In the Winter of 2010, we set out to show India off to a group of friends from Singapore, Malaysia, Germany, Sri Lanka. Out travels took us to the usual places like Agra and Jaipur but we also decide to visit Dharamsala inspired by the mystery of this Himalayan getaway. We are welcomed by cold and crisp air here, a pleasant departure from the foggy and dark plains of Delhi. The sprawling army cantonment with its serious faced jawans keeps us company from Pathankot from where we have driven up. We keep climbing up the winding roads until the edge of the army accommodation announces “Cloud’s End” for the highest village in the area, Naddi. Naddi is 4km away from the bustle of the town and from our charming round hotel rooms here we have a panoramic view of the Dhauladhars. And it is some view: jagged snow streaked peaks give way to rolling brown-green slopes dotted with the occasional house. Our hotel staff is friendly and eager to give us as much information as possible. This has been my experience with mountainfolk in India, their enthusiasm and inclusive nature makes you think that this is the way around here, a stark contrast for all of us who have lived in cities for a large part of our lives.
Sound carries far here and soon you can hear the laughter of school children from the Tibetan school below. Because while this could pass for any other Himalayan retreat, it is a rather different place. Dharamsala is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile and also home to the revered Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. He was forced to take refuge here in 1959 escaping Chinese persecution and several Tibetans followed him to Dharamsala braving a treacherous journey across the Himalayas.
Walking through McLeodGanj, the main street you soon arrive at the unassuming Buddhist temple gates which belie its importance. The temple complex walls abound with pamphlets about saving Tibet and the Panchen Lama. These obvious displays highlight the importance of this little hamlet refuge in the Tibetan struggle that is a constant source of political tension in Sino-Indian relations. The entrance to the temple even talks about a deep Indian-Tibetan bond since Buddhism originated in India and several Hindu holy places like the Mansarovar lie in Tibet. Inside however is almost a different world, one on which the temple has cast a spell of spirituality and calm. Monks in saffron robes clutching prayer beads walk around unhurriedly while tourists look on slightly bewildered.
Dusk in Dharamsala is heavenly, an indigo sky brocaded by orange, gold and grey. McLeodGanj basks in this soft glow and its unique assortment of Tibetan and Indian shops are even more inviting. We had momos, thukpa and fried rice in a place called Tibetan Kitchen that left us craving for more. Yet, despite being a tourist destination its possible to be anonymous in McLeodGanj. Our blond, blue-eyed friend attracted curious stares and pushy vendors in Delhi and Agra but in Dharamsala she gazes at many a local behind the lens of her camera.
Dharamsala enchants and captivates you and while several have been here before we feel like first explorers since at every nook, a different charm awaits.