Dharamsala (261 kilometers north-northwest of Shimla, 484 kilometers north of Delhi, 260 kilometers west of Manali) in northern India has been the home of the Dalai Lama and a large Tibetan community since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in the 1959 with 52 monks from Namgyal Monastery near Lhasa. Located in the upper reaches of the Kangra Valley and nestled between the dramatic Dhauladhar mountains, this charming town is known for its conifer forests, bungalows, prayer wheels, prayer flags and Tibetan monasteries. The Dalai Lama lives outside of town in McLeod Ganj. In addition to the large number of Buddhist temples and shrines, there also some important Hindu religious buildings, including Jawalamukhi and Baijnath temples. Make sure to check out the Museum of Kangra Art.
Often called Little Tibet, Dharamsala is full of Tibetan monks in maroon robes, old men in chubas and women in traditional Tibetan aprons. Some have said the town was chosen as the site for the Tibetan community because it was so difficult to get to. In fact it was chosen for its beauty, scenery and the purity of the water.William Dalrymple wrote in the Paris Review from Tsuglagkhang, the temple attached to the Dalai Lama residence-in-exile. “All around us Tibetan pilgrims were circling the prayer hall on the topmost terrace of the temple. Some, in their ankle-length sheepskin chubas, were clearly new arrivals, nomads from western Tibet, fresh across the high snowy passes; others were long-term residents of this Tibet-outside-Tibet: red-robed refugee monks performing the thrice daily circumambulation of the Dalai Lama temple-residence. There was a strong smell of incense and burning butter lamps, and the air was full of the low murmur of muttered prayers and mantras. [Source: William Dalrymple, Paris Review, Spring 2010]
Dharamsala (also spelled Dharamshala) is home to about 55,000 people and surrounded by often mist-shrouded Himalayan peaks and a dense forests of oak, deodar, pine and conifers. Some visitors immerse themselves in yoga classes, meditation, Buddhist teachings and Tibetan culture while other head to the mountains for hikes and treks, or paragliding or mountain climbing. There are even those who come for the cricket. The town is home to one of the most beautiful cricket stadiums in the world that has hosted a number of international and Indian Premier League (IPL) matches.
In the heart of Dharamsala are its bustling and colorful markets offering exquisite multi-hued Tibetan Buddhist thangka paintings and miniature Buddha statues, to singing bowls, and Tibetan handicrafts. While in these bazaars you can sample Tibetan delicacies like thukpa (a soupy noodle dish), momos, golden fried baby corn, and mittha (local sweet prepared with rice and raisins). To get an overview of the uniquely rich culture of the city, a food place tostart is famous Norbulingka Institute, which serves as gatekeeper of the Tibetan art and culture and where you can observe local artisans practicing things like of thangka painting, applique, statue-making, decorative wood carving, wood painting and weaving.
Getting There: Some people take night train from Delhi to Pathankot and hire a taxi for the 4½ hour ride to Dharamsala. By Air: Gaggal Airport, 13 kilometers away, is the nearest airport. More convenient options are Chandigarh and Amritsar, which are connected by various airlines from different Indian cities. By Road: Good roads connect Dharamsala with other Indian cities and towns. By Train: The nearest railhead is Pathankot, which is connected with all major cities in the country. Tourists can take a ride on narrow gauge train between Pathankot and Kangra.
Dalai Lama and the History of Dharamsala
Dharamsala was the summer vacation retreat for Britons and grew as a Tibetan settlement in 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet after Chinese forces clamped down on Tibetans in Tibet. the Dalai Lama was granted asylum by India and allowed by the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, to stay in McLeodganj, in Upper Dharamsala.
The development of Dharamsala is closely tied with the Chinese takeover of Tibet, which began on October 7, 1950, when some 40,000 battled-hardened Chinese P.L.A. troops crossed the upper Yangzte River into eastern Tibet. A poorly-armed force of 4,000 Tibetans was quickly overrun.The Dalai Lama was 16 when the Chinese entered Lhasa in 1950. He responded to the crisis by taking over his duties as the temporal leader of Tibet, two years before he was officially supposed to do so. "I had to put my boyhood behind me," he said, "and immediately prepare myself to lead my country, as well as I could, against the vast power of Communist China."
On Tibetan New Year in 1959 a major revolt occurred. To this day no one is sure how or why it began and how widespread it was. By most accounts, it started after the Dalai Lama was forced by the Chinese government to attend a performance of a Chinese folk dance troupe during the holiday festivities. On March 19, fighting broke out in Lhasa late that night and raged for two days of hand-to-hand combat with odds stacked hopelessly against the Tibetan resistance. At 2.00 am the Chinese started shelling NorbuLingka. The Norbulinka was bombarded by 800 shells on March 21 Thousands of men, women and children camped around the palace wall were slaughtered and the homes of about 300 officials within the walls destroyed. In the aftermath 200 members of the Dalai Lama's bodyguard were disarmed and publicly machine-gunned. Lhasa's major monasteries, Gaden, Sera and Drepung were shelled -the latter two beyond repair - and monastic treasures and precious scriptures destroyed. Thousands of their monks were either killed on the spot, transported to the city to work as slave labour, or deported. In house-to-house searches the residents of any homes harbouring arms were dragged out and shot on the spot. Over 86,000 Tibetans in central Tibet were killed by the Chinese during this period.
