Over the hills...

Dharamshala is a hill station where the beautiful, the spiritual, and the political converge, finds out Giridhar Khasnis

Over the hills...
Just before boarding the night train from Delhi in early February, we checked the weather forecast: ‘Expect below-normal temperatures in Dharamshala; torrential showers likely accompanied by thunder and lightning!’

We took the ominous prediction in our stride and were delighted to greet the winter sun at Pathankot station the next morning. As the rickety bus crawled uphill, we glimpsed the distant snow-capped mountains from our window seats. When we debarked at the Dharamshala bus stand, the sun was shining bright, and the cool winds were welcoming.

Like many hill stations in the country, Dharamshala too was a summer resort and picnic spot for the British in the 19th century. Situated in the upper reaches of the Kangra Valley at an altitude between 1,250 and 2,000 metres, it was an ideal getaway for the colonial rulers from the heat and dust of the Indian plains. They even planned to make Dharamshala the summer capital of India, but moved away to Shimla after a devastating earthquake significantly damaged the hill city, killing more than 1,500 people on April 4, 1905.

Little Lhasa of India
Inhaling the fresh breeze, we realised that history, politics and spirituality were intrinsically linked to each other in this small hill town. For one, Dharamshala (with the adjoining Mcleod Ganj) is the centre of the Tibetan exile world; and this is where the Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) resides.

The story of the Dalai Lama, his flight from China, and adventurous journey to India makes for an interesting reading. It was way back in March 1959 that the then 23-year-old monk disguised himself as a soldier before slipping through the crowds outside the palace in Lhasa. Taking the cover of darkness of nights, he and his retinue of soldiers and cabinet members reportedly crossed the Himalayas on foot and reached India to seek asylum. Following an offer of friendship and necessary facilities by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Tibetan religious leader and hundreds of his followers took sanctuary in Dharamshala (often called the Little Lhasa of India).

Settling in the verdant and thinly populated township, the Dalai Lama went on to set up a Tibetan Government-in-Exile, which exists to this day. McLeod Ganj, less than 10 km from the town of Dharamshala, is the seat of the exiled Tibetan government. Thirty years after he took refuge in India, the Buddhist spiritual and political trailblazer received the Nobel Peace Prize (1989). Although he relinquished himself from the political functioning of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in 2011, the Dalai Lama continues to wield enormous influence on his people and their politics.

Many attractions
While a serious visitor would find its history and politics interesting, for a casual tourist, Dharamshala is a place to relax and enjoy its many alluring sights, scenes and attractions. The hill station is clearly divided into Lower Dharamshala (comprising mainly the commercial hub and bazaars) and Upper Dharamshala (which includes the more colourful Tibetan settlement of McLeod Ganj).

Expectedly, one necessarily finds time to visit the several Tibetan monasteries in and around the twin-towns with larger-than-life idols of meditating Buddha and cylindrical prayer wheels. Among the most popular ones are Tsechokling Gompa in McLeod Ganj (built in 1987 to replace the original Dip Tse Chok Ling Gompa in Tibet, destroyed in the Revolution); Tsuglagkhang (also known as the Dalai Lama Temple Complex, where His Holiness resides); and Gyuto Monastery (also known as Karmapa Temple, 8 km from Dharamshala and 13 km from McLeod Ganj).

During our trip, we made Sidhpur, located about 7 km on the outskirts of Dharamshala, as our base. The beautiful and secluded village offered excellent views of towering mountains, sprawling valleys and rushing streams. A big plus was the proximity to the charming Norbulingka Institute, known for its involvement in preserving Tibetan culture, literature and art. Established in 1988 as the summer residence of the Dalai Lama, this complex is set amidst the Japanese-inspired gardens. It houses the Seat of Happiness Temple, Buddhist murals, art studios, and a doll museum.

When in McLeod Ganj, one gets naturally directed to the Anglican church, St John in the Wilderness, just a stone’s  throw away from the bus stand. The old, mid-19th-century church, built with grey stone and bearing Neo-Gothic architectural style, features attractive Belgian stained-glass windows, a striking wooden altar and a bell hanging down from a high tower. In its well-maintained precincts is a cemetery which, among others, has the grave of the lieutenant general of Punjab, David McLeod. Not far from McLeod Ganj bus stand is also the Bhagsunag Waterfall (Bhagsu Falls), a sure-shot crowd-puller.

The best way to enjoy both Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj is, of course, to take long leisurely walks and soak in the atmosphere. During our short visit, we were lucky to see the many contours of swiftly-changing weather — sunny, cloudy, rainy and wintry — all in a matter of three days.

While the first day of our visit was bright and sunny, a lightning storm broke out in the night, followed by heavy rain; it continued for hours. But come dawn, the rains had stopped. The valley had turned lush green and the majestic mountains filled with thick blankets of snow. “It hasn’t rained so much in the last one year,” gushed a Sidhpur resident. “Look at the mountains. I have not seen so much snow there in the last 25 years!”

Thanking our stars, we traversed many undulating roads of Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj — some deserted, others relatively well-populated. There were many historical buildings and parks which came in our way. In the bazaars, the shops displayed a range of handicrafts, antiques, curios, shawls and carpets. Small eateries, local dhabas and bakeries attracted hungry tourists.

“This is still off-season for us; real tourist crowds will come only in March and April,” said our driver, who navigated the sharp curves between Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj.

In the more popular areas like the market and temple complexes, we saw the local crowds seamlessly mingling with visitors. Our interactions with people gave us many insights into Dharamshala and its residents. Some of them voiced concern about how this once-peaceful abode of Tibetan spiritual culture was rapidly turning into a concrete jungle. Over the years, the tourism boom had attracted a steady stream of Tibet enthusiasts, Buddhist academics, backpackers, and even film stars, but civic amenities had not matched up.

From the residents
While Dharamshala continues to be a fine holiday destination for a casual visitor, long-term observers have their own take on the goings-on in the area. “Dharamshala receives fewer seekers of Eastern wisdom from the West than it did a decade ago,” writes renowned author Pankaj Mishra (The New York Times/December 1, 2015). “The flow of refugees from Tibet, once running into the thousands, has slowed to a trickle. Many exiles have returned to Tibet, where urban and rural incomes have risen. And life for ordinary Tibetans in Dharamshala remains a struggle. They still cannot own property, and an increasing number hope to emigrate to the West.”

Some of the local people too did not seem happy with the situation. “Look at them,” one of them in McLeod Ganj said pointing at a group of Tibetans. “They wear good fashionable attires; have a fast life, and make merry all the time. Where do they get money to buy those expensive gadgets, vehicles and other things? It is we who struggle to make ends meet. We know for sure that many of them are Chinese agents who have entered Dharamshala by disguising themselves as monks and refugees.”

So, as we boarded our night bus back to Delhi, our feelings for the seemingly beautiful town were a bit shaken if not stirred. But one thing was certain. We had seen more crimson-robed monks in just three days in this hill town than we had seen in our whole life before.

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