A visit to Dharamshala is on every Indian traveller, and every traveller to India’s, bucket list. With Tibetan monasteries snuggled in cedar-clad hills, crooked narrow streets, and the mighty frozen Himalayas for a backdrop, the city offers unparalleled charm. Why, even its name is a winner. Dharam Shala means “spiritual dwelling.” 🙂
For two thousand years though, Dharamshala was a mere hamlet, ruled along with the rest of the Kangra valley by the Katoch rulers based in Kangra Fort. A tiny colonial hill-station during the British Raj, it catapulted to international fame when it was presented in May 1960 to the 14th Dalai Lama by the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, to serve as the former’s new headquarters. There has been no looking back for the settlement up in the Dhauladhar range since then.
Dharamshala’s sights can be broadly divided into three parts: All that is Tibetan, what little that is left of the British Raj, and Dharamshala’s past and present Indian heritage.
But hey, didn’t the Dalai Lama live in McLeod Ganj?
Like me, you too may have gotten a wee bit confused with the nomenclature. So, first things first. Dharamshala is divided into two parts. Lower Dharamshala at the base of the mountains, and Upper Dharamshala in the upper part of the mountains. Upper Dharamshala is also referred to as McLeod Ganj, one of its suburbs. A steep, narrow road connects the two.
And if you are wondering how McLeod Ganj got its very British name, it’s coz it is named after Donald F. McLeod, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab [1865 – 1870]. The suburb is a Tibetan enclave and the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1960, following China’s forced occupation of Tibet.
When speaking to the local Tibetans on a 4-day trip to Dharamshala last month, I discovered most of them had never been to their homeland. Born and schooled in India, their only understanding of Tibet was what their elders told them, or what they heard and read in the media. Since I had travelled to Tibet [in the summer of 2004], our conversations invariably veered towards them asking me about their own country!
Dear traveller, this post is my 36 hour itinerary of Dharamshala. It comprises of a self-guided walk of McLeod Ganj on Day 1 and a self-guided drive through Dharamshala, Sidhbari, Sidhpur, and Kangra on Day 2.
All of McLeod Ganj’s attractions are on one, or the other, of the various streets which fan out from the central square on top of the ridge. While McLeod Ganj is best explored on foot, you would need to hire a car for the outlying sites.
But please, don’t conclude Dharamshala only needs 36 hours. That could not be further from the truth. If you have more time, more than 36 hours, you could add a couple of treks [Triund and Bhagsu Falls are popular], a sunset view point or two, and more temples. Be warned they will be packed with “tourists.”
Or you could just wander McLeod Ganj’s lanes and revisit some of the sites below, or hang out at its many cafes, contemplating life over a steaming cappuccino like I did. I leave it to you. But whatever you do, make that journey to Dharamshala and check that bucket list box. The traveller in you will be grateful.
[Note: Top image: First floor gallery of the main temple, Norbulingka Institute.]
Day 1: Self-guided walk of McLeod Ganj
Self-guided walk Stop 1: St. John in the Wilderness
St. John in the Wilderness, Dharamshala: A summer haven for the British Raj.
Wrapped in towering cedar trees, St. John in the Wilderness is steeped in British Raj nostalgia. Close your eyes, and you can almost hear the haunting sounds of a choir and the hushed prayer and anxious excitement of the memsahibs and sahibs once gathered inside the stone walls in their new home.
A kilometre-long walk on the Forsyth Ganj-McLeod Ganj Road, filled with birdsong and green forest cover, leads to the church through the Dhauladhar range from the main square. Despite its collapsed tower which tumbled down in the 1905 Kangra earthquake, the Anglican church built in 1852 is filled with romantic charm. Most notable is its exquisite Belgian stained-glass windows donated by Lady Elgin, wife of Governor-General and Viceroy of India, Lord Elgin. He himself lies interred in a rocket-shaped tomb in the church graveyard.
Travel tip: The church opens at 7 am. Make your way to it early so you can give the selfie-clicking tourists, which descend on it en-masse later in the morning, a miss.
Self-guided walk Stop 2: Namgyalma Stupa and Prayer Wheels
Beautifully kitsch, the Namgyalma Stupa and Prayer Wheels sits atop central McLeod Ganj.
In the heart of the city, on the other side of the main square and still on the Forsyth Ganj-McLeod Ganj Road, is the Namgyalma Stupa and Prayer Wheels. Squashed between two narrow lanes, the golden pagoda-styled temple with a golden stupa inside and rows of Mani prayer wheels on the street-facing outsides is pure unadulterated Indo-Tibetan charm.
