Dharamsala

McLeod Ganj and the snow-capped peaks of the Dhauladhars

Dharamsala or Dharamsala (Hindi: धर्मशाला, pronounced [d̪ʱərəmˈɕaːlaː] or [d̪ʱərmˈɕaːlaː]; Tibetan: དྷ་རམ་ས་ལ་), is a hill station in Himachal Pradesh, famed for its large Tibetan community centred around the activities of the Dalai Lama.

Understand

The Tibetan Buddhist roots of Dharamsala stretch back to the 8th century, although most of the local population long since reverted to (and remains) Hindu. "Dharamsala" literally means an "inn attached to a temple", and it was so until the district headquarters in Kangra became too crowded and the British moved 2 of their regiments in the late 1840s to what is now Dharamsala. Over the years, this grew to be district headquarters of Kangra, and the very location is now known as the Police Lines.

Dharamsala was mooted to be the summer capital of India. But this was not to be, as much of the town was destroyed in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake of 4 April 1905. The disaster killed over 10,000 people in this sparsely populated area.

After falling into obscurity in the early days of Indian independence, Dharamsala regained some social standing in 1959 with the arrival of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile. Currently, it is a very popular hang-out for foreigners and students of Buddhism. Indeed, it is now perhaps a little too popular and many would say the town, and especially McLeod Ganj, is little more than a backpacker ghetto. Don't come here expecting calm and tranquility.

Map of McLeod Ganj

Orientation

Dharamsala is divided into two distinct areas that are separated by a 10 min, 9 km bus or jeep ride.

Villages near McLeod Ganj include Forsyth Ganj, a short hike away on the way up from Lower Dharamsala.

For a quiet and basic experience, try Naddi (3 km) or Talnu (11 km).

Climate

Lower Dharamsala is at an altitude of 1,400 m, while McLeod Ganj is at around 1,750 m, making them considerably cooler than the plains below. Temperatures in January can dip below freezing, while June can go up to 38°C. The monsoon season from July to September is very wet. Even in March, when the Dalai Lama holds his teachings and the weather down in Delhi is downright balmy, you will still need a heavy winter coat. These can be purchased at reasonable prices in the town.

Get in

By plane

Gaggal Airport (IATA: DHM) is at Gaggal near Kangra, a distance of 15 km from McLeodganj by road on MDR44 and NH20. The airport has been recently upgraded. Air India and Spicejet operate daily flights to Dharmashala from New Delhi.

By bus

Most people come to Dharamsala by bus. It has good connections with other parts of North India, although the journeys are often slow due to the narrow winding roads in the hills.

The main bus terminal is in Lower Dharamsala, but some public HRTC buses to Delhi and Pathankot go all the way to the main square of McLeod Ganj, where you can also book advance tickets for the return trip. Unreserved HRTC buses from Pathankot cost ₹ 135 and take 3/4 hours to Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj. Private bus companies are available for travel from Manali, Dehradun and Delhi. Overnight buses operate from Delhi with many leaving from the Tibetan colony of Majnu ka Tilla. These services take upwards of 13 hr and cost from ₹ 450 for a basic bus to ₹ 1000 for a plusher Volvo.Tickets for Himachal Road Transport Corporation ( HRTC- A State Government body) can be booked online at http://hrtc.gov.in/HRTCTickets/ Chandigarh, 236 km distant from McLeodganj, is a gruelling 8-9 hr trip in an ordinary bus.

By train

The nearest broad gauge railhead is at Pathankot and the neighboring small station of Chakki Bank, a comfortable overnight journey from Delhi. Train buffs can continue on the very slow and rickety but pretty Kangra Valley Railway to Kangra, a journey that easily takes up to 6 hours and still leaves you 18 km from McLeod Ganj. Many travellers choose to continue by bus or taxi instead. If you do choose to go to Kangra then from the train station then you need to walk and autorickshaw to the bus stop where buses are available to take you to Dharamsala.

