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Dharamshala

Published
July 1, 2021
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Dharamshala and environs, including the suburb of McLeod Ganj where many Tibetans live, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Main Temple. Map data ©2018 Google.

MY travel to Dharamshala had its share of twists and turns. The wrong bus from Jammu had landed me in Manali and a seven-hour taxi ride later, I finally reached my destination.

Dharamshala lies just south of Kashmir in the present-day Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, of which it is the winter capital (Shimla is the summer capital). Dharamshala is internationally famous as the long-term base of the Dalai Lama, who has been exiled from Tibet since 1959.

It was November and the tourist season was over, but the town was still crowded. I had read up about the history of Dharamshala. The city was for a long time located within the princely state of Kangra, ruled by the Katoch dynasty.

After the British annexed the state, keeping its ruler on the throne and ruling it at arm’s length as they did in many such cases, they raised a military regiment from its population; a regiment which came to be known as the First Gurkha Rifles and which is now part of the modern Indian Army. Many of those soldiers fought in both World Wars.

Dharamshala would have become the summer capital of British-ruled India but for an earthquake in 1905 that caused widespread destruction. Today the city is famously known as the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.

The Kangra-Katoch arrangement lasted until the independence of India, after which Kangra was dissolved into the modern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

I had heard the story of the Dalai Lama’s escape from my guide back in Manaslu. It was a sad story of how the Chinese government bloodily cracked down on a Tibetan rebellion in 1959, in which many thousands of Tibetans were killed and about two thousand Chinese troops as well. The Dalai Lama, then a young man, escaped to India on foot, trekking for fifteen nights to escape the Chinese troops. He was granted asylum in India and permitted to stay at McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala which is also referred to as ‘Little Lhasa’. Many Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama and made Dharamshala their home. Others who fled Lhasa have settled in Nepal and Bhutan.

The Dalai Lama has been able to draw the world’s attention to Tibet’s fight for independence. Gaining the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 made him even more famous, particularly amongst Western audiences.

There have been several Western novels and films about Tibet: a country which has an exotic reputation at a distance, like all the other Himalayan nations. James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, which was later made into a film of the same name, drew attention to the Tibetan cultural realm in the form of Shangri-La, a harmonious utopian kingdom in the Himalayas where people were happy. These days, Shangri-La, also spelt Shangri La, is a familiar expression in the English language. I’ve used it already in this book without explaining where it came from, till now.

Another film, Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt, described the relationship between the Dalai Lama and Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer, during the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950.

(The Communist Chinese army, which had just expelled the Nationalist Chinese from the mainland to the island of Taiwan in 1949, only captured a small part of Tibet in 1950. All the same, it was clear that they could take over the rest of Tibet if they wanted to, and so the invasion led to the signing of a treaty under which the Dalai Lama became a client of Beijing, until the 1959 uprising and crackdown made his position entirely untenable.)

In 2004, a Tibetan music album, Sacred Tibetan Chant: The Monks of Sherab Ling Monastery, also won a Grammy award for the best traditional world music album.

It was a special experience. I have always been fascinated by Tibetan culture. As I have related, I had tried to go to Tibet but couldn’t get into the country.

All the same, I had the special experience of being blessed by the Dalai Lama while he was on a visit to New Zealand. And this time I was lucky to encounter the Dalai Lama once again, as he was in McLeod Ganj. He was speaking at his monastery, and I went to listen to him. The gathering was very crowded, but it was interesting to watch how people welcomed the Dalai Lama and the way they revered him. Being in the crowd and listening to the Dalai Lama speak was an experience and his presence was awe-inspiring. I stayed throughout the speech and listened.

I love how the Tibetans dress. They wear a robe-like long wrap dress over a shirt held together by a belt at the waist. It’s called a Chupa. Underneath it they wear trousers or additional layers of skirts to keep warm. Married women wear multi-coloured, horizontal-striped aprons. The dress also varies from region to region. The monks, however, dress in a long, maroon wrap skirt with a yellow shirt and a maroon scarf. They shave their heads in accordance with their religious traditions of austerity and simplicity. You can see the Dalai Lama dressed in a similar fashion as well.

Dharamshala

Buddhist monastery (top) and temple, Dharamshala

Dharamshala: Gate to Tsuglangthang complex in McLeod Ganj (top); Tibetan National Martyrs Memorial (below)

Inside the Buddhist temple, Dharamshala

Dharamshala lies in the most incredibly hilly terrain: a bit like New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington, only more so. McLeod Ganj, which means McLeod neighbourhood, is about five hundred metres, more than one and half thousand feet, above downtown Dharamshala. The British, who founded Dharamshala in the mid-1800s, treated the town as a refuge from the summer heat — the name Dharamshala means a house of rest in Hindu tradition — and I suspect that McLeod Ganj was even more of a getaway for them. The suburb was named after a governor of the Punjab named Sir Donald Friell McLeod. I do hope that a highly flattering depiction with halo and cherubs never went to the old Scotsman’s head!

‘If only the wee folk back home could see me now . . .’. Or so one suspects Sir Donald Friell McLeod might have thought upon observing this saint-like depiction of himself surrounded by what the modern online caption describes as “admiring Sikh elders.” Wellcome Collection, [UK] Science Museum Group, photo No. V0048411 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0.

