A Weekend in Dharamsala, India
Spend Time in the Home of the Dalai Lama
Dharamsala from afar seems to be a dreamy town, perched in the foothills of the Himalayas. Massive mountains loom over the picturesque buildings and Tibetan prayer flags blow in the wind. As the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people in exile, one can only imagine the peaceful escape the town must be. However, as you get closer, climbing the daunting mountainous roads, a contradiction becomes apparent. Despite the calming and meditative beliefs on which it was founded, even Dharamsala can’t avoid the utter craziness of the country in which it lies: India.
I spent two and a half weeks of my six weeks in India exploring Dharamsala and the surrounding countryside, fully immersing myself in Tibetan culture. Tibetan culture is widely unknown, but incredibly powerful and beautiful. Given their tumultuous history, taking the time to explore it means wonders. Despite the discomfort that comes with being a westerner traveling in India, my time in Dharamsala quickly became one of the most rewarding travel experiences of my life and I would recommend it to anyone.
Although I stayed for an extended period of time, fast moving backpackers can definitely cover the highlights in one to two days. For context, Dharamsala is the home of the Tibetan Community in Exile. The Chinese invaded Tibet in the 1940s and 50s, killing thousands. This resulted in the escape of their religious and political leader, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Many followed in his footsteps, traversing the rugged Himalayan mountains to seek refuge in India. Their monasteries, religious texts and homes were destroyed. Although Dharamsala is where the heart of the community is located, you can find Tibetans sprawled across the country, residing in camps set aside by the Indian government.
When you first arrive in Dharamsala, spend some time exploring the streets of McLeod (pronounced McCloud) Ganj, the religious and tourist center of the city. To be clear, Dharamsala is the name of both the city and region. Make a point to people watch as you wander. Dharamsala draws all types. On every corner you’ll find Tibetan monks in their characteristic maroon and orange robes, Indian tourists avoiding the heat further south, Western hippies donning dreadlocks and Israelis relaxing after their mandatory stint in the military. Prepare yourself for exotic smells, narrow roads shared by cows, scooters, monkeys and people alike and beautiful goods peeking out from every shop. There’s unlimited excitement.
Duck in and out of shops as you walk and try to chat up some of the local shop owners. You’ll find that Tibetans are incredibly kind and demure. They care deeply about their words and often speak in metaphor. If you ask a question it is easy to expect them to take upwards of 30 minutes to respond. Due to their emphasis on language, everything they say is valuable. I constantly felt as though I needed to walk around with a tape recorder and notebook to capture every conversation. While there, get yourself some Tibetan specialties such as prayer flags, “Free Tibet” gear for the politically inclined or religious art pieces like Mandalas and Tankas. Some of my favorite stops include Students for Free Tibet and The Buddhist Bookstore. None of the souvenirs your friends buy in Europe will compare, exchange rate included.
If you’re getting hungry for a mid-morning snack, stop in at Moonpeak Café for coffee and carrot cake. If you’re looking for something truly Tibetan, try honey ginger lemon tea. Moonpeak is a favorite of Westerners. It’s well known for its safe food, so for those of you whose probiotics haven’t kicked in yet, don’t fret. If you need to speak to home it has wifi as well.
After a snack, start some cultural activities. Take a five-minute cab ride down to upper Dharamsala to visit the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. As you explore the stacks of texts and museum note that almost all what you see was carried over the Himalayas during the escape. The struggles the Tibetans have faced in recent history has triggered a massive effort to preserve the culture. In addition to preservation, they are constantly commissioning young Tibetan artists to create more work. This ensures the culture is not only maintained, but continues to grow and evolve.
Back in McLeod, The Tibetan Kitchen is a great stop for a traditional lunch. Be sure to try momos, the Tibetan version of a dumpling. If you get a mutton filled one, just know that mutton is goat, something I would have loved to find out before my last week in India. Tibetan food is a fun combination of Indian and Chinese cuisine and has been slowly adapting to Indian heat and spice over the last 40 years.
After lunch, walk down to the Dalai Lama’s Temple. This temple is not only one of the most important places to modern Tibetans, but is also completely open and free to the public Buddhist or not. Explore the main temple and service area and note the people prostrating on the outskirts. Prostration is a full body form of meditation and may remind you of a burpee. As you can infer, it’s intended to be physically uncomfortable. If you do choose to walk around the temple, stick to walking clockwise out of respect. Circumambulation, or moving in circles around a religious structure, is an important way Buddhists cultivate merit, compassion and good karma.
For dinner and a splurge try out The Tibetan Hotel’s restaurant, just a 2-minute walk from the temple. It is commonly regarded as the best food in the area. If you’ve been in India for a while and are craving western food check out Nick’s Pizza. Be sure to get pizza and some chocolate cake. Dharamsala is known all around India for its cake so don’t miss the opportunity and remember: diets don’t count when you travel. If you have a late night check out Indique, one of the few places open past normal dinner hours.
Although the spots above are often regarded as the top tourist destinations, there’s still so much more to do to fill your time. For athletic and adventurous travelers, hire a guide and take the trek to Truind, a stunning scenic outlook north of McLeod. It’s about a 3-hour hike one way and has an incredibly rewarding view at the end. For artsy people, take a cab to the Norbuligka Institute, which preserves and teaches Tibetan art. The gardens within the grounds are art themselves. Next door is a nunnery with a shop where you can buy handmade beads and fabric. If you can swing an invite inside, definitely accept. Behind the nunnery is a stunning view of the Himalayas along with the cutest cows I have seen in my life. And for the wanderers, I felt as though could walk the streets of McLeod forever and never get bored. There is always something new to look at. As mentioned before, the people watching there is second to none.
Dharamsala is definitely not a place people think of when coming to India. Until you are there do you truly understand the significance of your presence. Gaining a grasp of Tibetan culture and history is incredibly valuable and will help preserve their message and identity for years to come. Bring your stories home and share it with friends and family. The Tibetan culture cannot be lost to history. The combination of beautiful views, fresh clean air and the people make Dharamsala a spot not to be missed in your travels. Although to me, the chocolate cake is reason enough.