What most people think as the town of Dharamsala is actually McLeod Ganj, which is the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile, and the home in exile of the Dalai Lama. Since the Dalai Lama arrived in what was a sleepy hamlet in 1975, the town of McLeod Ganj (a mountain outcropping of the city of Dharamsala, which lies at the foot of the mountains) has become a Mecca for travelers and seekers of all kinds. Indeed, due to the Chinese oppression of the Tibetan plateau, Dharamsala has become the seat of Tibetan Buddhism worldwide, and it is the definitive destination for anyone who wants to learn or see Tibetan culture. Worldwide interest in Tibetan Buddhism has made Dharamsala a crossroads and a meeting place; not only will you meet Tibetans, but also a wide array of spiritual seekers, from Americans like Baba Ram Das to monks who have only recently escaped from their homeland and who are encountering Westerners for the first time. The streets of McLeod Ganj teem with artifacts, handicrafts, and foods of Tibetan origin, as well as services specifically for travelers, such as cinemas that show popular English-language films. The city is majestically set in the Himalayan foothills, built around a lush green valley. It offers some of the best hiking in India, with well-marked trails that lead to precipices from where the some of the highest and mightiest mountains in the world rise as if directly in front of you. The town of Dharamsala is aesthetically perfect, from the ornate artwork in the temples to the majestic scenery.
Things to do in
People come to Dharamsala for many reasons. There are a few things that should not be missed on a short trip, but if you can make time in your itinerary to linger, you will be able to go as deeply as you choose into Buddhism, into the mountains, into meditations, even into the vibrant social scene created by the international character of the town.
The Dalai Lama’s Palace is indispensable, even if the holy personage is not there. The temple complex contains the Namgyal Monastery, where monks live year-round, a main temple, and two smaller shrines, one of which houses a massive gilded Buddha. The entire complex is full of magical Tibetan artwork that portrays demons at war with gods, the might of the gurus, and the quest of the Buddha himself. This artwork is meant to act as an education; simply by being present in front of it, even the most unfamiliar with Buddhism will begin to get a sense of what the religion teaches. Don’t overthink it, though; let the palace overwhelm you with its beauty. Afterwards, join the circumambulation around the temple, studded with prayer wheels, which will yield some gorgeous views of the foothills below. On warm days, there is a watermelon-seller who will give you a slice of watermelon each time you pass him, however many circuits you decide to do.
For hikers, follow the marked trail up through the forest and up the hill to Triund, which is the base of many different Himalayan treks. From here, you can take three or four day long treks, or go for an independent day hike up to the crest of the ridge, which will reveal the heights of the massive peaks. Alternately, follow the road out of town to Bhagsu, itself a town with guesthouses, to see the spectacular Bhagsu Waterfalls.
For seekers who wish to delve more deeply into the Tibetan culture and religion, visit the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, a bit down the hill. The Tibetan Library is invested in preserving the Tibetan traditions that are under threat from the political situation in the plateau, and it contains one of the most complete collections of Buddhist scriptures. It also holds frequent, open, and free lectures and classes held by Buddhist luminaries from around the world, sometimes His Holiness The Dalai Lama.
There are plenty of backpacker hotels and hostels around McLeod Ganj. Also consider staying just down the road in Bhagsu. There are a few more posh options as well.
Budget Hotels in Dharamsala
Green Hotel—a popular choice
Kunga Guesthouse—Some of their rooms over nice views, and good rooms for the money
Cheryton Gottage Guest House—an interesting building, a unique place to stay
Midrange Hotels in Dharamsala
Hotel Tibet—an upmarket hotel at a budget price, near the bus stand
Top End Hotels in Dharamsala
Chonor House Hotel—a hidden gem; book in advance.
Asian Plaza Hotel
—Ostentatious and expensive.