Allure of the hills

Allure of the hills
Sweeping snow-clad ranges, alpine meadows, fragrant woods of pine that merge into forests of oak and conifers, expansive valleys, gurgling streams and boulder-strewn gorges frothing with crystal clear waters, picturesque lakes and crisp air — you couldn’t ask for a more heady cocktail! Dharamshala, built along a spur of the Dhauladhar range of the Western Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh offers all this and more for every age and class of visitor. In fact, the Dhauladhars are everywhere about us — our constant companions, faithfully following us wherever we go. Their sides are flanked by vast fields of mustard flowers, interrupted every now and then with red-roofed houses and multihued Buddhist flags that ripple, flutter and snap in the wind. A hill station that is like a slice of Tibet, Dharamshala is a perfect blend of the natural and spiritual that allows you to be in harmony with nature and connect with your inner self.

Life in leisure
Vast stretches of quiet and the leisurely pace of life in Dharamshala cast their magical spell on us as we explore it over a dozen days. We slide effortlessly into the relaxed mode of our environs and enjoy nature in its myriad shades. Whether we sit in the cozy comfort of our hotel room balcony with a steaming cuppa, or amble down the serpentine streets of this hill town, we watch in fascination the swirling mist weave sinuous patterns as it plays peek-a-boo with the mountains as much as with the giant star on the horizon. We welcome the intermittent light drape of early June drizzles that caress us with gentle sprays without wetting us to discomfort. We savour the mesmerising sight as a pre-dawn sun glints shyly off the cover of snow, and the sky streak with the peach-red thread of dawn. As the rays of the sun cast their warm glow, treetops ignite in a burst of green and the valleys light up like an artwork gradually unveiled. The sense of serene bliss is complete as we hear soulful Buddhist chants reverberate down the valley.

One of the 80 hill stations in India established by the British between 1815 and 1847, Dharamshala, the winter capital of Himachal Pradesh, served as a summer resort for the British working in and around Delhi and became the administrative capital of the Kangra district in 1852. It is interesting to note that Dharamshala was named so when the colonialists who were scouting for a site to house an army regiment on training, chanced upon an old dharamshala or Hindu sanctuary on the slopes of the Dhauladhar!

Dharamshala essentially comprises lower and upper Dharamshala. The quieter lower Dharamshala is the civil and business area with courts and Kotwali Bazaar. Life is laidback here as men sit around small bonfires and engage in aimless banter, drawing deeply from their hookahs as their womenfolk cook up simple but aromatic meals. As we snake our way between cow-slow herds of people and four-legged creatures through the gallis in and around Kotwali Bazar, the whiff of sautéed sesame leaves, dal and roti baking over open oak wood fire tickles our nostrils. From Kotwali Bazar we travel about 3 km on winding roads flanked by rolling tea gardens and dense forests to pay obeisance to Goddess Durga in the form of Kapaleshwari at Kunal Pathari, the rock temple.

While in Dharamshala, we also visit its Cricket Stadium, one of India’s most attractive grounds, set against the backdrop of the Dhauladhars. From here we proceed to the War Memorial, a well-kept site with landscaped gardens and pathways that commemorates the valiant who lost their lives fighting for India’s independence.

We watch artists at work at the Norbulingka Institute and relish Tibetan fare in the all-veg Norling Café adjoining it. We pick up a few prints at the Naam Art Gallery frequented by tourists with an eye for art. It is a permanent exhibition that displays paintings of artists Elsbeth Buschmann and A W Hallett.

A British discovery
However, much of the tourist activity happens in upper Dharamshala or McLeodganj, named after Sir Donald Friell McLeod, once the British Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. McLeodganj, veritably a ‘Mini Lhasa’, is home to a largely Tibetan population that made Dharamshala its home when the Dalai Lama, after fleeing his homeland during the Tibetan Uprising in 1959, sought political asylum and established a Tibetan government-in-exile here.

McLeodganj, much of which we explore on foot, is a perfect study in contrasts that is at best paradoxical, where the material and the spiritual seem to blend in perfect equilibrium. One moment, we spot young maroon-robed monks, a picture of sobriety, wend their way to the monastery and discharge their religious chores with the elegance of the seasoned. The next instant we observe the same youngsters actively engaged in PlayStation game parlours or internet cafés, taking a break from their monastic lives.

We come upon a lively and pulsating market scene in McLeodganj awash with colour in the souvenir shops selling an assortment of Tibetan handicrafts, traditional paintings, spices and a host of clothing items. The ambience is further enhanced by several street stalls vending mouthwatering eats including thupka, fried and steamed momos with a variety of fillings, and tingmo, the Tibetan bread, among other snacks.

We reach the end of this bustling market street to come upon a large iron gate marking the entrance to the two-storeyed Tsuglagkhang. The complex houses the private residence, office and temple of the Dalai Lama, considered to be the biggest Tibetan shrine outside Tibet. We pass through security check before being allowed to enter the complex premises sans cameras and mobiles. Larger than life images of the Buddha, Avalokitesvara and Guru Padmasambhava greet us in the temple while the assembly hall within the complex is vibrantly adorned with a plethora of thangka paintings.

The Bhagsunag Temple, dedicated to Shiva, with its tank and streams is as alluring as the trek to the thundering, steamy Bhagsu Falls ensconced in the midst of an enchanting world in shades of green. Hidden away in a cluster of firs, deodars and pines is the Church of St John in the Wilderness at Forsyth Ganj, just below McLeod Ganj within walking distance.

Ridden with tourists, McLeodganj’s Dal Lake allures us with its tranquil charm. The tall stately deodars frame the small lake and cast their mirror image on its placid waters. The lake, which serves as the starting point for most treks, is dotted on its periphery with several small temples and some eateries. We get magnificent views of the Dhauladhars from Naddi, at a higher elevation beyond the lake. From here we watch the sun slide off the sky and the lights in the valley come out, glittering like a garland of gemstones, stretching miles below.  

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