36 hours in dharamshala, home of the dalai lama

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? Continue reading

the ancient art of tibetan thangka painting in dharamshala

I was first introduced to the ancient Tibetan religious art form of thangkas in Gyangtse, in the heart of Tibet. It was the summer of 2004. I was travelling solo through Tibet—I had hired a 4X4, got a driver and a guide, and we drove through the majestic Himalaya mountains for seven days, stopping at monasteries, stupas, and temples on the way.

A four-day visit to Dharamshala this June, home to the 14th Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile brought all my memories of Tibet gushing back.

The street that faced the nine-tiered 15th Century octagonal Kumbum stupa in Gyangtse had been lined with stalls. The stupa, by the way, contained a staggering 77 chapels, 108 gates, 100,000 Buddhist paintings, and 1,000 sculptures of the Buddha. In the little shops in the street meanwhile, ancient Buddhist silk applique and cotton paintings, which I was told were called thangkas, were on sale along with other religious paraphernalia such as prayer wheels and prayer flags.

All the thangkas, I remember, looked more or less alike to me. They were filled with intricate mandalas or exotic gods and goddesses from the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, were framed in rich satin brocade, and had a deep yellow ruffle on the top. Many were dusty. Most looked old. The yellow ruffle, I learnt much later on, opened into a pair of “curtains” which covered the painting. I also remember they were frightfully expensive. Needless to say, I did not buy any. Strange, because even after 15 years I remember them vividly. Continue reading

travel diaries: the true blue heroes of dharamshala

Meet Sunny from Chamba [left] and Rahul from Dharamshala [right]. Sunny is 23 and Rahul is just 18. They both work in a gift shop in McLeod Ganj.

Real heroes don’t wear shining armour. Neither do they strut across cinema or sport or on social media to the thundering applause of likes. Instead, real heroes live amongst us in our everyday lives, usually in anonymity. I met my two real, true blue heroes last week. 🙂

It all started with a mention of Dip Tse Chok Ling monastery whilst reading up about Dharamshala. The idea of a secluded monastery, perched half-way up the Dhauladhar range, wrapped in green forest was appealing. An alley, followed with a few hundred steps deep into the bowels of the valley, led me to it. On the way down, unfortunately, my hiking boots, perhaps at the end of their tether, gave way, and I had to pack my shoe’s sole in my camera bag. Continue reading

the essential travel guide to aurangabad

Some travels are utopian. From brilliant guides to a lack of raucous crowds. From welcoming hotels to incident-free rides. From one-in-a-million experiences to unforgettable random moments. My 5-day solo exploration of Aurangabad and its environs in the month of March this year was one such. Unmarred at every level.

This post is about paying it forward. It is my way of passing on all the wonderful things that made my trip memorable. Perhaps some of these tips and insights could make your journey to Aurangabad just as special as they had made mine.

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Aurangabad is no stranger to travellers. It is the springboard for excursions to the world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Ajanta and Ellora. It is from here that one usually sets off to explore the one-of-its-kind Lonar Crater Lake, a National Geo-Heritage Monument. Within the city itself are numerous edifices which bookmark key characters and events in India’s colourful history.

Yet, the sleepy town in the heart of the Indian state of Maharashtra seems unmoved by its role in the global tourism arena. Its traffic-free streets breathe at a leisurely pace. Its quiet neighbourhoods hum to a small-town rhythm reminiscent of the time when it was a village that went by the name Khadki. Continue reading

travel diaries: hiking in the lonar crater

It was hot. Though still “spring,” the dry earth and parched twigs crackled in the heat under the relentless bleached sun. Nestled in a yawning hollow below me was a murky saline and alkaline lake. There was no path leading down. Just boulders and a smattering of clear patches.

I asked myself what the hell was I doing here.

High on every geologist’s bucket list, Lonar is the only hyper-velocity impact crater in basaltic rock on our earth. It was created some 52,000 years ago by a meteor weighing 2 million tonnes, hurtling at a speed of 90,000 kilometres per hour. Some believe the meteorite is still stuck inside the lake. But I am no geologist. For a devout Hindu, it holds in its folds scores of medieval crumbling stone temples. But I am no devout Hindu either. For the hiker, it is an opportunity to hike down and then up, an attractive enough deviation from the ordinary. Perhaps that was it. Continue reading

india’s classical masterpiece: the ellora caves

Be prepared to be bowled over.

No matter how many incredible photographs or videos you may have seen or paragraphs of eloquent text in guide books and articles you may have read, the real thing will.still.take.your.breath.away.

The Ellora caves are grander and more magnificent, yet full of intricate detailing, than you may ever have imagined.

Three ancient Indian religions are housed here. Three arts converge here. The site, spread over a two-kilometre long basalt massif, is one of the world’s largest rock-cut monastery-temple cave complexes with more than a hundred caves. And if that were not enough, these ‘caves’ were excavated out of living rock over a millennium ago, between 550 and 950 AD to be exact, with chisel and hammer, to create ethereal art and architecture in its wake.

Come, let me take you on a virtual tour of India’s Classical masterpiece and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. And in the process, inspire you to also make the journey to the Ellora caves in person. For what is life, but moments which take our breath away. 🙂 Continue reading