Explorer Guide to Dharma-ville
Dharma-ville: Dharamsala/ McLeod Ganj, India
By Lauryn Axelrod
When the Chinese occupation of Tibet erupted into violence in 1959, forcing His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and his government to flee the country, the Indian government offered them a new home in an abandoned colonial hill station nestled in the foothills of the western Himalayas. Thankful for the refuge, the Tibetans accepted, and in the nearby village of McLeod Ganj (named after a colonial Governor), they rebuilt their government and culture-in-exile.
While Tibet may be exotic, “Little Lhasa,” as Dharamsala/ McLeod Ganj is called, is where all the action is. Most travelers don’t waste too much time in Dharamsala itself -– a bustling city without much to offer -– but head up the road to McLeod Ganj, where the air, and the atmosphere, is purer. H.H. the Dalai Lama lives here (you can see him!), and so do thousands of exiled monks, nuns, children and families.
The Heart of Tibet
Thus, McLeod Ganj is the real heart of Tibet, offering travelers a unique opportunity to experience the vibrant Tibetan culture firsthand without the persecution and difficulties of Tibet, itself.In addition to spectacular Himalayan trekking in the Dhauladhar Range, travelers have easy access to temples, monasteries, schools and libraries, as well as occasions to study Tibetan Buddhism, attend services at the Dalai Lama’s temple, see performances at the Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts, teach English to monks, volunteer with women and schoolchildren and even take a meditation or Tibetan cooking class!
But just strolling the streets of this walkable village is an experience itself. Industrious Tibetan vendors set up their stalls along the narrow roads each morning, selling everything from antiques and apples to prayer beads and handmade paper books created by children at the Tibetan Children’s Village.
Tibetan women in their colorful aprons walk through the chorten in the center of town, turning the prayer wheels. People stop each other on the road and conversations flow easily. It’s not uncommon to be invited home for tea or supper by a Tibetan friend you just met. Numerous guesthouses, small hotels and monasteries offer inexpensive accommodations, and the many local restaurants, featuring delicious Tibetan specialties, are cheap and clean.
In the evenings, two video parlors show the latest releases or films on Tibetan history and culture, and the bustling “Western” restaurant above the bus station serves cold beer, which tastes great after a long day of hiking in the mountains–or meditation.Many travelers find themselves enchanted with McLeod Ganj and stay for a long time. In fact, there is a good-sized community of Westerners—especially Israelis– who have come to learn and study and stay.
Some have set up cybercafes, restaurants and bookstores, others work alongside the Tibetans as volunteers and teachers. But it’s also possible to visit Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj for a just few days en route to other locations in Northern India. Buses arrive and depart daily from Dehli and other destinations. Dharamsala is also a good base for exploring the Himalayan region and local trekking companies will arrange excursions to the rugged regions of Manali, Kullu, Spiti, Ladakh and Kashmir.
But no matter how long you stay, you will come away having experienced Tibetan culture close-up. It’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
The attractions of McLeod Ganj center around Tibetan religious and cultural monuments and institutions, of which there are many.Tsuglag Khang Tsuglag Khang, The Dalai Lama’s temple complex, is the life-blood of the village.
Located a short walk away from the bus station at the center of town, the complex houses the Namgyal Monastery (which trains monks for rituals associated with the temple), the main temple and a smaller shrine that houses a huge gilded statue of the Buddha, along with two smaller, but no less impressive statues of Chenresig and Guru Rinpoche. In addition, the Dalai Lama’s residence and administrative offices are in the complex.
The temple complex is always busy. Services are held daily and are attended by lamas, monks, nuns and lay people. Visitors are welcome to observe, but remember to remove your shoes and walk clockwise around the temple and past the chorten (prayer wheels) before sitting down.
In the shrine, you might come across a group of monks building an intricate sand mandala, and outside on Thursdays, groups of monks are scattered around the grounds practicing their debating techniques–an entertaining and thought-provoking ritual worth catching.
Around the temple complex there is a long meditation trail with small shrines, stupas and a massive chorten. The shrines near the chorten are always covered in thousands of prayer flags placed by pilgrims to the Dalai Lama’s home, which stands above and behind it. There is also a small café on the temple grounds and a guesthouse, which is convenient if you plan to spend a lot of time there.
Located in the center of the village and surrounded by prayer wheels, this Buddhist stupa, is a memorial to those Tibetans who lost their lives fighting for a free Tibet. A statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha is enshrined in a small chamber, and all day and night, you will see devotees turn the prayer wheels as they circumambulate the stupa, reciting mantras.
