Variety

Mcleodganj – A mini Tibet in India

Maitri Porecha New Delhi | Updated on October 30, 2019 Published on October 30, 2019

File photo of Tibetans at a rally to mark the 56th Anniversary of their National Uprising day at Mcleodganj in Dharamsala -PTI   -  PTI

Mcleodganj has something for everyone - history buffs, adventure freaks, foodies, and those who simply want to idyll away. Take your pick!

Visiting the Potala Palace, the erstwhile winter abode of the Dalai Lamas in Tibet, may be a far-fetched dream for many Indians, but an overnight 12-hour bus journey from Delhi to Himachal Pradesh, can transport one to the mini Tibet of McLeodganj in Upper Dharamsala.

Between bus and train (from Delhi to Pathankot and then by car), the former is a much more reliable and assured mode of transport, that can ensure you reach in good time.

After being driven out by the Chinese, many Tibetans fled to India in icy weather conditions. They crossed the border and settled in the hill-station of Mcleodganj, where they have formed a government-in-exile. The little town also serves as an Indian military base.

The market in the town is a short uphill walk, 500 meters from the bus stop. A walk through the main market area could help you find a nice affordable place to stay in. Guesthouses are aplenty and a tariff of Rs 800 could fetch one a room that can accommodate two to three persons.

Mcleodganj has something for everyone, the history buffs, the foodies, the adventure freaks and those who simply want to idyll away.

The market has a range of wares, that the Tibetans have got from back home. Tiny pretty earrings of silver and stone, jewelled bracelets, neck pieces with pendants carved out of yak bone, and dream catchers made of colourful nylon threads, adorn the market streets. Many of the sellers have been compelled to sell family heirlooms like silver and brass-ware, spoons, keys and locks, forks and plates, to earn a living.

Tibetans are warm people, with a ready smile on their faces. They are often seen deep in prayer, poring through their scriptures or rotating their prayer wheels while murmuring their prayers.

While it would appear that many would prefer to meditate over initiating a friendly chat, some middle-aged Tibetans and youngsters are very friendly, often reminiscing about their long-lost homes and family members. Their tales of migration and escape are heart-wrenching, and replete with agony.

Though one can plan a short, weekend trip to Mcleodganj, taking a late-night bus on Friday, to return to Delhi’s Kashmere Gate ISBT in the wee hours of Monday (as early as 4 am), with an extra day or two in hand, one can explore the town and its environs.

Temple complex

Exploring a 2-3 km stretch of the town on foot could take the good part of an entire day. The temple complex (Tsuglagkhang), which is equivalent of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, is a big visitor attraction. The Dalai Lama's residence, the temple and the Namgyal Gompa (where one can see monks sealing arguments and debating vociferously) are located in the vicinity. One could even catch devotees prostrating in prayer and repeating the process multiple times.

The temple houses a three-meter tall statue of ‘Sakyamuni Buddha.’ The statue is flanked by ‘Avalokiteswara,’ the deity of which the Dalai Lama is believed to be the equivalent on Earth, and ‘Padmasambhava,’ the Indian scholar, who introduced Buddhism in Tibet. The fascinating part is that the original relics of ‘Avalokiteswara,’ which were sneaked away from the Lhasa temple during the Chinese invasion, have found a place here. So the statue is of immeasurable historical significance.

One can also visit the Tibetan Museum, which narrates the entire history of the cultural revolution and the Chinese annexation of Tibet.

It also has on display the blood stained clothes worn by the Tibetan army personnel, the arms and weaponry used by them, as well as other collectibles. A sizeable hoarding with photographs of monks and nationalists who immolated themselves in protest against the forcible Chinese occupation, is haunting. Exhibits relating to the story of the missing future Dalai Lama, who has allegedly been kidnapped and kept in detention by the Chinese along with his family, are also bound to catch one’s attention in the museum.

Posters to free the Lama are noticed all over the town. The story of the escape of Karmapa Lama (another young monk) and his secret stay location somewhere in the foothills of Dharamsala, is also a mystery spoken about in hushed tones there.

After visiting the museum, you could browse through the book shop in the complex, which houses amazing coffee table books on the Himalayas and other spots of scenic beauty, apart from spiritual literature.

The Temple Road that surrounds the complex is ideal for a solitary walk. The circuit starts from outside, on the left of the Temple Complex entrance. A downhill road which takes a winding path to the right, passes through a forest strewn with prayer flags, and rocks engraved prayer points, embedded with chants in the Tibetan script, a view of the valley onto the left, complete with tall conifers and lonely prayer wheels on the right, waiting to be spun by the believer.

The road circumambulates the temple complex and emerges back onto the temple entrance.