Referred to as both the stupa of complete victory and stupa of blessings, the three circular steps of the stupa represent Buddha’s victory over death. The Mani prayer wheels outside are filled with thousands of the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra. By turning these wheels once, one earns merit in equal measure to that of reciting the mantras inside them. The topmost shrine contains a serene effigy of Buddha.
Travel tip: Do climb up to the top for some spectacular, am-on-top-of-the-world views.
Self-guided walk Stop 3: Dip Tse Chok Ling Gompa [Monastery]
Dip Tse Chok Ling Monastery’s main temple is filled with Tibetan religious paraphernalia, including the above thangka. The monastery traces its origin to an 18th Century gompa in Lhasa destroyed during China’s cultural revolution.
Worn patches of British Raj-era footpaths crisscross the now deserted Jangal Reserve Banoi surrounding the monastery.
Perched 300 metres below McLeod Ganj in the Jangal Reserve Banoi is the Dip Tse Chok Ling Monastery. Its green roofs and whitewashed walls are an oasis of peace. Its main temple one of the loveliest in McLeod Ganj. The path to it, a guaranteed deterrent to the casual visitor.
A flight of steep steps cut into the face of the mountain begins where the narrow Narowjee Road from the main square ends. Take the hundreds of steps down to the monastery’s inconspicuous entrance gate. Opened in 1987 with generous funding from mainly Germany and Switzerland, the residential quarters of its 50 monks are out of bounds. But the main temple filled with colourful thangkas, exotic frescoes, gilded effigies, and rows of maroon benches is open to the public.
Please note there is NO shortcut from the monastery to the Dalai Lama Temple Complex no matter what any print or online article states. To return, you will need to climb those daunting stairs up. 😊
Travel tip: The monastery has a small charming guesthouse where you can stay overnight. To know more, click here.
Self-guided walk Lunch: Nick’s Italian Kitchen, Bhagsunag Road
Central McLeod Ganj is choc-o-bloc with cafes and restaurants serving dishes from all four corners of the world. I personally liked Nick’s Italian Kitchen. Fresh food, fast service and the open seating area make it a winner. Plus, after the climb up those umpteen steps, you’ll need a breather.
Self-guided walk Stop 4: Dalai Lama Temple Complex [Tsuglakhang Temple Complex]
A visit to the Tibet Museum reveals the scale and depth of Tibet’s loss of identity in gruesome, heart-rending detail.
Morning chanting, Kalachakra Temple.
Left: The thousand-armed Avalokiteshwara with eyes on each palm so he may see and bless all his devotees; Right: Detail of tantric Kalachakra and Vishvamata effigy. [Kalachakra Temple]
A monk ponders on his next line of argument at the evening debates held in the Dalai Lama Temple Complex.
McLeod Ganj’s star attraction is, without a doubt, the Tsuglakhang Temple Complex, better known as the Dalai Lama Temple Complex, on Temple Road. As the official residence of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, no visit to Dharamshala is complete without visiting it. But if you are looking for old-fashioned Tibetan architecture and art wrapped in heritage and timelessness, you will be disappointed. It is all pure concrete.
But what is wrapped in heritage and timelessness is the intangible Tibetan culture it holds in its walls. Sonorous Buddhist chants fill the prayer halls. Maroon-robed monks scurry through the corridors. Butter lamps flutter in silence.
Three sites are open to visitors: The tantric Kalachakra Temple, Dalai Lama’s Temple, and Tibet Museum. The Tibetan National Marty’s Memorial facing the museum pays homage to the Tibetans who lost their lives during the Chinese onslaught. Of the two temples, the Kalachakra Temple oozes the most ambience with its mysterious frescoes and idols, whilst the unassuming Dalai Temple is the most holy for it is the personal temple of His Holiness.
If you reach the Tibet Museum by 3 pm you will be able to see one of the hour-long documentaries on Tibet it runs daily. Along with the exhibits of Tibet, pre and post Chinese occupation, and stories of the 155 self-immolations between 2009 and 2019, it makes for a heart-rending reminder of Tibet’s loss of identity and the country’s desperate cries to be heard.
Travel tip: Student monks debate on Buddhist philosophies, following an age-old Tibetan tradition, as part of their curriculum in the central square 6.30 pm onward. Visitors are welcome to watch them as they clap and twirl whilst making a point.
Day 2: Self-guided drive through Dharamshala, Sidhbari, Sidhpur, and Kangra
Self-guided drive Stop 1: Men-Tsee-Khang Museum
Kelsang Chodon, curator of the Men-Tsee-Khang Museum, gives the most insightful and fascinating guided museum walks.