In addition to being the Tibetan part of town, McLeod Ganj is also where the backpackers tend to hang out. You find many Western tourists staying in small cheap rooms in the lanes of this quarter, or volunteering at the Tibetan NGOs. Many expats have also settled here more permanently, opening cafes and inns for foreign tourists.

Some people also come to McLeod Ganj to study Buddhist philosophy, meditation, and yoga. A few tens of metres downhill from the main town square in McLeod Ganj, just before the dizzying plunge into downtown Dharamshala, is the Tsuglagkhang complex. The Tsuglagkhang is a Tibetan Buddhist temple, the largest outside Tibet itself. It has a huge meditation hall with interesting murals depicting Lord Buddha in various forms. Outside you can see the multi-coloured Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. People practice the ritual of walking clockwise around the temple praying. And there are prayer wheels too.

The monks often stage open debates here. I have read about it. It seems that a monk preaches about an issue and the rest of the crowd sit around and roll their eyes and try to mock and intimidate him. It is all done in good humour! That would have been interesting to see, but I’ll have to wait until my next visit.

The Tsuglagkhang complex also houses the small Tibet Museum, organised around an interesting and well-documented permanent exhibit of the Chinese occupation and the struggle of the Tibetans. There are photographs and blood-stained clothing of Tibetans said to have been held by the Chinese as political prisoners and tortured. Outside the museum is a memorial to the Tibetans who died fighting.

The museum is not just for non-Tibetans, but for the local Tibetans as well. It represents the history of their struggle, an important reminder for the youth. You can see the Tibetan flag on many buildings in McLeod Ganj. Known as the snow lion, the flag has become a symbol of the Tibetan independence movement and is strictly banned in China. The complex also has a small bookshop with several books written by the Dalai Lama.

From the temple I headed to the much-talked-about Bhagsu or Bhagsunag waterfall. This is a regular haunt for the tourists in addition to being a sacred site, but I wasn’t very impressed with it as the flow of water was only a trickle when I was there. That was the result of dry weather and the taking of its headwaters, which are obviously not so sacred as all that. Lack of flow is now a big issue at Bhagsu, which is only guaranteed to be a proper waterfall complete with mist and spray during the wettest weeks of the monsoon season. There were some monks dipping their clothes in what holy waters remained, and tourists taking photographs on the rocks nearby.

On the southern edge of the downtown area, the HPCA (Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association) Stadium is another attraction. At an altitude of 4,110 feet or 1,256 metres, roughly the average altitude of downtown Dharamshala as a whole (McLeod Ganj being another 500 metres further up of course), the HPCA Stadium is supposed to be the highest international cricket pitch in the world.

The backdrop of the Dhauladhar range, part of the so-called Lesser Himalaya Range (still 6,000 metres or so), makes the stadium especially interesting. In 2013, the sports journalist Andy Wilson wrote that:

“A cricket ground where a bowler can accurately be described as running in from the Himalayas end is clearly an unusual addition to the international circuit. . . . Worcester it isn’t.”

The downtown is quite crowded, and you may want to escape to quieter parts, including McLeod Ganj, and observe the majestic Dhauladhar range. Or, trek to Triund. I’ve heard a lot about the trek. The route takes you through oak, rhododendron and deodar forests. There are small tea stalls along the way for those wanting to take a break. The last kilometre, with some twenty-two curves, can be a challenge for inexperienced trekkers. But the view from Triund is amazing — the Dhauladhar range on one side and the Kangra Valley on the other. I have seen photographs and it’s definitely on my to-do list.

Dharamkot seems to be another popular getaway spot. I heard of inns tucked away in the forest without any drivable roads nearby, and you either trek or take a pony ride.

Returning to McLeod Ganj, guidebooks describe the suburb as a food heaven — pizzas, lasagnes, cakes and desserts, and herbal teas. I mainly loved the yoghurt and the sugar-free and gluten-free Tibetan food.

In some ways, McLeod Ganj reminded me of Kathmandu — busy and crowded, but peaceful.

The preservation of their traditional art and culture is of great importance to the Tibetan inhabitants of Dharamshala. The Norbulingka Institute is working to ensure the traditional heritage is being sustained. They have educational training programmes for students, artists and painters. Twenty students are admitted every year for this free-of-charge residential programme that goes on for three years. The curriculum includes history, literature, medicine, poetry and religion. There is also an art apprenticeship programme where students are trained in thangka painting (Tibetan Buddhist religious paintings), wood carving and statue-making. You can walk around the studios and watch the artists at work. The Norbulingka Institute complex also houses a temple with a 14-foot statue of Buddha made by the artists.

It was a short trip. I made my way to the tiny Gaggal airport from where I was to depart on Air India to New Delhi. The flight was delayed for hours, but I met many amazing people. I made friends with a lady who was a teacher in Afghanistan, and we talked about the situation in that country. She said half her class was dead and some of her students were fighting the war. She herself had narrowly escaped a bomb attack. She said she was training teachers in Dharamshala. I also met people who had been on yoga retreats for a month. I made so many Facebook friends in that airport. Dharamshala has a special place in my memory and is one of the places that I definitely want to go back to.

References

Casualties in the 1959 Tibetan uprising are documented in ‘China/Tibet (1950-present)’, a webpage of the University of Central Arkansas, at uca.edu/politicalscience/dadm-project/asiapacific-region/chinatibet-1950-present/, accessed 29 June 2021.

The quote about the cricket ground is in Mike Selvey et al, ‘The most beautiful cricket grounds in the world — in pictures’, The Guardian, 25 January 2013.

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