On a food trail

After an arduous walk, good food is a must, of which there is no dearth in Mcleodganj. One can enjoy the ambience of the local cafes, while enjoying a tasty fare that is not heavy on the stomach. To begin with, have breakfast at ‘The Peace Cafe,’ which is near the Mcleodganj post office in the market. One can try ‘Tibetan Butter Tea,’ also known as Po Cha (a salty concoction of yak butter, tea leaves, water and salt), Tibetan bread with marmalade, pancakes, fruit and yoghurt. Also, nearby, is the ‘Tibetan Quality Bakery,’ which sells carrot and chocolate cakes, brownies, as also delectable yak cheese and bread! Also, do not miss the roadside momos – the vegetable, potato and chicken varieties. Some restaurants serve chocolate momos, too! And then there is the tiny ‘Tibetan Yak Cafe,’ run by a young brother-sister pairing, who are helped out by their uncle. They churn up the world's best Thukpa and Thunktu (classical Tibetan vegetable and noodle soups). Also worth visiting are the Black Tent Cafe, Carpe Diem and Lung Ta Restaurant (which serves Japanese vegetarian food).

It would be ideal to hire a car while visiting the Secretariat of the Tibetan government-in-exile (they have a full-fledged functional parliament, with close to 40 Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers) and the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute (Men-Tsee-Khang), which is a Tibetan medicine and healing centre.

Tibetan medicine

People from far and near throng clinics in Mcleodganj and vouch for the healing properties of Ttibetan medicine. A couple from Mumbai had come to the clinic for follow-up treatment, after the wife suffered from breast cancer. She was taking Tibetan medicines post her allopathic treatment to build immunity. The healer monitors the pulse for a minute and tracks minor or major ailments. Mee-Tse-Khang has centres in Mumbai and Delhi as well.

Also, downhill fro, the Norbulingka Monastery (www.norbulingka.org) is the highest cricket stadium in India. Norbulingka, a must visit, is a lush green school of practising artists, the gardens of which are done up in Japanese style. Endless strings of prayer flags, tiny rivulets, ponds and streams, dainty curved wooden bridges and resplendent golden prayer wheels etched with prayers of ‘Om Mani Padme Hum,’ greets one at the institute. The entry is laden with a path of grey pebbled stones and tall shoots of bamboo line the the path on both sides. The Dalai Lama's summer palace in Lhasa is named 'Norbulingka,' and this institute takes its name from it. The institute is 6 km from Mcleodganj.

Over 300 Tibetans are training in the institute, in six or more departments which include ‘Thangka,’ painting and embroidery (‘Thangkas,’ are images of Buddhist deities like Vajra Pani, Vajra Sattva, the green goddess Tara amongst others), wood carving of cabinets, drawers and boxes, wooden painting where delicate flowers and other designs are drawn upon wooden frames and metal statue making. The central Buddhist temple at Norbulingka has a 4-meter high gilded statue of ‘Sakyamuni Buddha,’ which is a breathtaking view. On both sides are elegant butter lamps that provide a soft glow to the environs inside the sanctum sanctorum. The campus also houses the Losel Doll Museum, which provides a glimpse of the traditional Tibetan living style through indigenous dolls.

To catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama, is the wish of many a traveller in Mcleodganj. He occasionally gives sermons (mostly in Tibetan language) in the Tibetan Children’s Village, where hundreds of Tibetan children receive free residentialeducation. To check the schedule - visit www.dalailama.com. In February and March, there are public teachings, for which one needs to sign up at the Branch Security Office in Bhagsu Road.

One can also visit the Church of St John in the Wilderness, a short walk from the market. A morning walk to the church, which emerges out of the dense forest vegetation, is truly worth it. The cemetery has a fascinating collection of tombs and engravings, of people who died in an earthquake in 1905. Also, there are tales of a British officer who died during a hunt, after a wild bear ripped him apart. The plaques inside the church mourn and remember the dead Englishmen of that time. The coniferous pine and fir trees transport one to the fictitious Winterfell forests, described in the Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin.

In the afternoon, one can visit Bhagsu waterfalls, for which you will have to return to the Main Chowk from the church and take the Bhagsu road, which leads to a Shiva temple built by the King of Kangra in the 14th century and a winding uphill trek (there are steps) leads to the waterfalls, where you can lounge in a cafe in the backdrop of the falls.

Adventure afficionnados can engage in paragliding, which takes up half-a-day. A few hours in the market before embarking taking the bus that usually departs between 8 pm to 9.30 pm will be time well spent. The book shops in Mcleodganj have a fascinating collection. One can also take home, rolls of prayer flags that make lovely gifts for friends and family. Tibetans believe that the chants on the prayer flags get disbursed in the wind, as the flags gently fly in the breeze. And lastly, do not miss tasting the local apple and pear wines, which are not available anywhere else in the country.

Published on October 30, 2019
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