Peace on Earth on Top of the World
-- by Francisco Little, South Africa, Sunday Times 15 November 1998
A small town in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas has become the most
remote and unlikely tourist destination.
FRANCISCO LITTLE of Cape Town recently spent a year there and reports on
the home of Tibet in exile
IT IS one of the ironies of the modern world that a congested town on the
edge of the Himalayas playing host to a community of refugees has become
one of India's major tourist attractions.
When the hyperactive bus driver finally brought the swaying,
diesel-fume-spewing vehicle to a halt in the settlement which nestles on
the shoulder of the snow-capped Dhauladhar mountain range, 40 cramped
passengers breathed a collective sigh of relief. New Delhi was more than
600km behind us and we had just spent 12 hours speeding through the night
on narrow mountain roads, climbing high into the northern Himachal Pradesh
province of India.
"Dharamsala!" screamed our driver, simultaneously spraying his co-driver
with red betel-leaf juice and hitting the brakes. We tumbled out into the cool air,
gathering assorted luggage and looking furtively around at our destination.
Dharamsala is today the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan
refugees who over the past 40 years have followed their spiritual and
secular leader into exile, fleeing from the Chinese oppression across the
border in Tibet. The presence of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's "god-king", today
attracts vast droves of domestic and foreign visitors who can't seem to get
enough of the former British hill station.
Splendidly situated amidst dense pine forests, Dharamsala - the name is
taken from an old Hindu sanctuary on which the town stands - is split into
two villages. The lower village, situated 1 250m above sea level, is home
to a vibrant Indian community, who trade almost everything from spicy
samoosas to the latest notebook computers in the bizarre Kotwali Bazaar.
Rising almost 700m in the space of a kilometre, a death-defying winding
track leads to upper Dharamsala, better known to travellers as McLeod Ganj.
The track, referred to as the "hell run" by locals, allows hashish-loving
Indian taxi drivers to show off their driving skills. Trips up and down are
possibly the only thing that is done with any speed in the entire region.
It comes as no surprise that walking up the track, although strenuous, is
extremely popular. The walk allows you the chance to look at the Dhauladar
range, which is the third outer wall of the Himalayas and rises up in an
eternally snow-covered backdrop above the town. On a clear day you really
can see forever and it's picture perfect down to the distant Kangra Valley.
McLeod Ganj is a cosmopolitan area dominated by an active Tibetan community
who like nothing more than to stare at the bohemian attire of the many
visitors to their town.
From the central bus stop lead five muddy, choking streets humming with
life, both animal and human. Gaudy sidewalk souvenir shops reeking of
incense sell traditional Tibetan cultural items like the khata (white silk
greeting scarf), photographs of the Dalai Lama, books on Buddhism, silver
metalwork, rugs and clothing. They stand side by side between walls
festooned with signs advertising everything from palm readers to chakra
cleaners and "new age" elixirs of life.
Nirvana seems to be the password here. Tibetan folk music blares out of
well-worn speakers and cows, goats and donkeys wander around the shops with
impunity. There's a tea (chai) shop every couple of steps, where Western
spiritual seekers rub worn cotton-clad shoulders with Tibetans, interacting
with Indian Gaddis and Kashmiris.
Big budget and shoestring live in harmony. In the town centre a long row of
perpetually spinning prayer wheels gives idle hands the opportunity to work
on their karmas, while next door Indian shopkeepers watch the latest
cricket Test match on TV. It's a mixture as eclectic as the ingredients in
Eastern cuisine and it works - effortlessly.
McLeod Ganj boasts an astonishing 90 restaurants and cafés, and a total of
146 hotels and guest-houses are registered with the Tourism Department, all
shoe-horned into an area the size of three football fields. Thanks to the
altitude, virtually every room has a view. Five-star hotels lean
majestically over the town, keeping an eye on the lowly guest-houses.
A large number of the restaurants specialise in Tibetan food, which must
rate as the most boring on the culinary circuit. It is a bland diet,
turbo-charged with generous helpings of explosive chilli paste on
The most popular dishes are momo, a kind of dumpling stuffed with
vegetables or meat, and laphong, a dish made from boiling arrowroot and
wheat flour. Because the conditions on the high plateaus of their homeland
are often too harsh to grow crops, Tibetans are great meat eaters, with
goats and yak providing sustenance.
It is also said that Tibetans are the world's major tea consumers. The
favoured tea, however, is made with butter and salt and is not for the
With the tourist boom, restaurants offering everything from pizza to fish
and chips have sprung out of the woodwork. But most Western visitors favour
the many Indian eating houses in Dharamsala. They're cheap and the food is
tasty. Those who go the self- catering route live by the adage "boil it,
peel it, cook it or forget it". This advice is worth its weight in saffron
Prices are pretty reasonable compared with South Africa. A substantial hot
meal will set you back R2, while a comfortable single room with a shower
can be found for R12 a night. The tourist influx has begun to create price
hikes on local craft goods, but that's an inevitability of the modern
McLeod Ganj's major attraction is that it is the official residence of the
Dalai Lama. He lives in guarded seclusion opposite the Namgyal Monastery at
the town's entrance.
The monastery, the largest of five in the area, is seen as a sacred place
of learning and worship for Buddhists and houses a large monk population.
