Friday, May 11, 2012

The Little Tibet Of India

Prayer flags adorn most of the buildings in the little town of McLeod Ganj
The little town of McLeod Ganj may be a thriving tourist destination that lures in more foreigners than Indians, but to the many Tibetans who live here, it’s their home. Visit this unexpectedly charming town brimming with warm people, and indulge in the vibrant display of their rich culture.

As an enthusiastic traveller, I’ve often wondered what the best way to explore a destination would be. Should I do detailed research about it so that I know what to expect once I reach there? Or should I just jump in headfirst and head there without a plan? Well, for McLeod Ganj, I chose the latter. So here I was, heading up the narrow road from Dharamsala to McLeod Ganj on a cold Tuesday evening in March. Evening turned into night as I arrived at the bus stand. With no hotel booking in place, I set off, lugging along my heavy backpack, to look for a room. Four different hotels and no vacant room. Without a choice, I walked on to Bhagsu, 2 kms. away, and finally found a place to spend the night: Hotel Sangam, with basic rooms at a reasonable price of Rs. 400 for a double-bedroom, a balcony and a hot shower.
A breath-taking view of the Dhauladhar mountain range clad in snow
I woke up early the next day after a good night’s sleep, ordered tea and headed to the balcony to see what I’d missed at night. There in the distance stood the powdered white nose of the Dhauladhar mountain range. I sat there gazing till I heard the bell-boy banging on the door waiting outside with the tea. I got ready and decided to walk to McLeod Ganj, instead of taking a rickshaw.
Didgeridoos (a musical instrument of Australian Aborigines made from a long wooden tube that is blown into to create a low drone) sold in the local market
The route is flanked by cedar and oak trees; many strung with colourful prayer flags. I passed by a cafe jutting out of the road towards the ravine and mysteriously called ‘Last Chance - do not miss pleasant view from here’. Plus points for creativity! A series of shops cropped up as I neared McLeod Ganj, mostly selling Tibetan souvenirs. But there was one store that stood out. Called Rosa ‘n Tosh’s Artistic Shop, it featured the works of artists who specialize in abstract psychedelic paintings. Upon reading McLeod Ganj, I spotted a stall selling a wide variety of didgeridoos. There was one box-shaped didgeridoo with a Cannabis leaf painted on it that caught my eye, but its price made me look away soon enough.

After all the walking, my stomach pleaded for some respite, so I headed to Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen - highly recommended by my handy guidebook. Bright chrome-coloured walls decked with movie posters dominated the decor, while Masala Omelette, toast and pancakes made for a hearty breakfast. Sipping on a hot cup of coffee, I discovered that the restaurant- which also had a great terrace with a view- also hosted movie screenings occasionally.

Onto Temple Road
The monastery inside Tsuglagkhang complex in McLeod Ganj
Monasteries emanate a sense of calm that always urges one to just go inside and sit in complete silence. I did just that at the monastery inside Tsuglagkhang complex. It was completely vacant, but for one devotee who sat there with prayer beads in his hand. Besides the monastery, the complex also contains the Dalai Lama's residence, a temple and a museum. The complex is comparable in function to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, said one of the young monks I met. as he pointed to a painting of the palace that covers the exterior of the monastery. Surrounding it is a meditation trail lined with many shrines and prayer flags that pilgrims circle through in a clockwise direction, while offering a prayer.
Peace march in McLeod Ganj led by natives and foreigners alike, commemorating the completion of their 50-year struggle to free Tibet from Chinese rule
In 1960, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatsho, was permitted to make McLeod Ganj his headquarters. This led to the influx of Tibetan refugees who settled here and shaped it as a learning centre for Buddhism and Tibetan culture. People come here from all parts of the globe to uncover their spiritual curve, whereas some come here as volunteers to help Tibetans fight their battle to regain their land. It amazes me that they’ve spent 50 years fighting this battle only using the path of peace, without resorting to any alternative methods, and their patience still perseveres. Every monk I passed by on the streets and every local I interacted with greeted me with a smile. No sign of pain, no sign of doubt and no sign of weariness creeping in even after 50 years.

On Hunger Trail
My food trail was largely ruled by the quest to find the best momos. After a few experiments, I found the yummiest momos at Snow Lion, located at Jogibara Road. Their steamed vegetable momos were just delicious; and against better judgement, I devoured two whole plates. I also gorged on a yummy banana chocolate crepe and a piece of chocolate cake. They just looked at me so invitingly; I couldn’t resist! By dinner, I was in the mood for good ol’ Indian food, so I headed to Ashok restaurant, located at the end of Jogibara Road. A great roof-top view and some paneer tikka masala and naan for company; I couldn’t have asked for more.
Inside a coffee shop. Some of the coffee shops are more of traveller's cafe'
If you are a coffee lover, you’ve come to the right place. McLeod Ganj is replete with coffee shops, most of which offer indoor and outdoor seating and serve good quality coffee with numerous accompaniments. My trail led me to four cafes: Moonpeak Espresso and Mandala Coffee House that lie adjacent to each other on Temple Road; Coffee Talk, which is close to the Tsuglagkhang complex; and First Cup Café, located en route from Dharamsala to McLeod Ganj . The coffee mugs there are just as large as the ones made popular by television sitcom Friends. Wait, it gets better. The prices attached to these large mugs were very tiny. On an average, a regular latte cost only Rs. 40!  Some of these cafes even had a significant collection of books that customers can read while enjoying their coffee.

Giving in to shopping
On the last peg of my journey, I scanned the streets, only to find the usual suspects: apparel, shoe and handicraft shops. Then came the ethnic jewellery shops. Aside from colourful gemstone necklaces and beaded bracelets, there were pendants with Tibetan writing scribbled on them, and some that bore miniature paintings. There were several shops that sold authentic Tibetan wares. Thangkas, mini prayer wheels, prayer flags, T-shirts and bags bearing the Tibetan flag, statues of the Buddha, incense sticks and many more curios that one can take back home as souvenirs. I was particularly interested in the prayer flags. I expected to get cheaper rates in a small town like this, but the prices were rather high and bargain tolerance as good as nil. However, women somehow find a way to get what they want, don’t they? So did I.

McLeod Ganj  isn’t exactly a touristy place, but if you’re hoping to find yourself in a place that is cosy, content and lively, then this is your best bet.

How to get there
The nearest airport is at Gaggal, approximately 17 kms. from Dharamsala. The nearest rail-head is Kangra, which is on a narrow gauge railway that runs between Pathankot and Jogindernagar. Pathankot is situated on Delhi-Udhampur rail section and is a major station. From Pathankot, it is a three-hour road journey to Dharamsala, and from Kangra it is a half an hour road journey. From Dharamsala, it is a short bus journey to McLeod Ganj. Buses also ply daily from Delhi to Dharamsala. One can book Himachal Roadways Transport Corporation buses or private buses through a travel agent. Best time to visit McLeod Ganj is from May to October.

Text and Photos by Ruchika Vyas 
of Traveller Stories

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