Dharamsala melds Tibetan and Indian Cultures for a Uniquely Spiritual Escape

Today, Dharamsala’s location in the Dhauladhar mountain range is known for its spiritual offerings

By: By Christina Tse

Asia: Great Escapes

Asia: Great Escapes (2009.09.14) CoverClick here to download the complete PDF of the September 2009 Great Escapes to Asia supplement.

When India opened its doors to the 14th Dalai Lama in 1959, Dharamsala was little more than a hill station. Forgotten for its significance in Buddhism, this region in India’s northern state of Himachal Pradesh was used as a British summer holiday spot. Today, Dharamsala’s location in the Dhauladhar mountain range still makes for a cool escape from the heat and bustle of the cities, but is better known for its spiritual offerings, attracting both Indian and foreign tourists alike.


Dharamsala is located in the Dhauladhar
mountain range, or lesser Himalayas, of
India. // © 2009 Christina Tse

The majority of development is centered in Upper Dharamsala, or McLeod Ganj, where Indian commerce harmonizes with the ventures of the Tibetan community. It was here that I found myself inundated with activities devoted to well-being, both personal and societal.

McLeod Ganj was not lacking in its selection of holistic spas and extensive treatment menus. Deciding between Tibetan, Ayurvedic, Thai or Swedish treatments, I opted for a traditional Indian Ayurvedic, full-body massage at the Kailash School of Yoga and Holistic Healing. The principle behind Ayurveda is to bring synchronicity to body and mind through natural rejuvenation. Many of the massage centers also double as schools that offer courses in the various methods of massage, as well as health and relaxation techniques in yoga and meditation.

Even before the Dalai Lama’s arrival, Dharamsala was important in the histories of both Hinduism and Indian Buddhism. Now, as his official residence, Dharamsala continues to lure travelers of all kinds who seek religious knowledge. The presence of this spiritual leader has captivated the region and turned it into a hub of learning and acceptance. While it is rare to be able to meet His Holiness in person, there are other ways to reach spiritual fulfillment.

Just outside Dharamsala, at the Gyuto Rinpoche temple, the Karmapa Lama (www.kagyuoffice.org) receives the public. This third-highest-ranking spiritual leader in Lamaism is the head of the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Prior to my trip, I had never heard of him, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to pay a visit.

I arrived at the temple with little idea of what the procedure is for meeting spiritual leaders. After registering my passport, I was escorted into the women’s line for security and then into a hall where we were divided into rows. I held a white scarf, purchased at the on-site shop, which each guest should bring to receive a blessing. The doors opened, and we were quickly ushered in a single-file line to an adjoining room, with a receiving line of monks and the Karmapa Lama in the center. I offered my scarf to a monk who blessed it and gave it back, wrapping it around my neck. Trying to keep my head bowed and my hands in prayer, I couldn’t help but take a peek at the Karmapa Lama when he handed me a red string. Outside, as everyone was tying the holy red strings around their necks, the sense of gratitude and awe was palpable. Though I am not Buddhist, I truly felt the elation of being blessed.

For those who want to study Buddhism, or at least want to make a dent in grasping a part of its mammoth teachings, the Central Tibetan Administration offers daily morning lectures at its library. Young monks, studious Tibetans and foreign tourists sit together to listen to a high lama speak on Buddhist philosophy. Instruction is in Tibetan with an English translator. While I did not fully grasp his teachings, there was something about this red-robed elderly gentleman that was inspiring. Regardless of a person’s belief or background, the dedication of the town and its residents to the Buddhist values of peace and compassion will leave any traveler inspired.

Though part of India, Dharamsala is considered by thousands of Tibetans as their second home, and many have found ways to share aspects of their culture alongside their Indian neighbors. One of the most obvious examples of this is the region’s multicultural cusine, and McLeod Ganj offers an array of cooking courses in South Indian, Punjab and Tibetan dishes.

After spending three months in India, I thought I’d change my palate and take a course in Tibetan cooking. Sangye’s Kitchen offers twice-daily lessons on three popular dishes. I took a one-day session in preparing momos, a kind of Tibetan dumpling. Tourists often crave a specific, cross-cultural version: the pan-fried, spinach-and-cheese-filled momo. The first time I tasted it, I knew I would miss it when I left, so I was excited when I saw it listed on the menu for the course. In his small kitchen, Sangye’s class runs like an informal dinner party. He deftly guided us through the recipes and, while the dumplings were steaming, we conversed like old friends. Through Sangye, I better understood the sentiments of the local Tibetans and the new life they have built for themselves here in Dharamsala, trying to preserve their roots while adapting to Indian life. The art of making dumplings is something I have yet to master but, as far as the food and company were concerned, the class was a success.

When your clients want to contribute to the community in ways other than in spending, McLeod Ganj offers a range of volunteer opportunities. I volunteered for English conversations at Lha Charitable Trust (www.lhasocialwork.org), one of several nonprofits that support the refugee population. For an hour each day, I dropped into the offices to talk with English learners. Sitting on cushions on the floor, I met so many people with incredible stories. Some were shy, some were hesitant to practice their English, some were curious about my own life and some were eager to talk and joke. Many spoke Hindi, an indication of their assimilation into their new country. Respectfully, they addressed me as “teacher” and were so thankful at the end of each session, though I was surely the recipient in all of these exchanges.

This “Little Lhasa” community in the Kangra Valley demonstrated India’s capability of sustaining cultural and religious diversity. After my stay here, I am sure of this: A trip to Dharamsala is a rewarding one. And for whatever reason your clients come, inevitably, they’ll leave as a student.