beloved cats and flowers --- was built without chopping a single tree. The temple rests, in fact, on some unusual columns, trunks of deodars which are still growing, protected by adjustable iron rings. The prominent image here is a gilded Buddha, rising 9 feet from a lotus seat.
To its right, facing in the direction of Tibet, are 12-foot gilded images of the Padmasambhava and Avalokiteshvara (the Bodhisattva of Compassion). The temple is said to be a replica of the original Tsuglakhang, the main temple in Lhasa, lovingly carved by exiled Tibetan craftsmen.
But at least one of the images, the 11-headed Avalokiteshvara, dates back to the 7th century CE, when the famous King Songtsen Gompa, first installed it in the temple at Lhasa. When the Chinese ransacked the temple, pious Tibetans recovered parts of the battered face from the streets and smuggled it into India (via Nepal) in 1967. These bits were then incorporated into the new image, consecrated in 1970.
Between the two statues is a wooden pulpit from where the Dalai Lama delivers his sermons to the thousands assembled in the square outside. For the religiously inclined, a trip to the Dalai Lama's own temple is the first and last stop of the day. But even for the non-religious traveller, the temple represents a blessed haven from the traffic and hawkers.
Stand at any corner and prepare to be dazzled by the most breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. Sunset is also the hour when the monks of the old Namgyal Monastery (Phone: 01892-221492), which conducts the many rituals and prayers that the Dalai Lama performs, step into the square to practise on their long, narrow collapsible brass trumpets. No tourists or photography is permitted inside the monastery,
In contrast to the understated charm of the temple, the Namgyaima Stupa with its rows of prayer wheels, is as loud and colourful as the marketplace in which it stands. The stupa is a memorial of the Tibetans who died fighting in their homeland. Built in a hybrid Indo-Tibetan style, it soars defiantly upwards.
Theatre, in the form of the traditional opera, is big in Tibetan culture. When the 80,000 Tibetans who fled with the Dalai Lama, first landed here in 1959, opera was the last thing on their mind, however. But the Dalai Lama, certain that this unique performing art would disappear unless they took immediate steps to preserve it, insisted on setting up TIPA, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, within four months of their arrival.
An old carpenter, the only man among the refugees able to make the pivotal musical instrument for the opera, the draynen (a cross between a violin and guitar), was put to work teaching others his skill. Those who could sing or dance or design the hundreds of costumes and shoes that go into a production volunteered.
Within a decade, TIPA became the centre of not only the Tibetans social life but of the town as well, attracting hundreds of avid fans to its annual 10-day Shoton Festival. The festival includes performances by TIPA. The high-pitched singing accompanied by drums, cymbals, splendid costumes and a wealth of oddly appealing characters including witches, kings, wise men and fools, dakinis and yogis make for an unforgettable experience.
For more information, contact: The Secretary, TIPA, PO McLeodganj, Dharamsala, Phone: 01892-221478
Legend has it that a king who went to bathe in the sacred Manimahesh Lake, below the Kailash Mountain, lost his gold ring. The ring then resurfaced in the Dal Lake, which was then considered the poor man's Manimahesh. Those who couldn't afford to go to Kailash got their salvation by bathing in this conveniently located water body. However, old-timers say that the old Dal was a different lake altogether, with blue-green water so deep that you could go boating on it.
What remains now is no more than a pond, thanks to the attempts of the Indian Army to widen it. Nonetheless, the lake is sacred to locals and teeming with goldfish, and many come to feed them. It's a beautiful walk (about 2 kms) to the lake from the town, though you can also drive. Ask a local to direct you to the jungle trail to Dal Lake from McLeodganj.
The Bhagsunag shrine, as old as the Dal Lake, if not older, though local lore puts its age at 10,000 years, is a short distance from town. The shrine, whose origin revolves around a myth about agreat fight between the demon king (Bhagsu) and the snake god (Nag), has been rebuilt more than once and, in its present incarnation, is covered in white bathroom tiles.
But there is something about Bhagsunag, with its ceaseless efforts to grasp the new --- the overgrowth of shacks, proclaiming Indo Crafts or Cafe Sea Breeze, snorkelled boys jumping into the tanks, a young Tibetan joining them, humming, Sexy, sexy mujhe log bole, as a group of monks, their faces giving away nothing, watch from under the peepul tree. Watching, like the mountains overhead, over this noisiest efflorescence of McLeodganj, knowing that it is only a matter of time until this too is absorbed into its ancient past.
Just outside Little Lhasa, as you descend towards Lower Dharamsala, is a stone building that stands aloof under giant deodar pines, disdainful of the changes all around it. The sturdy The St John in the Wilderness Church, with its exquisite stained-glass windows, depicting John the Baptist with Jesus, was among the first buildings to be erected here by the British in 1852. It is now the only surviving monument of that time as most were destroyed in the devastating earthquake of 1905.
Buried in the church cemetery is former viceroy Lord Elgin, who lost his life here while on a tour --- his horse lost its footing while negotiating one of the steep curves of the mountain road and landed in the gorge, killing him instantly. A marble monument rising up like a small cathedral was erected by his widow on the spot where he was buried, which after years of neglect was eventually declared a protected monument by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
In McLeodganj's main bazaar are vendors of Tibetan carpets, thangkas, ponchos, jackets, chubas, masks, votive objects, silver and stone jewellery and trinkets, lamps, statuettes, sleeping bags, fruit preserves tahini and muesli. You can also pick up Tibetan cheese and excellent tea, prayer wheels and flags. And, of course, don't forget to pop into Nowrojees for unusual finds and everyday essentials.
