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