Dharamshala – A Tibet in exile

Moine kora Dharamshala

Dharamsala is situated in the foothills of the Himalayan Dhauladhar Range, in Himachal Pradesh, northern India. The area is a global, cultural and religious meeting point, where first- and second-generation Tibetan monks and refugees rub shoulders with local Gaddi villagers, Kashmiri businesspeople and travellers from all over the world. It offers a huge diversity of sights, activities and attractions. Dharamsala is divided into four main areas – McLeodganj, Bhagsunag, Lower Dharamsala and Naddi. McLeodganj was named after David McLeod, the British Empire’s Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. It is now the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. During high season, the town throngs with tourists and spiritual pilgrims.

McLeodganj’s major landmark is the Thekchen Choling, which houses the Dalai Lama’s residence and the Tsuglagkang (main temple). Of simple design, and built from concrete, the complex provides Tibetan refugees with a gathering place for prayer. Its plainness reflects the Dalai Lama’s decision not to build in lavish Tibetan style, but rather to respect the refugee community’s limited means. Radiating from the main square, McLeodganj’s narrow streets are lined with hotels, internet cafes, shops and stalls, selling everything from Kashmiri shawls to goat-blood sausages, turquoise and coral jewellery, musical instruments and Tibetan hand-made paper. The town’s restaurants range from Tibetan to Punjabi, Italian, French, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Israeli.

Adjacent to the main temple are the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics and Namgyal Monastery, from amongst whose monks the Dalai Lama’s personal attendants are chosen. The Mani Path, behind the palace, leads to a home for retired members of the Tibetan administration. A five-minute taxi ride down the steep jeep road towards Dharamsala lies the Gangchen Kyishong, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Here, the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies oversees the running of all government departments, including religion, culture, education, health and finance, as well as contributing to the struggle for a free Tibet. The government complex also houses the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives which, built in 1971, contains statues, paintings and books, many of which were salvaged from Tibetan monasteries and temples by escaping refugees. Two minutes’ further walk takes you to the Men Tse Kang Tibetan Medical and Astrological Centre. The medical centre contains the largest Tibetan pharmacy outside of Tibet, to which staff bring medicinal plants gathered from around Himachal Pradesh for processing.

Lower Dharamsala was founded as a military cantonment by the British in 1846, when they annexed the kingdom of Kangra. Today it is a small, thriving Indian town, whose streets are lined with shops selling textiles, clothing and household goods. The surrounding agricultural land offers some of the best views up to the Dhauladhars in the region. Named after the mythical Rajasthani King Bhagsu and the snake god Nag, with whom he did battle, Bhagsunag is notable for its temple, which is administrated by the Indian Army’s Gurkha Rifles. Adjacent is a clean outdoor swimming pool, fed by a mountain spring. The village has many shops, hotels and roadside stalls, selling jewellery and crafts from Nepal, Kashmir and Rajasthan. Stall-holders also sell traditional Ayurvedic herbs and medicines, and roadside henna artists ply their trade of temporary tattooing . The Gaddi village of Naddi is a 15-minute taxi ride from McLeodganj. Viewpoint Naddi offers stunning views of the Dhauladhars to the north, and the sunset to the west. Between McLeodganj and Naddi lie St John’s Church and the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) School.The Church of St John in the Wilderness was built in 1852 to meet the needs of British soldiers posted in Dharamsala. Constructed from local granite, it withstood the massive 1905 earthquake, but lost its steeple and bell. A new bell was cast in London in 1915, but never raised. It now rests beside the church in a wooden support. St John’s has a small graveyard which contains a memorial to Lord Elgin, Viceroy of India, who died in 1863.

Established in 1960 by the Dalai Lama’s elder sister, the Tibetan Children’s Village first served as an orphanage for the children of refugees who died either during their escape from Tibet or subsequently in India. Now, some of the children are brought by their parents from Tibet to receive a Tibetan as opposed to Chinese education, whilst others are second, third and fourth generation exiles, born in India. TCV offers both academic and vocational training. It has an on-site shop, with two more in McLeodganj, which sell clothes and crafts produced by the students. Wildlife in the Dharamsala area includes cheeky macaque monkeys, shy langurs and scuttling mongooses, whilst bears and leopards keep mainly to the deodar forests at higher altitudes. Birdlife is profuse in the area, including many birds of prey and the emblem of Himachal Pradesh – the monal.

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