On March 28, 1959, the Chinese Communist Party announced the creation of the Tibet Autonomous Region and dissolved the old Tibetan government.The unsuccessful uprising lead to a severe crackdown by the Chinese. China abolished the autonomous Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama and and tens of thousands of his followers were chased into exile.
Dalai Lama's Escape from Lhasa
In March 1959, 30,000 Tibetans surrounded Summer Palace of Norbulingka, where the Dalai Lama was staying, as 30,000 Chinese soldiers were preparing to move on the palace. Followers of the Dalai Lama were worried he might be kidnaped, imprisoned or even killed. One pro-Beijing lama was stoned to death. The Dalai Lama later wrote he felt like he was between "two volcanoes, each likely to erupt an any moment."
The Dalai Lama decided it was time go. On the night of March 17, after mortar shells had exploded in the palace ground, the Dalai Lama disguised himself as a soldier, and flung a gun over his shoulder and fled Lhasa with 52 monks in similar disguises. His golden robe was left on a couch at Potala Palace awaiting his return.
At 4:00pm on March 17, 1959, the two mortar shells landed short of Norbulinka palace walls in a marsh. At 10pm. on the same day, wearing a soldier's uniform with a gun slung over his shoulder, the Dalai Lama marched out of the Norbulinka and onto the danger-filled road to India. His mother and elder sister had preceded him. [Source: Tibet Oline tibet.org
In his autobiography, “My Land and My People", the Dalai Lama wrote: “When the Chinese guns sounded that warning of death, the first thought in the mind of every official within the Palace, and every humble member of the vast concourse around it, was that my life must be saved and I must leave the Palace and leave the city at once", "There was no certainty that escape was physically possible at all - Ngabo had assured us it was not.. If I did escape from Lhasa, where was I to go, and how could I reach asylum? Everything was uncertain, except the compelling anxiety of all my people to get me away before the orgy of Chinese destruction and massacre began". *~*
Dalai Lama's Escape from Tibet
The Dalai Lama was 24 when he left Lhasa. He traveled with 37 people, including his chamberlain, an abbot and three bodyguards. His family, monks, cabinet ministers and other bodyguards were in other small groups. Many senior monks also left.
The Dalai Lama traveled most of the distance on a brown horse with richly embroidered saddlebags. After crossing the Kyichi River in skin coracles, the Dalai Lama and his group traveled down the Tsangpo River (Brahmaputra) as far as it would take them and then traveled by horseback and on foot on trails through the Himalayas. The journey from Tibet to India almost killed the Dalai Lama. He endured thunderstorms, long stretches without water and a dangerous blizzard at Lagoe Pass. "We had to cross high passes," the Dalai Lama wrote. "By the time we reached the border, we were exhausted and sick with fever and dysentery."
The Dalai Lama and his party crossed the Indian border at Khenzimane Pass on March 31. Pandit Nehru announced on April 3 in the Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha) that the Government of India had granted asylum to the Dalai Lama. The party took a couple of days to reach Tawang the headquaters of the West Kameng Frontier Division of the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), now known as the Tawang District of Arunachal Pradesh. *~*
The Dalai Lama stayed four days in Tawang where he had the opportunity to visit the beautiful monastery Tawang Gompa and Urgyeling, the place where the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyaltso spent his first years. The Dalai Lama later proceeded to Bomdila where he was officially received by an envoy of the Indian Government a welcome message from Nehru. After a few days of rest, the party left for the plains of India. On April 18, 1959, the Dalai Lama, his mother, sister, brother, three ministers and around 80 other Tibetans crossed safely into India at Tezpur, Assam, to be greeted by Indian officials and a Press corps of nearly 200 correspondents. *~*
Dalai Lama in Dharamsala
When the Dalai Lama arrived in India in 1959 he was still largely ignorant to the ways of the modern world. "While I was leaving Lhasa...many of us made a calculation that things would be solved within a short period," the Dalai Lama told Reuter. "But after reaching India, then we began to realize that it may take a few decades." The Dalai Lama continued his education in Kashmir, Ladakh and refugee camps in Shimla. He finally settled for a life in exile in Dharamsala, a small Himalayan town in northern India near the Tibet and Nepal borders. He lived off of donations and gold and silver that he astutely deposited in Sikkim in 1950 when the Chinese arrived.
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “In the sixties, reports from inside Tibet told of ill-fated farming experiments and brutal ideological campaigns. The Dalai Lama focused on absorbing refugees, while deepening his religious studies, especially Buddhist conceptions of compassion, interdependence, and “emptiness," according to which any person or phenomenon is by itself devoid, or “empty," of intrinsic identity. He studied the religious and political lives of Mahatma Gandhi and Baba Amte, and they left a lasting impression on him. “ By1971,"he had come alive philosophically." The Dalai Lama was travelling and lecturing, and he had discovered that esoteric teachings had a limited Western audience; he developed talks that focussed on a more accessible concept of “basic human values."