By taxi

A taxi from Pathankot to McLeod Ganj, a distance of 88 km, takes about 3 hours, and the official fare from Pathankot is ₹ 1,300 (return). However the asking rate is always ₹ 1,600 and you can negotiate to around ₹ 1,450 ( ₹50 is probably charged as a toll ). This is December 2011 rate for a small car ( Indica ).

Taxis from Delhi are often available leaving from Majnu Ki Tila Tibetan settlement in North Delhi on the ring road. Many people take a taxi to Delhi which takes about 10 hours and pay the return fare simply because they don't want to deal with the hassle and pain of taking a bus. These taxis need to return to Dharamshala, and many times will sell seats in their car for the same price as a bus ticket. To find these taxis, go to the Majnu Ki Tila Tibetan Settlement Bus Stand and look for taxis which have Himachal Pradesh License plates. You can negotiate with a driver. Often the taxis will leave in the evening and you will arrive in Dharamshala early the next morning.

Get around

McLeod Ganj is small enough to be navigated on foot. Public buses to Dharamsala leave roughly hourly and cost ₹ 10. Chartered auto-rickshaws charge around ₹ 100, taxis are now ₹ 200 one-way. Trips from McLeod Ganj to nearby points (e.g. Bhagsu) should not cost much more than ₹ 80.

See

Giant prayer wheel and thangka of Arya Sitatapatra, a form of Tara, at Tsuglagkhang

Do

Bhagsu Waterfall

Trekking/walking

If you want to do a shorter trek , hire a small car from McLeodganj for ₹ 300-350 to Galu Devi. (Please note; this is not Guna Devi). From there its a 3 hr climb to Triund. If you plan to stay overnight at Triund , there is a Forest Rest house (₹ 500 per night ). Take a long your personal double bedsheetbut be aware there is no running water or electricity. So a torch , spare batteries is a must. If the Forest house is booked , then you can hire tents there.

The "snow lion flag," a symbol of the Tibetan independence movement, is strictly outlawed in Tibet but ubiquitous in Dharamsala,

Meeting the Dalai Lama

Meeting (or at least getting to see) the Dalai Lama is the dream of a lifetime for many people, an intensive spiritual experience for Buddhists and a memorable moment for people of other faiths. It's also very difficult to pull off, so don't plan on it. It requires a good deal of luck.

If you want to give it your best shot, the first thing to do is make sure that His Holiness is actually in town when you visit. He travels frequently. His website lists his yearly itinerary and an email to the office will confirm his travel dates. While he does give scheduled public teachings, these are crowded. There are some that are only scheduled a few days in advance, so keep your eyes and ears open in Dharamsala. The ultimate goal is a private audience. His website says he is no longer giving them. This isn't precisely true, but you have to have a really good reason or an "in." Go to the office of his secretary.

The Dalai Lama's administrative office is in the Tsuglagkhang Complex. When you face his house, which has a gate with Indian guards in front of it, it's the last door on your right, at the end of the complex. This office is open all day, six days a week. The man behind the desk will tell you to apply online and give you the website address. Go to an internet cafe and do it if you haven't already done it and been rejected months in advance so that you can say that you have, but it probably won't get you anywhere. If the receptionist is there alone, then His Holiness is not giving private audiences. If a bunch of people are there holding slips of paper with their personal information and their passports, he's giving private audiences, they usually occur around noon. There is heavy security and you need a reason. Chat with everyone.

Some people get in as a group, like a documentary crew or a family whose father is a politician. Actually, talk to everyone in Dharamsala about His Holiness, and you're bound to run into someone who is on his staff or knows someone on his staff. At the office, drop the name of every person you met. If you are visibly ill, you may get an audience based on that. Granted, this "audience" will probably last the time it takes for him to bless you, which is about 10 seconds, and an additional ₹ 5 to pose for a photo. A photographer is provided and you are not allowed to bring your own camera.

