Situated against the majestic backdrop of the snow-capped Dhauladhar Range, the picturesque town of Dharamsala spreads across the upper reaches of the Kangra Valley. Dense coniferous forests of pines and deodar cedars surround this famous hill resort, which serves as the headquarters of the Kangra district. A motley mix of Tibetan and Indian culture greets curious travellers to Dharamsala, a city that has long been identified as the centre for Tibetan Buddhism, as well as the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Attractions within the town and in its surrounding areas include ancient temples, peaceful and serene monasteries, interesting museums and impressive monuments.

Things to See & Do

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The expanding town of McLeodganj spread out across a hill
The expanding town of McLeodganj spread out across a hill

A walk around town is a good way to explore its historic treasures as well as experience how the locals go about their daily lives. Much of Dharamsala’s commercial activity centres around Kotwali Bazaar. The shops here sell handicrafts, shawls and carpets. If you set out to explore, you’ll also find small eateries dishing out unforgettably delicious Himachali fare.

Museum of Kangra Arts

Located near the bus station, this small, unassuming museum houses a treasure-trove of arts and crafts indigenous to the Kangra Valley, as well as artefacts dating back to the 5th century CE. Another section of the museum contains an excellent display of dresses worn by royalty, palanquins of local rajas, jewellery, coins and weapons. Entry Indians 50; Foreigners 100 Timings 10.00am–1.30pm; 2.00– 5.00pm Closed Monday

Kunal Pathri

A 3-km walk southwest of Kotwali Bazaar winding through picturesque tea gardens and forests leads to this rock temple dedicated to the local deity Kalpeshwari (another form of goddess Durga).

A unique feature of the sanctum is the stone saucer that collects water trickling down from an unknown source through the year – it is believed that if the saucer dries up, the world will come to an end.

Tsug-lha-Khang Temple Complex

McLeodganj’s Seat of Happiness Temple features 1,173 images of the Buddha along with an impressive 44-ft vaulted temple hall. The Dalai Lama’s Palace (the old Mortimer House, residence of the British Viceroy) is a collusion of office spaces, an audience chamber and his personal quarters.

Kapil Taragi
Monks at the Namgyal Monastery
Monks at the Namgyal Monastery

At the Namgyal Monastery, you will encounter monks who are going about their daily chores and the drone of chanting. The two-tiered Tibet Museum features exhibits related to the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the community’s projections and hopes of the future. If you are staying at an establishment in Lower Dharamsala, you can visit the Tibetan Culture Library. It has an astonishing amount of resource and archival material on Tibetan Buddhism. Museum Entry Free Closed Monday and Saturday Tel 01892-222457/ 510.

Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts

Never was there a richer banquet of Tibetan lhamo (opera), music, theatre and dance for the world community to savour and admire. Book ahead for the Shoton Opera Festival, a 10-day affair, which is held here in the spring. Entry 100 Photography 200 Videography 500

Kapil Taragi
Butter lamps, a common sight in Dharamsala
Butter lamps, a common sight in Dharamsala

Around Dharamshala

There are several sites that lie just outside of town, but are imperative stops when visiting Dharamsala.

Norbulingka Institute (8km)

Named after the Dalai Lama’s summer palace in Lhasa, Tibet, the Norbulingka Institute was founded in 1990 with an aim to preserve traditional Tibetan arts and crafts. Visitors can observe artisans practicing centuries-old art forms such as thangka painting, woodcarving and appliqué.

The Losel Doll Museum, located nearby, appeals to kids and grownups alike with handmade dolls dressed in traditional Tibetan clothing. Displayed in various dioramas, these dolls portray scenes from Tibetan life. Right opposite the museum is Norbulingka’s flagship store that stocks a variety of attractive apparel, bags, laptop cases, coasters and decorative items, all created in the workshops. Although steeply priced, it is worth a browse. Up ahead stands the magnificent Buddhist temple that enshrines a 14-ft-high gilded Buddha statue with thangka frescoes decorating the walls around it. Norbulingka also offers accommodation in its guesthouse located within the complex. Stop at the Hummingbird Café near the entrance that serves multi-cuisine vegetarian fare and home-made cakes and ice cream.

Chinmaya Tapovan (10km)

Far from the bustle of the main town, this charming spiritual retreat is situated on the banks of Bindu Saras, at the foothills of the Dhauladhar. Surrounded by pine forests, the meditation complex was set up by Swami Chinmayananda in 1977, a great exponent of the Bhagvada Gita. The retreat was named after his spiritual guru Swami Tapovan. It consists of a temple dedicated to Lord Rama, a school, a meditation hall and a health and recreation centre. The place offers short-term courses on the Swami’s teachings and the Bhagvada Gita.