"Exile has made me tougher," the Dalai Lama said. "We planned and founded large communities to preserve Tibetan culture and atmosphere, where we could establish monasteries and build Tibetan schools for our children." The Dalai Lama's younger brother Tenzing Choegyal said, exile has "enabled him to realize his full potential. In the Potala, he was secluded and isolated. If one good thing has come out of his having to leave, it was that he was exposed to his own people and the world. He was given the chance to see things as they really are."
In Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama and his followers have set up a mini-Tibet with monasteries, Tibetans running around in traditional clothes, a Constitution, an elected government and schools that offer instruction in English and Tibetan. He is well known and respected in India outside of Dharamsala. On July 6, 1995, when the Dalai Lama turned 60, there was a three day celebration in New Delhi. In July 2010, the Dalai Lama celebrated his 75th birthday in India. He greeted hundreds of well-wishers and looked over a series of posters that depicted him at various periods of his life. He received gifts of white scarves and listened to children play flutes and beating drums.
Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post: “The Dalai Lama is omnipresent in Dharamsala, his adopted home town in northern India and the “capital” of the Central Tibetan Administration, the exiled government. The head monk holds teachings at his temple that are open to the public, and visitors can often see him perched like an extraordinary bird in his elevated throne. Yet even when he is absent, his presence is still felt. Restaurants, hotels and cafes typically hang framed photos of the lama laughing or sipping tea. Stores install small shrines in discreet corners. Street vendors sell accoutrements and accessories — prayer beads, white scarves, incense holders, Buddha statues, om charms — that encapsulate his spiritual style.” [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, December 18, 2014]
Tibetans That Fled from Tibet to India
Altogether around 100,000 Tibetan fled from Tibet around the time the Dalai Lama left in the late 1950s and early 60s. Many settled in India, primarily around Dharamsala and Darjeeling. A large refugee camp was established near Darjeeling. Some settled in Nepal, Europe and the United States. Since 1959, Tibetans have continued to escape from China-controlled Tibet, with many of them ending up in Dharamsala, which is currently home to about 14,000 Tibetans.
Annie Gowen wrote in the Washington Post, “Kunga Dolma waited years to escape the repressive life of her remote Tibetan village, and one day in July it was time. The soft-spoken 24-year-old paid a smuggler about $800 to guide her over the Himalayas to what she hoped would be freedom and a better life. Her lace-up shoes were torn to shreds in the snowy passage. But if she was cold, she doesn't remember. She was too terrified of being caught and beaten by Chinese security forces on the border. [Source: Annie Gowen, Washington Post, October 19, 2014 ***]
“On that day in July, Dolma prayed at the temple, ate dinner with her extended family and said goodbye to her parents on the doorstep. She knew she would never see them again. Though she was sad, she was ready to go.She carried no identifying papers in case she was caught. The only thing she took was a rosary, with four carved beads made from rubies, that had belonged to her mother. ***
“I miss her sometimes," she said on a recent day, playing with the rosary at a table in a nearly empty hall at the reception center, after a simple lunch of Indian dal and tingmo, steamed Tibetan bread. A new life awaits, including classes at a small school nearby. She met the Dalai Lama, she said, and she's still wondering if it was a dream." ***
Hardship and Death of Tibetans Fleeing to India
One escapee told National Geographic he and his infant son made it, but his wife died during the grueling trek and his father succumbed to dysentery soon after arrival in the lowlands. Another escapee told the Los Angeles Times that several members in her group died, including a 11-year-old girl that froze to death while being carried on the escapee' back.
In December 1997, four children and a 16-year-old monk died while trying to escape Tibet after getting caught in a blizzard and struggling through three feet of snow. One survivor who got as far as Kathmandu but lost his legs to frostbite told the Los Angeles Times, "Everyone was fainting, falling. The snow was at my chest, and I could not see. It would have been better to die." A woman who lost seven toes and was discovered by Scottish hikers near Namche Bazaar, said, "I was senseless. I kept thinking, 'I am going to die, and I will not live to see His Holiness."
Many of the Tibetan trekkers are children. One aid worker in Kathmandu told Newsweek, "Every winter, so many children die in the snow, while their parents back in Tibet think they are safe and happy in India." Many of the children leave because there is not enough for them to eat in Tibet.