McLeodganj has something for every budget. Bhagsu and Dharamsala also have some good options.
In McLeodganj, Himachal Tourism's Hotel Bhagsu (Phone (01892) 221091-92; Tariff: INR 1,200-INR 2,800) is among the best hotels in McLeodganj. A stay here is worth it, if only for the views from the rooms, which are heavenly. Chinar Lodge (Phone: 01892221767; Tariff: INR 1,800- INR 3,500) is close by, but to be avoided despite its tempting lawns and marble lobby, unless you like to spend your holidays with noisy families.
Glenmoor Cottages (Phone: 09418221010; Tariff: INR 5,050 - INR 6,340), set around an old cottage in a private wood, is a great option for those who like to wake up to birdsong and the rustle of leaves.
The Norbulingka Institute's Chonor House (Phone: 06230808821; Tariff: INR 3,600 to INR 5,500) is centrally located between the Thekchen Choling Temple and McLeodganj. Its 18 well-equipped rooms depict Tibetan-style murals by artists from the institute, and are furnished with teak and rosewood furniture and hand-knotted carpets. All income derived from Chonor House goes to support Norbulingka's various culture preservation projects.
Surya Resort (Phone: 221418-20; Tariff: INR 3,000 to INR 5,400) is glass-and-polish antiseptic with a restaurant and bar.
Bhagsu Valley Spring Valley Resort (Phone: 01892-221248; Tariff: INR 2,200 - INR 3,400) is a good choice in Bhagsu, offering 20 rooms and six cottages, a restaurant and a terrace garden. Hotel Akashdeep (Phone: 221482; Tariff: INR 1,500- INR 2,500), is a good option.
White Haven Estate, in Lower Dharamsala, (Phone: 09418427531; Tariff: INR 7,500- INR 8,500) is possibly Dharamsala's prettiest property, a colonial bungalow set in an old tea estate which used to be the home of explorers Robert Shaw and John Younghusband.
The Norbulingka Institute's Norling Guest House (Phone: 78070 64521; Tariff: INR 1,850- INR 3,600) is among Dharamsala's best-equipped stays. You can order food at the cafe, use its Internet service and the library, and get a free tour of Norbulingka.
Clouds End Villa (Phone: 01892224904; Tariff: INR 3,000 - INR 5,000), summer home of the Kangra royals, is also a good option on the Khara Danda Road. Grace Hotel (Phone: 09418015952; Tariff: INR 6,000), a Welcom-Heritage property, is a 200-year-old country manor built in traditional hill architecture. The hotel was home to a former Prime Minister of Kashmir.
McLeodganj was once a haven for those sick of the staple dal-chawal-chappati hill fare, because they could feast on momos and noodle soups here. Now it's one of the biggest backpacking haunts, reflected in the Westernised cuisine on offer. It has become quite the international food plaza --- German bakeries, Tibetan momo shops, Delhi chaat bhandars, idli-dosa, Continental steaks or fish and chips and, of course, banana pancakes and pizzas.
Everyone has their favourite German Bakery or pizza joint in McLeodganj, but the more adventurous prefer heading for Dharamkot and its fragrant wood-fire-oven pizzeria offerings. At McLeodganj, explore Mcllo at the Main Chowk. Not cheap.
For an excellent Continental breakfast, pop into Moon Peak Espresso on Temple Road or Moonlight Cafe along the Bhagsu stretch. Drop in at the all-veg Nicks Italian Kitchen for its pasta and bakes. For slow dining, with classy wine and good food, head to Black Magic Restaurant. On Sundays, JJI Cafe has live jamming. For wholesome thalis, it's the Hotel India House Restaurant. The small, clean Gakyi Cafe offers well-cooked Tibetan favourites at reasonable prices. For good veggie fare (great pizzas), opt for Namgyal Cafe.
Norbulingka (14 km): The most recent Tibetan institution near Dharamsala (it is actually in Siddhbari), Norbulingka has all the old-world charm of Tibetan architecture. Modelled and named after the Dalai Lama's summer palace near Lhasa, Norbulingka (Jewel Park) lives up to its name.
Spread over 7 acres, it's a traditional Tibetan building which made full use of the many master craftsmen from Tibet who fled here with the Dalai Lama. The architects have blended the building into the natural landscape. Not a branch lopped, not a tree felled while constructing the complex of temple, library, college, design studio, workshops, guest house and cafe. Opened in 1995, the Norbulingka Institute (Phone: 09882144210) is a living record of Tibets rich culture, committed to preserving those of its arts that are being wiped out in the homeland.
Here the master Temba Chophel guides his apprentices in the intricate art form. Thangkas are essentially a visual aid to prayer and meditation, but the illustration of gods in correct proportions as set down in ancient Tibetan manuscripts requires years of learning. Norbulingka has a showroom where you can place your orders. Cost may vary from INR 5,000 to INR 20,000.
Other dying art forms have also been resurrected here. The sculptors take almost 20 years to learn the art of casting the traditional Tibetan images. Wood carving, which flourished in Tibet since the 7th century CE, is being revived.
Craft department timings: 8 am-5pm. Sundays closed.
Showroom timings: 9 am-6 pm (closed for lunch from 12 noon to 1 pm)
The tableau of figurines crafted by monks is a must-see. The 160 dolls in this collection, crafted over 15 years, are the honoured denizens of Tibets only national museum, displaying in accurate detail the regional, ritual, religious, official and theatrical costumes of Tibet.
Timing: 9 am-noon; 2-6 pm