Sunil Dang
Devotees at the famous Chamunda Devi Temple
Devotees at the famous Chamunda Devi Temple

Chamunda Devi Temple (17km)

Situated on the banks of Ban-Ganga, this temple is said to be more than 700 years old. Dedicated to the goddess Chamunda, the temple’s history is shrouded in legend. It is believed that when the demons ‘Chand’ and ‘Mund’ tried to harass goddess Ambika, they were killed by goddess Kali. Delighted at Kali’s heroic feat, Ambika declared that the goddess would be worshipped as ‘Chamunda’, a combination of the names of the slain demons. The main shrine contains a statue of goddess Chamunda guarded by images of Lord Bhairava and Lord Hanumana on either sides. A marble staircase winds down to a cave temple of Lord Shiva, which contains the sacred Shivalinga. There is also a huge pond within the temple complex where a dip is considered auspicious.

Where to Stay

Dharamsala offers a range of accommodation options to choose from. HPTDC (Kotwali Bazaar, 176215; Tel: 01892-224212) has several hotels in town, of which The Dhauladhar (Tel: 224926-27; Tariff: 2,100–4,500) is a good choice. The hotel is centrally located with spacious, albeit dated, rooms, some of which afford valley or mountain views. Service is efficient. The luxurious chalet-style Club Mahindra Dharamshala (Tel: 229701-02; Tariff: 6,500) offers 23 stylish, well-appointed rooms. There is a multi-cuisine restaurant, a gaming room and also a little Tibetan arts and crafts shop. Those seeking a peaceful stay away from the hubbub of the town can head to Norling House (Cell: 089881 59349, 09816646423; Tariff: 3,100–4,560), situated within the Norbulingka complex. Each of the brightly decorated, non-smoking rooms is themed after a Tibetan animal or bird.

In McLeodganj, the beautiful Chonor House (Tel: 221006, 221468; Tariff: 4,500–6,600) is near the Dalai Lama Temple and set in a garden. Its rooms are rich with Tibetan murals. The restaurant is excel lent. HPTDC’s Hotel Bhagsu (Tel: 221091-92; Tariff: 1,400–3,000) is good. In Bhagsu, try the well-furnished Hotel Akashdeep (Tel: 221482; Tariff: 2,000–4,000) or Spring Valley Resort (Tel: 221248; Tariff: 4,400–7,250). The tranquil summer retreat of the Kangra royals, the 15-roomed Clouds End Villa (Tel: 222109, 224904; Tariff: 2,500–5,000), is located amongst the fragrant trees on the Khara Danda Road. Enjoy the local delicacies prepared by the chef whose family has worked for the Kangra rajas for generations. Drive further uphill to enjoy the picturesque seven-roomed Kashmir Cottage (Tel: 224929; Tariff: 2,500–4,000), 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 and inspirational company. White Haven Estate (Cell: 09418427531; Tariff: 5,500–6,500) is a gorgeous colonial bungalow in an old tea estate.

Where to Eat

The lower end of Dharamsala offers a few dining options, with visitors preferring to eat in McLeodganj because it boasts of an exciting dining scene. 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. The Continental dishes are particularly good.

Another great option is Andey’s Mid-town Restaurant that offers tasty Indian, Chinese and Continental fare. Their kebabs, curries and vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian thalis are excellent.

Everyone has their favourite German bakery or pizza joint in McLeodganj, but the more adventurous prefer heading to Dharamkot and its fragrant wood-fire-oven pizzeria offerings.

At McLeodganj 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 Moon light Café along the Bhagsu stretch. Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen on Jogibara Road is worth it for the food and music. On the same road is The Chocolate Log, which offers tasty cakes. However, if it’s Korean you crave, head for Dokebi that is located nearby.

For slow dining, with classy wine and good food, head for Black Magic Restaurant. The small, clean Gakyi Café offers well-cooked Tibetan favourites at good prices. For delicious pizzas, head to the Namgyal Café.

Jitender Gupta
Roadside vendors in McLeodganj
Roadside vendors in McLeodganj

The Information

When to Go Spring and summer. Monsoon is messy and winter is freezing

Tourist offices

  • Himachal Tourism
    Mcleodganj, Upper Dharamsala
    Tel: 01892-221205
  • HPTDC
    Kotwali Bazaar, Lower Dharamsala
    Tel: 224212, 224928
    hptdc.nic.in

Getting There

Air Nearest airport: Gaggal (21km/45mins), is presently served by Air India and Spice Jet from Delhi. Cab (Tel: 01892-222105) to town costs 600–800

Rail Nearest railhead: Chakki Bank (96km/ 3.5hrs) is connected to Delhi by the Jammu Express and Jammu Mail; to Kolkata by the Jammu Tawi Express. The Swaraj Express links Mumbai to Chakki. Cab to McLeodganj costs 2,000

Road NH1 and NH21 link Delhi to Kiratpur via Chandigarh. At Kiratpur, NH21 climbs up to Manali Bus HSRTC runs 4 Volvo services (7.20–8.50pm/1,130) to Dharamsala via Chandigarh from Delhi’s ISBT Kashmere Gate (Tel: 011-23868694)