The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives
A short walk from the Dalai Lama’s temple will bring you to Gangchen Kyishong, the administrative center of the Tibetan Governmnent-in-exile. Along with temporary refugee housing, political and social work offices, you will find the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.An impressively ornate building, the Library houses the literary treasures of Tibet and has an ongoing exhibition on Tibetan history. While only scholars may access the library’s closed shelves, regular visitors are welcome to visit the open stacks with reference books, take classes (see Alternatives, below) and ask questions of the helpful staff.
The Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts (TIPA)
TIPA is located a short walk from the center of town. Another impressive complex built around an open courtyard, the Institute trains Tibetans (and occasionally foreigners) in the traditional Tibetan forms of opera, theatre and dance. Performances are held in the courtyard and an opera festival takes place each spring. Check the bulletin boards for announcements. But even when there is a hiatus in performances, you can watch the students rehearsing.
Dip Tse-Chok Ling Gompa
Down a steep path from the bus station, the Dip Tse-Chok Ling Gompa is a jewel. Perched on a steep hillside overlooking the valley, the main temple is small and intimate, but houses an impressive statue. Many of the young monks in residence here are intrigued by their visitors and, in halting English, will answer your polite questions. The Gompa also has a guesthouse for visitors and a trail that will lead you through the woods to the Dalai Lama’s temple complex.
The Tibetan Children’s Village
Thousands of children flee Tibet each year and arrive in McLeod Ganj, often without their parents. The Tibetan Children’s Village is where they live and study, along with other Tibetan children whose Indian-resident parents send them to TCV to receive a Tibetan education.The children–over 3,000 of them–are housed in numerous dormitories and small apartment complexes near Dal Lake. They attend classes in Tibetan language, literature, history, science, math, English and the performing and visual arts. Visitors are welcome to observe classes and long-term volunteers are sometimes accepted to help with the many needs of the children.
Stitches of Tibet
The Tibetan Women’s Association has developed a number of vocational training programs to assist Tibetan refugees in developing employment skills. One such program is Stitches of Tibet, where newly arrived Tibetan women and girls are taught sewing and weaving skills. Visitors are welcome to tour the carpet weaving workshop on Jogibara Road and the tailor shop across the street. The Stitches of Tibet showroom sells traditional Tibetan clothing and rugs, and the proceeds support the Tibetan Women’s Association’s programs.
The Norbulingka Institute is located about 15 km from McLeod Ganj and is well worth the effort to get there by taxi or local bus. Developed by the Dalai Lama as a center for the continuation and training of traditional Tibetan arts and crafts, the ground alone are testament to the Tibetan’s architectural and artistic skill. A number of buildings, all ornately decorated cover several acres complete with a koi pond, bridges and gardens. Plan to spend a whole day here, watching the craftsmen at work in the thangka studios, woodworking and sewing workshops.
The temple complex is stunning, with portraits of all the Dalai Lama’s lining the upper story. One building also has a photographic exhibition on the creation of the Institute and talks about how it was built using traditional techniques.But the real highlight is the Losel Doll Museum, an exhibition of intricately detailed, beautiful dolls depicting the costumes and activities of the people in each of the regions of Tibet. There are also dioramas of religious events, festivals and daily life. Replicas of the dolls are for sale, along with crafts produced at the Institute. Norbulingka also has a restaurant and a guesthouse on the grounds, and, if you happen to find someone who will show you, an apartment that is one of the Dalai Lama’s residences.
St. John’s Church in the Wilderness
If you tire of Buddhism, St. John’s Church, a peaceful little remnant of the Raj, is a few minutes walk down the Dharamsala road. Tucked in among the pine forest, it has some beautiful stained glass and a monument of Lord Elgin, one of the Viceroys of India, who died in Dharamsala and was buried here in 1863.
There are enough activities in Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj to keep you busy for a long time. Besides meditation classes, Buddhist philosophy classes and volunteer work, the village’s location in the Kangra Valley, surrounded by pine, Himalayan oak, rhododendron and deodar forests, and near the Himalayan trekking regions makes it a good base for hiking and trekking.
Hiking and Trekking
Easy day-hikes or overnights abound in the area and most begin in the village of Dharamkot, a short walk from the center of McLeod Ganj. No guides are required for these hikes, which, though strenuous due to altitude, are all on well-marked paths. One short hike will take you to Bhagsu–a popular local site with waterfall, Bhagsunag Falls. Near the waterfall, there are retreat caves, frequented by monks. Take care not to disturb them in their meditations.
