Mcleodganj. A modern Shangri-la.


A Tibetan monk sits across from me; with the traditional shaved head. Even as he puts a Coke to his lips, white Nike shoes peek from under his burgundy robes.

My spoon clatters on my plate of lemon cheesecake. The austere ancient culture going laid-back? The snow peaks of the Dauladhars with the wisdom of their years, are not surprised. They’ve seen it all. From the time the British parked their tush to when Mcleodganj got a taste of Hollywood.

Yes, Richard Gere visits. No, people don’t come here to see him. They, like him, are here hoping to taste a little heaven. And though His Holiness the Dalai Lama, would probably say that heaven is essentially a journey inward, Mcleodganj, sitting high in the clouds above the Kangra valley, could well be the take-off point. An immigration office that waves you in with colorful prayer flags flapping down the mountain side.

Immigration would be the right word. It is as if you’ve traveled to another nation. Please take a moment to see what I see. A mother in a baku – traditional Tibetan dress, her toddler strapped to her back, monks walking with prayer wheels in their hands lost in prayer, little kids with apple cheeks playing khopi in the street – a game of marbles and stones – I lost miserably to them in my days there, young Kashmiri Muslims swaggering near their trinket stalls in the knowledge of their good looks, young Tibetan men outfitted in leather, looking as if they’d just walked off campus in Boston. Y’see? It hasn’t been nicknamed Little Lhasa for nothing. And then against this backdrop you might find a tall bald Israeli haggling with the Paharis for a donkey he wants to ride all the way to Manali, and of course, foreigners, looking – for a hotel, a friend who’d promised to meet them by the second-hand bookshop, and enlightenment.

But temples are easier to find. Bang in the middle of the bustling market place, on your way to anywhere, one stands, with its massive prayer wheels; red cylinders with calligraphic gold inscription. A Harley stands parked against it, a telling metaphor for how an ancient culture is embracing the millennium.

At the other end of town, past lanes lined with daisies and rhododendron, past little girls shouting ‘toshi delek’ – good morning, past the monastery where a boy in a class of maroon robes and shaved heads sat cross legged at a wooden desk, lost in daydream, is the temple that houses the super-sized statues of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara of whom the Dalai Lama is the incarnation. The Lotus-eyed One, looks down, an ornate figurine washed in gold with a serene expression you expect from the enlightened. But as much as I want to keep my eyes fixed on the statue, I’m hypnotized by the monk deep in meditation, and not the cross-legged kind. He joins his hands, swoops to the floor to lie flat on his stomach, slides up again in one graceful motion to stand straight with his hands joined in prayer. And he does this fluidly, a hundred times maybe. If you want to return home in one piece, I’d suggest you join the other monks and their murmur of Aum Mani Padme Hum, ‘Hail to Jewel in the Lotus’, in a simpler shut-eyed meditation.

Though many come here looking for a certain idea of spirituality, it can be found beyond the monasteries and chants.

So I discover it in the Tibetan nursery rhymes toddlers sing in the kindergarten compound. In the wind chimes hanging high from the roof of the Lama Khemtoo Rinpoche monastery, sending their prayer to the sky. In the muscle-building turning of prayer cylinders that makes a wizened Tibetan man stop and chuckle -it’s not easy to turn the small wheels either; one monk lent me his with a mischievous look in his eye, as I walked with him to the monastery. My wrist hurt for two days afterwards. The Tibetans however, believe that every turn of the wheel, every flap of the flags take their prayers heavenward faster than Fedex.

I found it in the magnanimous quiet of the mountains than let you sit and write bad poetry, in the trail of incense that plays hide n seek with you as you make your way through narrow lanes. In the pine-scented smoke from small wood-fires. And in the tiny tea stalls where the teasing drizzle that visits promptly everyday, drives all and sundry under its roofs.