It also contains the Tsuk Lakhang temple, the town's most holy of holy
places, which houses a 1 500- year-old statue of Guru Padmasambhava (the
eighth-century master who introduced Buddhism to Tibet) and a life-size
image of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, of whom the present
Dalai Lama is believed to be the living manifestation.
A priceless collection of 225 volumes of Lord Buddha's sermons, recorded in
Sanskrit, are also stored in yellow silk within the temple. These items are
all said to have been smuggled out of Tibet during the destructive
"Cultural Revolution" period of the Chinese occupation. It was at this time
that over 6 000 monasteries were ravaged and over 1,2 million Tibetans were
killed in their ongoing persecution by the Chinese army.
A big part of Tibetan life, and a great attraction for visitors, are the
daily circumambulations around the holy path - a circuit that makes its way
around the Dalai Lama's palace grounds. Pretty Tibetan women in their
traditional dress (chuba), shaven-headed monks and nuns, and local youth in
faded denims all walk chanting the mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum", while their
thumbs roll endlessly over prayer beads. It's a mesmerising experience
which Tibetans believe gains them merit for a fortunate rebirth.
Buddhist monks and nuns are an integral part of Dharamsala - ubiquitous,
friendly and eager to learn English. At first very noticeable in their
flowing maroon robes, they soon become a familiar sight, somehow always
"there". Namgyal Monastery also serves as a stage for the monks' animated
dialectic philosophical debates. These Oscar-winning performances include
the loud slapping of hands to make a point and athletic posturing.
Prominent personalities from across the world now make regular pilgrimages
to the town, which has emerged as an important Buddhist centre. The most
famous of these is Richard Gere, who uses McLeod Ganj as his second home.
The Dalai Lama gives public teachings and holds public audiences several
times a year - both of which attract huge numbers and are seen as peak
For many it is the highlight of their lives to cast eyes on and listen to
this compassionate, jovial being, whose non-violent approach to the Tibetan
freedom struggle has captured the imagination of the entire planet.
The buildings of the Central Tibetan Administration, which house the
Tibetan government-in-exile, are situated midway between upper and lower
Grey government offices form a guard of honour around the town's most
beautiful building: the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives is a building
which contradicts itself. The outside is beautifully decorated in authentic
Tibetan style, utilising rich red, yellow, gold and green colours, while
the inside is cold, haunting and peaceful. Pride of place on the
administration block wall is a poster-size photograph of a smiling Nelson
Mandela and the Dalai Lama. It attracts much attention. The library serves
as a repository for priceless Tibetan artefacts, books and manuscripts, as
well as being a centre for language and cultural education - the most
important centre of its kind in the world.
There is a university campus energy at the library, which is filled with
scholars and students from all corners of the globe who visit either to
attend the daily Buddhist philosophy classes or to research Tibetan
It is this culture that the Tibetans hold most dear, and the majority of
travellers to Dharamsala soon find themselves in tune with it. Tibetans
incorporate their culture into their daily lives and live by their Buddhist
faith, which teaches compassion for all.
Music, dance, drama and art forms play an equally important part in the
lives of Tibetans. There are songs and dances for every occasion, and
preserving and developing this culture in exile, has led to the formation
of the Tibetan Institute. Both the library and the institute are living
entities which thrive on the interest of Western visitors and are actively
supported by the Dalai Lama.
The natural snow-laden mountainous landscape around Dharamsala has meant
that more and more adrenaline junkies are showing a keen interest in
adventure tourism, with rock climbing, trekking and skiing topping the
The local youth have quickly realised they can earn prized foreign currency
and offer their services as guides, cooks and porters. Also on the agenda
is Dal Lake, a place of great reverence to Hindus; Baggsu Nag waterfall,
which flows through a slate quarry; and Dharamkot, a little agricultural
village on the outskirts, home to a forgotten tribe of hippies from the
'60s. Several meditation centres in the area offer insights to the
"seekers" and these are usually fully booked many months in advance.
Dharamsala is many things to many people. Its popularity as a tourist
destination means it is fast becoming a "must see" on the Asian route. Some
say that it is a travel destination that feeds the conscience, and see
living amongst a Buddhist community in exile as a spiritual journey.
They see the injustice of Tibetans being persecuted in their own country as
akin to the dark days of apartheid and offer their time and skills to the
many needy local organisations. Pious, sacred, a seat of learning, a
melting pot of humanity - they see Dharamsala as a living global village.
To others, it provides an opportunity to kick back and take time out. Just
being with the smiling, gentle, moon-faced people from the "Land of Snows"
is enough for them, making the hectic Western lifestyle seems a world away.
To leave is to retain memories of a different world, yet it is the sounds
rather that the sights that remain: the deep abdominal tones of Buddhist
hypnotically, long-haired grandmothers turning their weathered faces to
mouth the shy traditional Tibetan greeting of "Tashi Delek", the high
haunting voices relaying the tragedy of Tibetan folk songs, and the barking
of countless stray dogs guarding an ancient heritage. ?
Dharamsala can be reached by bus or train, with all connections from New
Delhi. The bus journey is overnight, while the train service runs to
Patankot, from where a four-hour taxi drive brings you to Dharamsala.
The best time of the year to visit is from September to October or from
February to May .