On one of the hairpin bends of Jogiwara Road is Lower Dharamshala’s most riveting treasure—the Men-Tsee-Khang Museum. Exceptionally well-curated, yet rarely visited, the museum is a window to the enigmatic world of Tibetan Medicine and Astrology.
Tibetan Medicine aka the Healing Science of Tibet is one of the three principal indigenous medicine systems of Asia. Yuthog Yonten Gonpo wrote its four medical treatises or tantras in the 8th – 9th Century AD. Tibetan Astrology, on the other hand, traces itself back to the Tibetan King Nyatri Tsenpo in 127 BC and was amalgamated with Chinese and Indian sciences over the subsequent centuries.
The magic happens in how the two are intertwined in Tibet. Here, the planets and stars determine when and how herbs, plants, bark, rocks, salts, minerals, precious, and semi- precious gemstones are to be crushed, mixed, and used in medical treatments. It is a science which is still practiced in the adjoining Institute.
Over the museum’s three floors are 80 exquisite, hand-painted medical thangkas or “research books” illustrating the four treatises based on 17th Century prototypes, along with the original scriptures, commentaries, tools of the trade, and herbs and minerals.
Travel tip: Herbal and mineral health drinks, skin and hair care products, and health supplements can be bought at the Institute’s shop or here.
Self-guided drive Stop 2: Gyuto [Karmapa] Monastery
Gyuto Monastery, with a count of 500 monks, is a tantric Buddhist university and the residence of the 17th Karmapa Lama.
Tibetan Tantric Buddhism has its own unique pantheon of deities. Left: Guhyasamaja, tantric deity of the highest yoga tantra order; Right: Bhairava, the ferocious form of Manjusri. [Gyuto Monastery]
If you ever wanted to experience the mysticism of tantric Tibetan Buddhism in Dharamshala, the closest you can get to it is at the Gyuto Monastery in Sidhbari, off the Palampur-Dharamshala Road.
Surrounded by the prussian blue Dhauladhar mountains, the relatively isolated monastery is reminiscent of Buddhist monks’ robes with its butter-cup yellow and maroon temple rising from the ground at the end of a sweep of stairs.
Gyuto Monastery is a tantric university and falls under the monastic institutions of the Buddhist Gelug order. Founded in 1475, it originally stood in Lhasa. Like most other monasteries in Tibet, it was attacked and destroyed by Chinese forces in 1959, forcing the monks to flee. In 1996, it was re-established in its new home, Dharamshala, with generous funding from Japan. Gyuto Monastery is also referred to as the Karmapa Monastery as it is the residence of the 17th Karmapa Lama.
A cohort of 500 monks diligently study and practice tantric Buddhism within the premises, just like their predecessors did in previous centuries. Nothing has changed, except for the venue.
Self-guided drive Stop 3: Norbulingka Institute
Main temple at Norbulingka Institute, an oasis of spiritual peace and beauty.
Left: An artist works on a thangka painting guided by ancient traditions; Right: The Institute’s Losel Doll Museum houses over 150 dolls in traditional Tibetan costumes created by a group of artist-monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery.
You would have passed the exit for the Norbulingka Institute on the way to Gyuto Monastery. After exploring the monastery, now drive back on the same road to it.
A community-based self-sustainable initiative for traditional Tibetan arts, the Norbulingka Institute in Sidhpur is Dharamshala’s second most popular attraction after the Dalai Lama Temple Complex. Studios on thangka painting, thangka applique, statue-making, wood-carving, wood-painting, tailoring and weaving offer workshops, courses, and products for sale. All monies raised go back to the Tibetan community and artists who run the Institute.
What stands out about Norbulingka Institute is its strict, unadulterated adherence to tradition—sculptures have mantras packed inside them and the thangkas have sacred syllables inscribed on their reverse sides—much like it has been done for the past hundreds of years in Tibet.
Add to this, Japanese-styled ponds, zen gardens and a temple lovingly decorated by the Institute’s own artists, and you end up with a sanctum of peace and art.
NOTE: You may also like to read The ancient art of Tibetan thangka painting in Dharamshala.
Travel tip: Don’t miss the rooms in the upper floor of the temple. Thangka frescoes of the present and past lamas line the outer walls whilst a sun-dappled chapel provides moments of quiet contemplation.
Self-guided drive Lunch: Norling Cafe, Norbulingka Institute
Whether it is a pasta, pizza, or a sandwich that will satiate your hunger, Norling Cafe has it all. Oh, and the cold coffee drenched in chocolate sauce may just have you asking for a round of seconds. I had two. 😀
Self-guided drive Stop 4 and 5: War Memorial and Dharamshala Cricket Ground
War Memorial, a tribute to Himachal’s war heroes.