Hannah Beech wrote in Time: Tsewang Dhondup, a trader from Kardze, fled his homeland after the 2008 unrest. Dhondup was shot while trying to help a monk who later died of bullet wounds. Wanted signs with Dhondup's picture were posted in his village, but friends took him by stretcher high into the mountains. Maggots infested his wounds. Dhondup lived for 14 months on the edge of a glacier before escaping to India. His audience with the Dalai Lama, he says, was the most treasured moment of his life. But even he predicts that “once the Dalai Lama is gone, Tibet will explode." [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, November 15, 2011]
Life of Tibetans in Dharamsala
Tibetans that end up in Dharamsala find out the reality of living in India often doesn’t match the hype. Yes the Dalai Lama is there, one can speak one's mind openly and there are no Chinese authorities to harass them but they also find there are not that many opportunities, people miss their friends and many just plain don't like India much. One 39-year-old Tibetan woman there told the Los Angeles Times, “When I was in China my friends told me Dharamsala was a paradise, you don't even need money...But life isn't easy, and this place is quite dirty. I couldn't believe the Dalai Lama would live in such a messy place." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, October 4, 2010]
A Tibetan shopkeeper said, “China has jobs; you can start a business without a lot of bureaucracy. You don't get Delhi belly [dysentery] all the time." A restaurant manager and former monk said, ‘superficially everything better in China. But mentally, there's also a lot of pressure there. You have to think before you talk...But I really miss my family. I?d like to go back if I ever get the chance."
Tibetans in India also have problems with the language, don't like the food and a have hard time with warm weather which makes their traditionally woolen and yak-hid garments scratchy and uncomfortable. Some say their culture is threatened in India just as much by Bollywood movies and Indian permissiveness and it was in China by Chinese authoritarianism. In Dharamsala there is also the problem of spies and how they can make things difficult for family members back in Tibet.
A Tibetan guide in Dharamsala told the Washington Post: “Cultural assimilation is bound to happen, but we have a Tibetan monastery, schools, nunneries and settlements. Tibetan roots are very strong here.” He said he was wary of the explosive growth in Dharamsala as it has meant more noise, trash, traffic, pollution. Construction on the mountainside led to erosion and landslides. But he said on the positive side were beautification plans, road-maintenance projects and efforts to preserve of Tibetan ways, adding: “We need more tourists with quality...like backpackers.”
Accommodation and Food in Dharamsala
There are a lot of hotels in guest houses in Dharamsala. Two suggested by the Washington Post: 1) Chonor House Off Temple Road, McLeod Ganj, (011-91-18922-21006, 011-91-1892-221468) The hotel, run by the Norbulingka Institute, features themed rooms (wild animals, birds, mythical creatures, etc.) with art and furniture by the organization’s artists. Also on-site restaurant and gift store. Rates from $70. 2) Annex House, Up the hill, between Temple and Jogiwara roads (011-91-1892-221002 annexhotel.in). The 12-room hotel offers basic amenities (WiFi, brief hot showers) and decor. Great location for shopping and the temple. From $23. [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, December 18, 2014]
Restaurants: 1) Moon Peak Espresso Coffee Shop and Gallery, Temple Road (011-91-1892-220375, moonpeak.org) Cozy cafe serves Himachali dishes, tandoori, noodle soups and other Indian specialities, plus all-day breakfast items. From about $2. 2) Yangzom Restaurant, Across from Norbulingka Institute (011-91-98-8234-3131). One-room restaurant serves traditional Tibetan cuisine, including tingmo (steamed bread), momo (dumplings) and thukpa (noodle soup). From less than $1.
Tibetan dishes widely found in Dharamsala include: 1) thukpa, soupy noodle dish with vegetables or chicken, a wholesome meal that can be enjoyed with bread; 2) momos, Tibetan dumplings prepared with steamed vegetables or meat, either deep-fried or steamed, served with a spicy garlic sauce; 3) mittha, a local dessert made with sweetened rice mixed with raisins, almonds and cashews, and dollops of desi ghee (clarified butter) and dry fruits to make it richer; 4) golden fried baby corn, a light, salted snack; and 5) madra, soaked chanas (chickpeas) or kidney beans cooked in clarified butter and yoghurt.
Sights in Dharamsala
The Dalai Lama lives outside of town in McLeod Ganj. In addition to the large number of Buddhist temples and shrines, there also some important Hindu religious buildings, including Jawalamukhi and Baijnath temples.
Kangra Art Museum (in Kotwali Bazaar) is home to various arts and crafts of the Kangra Valley, including a gallery of miniature paintings. Some of the artefacts date back to the 5th century and tourists can browse through a rich collection of pottery, sculptures and paintings. You can also spot royal dresses and shamianas, along with coins, carvings, manuscripts and jewelry. To get glimpses of the work of contemporary artists and photographers, tourists can visit the well-stocked library below.
Dal Lake is a tranquil, picturesque spot fringed by a lush forest of deodar trees. The best time to visit the lake is during the month of September, when a popular fair is organised. Celebrated to honour the presence of Lord Shiva, the festival draws a large number of members of the Gaddi tribe. Tourists can also pay respects to the noted Shiva temple located on the banks. Visitors can enjoy a scenic boat ride in the lake and explore the natural surroundings.
