Landing at the Kangra Airport, 12-km away from Dharamshala, is a bit like landing onto an ornamental painting. Mountainscapes wallpaper the descent. Even if you’ve been to this part of Western Himachal by armchair, you’ll know it as the home of the Tibetan government in exile. As soon as we’ve driven 9-km north of the rambunctious main market, and entered the area that is McLeod Ganj, the residence of the 14th Dalai Lama and home to the Tibetan community in exile, I feel lost both geographically and in time.
Everywhere the eye gazes, it is a reminder of Tibet. The community’s main temple is housed in the Tsuglagkhang Complex — home to the Tibet museum, the Dalai Lama Temple and the Namgyal Gompa monastery in which monks debate and meditate. In this holy trinity of structures, there’s an embarrassment of riches to behold. Here, the gilded statue of the Sakyamuni is bordered by sacred texts and paintings and the Kalachakra Temple contains the distinct murals of the Wheel of Time while butter statues, lamps, ritual bowls of water, images of deities and the thunderbolt sculpture used during prayer ceremonies are found everywhere.
Time for meditation
A half-an-hour drive from the Gyuto Monastery — known for the study of tantric meditation and Buddhist philosophy — is a striking yellow confection against a backdrop of clouds and sky. As intriguing as the prayer halls inside the monastery, are the lamas, students and monks, going about the business of daily life around it.
Scurrying figures in orange robes make for a debate or head to the canteen, as on the move as the spinning-prayer wheels. The McLeod Ganj market, being another good place to get a pulse on the local, is where I head next.
Squatting cheek-by-jowl on narrow streets, are stores selling an assortment of clothing, junk jewellery and Tibetan artefacts —Thangkas (paintings framed in silk depicting Buddhist deities), bronze statues, bowls that sing with sound when struck right.
Bags brimming with things I didn’t know that I wanted till I got here, I’m glad I’m staying 2 km away from the madding crowd on a hill above McLeod Ganj in the village of Dharamkot. Cedarwood trees and pristine views of the mighty Dhauladar Range engulf me.
My clock re-set to more introspective time, I sign-up for a morning of yoga by the Bhagsu Nag waterfalls. Two km away, it is an easy hike to a feast of natural poetry. An abundance of birdlife peppers the path.
Traditions & art forms
Standing as firm as a flag against the globalised and the mass-produced is the Norbulingka Institute, 12 km away. In buildings constructed around water bodies, Tibetan architecture, traditions and art forms are kept alive. Here, artists are preserving practices like wood carving, Thangka painting and appliqué work, which have been handed down through centuries from master to student.
From raw material to finished product, one is invited to view the process. If there’s one space I’m glad I’ve factored time in for, it’s the Losel Doll Museum. Here handmade dolls, dressed in traditional costumes from the various regions of Tibet, illustrate aspects of local life.
At the end of my time here there are many images I carry away. Grandiloquent views from the larger than life Kangra fort, that was witness to a thousand years of invasion. Extravagant royal living from times past is evidenced at the Sansar Chand Museum with its silver throne room and ceremonial objects on display. There’s poetry in stone at the 8th century Masrur temples carved out of a monolithic rock.
Belgian stained-glass windows stand-out with grace in the St John’s Gothic church, that managed to withstand the 1905 Kangra earthquake.
What unites these seemingly disparate images, born of entirely different cultural milieux, is the human tenacity that created them. In each, a collective ode to the ingenuity of a species from which we all hail.