Tour of McLeod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama.

Eat, Pray and Art, at Little Lhasa

Tourism

August 24, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

Tour of McLeod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama.

The 14th Dalai Lama, known as Gyalwa Rinpoche to the Tibetan people, is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists.

McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of the Tibetans, offers an eclectic mix of Indian and Tibetan cultures, which exist in this small town dominated by Buddhism preachers and tap-toed by foreign tourists.

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It’s a terrace cafe with a hippie-chic ambience and crowd, where I sit and sup some hot, clear soup. The chilly winds have blown my nose tip cold and lips dry. As I ingest the soup and enjoy the warm trail it is creating down my throat, I lookover the lush green valley of Mcleod Ganj also known as Little Lhasa, and a crowded street with a plethora of shops selling Tibetan carpets and handicrafts, Buddha idols and souvenirs, Thangkas, traditional paintings on cotton or silk; shopping is a material fiesta here and the art a reflection of Indian and Tibetan culture.I am enjoying the mild dance of the flipping and flopping of the colourful, triangular flags that are constantly being hit by breeze and are hanging loosely all around, from tress, shops, and even backpacks and bikes of the tourists who are mostly foreigners and young Indians. The environment is a mix of the silence of the hills, a city vibe flowing through cafes and the monks in red robes and exquisite monasteries, which make for a dominant Buddhist culture in this part of Himachal Pradesh. I am swaying in my environs, when misty clouds surround me, the already shy sun sets away and it gets dark; at midday, it gets really dark.This is a typical June day in McLeod Ganj, at an altitude of 1,770 m, in Dharamshala, which is formally the seat of the Tibetan government in Exile.

Capital in exile

The first Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhist, founded Mcleod Ganj as an ideal place to establish the ‘Capital in Exile’. The Central Tibetan Administration, (CTA) is an organisation based in India, with the stated goals of rehabilitating Tibetan refugees here till the time that Tibet gains freedom from China. This suburb, around 4km north of Dharamshala is the residence of his holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama and the site of the exile community’s main temple. This explains why the tiny hill station is home to a large population from India’s neighbour and why the walls around here have graffiti shouting ‘Free Tibet’.
The culture of this place is dominated by the residents and it is evident here not just because of the practice of Buddhism but also the art and architecture that the place boasts of and the traditions, customs and culinary delights that have settled along with the Buddhists, who practice their religion extensively here, and the place has come to be known for it.

Food and Culture

Food to gorge and a culture to experience A man opens the lid of an aluminium container and the steam from it rises above, cutting through the misty, chilled air. Aroma of fresh dumplings spreads instantly. Sound from the electric mixing of coffee and milk is hushing the noise from the chattering of the people waiting for food. This food-joint is packed. In another one right next to it, a man standing under a tarpaulin is tossing Tibetan noodles in a wok, which people are enjoying alongside coffee which is a famous beverage in the area besides the butter tea.

The little suburb is rather big gastronomically. The fairly priced food that the cafes or street-food vendors serve is mostly Tibetan. Momos and Thukpa, a Tibetan noodle soup, among other local dishes are heartily enjoyed by tourists. Non-Tibetan dishes are also readily available. Unlike cafes in Indian metropolises, cafes in McLeod Ganj depict the culture, manner and custom of the locals. Most cafes are run by Tibetan families who give a warm welcome to all customers. Folded hands and smiling faces greet travellers into cozy and colourful cafes, stocked with books on Tibetan history, philosophy and culture etc. Shoes are not allowed inside many cafes. Although some may find this practice rather odd, it makes for a unique experience. “I was amused to learn the concept at first. I entered into one of the many cafes that decorated the McLeod-streets and saw foreigners and backpackers sitting cozily with their legs crossed on sofas. I found it liberating to see everyone loosen up and unwind with other tourists. It was a break from the uptight culture in city cafes and also lets you sink in a different custom,” said Lishita Jain, an art fanatic and traveller who recently visited the hill station.

Also Read – Inside Majnu ka Tilla: Delhi’s own Mini Tibet.

Tibetan government in exile: Preserving Tibetan Identity. 

 

Chant and pray

Standing in the capacious courtyards of monasteries, rolling the prayer wheels and looking at the intricate, beautiful, Tibetan paintings on the walls around made me feel at peace and the copious crowd didn’t bother much; noticing the unique styles of offerings and prayers kept me busy. It was fascinating to see boxes of imported chocolates presented in front of the Dalai Lama’s photos and how people lay face and flat down on wooden planks to offer their prayers.