Chinmaya Tapovana is a modern ashram located at the foothills of the majestic Dhauladhar mountains. It is one of the most frequented pilgrimage spots in the region. Standing on the banks of Bindu Saras, the ashram is a serene spiritual spot where tourists can pay their respects to the 9-meter-high idol of Lord Hanuman. You can also visit the Ram temple in the premises, along with a meditation hall and a recreation center. Tourists can picnic out at the lush forest of pine trees, located near the ashram. Chinmaya Tapovana was set up by Swami Chinmayananda as a natural and spiritual retreat.
Dharamsala Library Of Tibetan Works And Archives houses over 120,000 manuscripts and books written in Tibetan.. It also holds about 15,000 books on Tibet, the Himalayan region and Buddhism in English and other languages. The library has a cultural museum that has displays of statues, books, Tibetan artefacts and 3D mandalas in sand and wood.
Losel Doll Museum (in Norbulingka Institute) has over 150 dolls in traditional costumes from various regions of Tibet. These were made by artist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery as part of a project to support their monastery.
Norbulingka Institute (In Sidhpur, about a half-hour drive from McLeod Ganj) is a unique facility dedicated to the preservation of the artistic lineage of Tibetan culture and its traditional integrity. One of its goal is to preserve, adapt and sustain Tibetan traditions in the modern world. Norbulingka is a diverse community of over 300 crafts people, masters, their apprentices, scholars, students, administrators, and hospitality staff. Norbulingka has an open-for-all policy that offers learning experiences through various workshops and courses that make the traditional Tibetan experience accessible to all.
The keeper of culture and tradition of the region, the Norbulingka Institute is a popular tourist attraction. It is a unique, self-sustaining institute where visitors can get a first-hand experience of Tibetan art here that is produced using methods that have been practiced and passed down for many centuries. Built in the traditional Tibetan style, the institute is situated in a valley below the city of Dharamsala. Exploring the beautiful campus in itself is a pleasant activity. At the institute you can interact with local artisans practicing the art forms of thangka painting and applique, statue-making and decorative wood carving, wood painting, weaving and tailoring.
The Losel Doll Museum at the institute has over 150 dolls in traditional costumes from various regions of Tibet. These were made by artist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery as part of a project to support their monastery. The Hummingbird Cafe has a wide variety of dishes and snacks. Visitors can buy a range of products created at the institute, including handcarved furniture. clothing and thangkas. In Norbulingka’s Seat of Happiness Temple, thangka hang on walls like painting A four-meter-tall gilded copper statue of Buddha with tight blue curls stands near a photograph of the Dalai Lama when he was considerably younger.
On a thangka workshop at Norbulingka Institute, Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post: “For a lesson on the artistic traditions of Tibet, we journeyed to Norbulingka Institute, a bucolic venue with gardens, a Buddhist temple and a honeycomb of studios. At the woodcarving station, artists pressed sharp tools into pine and teak wood, bringing to life lotus flowers, leaping fish and scaly dragons. Many of the pieces will end up in private homes, as tables or keepsake boxes, or in the institute’s gift shop...To enter the Thangka painting workshop, we had to remove our shoes, a fitting act considering the sanctity of the medium. Most of the Life of Buddha and mandala pieces are destined for temples and the collections of practitioners. Once finished, they undergo a consecration ceremony, a blessing of the deity captured in the canvas. Oh, and that gold paint: Don’t drip any because it’s the real stuff.” [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, December 18, 2014]
Norbulingka Institute (011-91-98-1664-6423, www.norbulingka.org). The artists’ studios are open Monday through most Saturdays (except the second Saturday of the month and Tibetan holidays) 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The Losel Doll Museum (30 cents admission), cafe and shop are open daily.
Exploring Tibetan Culture and Education in Dharamsala
Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post: “We gathered in the gallery-like lobby of Chonor House, a lodge run by the Norbulingka Institute, which promotes and protects Tibetan arts and traditions. We had an ambitious itinerary, with several sights squeezed into a few hours, but “rush” is not a stock word in Dharamsala. Dorjee sank back into his cushioned chair and ordered a ginger-lemon-honey tea. I followed his lead and asked the attendant to make it two, please. I saw more traditional Tibetan dresses than saris, and more Tibetan flags than Indian pennants. Of course, remembering where I was, in Mother India, I made room for both cultures on my plate: momos (steamed Tibetan dumplings) on one side, dal tadka (yellow lentils) on the other. [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, December 18, 2014]
“We started the tour at the Tibetan Children’s Village, a school and orphanage high up in the hills. On the twisty drive to Lower Dharamsala, we passed slopes of pine trees and St. John in the Wilderness, an Anglican church tucked under heavy green boughs. In the adjoining cemetery, gravestones mark the victims of the 1905 Kangra earthquake, and a memorial honors Lord Elgin, a viceroy of India who died rope-swinging across the Chandra River. Alongside the road, a large, hairy creature sat with his legs splayed out front, as though he were stretching before his morning calisthenics. He turned his head toward us, revealing the black mask of a langur monkey.