To meet the Dalai Lama is something most Tibetans worldwide only dream of so count your blessings if you receive an audience. Bring a khata (white scarf) - they can be purchased for a few rupees, but since you'll probably be treasuring that khata, you might want to shell out ₹ 20 for a nicer one. If he poses for a picture with you the security office will tell you to return with a blank CD and they will burn the picture onto a CD. Blank CDs can be purchased from the tech stores on Temple Rd for about ₹ 50. Remember to show appreciation for anyone whose name you might have dropped to get in. Donate to their monastery, eat at their restaurant or whatever you feel is appropriate. This isn't expected but it's a nice thing to do.

Every year in February–March for ten days or so, and occasionally at other times, the Dalai Lama holds public lectures. Registration at the Tibetan Branch Security Office (near Hotel Tibet) is necessary, preferably 3–4 days beforehand although shorter notice may be possible. Bring a cushion to sit on, a FM radio with headphones to listen to the simultaneous translation from Tibetan to English, a cup for tea, and a sunhat/umbrella, but as little else as possible since security is tight. The last day of teaching concludes with public prayers, for which no security pass is needed. Donations are welcome.

Learn

The half-Tibetan, half-Indian bazaar bustle of McLeod Ganj

Courses available include yoga, meditation, reiki, Tibetan and Indian cooking classes, Tibetan language classes and Thai massage. Many courses include vegetarian meals, and are offered at meditation centres.

Yoga, meditation, healing

Cooking classes

Work

Volunteer

There are some opportunities to volunteer whilst in Dharamsala. For longer term options such as 1 month or more ask at the LHA office in the middle of the town. Staff there are very friendly and always welcoming if people wish to teach, tutor or get involved in conversational classes.

You may also approach Tibetans in social circles to help them improve their English whilst getting to know each other's culture and personal story. Be mindful of accepting requests for private tutorage from monks on the streets. After a few days they may subject you to demands for sponsorship, however stories of this are rare. It may be best to go through a credible and well established organisation if you want to provide assistance in this way.

In general most monks and lay people are incredibly grateful to have you help them with their English and it is a great way to get to know Tibetan people on a more personal level. The easiest way to help out is to drop into LHA on Temple Rd, or LIT on Jogibara Rd and sign up for tutoring. A commitment of one month is preferred.

Buy

Many Tibetan things can be bought in Dharamsala such as jewellery and trinkets, woollen shawls, prayer flags, prayer wheels, thangka and mandala paintings.

Eat

McLeod Ganj is a great place for eating, and the town has an abundance of restaurants, especially in the mid to upper range that cater to foreign tourists. The newer among those upscale eateries increasingly tend to offer free wifi connections. Despite the restaurateurs' claims to the contrary these wifi services are sometimes not fully operative or the connection may be interrupted and hence unsuitable for downloads. At the very least do not allow yourself to be lured into settling down for an extended session at an eating-place solely by their outdoor WiFi signage before first ascertaining the quality of that service.

Momos sold by numerous Tibetan street vendors usually sell at ₹10 for 4 pieces. These are safe to eat and acceptable to the Western palate even if they cannot be expected to match the level of culinary delicacy of those offered by some of the best establishments listed below.

Some Tibetan favorites


Dharamsala is a good place to try Tibetan food and beverages.

  • Momos - dumplings filled with meat or vegetables, steamed or fried
  • Thukpa - a hearty noodle soup with veggies or meat
  • Thenthuk - thukpa with handmade noodles
  • Pocha - salty tea churned with butter, a Tibetan staple

Drink

Sleep

McLeod Ganj has a wide selection of accommodation, most of which is located close to the main bus stop. Just walk around. It is easy to find somewhere suitable. There are also 2 smaller towns within walking distance, Bhagsu and Dharmakot. They are quieter than McLeod, whose main streets (esp. Bhagsu Rd) suffer from the usual Indian curse of lots of beeping cars/bikes/rickshaws pushing through the streets, and have a wide array of cool places to stay and courses to do.

For long-term stays, head down the Yongling stairs on Jogiwara Road; there are about a dozen cheap good places down there, with great views.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Stay safe

The place has become much safer in recent times though it is advisable to take precautions. Stay vigilant at all times and be very cautious if staying out after 9PM.

Go next

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Friday, January 22, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.