Even crate-and-roof dukaans with wobbly wooden benches propped against the mountainsides serve up lemon, herbal or ginger tea and of course, masala chai. Conspicuously, the Tibetan jasmine tea with its ‘acquired taste’ is missing from the blackboard style menus outside the Paharis stalls. Though I didn’t get a chance to see the monks in theological discussion, it was in the stalls where I found myself amidst locals and tourists debating everything from world politics, to similarities between Italian and Hindi, Pink Floyd and for answers on ‘Hindooism’.

You can say ‘seeking’ is what threads the beads of everyone’s lives together here, even when looking for entertainment. Some, like me, find it in a classroom. In a tiny 12*15 ft space. Seated on school benches, eyes fixed on a TV high on a shelf, monks, backpackers of every nationality, Kashmiris, and a few Himachalis watched a Hollywood flick, ‘Dead Man Walking’. The blackboard outside also announced a screening of Babe and a ‘letest Hindi movie’.

Another night we hurried up mountain slopes in the chilly twilight along with several Tibetans, to a dance recital at TIPA (Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts). The clang of cymbals, the beat of the damaru, the call of the reedy trumpets; and the passion and beauty of that performance, make you sharply aware of the Tibetan people’s desire to keep their culture alive.

It’s clear that the life here has been tinted by tourists, by commerce and need. Peculiarities you surely wouldn’t find in Tibet: The raves that take place in the forest on full moon night. The Pehelwan Da Dhaba that’s run by an ex-wrestler – it’s such childish pleasure to scoff hot aloo parathas and chai on the steps of his shop while watching the sun come up over the valley. The menus of the little Tibetan restaurants: In the dim of the low beamed Shambala I see Humus, falafel, peanut butter sandwich, lemon pudding listed next to thukpa, garlic cheese noodles and tofu fried momos – traditional Tibetan food. Richard Gere and the Dalai Lama look down from the wall at my perplexed expression. Mcleod gets a huge influx of young Israelis. Looking for a process to peace perhaps?

Well, they’ve only followed in the steps of the British who came here during the colonial years, to escape from heat and hustle-bustle of the plains. When Dharamsala became the administrative capital of Kangra District in 1852.

Now, a stroll away from the town and hidden among pines, the church of St John in the Wilderness, is one of the few Gothic structures that archive the British past.

Standing within its cobble-stoned semidarkness that’s illuminated by sunlight shafting through stained glass windows is a prayer by itself.

Mcleodganj – named for a former Governor of the Punjab, Allen Macleod – became a popular hill station for the British. So much that they even wanted to be buried here. Lord Elgin, the late 19th century British Viceroy, lies in the graveyard behind the church, because the region reminded him of his native Scotland.

The British, however, left the hill station when it was rocked by an earthquake in the early 1900s. But Mcleodganj became news again when the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people were driven into exile, and I’m sure if you ask him now, he’ll agree he couldn’t have been gifted a better place.

But if you want an afternoon of stories on Mcleodganj walk down to Nowrojee & Sons near the bus-stand. The 140 year old store is like a museum to the time when British ladies shut their delicate parasols and came in for groceries.

In the cool dim interior are large glass jars from the early 20th century. An old German petromax lamp hangs above, while the shelves are lined with advertising posters dating back to the early 1900s that collectors would die for.

If Mcleodganj is invigorating for soul, it’s as kick-starting for the body. How often will you find lonely paths in the city shaded by sweet smelling pine. How often will you get to meet a Nobel peace prize winner on a walk? We were blessed by His Holiness even as his entourage slowed down on the sloping path to Norbulingka. To think that people have to make an appointment months in advance.

How often will you hear the sweet sound of monks shouting angrily? Sitting on the grassy slope that surrounds the Tibetan children’s village playground (TCV) after a face-lifting walk, we watched a football tournament between Tibetan teams from around India. Seeing monks, young and old, shout names at their home team for missing a goal felt like being in the making of The Cup, the giggle-inspiring movie on Tibetan life.

How often is a waterfall a backdrop for the tunes of Bob Marley? At the food stall high up at Bhagsunag, a Pahari nodded to ‘Songs of freedom’. Strangely, and though he never meant it, it could just be another chant of support for the Tibetan people. A people who do not really let on that they’re a people in exile, except in the red and blue sun-rayed posters that appear here and there, calling for rangzen, freedom. Who, with their laughter, their grace and most importantly, their sense of hope make this such a special place.

