Our trip to India was the most incredible of all our travels and if I were to pinpoint its highlight I would most definitely identify it in our memorable week in Dharamsala. Located in the north of the subcontinent, in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamsala owns must of its notoriety to the fact that it hosts the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Organisation (the Tibetan Government in exile). Its most famous inhabitant is the Dalai Lama, who moved to the nearby village of McLeod Ganj in 1959 along with many Tibetan refugees who fled prosecution, and it’s now a thriving centre of Tibetan culture in an otherwise fully Indian state.
We had elected Dharamsala as our first stop in India because of this Tibetan connection. We have always been interested in the teachings of the Dalai Lama and when we learned that it was not only possible but even easy to visit his exile home, we had no doubts we would organise our Indian itinerary to include a long stop there.
We reached Dharamshala on a misty October afternoon. The mountain clouds momentarily hid the beautiful Himalayan view but the colourful houses and prayer flags gave to the town and unmistakably cheerful atmosphere.
We checked into our accommodation and, relieved of the weight of our rucksacks, we soon took to the streets with the idea of identifying the location of Dharamsala’s main temple: we had presumed we would find it closed, due to the late hour, but we got there in few minutes to discover a true hub of activity.
Tourists, for sure, but mostly Buddhist monks and nuns in orange and red robes were queueing at the entrance and orderly passing through the metal detector placed near the main gate. Surprised by the security measure, but quickly let it, we joined that peaceful river of people and soon found ourselves on a beautiful terrace, opening up towards the mountains. We sat down cross-legged beside the other visitors and while we took in the pretty surroundings we couldn’t help feeling a touch of disappointment: the terrace was lovely, but the inside of the temple was only accessible to nuns and monks and the beautiful decorations we could guess in its interior seemed to us a tantalising and unreachable sight.
But while we were reasoning over the complex relationship between tourism and cultural and religious sights, a voice emerging from the recesses of the temples reached our ears and disclosed to us what should have been obvious from the start: we had absent-mindedly walked into the temple at the time of one of the Dalai Lama public teachings and we were now listening to him, in person, surrounded by the majestic Himalayas.
It was a moment we had not even dared hoping for and that called for the proverbial need to pinch ourselves to make sure it was true. We did and we abandoned ourselves to the overwhelming reality and power of the moment.
This very first experience of Dharamsala set the tone for our time there and we spent as much time as possible soaking up the Tibetan culture and the history of the Tibetan people. Our accommodation was a fantastic starting point for this cultural adventure: thanks to the always amazing Lonely Planet we had secured a room at Chonor House, the accommodation wing of the Norbulingka Institute which is an organisation devoted entirely to the preservation of Tibetan heritage and art.
Located in the heart of Dharamsala, the institute is a fascinating building surrounded by gardens dotted with prayer flags and it’s decorated with incredible paintings depicting characters and stories of the Tibetan culture. These are the elaborate decorations from two of the rooms for guests:
While this is the fresco decorating the dining room where we spent hours eating delicious momos (Tibetan dumplings)
But the Tibetan culture in Dharamsala is not only in the peaceful rooms of the institute but fully alive on the streets of the town: craft shops, textile workshops, bookshops, temples and massage parlours, yoga classes and Tibetan-language schools: wherever you turn you have plenty of opportunities to learn something about the Tibetan people and their exile as well as about the beautiful country that now hosts them.
All this does not mean that Dharamsala is not, at least in part, touched and changed by the huge influx of tourists, who flock here longing for the very same atmosphere and cultural experiences we were after. When you walk into the town it is hard not to feel like you stepped back into the 70s or dived into the cover of the Beatles sergeant Pepper album: Birkenstock sandals, long skirts for men and women and headscarves are ubiquitous, making mainstream the look that in Europe we so often label as ‘alternative’. We, of course, joined in and while we questioned the authenticity of some of this tourism we couldn’t help but feeling that this was one of the safest, most interesting and friendly towns we had ever encountered (and one I would love to visit again with the kids).
If you are interested in more information and photo from India, you can have a look here, where I am Voyager talks about the Golden temple of Amritsar, which we visited while en-route to Dharamshala (but didn’t catch on camera)
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