“The Dalai Lama established the school in 1960 for the refugee children who arrived battered and often orphaned after the harrowing journey from Tibet. The student body has grown from 51 to about 1,200 youngsters, including a boy from New York whose Tibetan parents sent him to India to learn about his heritage. “The goal is that one day we will go back to Tibet, and that Tibet will own Tibet,” said Ngodup Wangdu, the school director, who escaped in 1963. “We hope the day will come when these children can go see their own country.”
“Despite the uncertain future, the young residents seemed quite content being, well, regular kids. We observed a math class in which they took turns singing their multiplication tables and watched a soccer game on a field below. During tea time, the children cut loose, racing around the basketball court as they clutched hunks of homemade bread in their hands.“Wangdu stopped the New York lad and wrapped his bearlike arms around him. The boy said a few words in English, then switched to Tibetan.“When he arrived here,” the director said, “he didn’t speak any Tibetan.” “By early afternoon, Dorjee had covered education, arts and food — specifically, tingmo (steamed bread) and thukpa (vegetable noodle soup) at Yangzom Restaurant. We had one category remaining: a medical practice that predates HMOs by thousands of years.”
Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute
The Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute was founded by the 13th Dalai Lama in Tibet in 1916. After he arrived in India, the 14th and current Dalai Lama reestablished the center in India, with two facilities in Dharamsala, plus more than 50 elsewhere in India and in Nepal. In addition to having a research department that carries out modern clinical research on traditional methods of Tibetan medicinal cure, Tibetan Medical And Astro Institute offers free treatment to the destitute and the needy. It also houses astrology, astronomy and pharmacy departments. Over 200 types of medicines are traditionally made at Tibetan Medical And Astro Institute.
Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post: “A one-room medical-specimen museum displays small vials filled with the natural remedies (stones, plants, metals, minerals, etc.) and descriptions of the afflictions that they purportedly cure. Suffering from insanity, dumbness or a weapon in the heart? Take agar 8. Cracked a bone or accumulating fluid? Down some aurum. Find yourself possessed by demonic spirits? Beat them back with agate. [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, December 18, 2014]
“The school offers astrology consultations based on your name and birth date and time. The $32 session takes 45 minutes to an hour, and the astrologer will send your results in seven to eight months, not ideal for those with an impending existential crisis. The pharmacy, however, sells quicker fixes: teas, powders and lotions with salutary powers.
“I scanned the boxes, which promised to help remedy such ailments as respiratory problems, arthritis and wrinkles. I finally settled on Bae Kan Tea, which would counter a poor diet (I was subsisting on momos), and Tobkay-Menja, a veritable Fountain of Youth with a shot of Botox and a drizzle of Clairol Nice ’n Easy. The tonic tea claimed to prolong life, repel illness, increase strength, reduce premature wrinkles, stave off gray hair and enhance my complexion. All I had to do was add hot water and optional sweetener, and sip away the years.”
Meditation and Classes in Dharamsala
Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post:“India is the birthplace of yoga, and some historians stick the colored pin at the base of the Himalayas. Dharamsala, which draws pilgrims with spiritual and/or health-kick needs, is dense with yoga studios. Kumar said that in high season, more than 50 places offer classes. During slower times, such as late fall and winter, the number drops to three or four. I discovered Himalayan Yoga Retreat while looking for Universal Yoga Center, which a Californian named Todd had recommended (he has lived here for 13 years, so he seemed like a credible source). I walked down crumbling stairs, following a sign’s arrow, but could not find it. I asked people along the route, who all told me to go down, down, down. They pointed to a door. I knocked and Kumar opened it, looking unfazed despite the interruption. I was 15 minutes late, and after consulting with the other students, he invited me inside. [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, December 18, 2014]
“Surinder Kumar is a compact man with a tidy mustache, glossy Ken-doll hair and a green mock-turtleneck sweater. He spoke in a soft voice, so I was completely unprepared when he opened his mouth and released a long, sonorous “Ommmmmmmmmm.” The air in his yoga studio vibrated; a dog outside yelped....For a little over an hour, I followed Kumar’s movements as he worked his way through the Yoga Book for Beginners (sun salutations, cobra, happy baby, tree). At one point, he turned on a small space heater. Outside, I heard construction workers demolishing the steps I’d shortly need to climb. The scent of raw sewage wafted in. “There is no future, no past,” Kumar said in a deep, controlled voice. “Just now.” I trained my mental powers on the present, this specific instant in Dharamsala. The beeps and barks and shouts fell silent. The stress melted away. Even the smell dissipated. I inhaled deeply.
“After class, Kumar offered me some suggestions. He told me that my pressure points were blocked and that I needed an herbal bath and massage to unclog them. (No need to twist my chakra. Put me down for the four o’clock.) He also encouraged me to seek solitude in the outdoors. “It’s good to be in nature for the meditation,” he said, “to go far from the world.”
