Dharamshala – 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. 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.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Tsuglhakhang Temple Complex
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-storeyed temple, called Tsuglha-khang, 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 un-usual 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-foot 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. The two-tiered Tibet Museum features exhibits related to the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the community’s projections and hopes of the future.
Museum entry Free Closed Monday & Saturday Tel 01892-222457/ 510
Church of St John-in-the-Wilderness
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.
Service timings Sunday 10.00am
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.
Entry ₹100 Photography ₹200 Videography ₹500
WHERE TO STAY
In McLeodganj, Chonor House (Tel: 01892-221006, 221468; Tariff: ₹4,500–6,600) is near the Dalai Lama Temple. 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: ₹3,000–4,000). The tranquil summer retreat of the Kangra royals, the 17-roomed Clouds End Villa (Tel: 222109, 224904; Tariff: ₹2,500–5,000) is located on the Khara Danda Road.
Drive further uphill to enjoy the 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.
Dharamshala offers a range of accommodation options. HPTDC’s The Dhauladhar (Tel: 224926-27; Tariff: ₹2,100–4,500) is a good choice. The luxurious chalet-style Club Mahindra Dharamshala (Tel: 229701-02; Tariff: ₹6,500) offers 23 stylish, well-appointed rooms.
WHERE TO EAT
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 Moonlight Café 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. Lobsang’s Four Seasons Café is the place to go to for good Tibetan and Italian fare. The Gakyi Café offers Tibetan favourites at good prices. For delicious pizzas, head to the Namgyal Café.
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 (21km/ 45mins). Hire a cab (Tel: 01892-222105) from the airport to town for ₹600–800
Rail Nearest railhead: Chakki Bank (96km/ 3.5hrs). Hire a cab for ₹2,000
Road NH44, NH7 and NH205 link Delhi to Kiratpur via Chandigarh. At Kiratpur NH503 climbs up to Manali Bus HSRTC runs four Volvo services (7.20–8.50pm/ ₹1,130) to Dharamshala via Chandigarh from Delhi’s ISBT Kashmere Gate (Tel: 011-23868694)
Delhi Tourism: 18-A, DDA SCO Complex, Defence Colony, New Delhi-110024, Tel: (011) 24647005
Read more in the new Outlook Traveller Getaways Heritage Holidays in India