The picturesque, even on a rainy cloudy day, Dharamshala Cricket Stadium.
Two of Dharamshala’s modern Indian, non-Tibetan sites worth exploring are at the beginning of Kangra Road, just outside the city. These are the War Memorial and Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association [HPCA] Stadium. Both celebrate India’s heroes.
Built in 1977, the War Memorial is dedicated to Himachal martyrs who died during the Indo-Pakistan War in 1947 – 48, 1965 and 1971, Indo-China War in 1962, and border conflicts. Three black marble curved walls, representing the three wings of the armed forces, are inscribed with the names of the martyrs on five faces and has a mural on the sixth. The latter comprises a stout arm holding aloft the flame of national freedom surrounded by martyrdom garlands and medals.
On the other side of the road is the 23,000-seater HPCA Stadium. You do not have to be a hard-core cricket fan to have a fan moment here. It stirs awe anyways with its spectacular setting. Located at an altitude of 1,457 metres above sea level and surrounded by the towering snow-capped Himalayan mountains, this unique stadium has hosted various one day international, T20 international, and test matches.
Self-guided drive Stop 6: Kangra Fort and Museum
Facade of Laxmi Narayan Temple: One of the few, still intact, sculptured edifices inside Kangra Fort.
Left: Part of the 300-metre-high wall encircling the fort; Right: A Sikh family explores their Sikh ancestry at Kangra Fort.
Twenty-two kilometres south-west from the War Memorial, down Kangra Road which later becomes the Shimla-Kangra Road, are the ruins of the splendid Nagarkot or Kangra Fort at the confluence of the Banganga and Majhi rivers.
Inside the fort, wide stone steps pass through a series of striking gateways. The palace and temple complex on top of the hill contains the magical Laxmi Narayan Temple wall evocative of Kangra Fort’s past glories. A 4-kilometre-long and 300-metre-high stone wall, meanwhile, encircles the fort on three sides. Do go right up to the very top for some fabulous views of the Kangra valley.
Nagarkot was one of the oldest and strongest hill-states of the Punjab hills. Its fort served as the base of the Katoch [Rajput] clan of Kangra who traced themselves back to the legendary trigarta tribe mentioned in the Mahabharata. Conquered by the Sultans of Delhi and occupied for the first time by Mughal rulers, it was regained by the Katoch in the second half of the 18th Century.
Political squabbles with its neighbours, however, brought the fort under Sikh rule from 1809 – 1846, and thereafter British rule till 1947. In 1905, the Kangra earthquake crumbled its thousand years of history and art into dust and boulders.
Travel tip: The Kangra museum has a vibrant collection of sculptures which once decorated the fort. My favourite is the musician dancing to his own drumbeats. Do have a dekko at him.
Self-guided drive Last Stop: Bajreshwari Devi Temple
Guardians of the inner shrine at Bajreshwari Devi Temple.
There are a number of temples in Kangra, so why Bajreshwari Devi Temple as the last stop?
Firstly, it is one of the 51 shakti peethas associated with the goddess Shakti. According to legend, when Vishnu hurled a discus at Shiva to put a stop to his reckless grief-stricken dance over his consort Sati’s death, it sliced her body into 51 parts. Wherever a part of her fell, it became sacred ground. Her left breast fell in Bajreshwari.
Another myth claims the original temple was built by the Pandavas during the Mahabharata to seek goddess Durga’s protection. One of the richest temples in antiquity, the earlier edifice was destroyed in the 1905 Kangra earthquake.
Last, but not least, Durga devotees believe she covered her wounds [from her battle with the demon Mahishasur] in butter, right here. The tradition still continues on Maha Sakranti every year at the temple.
If myths and legends are not your cup of tea, then what if I told you Bajreshwari Devi Temple has some stunning frescoes in its main entrance which is topped with a nagarkhana or drum house, and a pack of fierce, albeit metal, lions and lionesses guard the main shrine? Either way, the temple qualifies to be a place to say one’s thanks for the joys travel brings one’s way. ❤
- Getting to Dharamshala: I flew into Gaggal Airport [Kangra] from Delhi. Taxi fare from the airport to McLeod Ganj is Rs. 800 one way for the hour-long drive.
- Getting around: I explored McLeod Ganj on foot and for the sites in Lower Dharamshala and beyond I hired a cab from the taxi stand in the main square at Rs. 2,000 for a full day.
- Staying there: I stayed at Hotel Holiday Hill [in the heart of McLeod Ganj]—one of the prime budget hotels in Dharamshala. The Superior Rooms have bay windows and balconies overlooking the majestic Dhauladhar mountains.
- To read about my Tibet travels in 2004, click here.