Himalyana Yoga Retreat, Green View House, after Yongling School (011-91-9882-228502). Surinder Kumar teaches yoga — often daily at 10:00am and 4:00pm About $5 per class. Also has reiki and ayurvedic massage. Information: www.hptdc.nic.in
Short Hike in Dharamsala
Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post: “I had heard that some people hike deep into the mountains, find themselves an uninhabited cave and spend years emptying their heads of distractions. With only a free morning, I didn’t have time to search for a vacant grotto where I could dump my thoughts. So I gave my overstimulated mind an IOU and started hiking the 1 1/2 -mile trail to Galu Devi temple. [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, December 18, 2014]
“The route started from the main square, along an uphill road shared by women in ankle-length skirts carrying bags of supplies, men toting small children and extended families of macaque monkeys. The trail eventually flattened out into a transit hub where cabs picked up tired trekkers for the second leg. At the sole cafe, vintage Bollywood music spilled out of tinny speakers. The rest stop sold tea and lassi (yogurt-based drink), salty Indian snacks and sweet English biscuits.
“I reached the temple in less an hour, hot from the physical exertion under a bare-bulb sky. I climbed the few steps to the Hindu temple and peered inside the small white structure filled with offerings to Shiva. I wandered around to the back and walked the short distance to the Sun and Moon Cafe.I must have looked thirsty because, without any prompts, the owner recited the menu: “I have milk tea, masala tea, black tea, ginger-honey-lemon tea, black coffee, lemon tea, white coffee and ginger tea.” But I had no time for beverages. My meditative journey was not yet complete.
“I scrambled up another trail to a second simple Hindu monument. The Kangra Valley unfolded below, a deep bowl spilling over with pine trees. The chiseled Dhauladhar range kept the vegetative sprawl in check. Nearing the final peak, I recognized the sound of fluttering and flapping fabric, like laundry blowing in the wind. I stood on the edge of a tangle of Tibetan prayer flags, a gnarled mess of colors and printed wishes. I poked my head through an opening and gazed at the landscape through the scrim of flags. But I didn’t try to quiet my mind. Instead, I let it whoop with contentment all the way back to town.”
McLeod Ganj: Home of the Dalai Lama
McLeod Ganj (reached by a winding 10 kilometers road from Dharamsala) is where the Dail Lama Lives. Located on a ridge in the Shibalik Hills between the Kangra Valley and the high peaks of the Dhauladahar range, it is small town name after the British lieutenant governor Sir Donald Friell McLeod and also known as Upper Dharamsala. It is a favorite hangout of hippies and yuppies in search of spiritual enlightenment and good, cheap marijuana.
There are a number of gurus and institutions offering classes in meditation, yoga and Tibetan medicines and lots of cheap guest houses with names like Om, Dreamland and Shangrila, with room less than $5. Richard Gere stays at the Chonor House, which has rooms for $15 a night. There are treks that pass near 18,000-foot-high Mount Kailash, the highest mountain in the Dhauladhars. There have been reports of groups of young men hassling women hiking on the trails. There also reports of people being hassled by monkeys.
McLeod Ganj (also spelled McLeodganj) is perched at a height of 1,770 meters above sea level. Because of its rich Buddhist heritage, McLeodganj is also called Little Lhasa (traditional capital of Tibet). Tourists can shop for unique Tibetan handicrafts and sample Tibetan food. Other sites include the Library of Tibetan Works, with 70,000 rare books and manuscripts and hundreds of thangkas, the Tushita Meditation Center. Nearby is Masroor Temple, a rock-cut structure built in the Nagara style of architecture.
Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post: “The streets of McLeod Ganj are steep and narrow and jammed with a daily procession of cars, motorbikes, cows, dogs, monks, monkeys and the odd donkey spilling its load of rubble. While walking up a rocky trail from my hotel, I picked up the ubiquitous sound of feet hitting loose stones, a chattering noise that doubled as an alarm to move aside. [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, December 18, 2014]
Namgyal Monastery is considered the home of the Dalai Lama. Surrounded by lush greenery and snow-capped mountains, the monastery houses a Tantric college where young monks learn and practice the various ritualistic traditions of Buddhism. It has been working for young Tibetan monks in the hope of ensuring the survival of the unique Tibetan Traditional Buddhist studies and practices. The monastery was founded by His Holiness the second Dalai Lama, Gedun Gyatso (1440-1480) to assist him in carrying out religious activities. The college has opened up several branches in Bodhgaya, Delhi, Kushinagar, Shimla and Ithica. Today, the monastery has nearly 200 monks, representing all four main Tibetan monastic lineages. These monks are given traditional and modern education and free accommodation throughout their stay at the monastery.
Bhagsu Nag (near McLeod Ganj) is a temple that was rebuilt by the first Gurkha rifles stationed here after the earthquake in 1905. According to local legend, 5,000 years ago, Nagdevata, the snake god was drawn into a battle with a local king, Bhagsu, who stole water from the sacred Nag Dal Lake. King Bhagsu was vanquished and forgiven by the god and the site consecrated as Bhagsu Nag. The temple is a place for pilgrimage for the indigenous Gurkha people from the nearby villages of Bhagsu and Dharamkot and is located in the Bhagsu village near the Dal lake. During monsoons, the Bhagsu Waterfall is located around 10 minutes from the temple. There are numerous short hiking trails in the area.