A longer, more strenuous hike (about 3 miles one-way) begins at the Mountaineering Center and will take you up into the mountains to Triund, where the views of the Dhauladhar peaks are amazing. You will probably pass monks and villagers on the path, which is as much a thoroughfare as a trekking route. There is a small café near Triund and a resthouse for camping. Triund is also the beginning for longer treks.The bridle path from McLeod Ganj to Dharamsala is also a good, if long, walk, and you will probably pass many villagers who use the route to get from Dharamsala to the Dalai Lama’s temple for services.
The hike to Dal Lake takes only about an hour through the Tibetan Children’s Village, The location is nice, but the lake is polluted.Longer treks to the Chamba Valley, Kullu, Spiti, and Ladakh can be arranged in McLeod Ganj. Stop into one of the many trekking and tour companies located in town.
Short of hanging out at the McLlo Restaurant or taking an evening stroll, there isn’t much in terms of nightlife. There are two video parlors near the center of town that show two films nightly on generator-powered VCRs and large screen TVs. Admission is cheap and, if you’ve been on the road for awhile, it’s a good opportunity to catch a new release film you may have missed. Films about Tibet are also shown. The schedules are posted out front each day and it’s important to arrive early for tickets, as the “theatres” are small and usually sell out.Sometimes other restaurants and cafes have entertainment–music, poetry or other café-like things.
Check the bulletin boards around town for what’s happening.
There are many, many opportunities for alternative experiences in Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj–some formal, many informal. If you plan to volunteer or study for a longer period of time, it makes sense to contact the agencies and organizations ahead of time. Otherwise, you can just show up, see what’s available and sign on.
Volunteering- Teaching English
If you are a native English speaker (or even passable as one), it will only be a matter of a day or so before some young monk will approach you and ask you to be his teacher. These arrangements are very informal, but you will find that spending an hour or so of your day teaching diligent and dedicated students is highly rewarding. Plus, you will learn a great deal about Tibetan culture and Buddhism in the process.More formal arrangements can be made through individual monasteries or nunneries and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Inquire about longer-term positions teaching English to newly arrived refugees.
Library of Tibetan Works and Archives
Central Tibetan Secretariat
Dharamsala 176 215
Other Volunteer Opportunities
The Dharamsala Earthville Institute (DEVI) is located behind the Khana Nirvana Community Café on Temple Road and is a good place to check for volunteer opportunities, classes and other information. TCV, the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Tibetan Women’s Association also have longer-term positions available in many areas. It is best to contact these organizations before your arrival.Tibetan Children’s Village
Dharamsala Cantt. 176 216
firstname.lastname@example.org Tibetan Youth Congress
P.O. McLeod Ganj
Dharamsala 176 219
The Dharamsala Earthville Institute (DEVI)
P.O. McLeod Ganj
Dharamsala, Distt. Kangra
Again, there are both formal and informal learning opportunities around the area. There are often weeklong meditation courses, cooking, Reiki and massage classes advertised on the bulletin boards in town. Most of these are inexpensive and fun, as well as educational.Check the Sivan-Ekant Guest House for daily yoga and meditation classes, and the Khana Nirvana Community Café and DEVI for classes in Tibetan Language.
The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives offers courses in Buddhist philosophy, conducted by a lama and translated into English. The courses are offered on weekday mornings and cost 100Rs/month. But you can also attend one for free. More advanced classes are also held for longer-term students.TIPA also offers courses in the Tibetan performing arts, but these must be arranged independently and require a longer-term commitment.
P.O. McLeod Ganj
Dharamsala 176 219
The Tushita Meditation Centre and the Dhamma Sikhara Vipassna Meditation Center offer daily or long-term courses in meditation and philosophy. The Vipassna center has a specific schedule of courses, so it is best to make arrangements ahead of time. The Tushita Center has a daily Basic Buddhism class open to the public and the others are reserved for those who are staying at the center.
Dhamma Sikhara Vipassna Meditation Center
Dharmasala 176 219
For course schedule, see dhamma.org/schdhara.htm
Tushita Meditation Centre
Kangra District, HP 176 219
Weeklong and longer retreats are available
If you like the articles we publish, maybe you can be one of our writers too! Make travel plans, then write a story for us! Click here to read our writer’s guidelines.