Now you may not meet His Holiness or Gere, but Mcleodganj teaches you to find bliss in the small things. I suggest you start with the lemon cheesecake.

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SIDEBARS

PLACES TO SEE:

Norbulingka Institute

Named after the summer residence of the Dalai lama in Tibet, the institute is dedicated to preserving Tibetan literature and visual crafts. 4 kms from Dharamsala. Find here shady paths, wooden bridges, small streams and waterfalls. The skills preserved and passed on at Norbulingka include statue making, thangka painting, appliqué and tailoring, woodcarving, carpentry and metal craft.

Kangra Art Museum

The Kangra Art Museum displays an excellent collection of Kangra Valley arts, and crafts, some that date back to the 5th century! The museum also includes a gallery of Kangra’s famous miniature paintings and a collection of sculpture, pottery, and anthropological items.

Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts

Dal Lake
About 11 km from Dharamsala. Go picnic at the lake surrounded by deodars.

War Memorial
At the very start of town, landscaped lawns and a web of narrow paths fill a pine grove where a monument has been raised to commemorate the post independence war heroes of Himachal Pradesh.

Bhagsunag
Close to Dal lake is the shrine of Bhagsunag, an easy walk from the Macleodganj Bazaar. Must do: The waterfall. (11 Km/7 Mile)

Tushita : This is where you’ll find the Vipassana Centre for Meditation.

ACTIVITIES:

Dharamsala also serves as a base camp for several trekking expeditions across the Dhauladhar Range. There are some excellent treks from here to Triund, (3,350 m or 10,991 ft), Inderhara Pass (4,300 m or 14,108 ft).

SHOPPING:

Down Jogibara road you’ll find little stalls, manned by Kashmiris and Tibetans where you can buy Buddha heads in wood and bronze, carpets, woven woolen scarves, papier mache trinkets to Tibetan singing bowls and prayer wheels, silver jewelry. And a tutung, the Tibetan shirt. The store owner insisted Jackie Shroff had bought one from his store.

The Green Shop at Bhagsu Road sells recycled cards and other such stationery. Though they turn shy and giggly, they let you watch them as they make the paper by hand. It is quite a colorful experience and just one of the little industries that help sustain them and the cause. McLeod Ganj also harbors several organizations dedicated to raising funds for the Tibetan people and promoting and preserving Buddhist culture.

Among these is the Government-in-Exile’s administration complex, or Gangchen Kyishong, where you’ll find the fascinating Library of Tibetan Works and Archives

Getting there:

RAIL:

The nearest rail head (broad gauge) is at Pathankot. You can take privately operated taxis or luxury coaches from there. Non-local buses usually arrive at and depart from the New Bus Stand in Lower Dharamsala.

AIR:

The nearest airport is Kangra airport at Gaggal, located 15 km. from Dharamsala. Get a connecting flight from Delhi airport.

Indian Airlines operates flights between Delhi-Gaggal, and Gaggal-Delhi three times a week – Mon, Wed & Fridays. The plane leaves Delhi at 13.15 arriving Gaggal at 14.40. It departs Gaggal on the same day at 15.00 arriving in Delhi 16.25.

If you can’t get to Gaggal, you could try taking a Jagson Airlines flight to Kullu. Mon – Sat. Dep (Delhi); 10.am. Arrv (Kullu): 11.20 am. Dep (Kullu: 10.20 am. Arr (Delhi): 11.40 am ) And a taxi or bus from there.

Other airports with a regular service are: Jammu 200 km., Amritsar 210 km. and Chandigarh 260 km. Luxury buses and private taxis operate from all these airports.

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(Published in India Today Travel Plus magazine.)

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2 responses to “Mcleodganj. A modern Shangri-la.

  1. That was very nicely written..

  2. Kuldeepak Sharma

    Planning to visit the “Little Lhasa” over the coming weekend with a friend. I am so very excited !!!!! Hope I can live your experiences there… wish me luck !!

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