Dalai Lama’s Residence at McLeod Ganj
The Dalai Lama's Residence (in McLeod Ganj) is a relatively-plain, two-story stone-and-concrete bungalow. The house is guarded and the Dalai Lama is often gone. Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post: “I asked the guide why the Dalai Lama’s compound was so plain... He explained that the spiritual leader preferred to use funds for more charitable causes, such as education, than for interior design. However, large copper statues of Padmasambhava, the scholar who brought Buddhist teachings to Tibet, and Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva, do brighten up the altar where he holds his teachings... On our way out, the guide told me that some famous people came here to pray. Wild guess: Richard Gere? No. Jet Li, the Chinese martial arts expert and actor.” [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, December 18, 2014]
The Dalai Lama generally rises at 3:30am, according to Pico Iyer, and then performs “mediation, prostration, reciting special mantras, then more mediation and prostrations, followed by reading Tibetan philosophy or other texts, then reading and studying and in the evening, some meditation---evening meditation---for about an hour." CNN once filmed him doing his prayers. He yawned occasionally. When asked what he was doing, he replied, ‘shaping motivation for the day." He usually takes a shower and eats a breakfast of tsampa (roasted barely porridge) mixed with butter and honey.
When he is at home, the Dalai Lama also prays, does full-body prostrations---part ritual and part exercise--and mediates for several hours at the end of the day. He often mediates on his death and rebirth. When asked why, he told Newsweek, "Because I still need a lot self-improvement in myself. Monk is my core identity." When visitors come he greets them on a brown sofa chair, with a mug of plain hot water before him. In Dharmasala Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: Dalai Lama remains a venerated figure, and he is surprisingly present in their daily conversation. Families in Tibet routinely contact his office with the request that he name their newborns.
The Dalai Lama tries to make time for a half-hour workout on an exercise bicycle or treadmill and look at the BBC-television evening news brought to his house on a satellite dish bought by an American friend. He follows the news closely, reading several newspapers and confessing an addiction to morning broadcasts of the BBC World Service broadcast. Before breakfast, at five-thirty, he walks outside or on a treadmill. He tunes in to the BBC, and occasionally Voice of America's Tibetan-language broadcast, before returning to meditation and readings in philosophy. After a day of work and meetings, he performs a final hour or two of meditation before bed, at 8:30 P.M.
Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post: The Dalai Lama “holds teachings at his temple that are open to the public, and visitors can often see him perched like an extraordinary bird in his elevated throne.” [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, December 18, 2014]
Tsuglakhang (at the residence of the Dalai Lama) a replica of the original Tsuglakhang temple in Lhasa. It houses the Namgyal Monastery and several shrines along with statues of Lord Buddha, Guru Rinpoche (an 8th century Tibetan Buddhist master) and Chenrezig (a revered Bodhisattva). Tsuglakhang also has some of the most splendid artworks of the region. Tourists can also set on the meditation trail of Ling Khor that takes you to many small shrines, a gigantic chorten and several stupas.
William Dalrymple wrote in the Paris Review from Tsuglagkhang, the temple attached to the Dalai Lama residence-in-exile. “All around us Tibetan pilgrims were circling the prayer hall on the topmost terrace of the temple. Some, in their ankle-length sheepskin chubas, were clearly new arrivals, nomads from western Tibet, fresh across the high snowy passes; others were long-term residents of this Tibet-outside-Tibet: red-robed refugee monks performing the thrice daily circumambulation of the Dalai Lama temple-residence. There was a strong smell of incense and burning butter lamps, and the air was full of the low murmur of muttered prayers and mantras. [Source: William Dalrymple, Paris Review, Spring 2010]
On participating in a meditation session there, Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post:“Thin mats and blankets covered the floors of Tsuglagkhang temple, several bearing scraps of paper inscribed with an individual’s name — an ad hoc reservation system. A Buddhist monk with a foghorn voice chanted over a loudspeaker, calling all men, women and children to their places on the hard ground. Young robed men walked through the aisles pouring milky tea from large silver pots and placing discs of dense bread into open palms. [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, December 18, 2014]
“Seating was tough, a packed house. I found a small clearing among a pile of discarded shoes and settled in. From my vantage point, I could look over dozens of praying bodies and through a little window, where a round, bald head bobbed in and out of view. I focused all my energy on the elfin figure and repeated a private mantra: “Look over here, over here, over here.”
“Of course, I didn’t know what I would do if my wish came true. Perhaps I would respectfully bow or flash a peace sign — both appropriate gestures for the temple’s main inhabitant, the Dalai Lama. In the end, however, I spontaneously stuck out my finger as the Buddhist leader walked by. He squeezed it, and my left index finger briefly gained celebrity status.”
Tsuglagkhang Complex, Temple Road (011-91-1892-221343, www.dalailama.com). The Dalai Lama’s temple includes the Tibet Museum (free), gift shop and book store, and prayer hall. Teachings are open to the public. Registration is required: Bring two passport-size photos, passport and 10 rupees (16 cents). Check the Web site for his schedule.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020