Dharamshala or the Pilgrim's Rest House has unfailingly lived up to its name, welcoming tired travellers in search of spiritual bliss and providing a noisy, colourful, hectic respite before the snow-clad Dhauladhar Range beckoned them onwards. But somewhere along the way, Dharamshala reinvented itself from a mere halting station to a destination. And the town, especially the upper half, better known as McLeodganj, is still celebrating its total conquest of the pilgrim's soul.
The British first discovered the hill station 150 years ago. McLeodganj, at that time, was a dozen or so scattered English homes, each perched precariously on the ridge above the cantonment. All roads led at that time to Nowrojee & Sons.
Established in 1860, this three-storeyed, glass-fronted kirana shop of the Raj Cantonment still stands where it was, balefully watching over the town's transformation. Business began to dwindle when the British shifted themselves and their offices to Lower Dharamshala, after the devastating earthquake of 1905. But the Nowrojees battled on and kept the shop open, until India's Independence drove all customers away. It was the customer-starved Nauzer Nowrojee, an eccentric who ruled over the family shop for 63 years, who, in 1960, persuaded the exiled Dalai Lama to settle down here. Fleeing from the Chinese, the 14th Dalai Lama found the perfect refuge in this pine-covered town. From the day the Dalai Lama stepped into his temporary home, the abandoned summer mansion of one of Lahore's gentry that is now the Indian Mountaineering Institute, McLeodganj, has never looked back.
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 Tsuglha-khang, with its large square overlooking his palace, 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 principal image here is a gilded Buddha rising 9ft from a lotus seat.
To its right, facing in the direction of Tibet, are 12-ft gilded images of the Padmasambhava and Avalokiteshvara (the Bodhisattva of Compassion). The temple is said to be a replica of the original Tsuglhakhang, the main temple in Lhasa, 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. Stand at any corner of the complex and prepare to be dazzled by the most breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.
At the Namgyal Monastery, you will encounter monks who are going about their daily chores and the drone of chanting.
Just outside Little Lhasa is a stone building that stands aloof under giant deodar pines. The sturdy Church of St John-in-the-Wilderness, 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. 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. 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 ASI.
When the 80,000 Tibetans who fled with the Dalai Lama first landed here in 1959, opera was the last thing on their mind. But the Dalai Lama, certain that this performing art would disappear unless they took immediate steps to preserve it, insisted on setting up the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, within four months of their arrival. 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 high-pitched singing accompanied by drums, cymbals, splendid costumes and a wealth of oddly appealing characters make for an unforgettable experience.
Where To Stay
In McLeodganj, Chonor House (Tel +91-6230808821, Tariff starts from Rs 4,950) is near the Dalai Lama Temple. HPTDC's Hotel Bhagsu (Tel 01892-221091-92) is good. In Bhagsu, try the well-furnished Hotel Akashdeep. The tranquil summer retreat of the Kangra royals, the 17-roomed Clouds End Villa (Tel 01892-224904 Tariff for standard room is Rs 1,500 and deluxe room is Rs 4,000) is located on the Khara Danda Road.
Drive further uphill to enjoy the seven-roomed Kashmir Cottage (Tel +91-1892-224929, email: email@example.com) with its gorgeous vistas. Once the private home of the Dalai Lama's mother, it is a charming place for those looking for quiet spaces.
Dharamshala offers a range of accommodation options. HPTDC's The Dhauladhar (Tel+91-1892-224926-27, Tariff starts from Rs 2,900) is a good choice. The luxurious chalet-style Club Mahindra Dharamshala is also a great option.
Where To Eat
At McLeodgan,j try Mcllo, a restaurant that overlooks the Main Chowk. For an excellent Continental breakfast, you could pop into Moon Peak Espresso on Temple Road or Moonlight Cafe along the Bhagsu stretch. Jimmy's Italian Kitchen on Jogibara Road is worth it for the food and music. If it's Korean you crave, head for Dokebi that is located nearby. Lobsangs Four Seasons Cafe is the place to go to for good Tibetan and Italian fare. The Gakyi Restaurant offers Tibetan favourites at good prices. For delicious pizzas, head to the Namgyal Cafe.
In Dharamshala, the restaurant within The Dhauladhar is open to non-guests. There is indoor as well as open-air seating on the terrace that affords sweeping views of the valley. While everyone has their favourite German Bakery or pizza joint in McLeodganj, the more adventurous prefer heading to Dharamkot for its wood-fire-oven pizzeria offerings.
When to go: During spring and summer
Mcleodganj, Upper Dharamshala
Kotwali Bazaar, Lower Dharamshala
Tel: 01892-224212, 224928
STD code: 01892
Air: Nearest airport Gaggal (21 km/ 45 min). Hire a cab (Tel 01892-222105) from the airport to town for
Rail: Nearest railhead Chakki Bank (96 km/ 3.5 hrs).
Road: NH44, NH7 and NH205 link Delhi to Kiratpur via Chandigarh. At Kiratpur NH503 climbs up to Manali Bus HSRTC runs four Volvo services to Dharamshala via Chandigarh from Delhi's ISBT Kashmere Gate