Exploring the land of the Dalai Lama: Dharamsala - McLeod Ganj

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View of the town nestled in the hillsDuring the recent Buddha Purnima long weekend at the end of May, I got together with two of my girlfriends to plan a weekend away from the madness of “normal life.” And what better place to calm the spirits than the spiritual land of the Dalai Lama? Thus began the frantic search for the perfect place to stay — one that wouldn’t burn a hole in our collective pockets, and yet would be calming and beautiful. The Norling Guest House at the Norbulinka Institute was just such a place. Search for the guesthouse over, we started thinking logistics. From Delhi, the best way to get to Dharamsala is by an overnight bus. Yes, you could fly, but that would burn a pretty serious hole in your pocket!

So, an overnight bus journey later, tired and slightly edgy, we reached the hotel… and were transported into tranquility. The guesthouse is set within a monastery and institute complex, with beautifully landscaped grounds that exude an aura of peace, with the song of birds and crickets in the background. Bliss. I could see myself just lazing around, soaking in the atmosphere there for a while… But first, McLeod Ganj waited!

McLeod GanjThe main anchors of the central square of McLeod Ganj are Mcllo Restaurant (totally avoidable – lousy food, so-so ambience) and the oldest shop in the city – Nowrojee and Son, which was founded in 1860. From there, streets radiate in about 5 different directions. We picked a street at random and set out in search of lunch. Of course, along the way we were distracted by a beautiful red and gold monastery and all the shops lining the street. But, before we could do any sight-seeing or shopping, our tummies were crying out for food.

We eventually found our way to the Tourist Information office, got directions to Jogiwara Road (where a lot of the amazing eateries are located) and elected to eat at Carpe Diem (I loved the name! Seize the day [or whatever was left of it] was just what we intended to do next!)

Buddha statue at the monastery Once we had our fill of some excellent grub, we headed out to explore the town — but were distracted before we had taken 10 steps by this really amazing store called Jewels of Asia, and then again by a store selling thankas, and then by yet another store… so yes, as you can guess, we spent the rest of the day exploring the shops in tiny Dharamsala.

We reserved sight-seeing for the next day, and even then, all that we really saw was the main monastery. It was a bit disappointing, as it didn’t look anything like the pictures we saw online. But the statues at the temple were awe-inspiring. The central Buddha image towers over visitors, encrusted with colored stones, with the silence and sanctity that can only come from years of prayer, surrounded by paintings depicting the Buddha lifecycle, Wheel of Life, and various other mandalas. There are also some really beautiful statues of Tara and the Tibetan protector Goddess at the temple that are gorgeous. The Goddess looks serene and calm and yet stern, all at the same time; that, in my opinion, is artistry at its height.

Monks making a mandalaWe ended up spending quite a bit of time at the monastery, ‘cause it started raining pretty heavily. While we were there, we saw two monks making a mandala with chalk colors. They were just starting out, but the precision and concentration with which they were making the mandala was like meditation in motion. I spent a lot of time hanging around there clicking pictures, and their concentration just didn’t waver, even when people came over asking them what they were doing — they answered their questions and went on with their task — totally zen. I really wish I could have stayed and watch them complete the mandala, or come again later to see the completed image, but alas! That was not meant to be.

By the time the weather cleared it was lunch time, so we decided to head over to Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen for lunch (good Italian food, though a bit over-salted; to-die-for chocolate mousse!). Along the way we did some window shopping at the stalls (most of the goods on offer were over-priced and the owners were pretty rude!), though I did pick up a pair of yak bone earrings and some CDs.

Prayer bellsLunch over, we decided it was time to hit the stores! Where there are women, shopping can’t be far behind, eh? Normally, I would have wanted to go do more sight seeing, but since I had already decided that I would return to Dharamsala, this time for longer, I figured it would be OK to choose shopping over sightseeing, especially since this was our last full day in town.

I won’t bore you with details, but by the end of the day, the husbands were hanging around at the main square while the three of us were off stuffing our bags with all our purchases!

Shopping done, feet tired, we decided to head back to the hotel. It was bye-bye McLeod Ganj!


Altitude: between 1,250 and 1,650 meters.

Sign near the monastery
Getting there:

  • By air: Nearest airport is Gaggal airport, which is located 15 km. from Dharamshala.
  • By rail: Nearest railhead is Pathankot, 95 km away.
  • By road: Himachal Road Transport Corporation has a huge network of bus routes. (hrtc.gov.in)
Best time to visit: March to June and September to October

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