The most important Buddhist site, the main focus of visiting pilgrims, monks and many tourists, is the Tsuglagkhang (the main Tibetan temple), in the Tsuglagkhang complex. It has statues of Shakyamuni or Gautama Buddha, Avalokiteśvara, who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas, and a statue of Padmasambhava, the Indian sage who is believed to have spread Buddhism in Tibet and other parts of north-east Asia.

But before you head to the Tsuglagkhang, visit the adjoining Kalachakra Temple. It houses the Wheel of Time or the Kalachakramandala, specifically linked to Avalokitesvara, of whom the Dalai Lama is an apparition.

The Gompas, which are Buddhist ecclesiastical fortifications of learning, lineage and Sadhana, too are important tourist destinations.

The Namgyal Gompa is the monastery where the 14th Dalai Lama resides; however, his residence on the property is not open to public. The key role of this place is to assist with rituals involving practices in Tibet.

The peaceful Tsechokling Gompa was built here in 1987 to replace the original Dip Tse Chokling Gompa in Tibet, destroyed during the cultural revolution in 1966. The prayer hall enshrines a statue of Shakyamuni in a magnificent jewelled headdress.

The religious route doesn’t end here. St John in the wilderness or simply St John Church, an Anglican church, is just 1.5 km west of McLeod on the road to Forsyth Ganj. This brooding Gothic church (dating from 1852) is one of the few remaining traces of McLeod’s days as a British hill station. It is open on Sunday mornings at 10 am for the weekly mass. The cemetery contains the graves of many victims of the 1905 earthquake, as well as the rocket-like tomb of the Earl of Elgin, the second Viceroy of India.

The art part

It’s everywhere. The streets, cafes, monasteries, museums, walls, people, almost everything and everyone has a unique style statement that blends with the hip and happening vibe of this mystic suburb.

Bright and colourful canopies of the monasteries make their way for one’s view from amid a canopy of trees. The colours in one’s vision are dominated by golden-yellows from the places of prayer and lush-green from the valley.

Foreigners making bold style statements swagger around in loosely-fitting harem pants and kaftans. Their unique tattoos and multiple piercings are hard to miss. The culture, the fashion- is all art, and it is all around.

The Tibetans have preserved their culture in the walls of galleries and museums here that are not just a tourist attraction but also a window to what actually lies beyond the border.

Nearly 2 km downhill from the Tsuglakhang Complex is the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives that was built to stock a collection of sacred manuscripts saved from the cultural revolution. It has over 100,000 manuscripts, books and documents in Tibetan, and over 13,000 volumes on Tibet, Buddhism and the Himalayan region in English and other languages.

It also has a cultural museum with statues, old Tibetan artefacts and books, and some wood and sand crafted, three-dimensional mandalas, which are symbols representing the universe…and some walls have history hidden in them.

Gu-Chu-Sum Movement Gallery showcases distressing photos from the oppression period in Chinese-occupied Tibet and the inhumane chronicles of 1987, 1988 and 2008. It is run by a charity that assists current and former Tibetan political prisoners and is open on request-ask at the Gu-Chu-Sum office.

The Tibet museum uses photographs, videos and English-language display panels to tell the story of Tibetan history and the Chinese occupation.

For science buffs, The Men-Tsee-Khangmuseum, tells tales of Tibetan medicine via illustrative thangkas, paintings and photographs. It also displays samples of the plants, medicines and minerals.

The refugees take care of their children’s education at the Tibetan’s Children Village that provides free education for nearly 2,000 kids and also shelters some. It is open to visitors.

The hill station doesn’t have any movie theatres but has been organising the Dharamshala International Film Festival since 2012 each November.

Also Read – Annexation of Tibet by China

Mystical journey: Exploring the Tibetan community.

How to reach

The nearest airport is Gaggal Airport which has flights from Delhi and Kullu. From the airport it takes about an hour to reach McLeod Ganj. By Train, the nearest railway station is at a distance of 90 km from McLeod Ganj, and thus travelling via train is not suggested. A convenient way to reach McLeod Ganj is by bus. Many luxury Volvo buses run daily from the capital New Delhi and other major cities. Buses leave Delhi in early evening and reach McLeod Ganj by 7 in the morning.

Where to Stay

Some of the best budget hotels are located on the Jogiwara road, in the heart of the main market and restaurants and close to the Dalai Lama Temple. However, if one is seeking seclusion, there are many options a couple of km from the main market. Pink House : Rated as the best hotel in McLeod Ganj for seven straight years, this hotel offers some of the best views of the snow clad mountains, starry nights and setting sun. And why wouldn’t it, since one has to climb over 100 stairs to reach the hotel. M Hotel : Located in the heart of the market, this hotel offers delicious meals and comfortable rooms on a shoe-string budget.

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