Ever since the Dalai Lama and his entourage escaped the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959 and were granted a new home in the district of Dharamsala, in India’s Himachal Pradesh, the area has been a magnet for travellers and truth-seekers alike.
In fact, rather than the mundane, workaday lower town of Dharamsala itself, it is actually the delightful British hill station of McLeod Ganj above it, around ten kilometres by twisting road and all of 1000m higher in altitude, that has become the big draw as India’s very own “Little Tibet”.
Many people, including celebrities such as Richard Gere and Uma Thurman, come to India specifically to soak up its Buddhist traditions, yet many more casual travellers end up staying here a lot longer than they originally intended, drawn in by its alluring atmosphere.
What captivates travellers here?
Set in the lower reaches of the mighty Himalaya, McLeod Ganj is surrounded by peaceful pine-forested ridges and offers sweeping views down towards Dharamsala from many of its appealing guesthouses and rooftop restaurants.
However, you only truly get to appreciate the magnificence of your surroundings by taking one of the many possible hikes in the surrounding area. Apart from the simple direct shortcut down to Dharamsala, more appealing walks take you through the woods to the nearby villages of Bhagsu and Dharamkot, the former famous for its ancient Shiva temple and a small waterfall. This becomes especially lively during the major yatra (pilgrimage) between late July and the end of August.
Slightly further afield is diminutive but usually peaceful Dal Lake, not to be confused with its more famous namesake in Kashmir. Those with stronger legs and lungs can easily arrange longer treks in the majestic Dhauladhar Range to the north, perhaps going all the way to the atmospheric Hindu temple towns of Chamba and Bharmour via the 4350m-high Indrahar Pass. Numerous travel agencies around town can help you plan one of these more demanding adventures, and also provide guides and equipment to ease your passage.
When should I go?
Dharamsala has the reputation as the second wettest place in India so choose your time wisely. The autumn months, before the mercury drops but while the days are dry and sunny, are in many ways the best time to visit, although people do come year round. The busiest time is in the late spring and early summer, when hordes escape the pre-monsoon heat on the plains, while the winter is extremely cold and late summer can be very rainy.
Where can I do some soul searching?
Unsurprisingly, as the seat of one of the world’s greatest living spiritual leaders, McLeod Ganj is well established as a major centre for meditation, yoga and other esoteric retreats. Both Buddhist and Hindu traditions are amply represented, so you can choose between a variety of courses of differing lengths, in such disciplines as Hindu Vipassana or Tibetan Buddhist meditation.
If you have limited time or just want to dip your toes in these waters, several centres such as Tibet World offer drop-in sessions lasting as little as one hour.
The significance of the religious centres is far more important than the magnificence of any particular structures, although there are some places of worship that are well worth a visit, even the squat St John in the Wilderness church.
The most obvious place to start, however, is the red and yellow Buddhist temple that stands just behind the tiny main square and acts as the fulcrum for the two tightly parallel bazaar streets that run down from it. It is traditional to turn the many prayer wheels that surround it, always in a clockwise direction.
The other main places to see are the Tsug Lakhang temple and Namgyal monastery, both close to the Dalai Lama’s residence.
The residence is not open to the public and private audiences with His Holiness are exceptionally rare and require much advance planning. But it is worth checking out whether he is giving a public address while you are in town.
I hear it’s also a great place to wind down?
McLeod Ganj is not only about exercising your legs or cleansing your chakras either. The town is an extremely laidback place just to unwind, meet other travellers, eat well and engage in some shopping therapy.
Among the authentic souvenirs you can pick up here are beautifully painted or embroidered thangkas, the vivid wall hangings of the Buddha that you see in all the monasteries. It is also possible to witness these works of art being created.
The myriad stalls that line the main bazaar area are full or ornaments, jewellery and other tempting trinkets, while several shops stock an impressive range of perfumes and oils of all descriptions.
You can also sample some of the best food available in the Indian Himalaya here. Don’t miss the chance to try traditional Tibetan cuisine, such as tasty momos (steamed or fried dumplings) or steaming bowls of thukpa (a hearty noodle soup). Both these delights are available in veg, chicken, mutton or, unusually for India, pork versions.
Obviously, the usual North Indian and occasional South Indian dishes are freely available, and the preponderance of western travellers has led to many places offering international cuisine, Israeli favourites and some rare finds such as Bhutanese cuisine, with its rich cheesy datse sauces.
The cafés and restaurants are certainly sociable spots, although you should not come here expecting much in the way of nightlife. Only a couple of places serve alcohol and most shut their doors between 10pm and 11pm. Still, a rave scene would hardly fit the gently uplifting nature of this special destination.