Himachal Pradesh is one of India’s most northern and beautiful states, set in the lap of the Himalayas. The scenery is full of magical splendour: meandering rivers and streams, patchwork tea plantations decorated with delicate purple and yellow flowers, the sun’s rays peeking through tall trees, and the light creating brilliant, blinding white on the snowcapped mountains.
The fresh, cool air and open spaces are a direct contrast to the humid and hectic atmosphere of say, Jaipur and Delhi. Mcleod Ganj in Dharamshala brings a serenity that allows you to rebalance. This town has a hippie vibe similar to yoga hub Rishikesh. There are many Ayurvedic healing centres offering alternative medicines, yoga, herbal advice, massage, chakra realignment etc. I even had my palm read by a mystical old guru with a set up on the side of the road. The open minded zen philosophy permeates the area because this is home to India’s Tibetan community.
Thousands of refugees, including his Holiness, The Dalai Lama himself, fled from Tibet due to the Chinese oppression and genocide of the past six decades. The Tibetan government-in-exile is located here. Numerous beautiful monasteries have been established and young monks, in their robes of orange and red, are often seen quietly going about their business.
The Tibet Museum is the must see exhibition here with honest, full on accounts of the little reported (and possibly little known) systematic destruction of Tibetan culture. There are collections of photos through the ages and historical accounts of Tibetan people (before and after the Chinese invasion), harrowing personal accounts of brutality and documentaries about the current protests and modern day self-immolation. The museum has a simple message: to draw awareness to what is going on and to seek support. It is probably the most profound thing I experienced on my trip through Asia.
Mcleod Ganj, or Little Lhasa, as it is affectionately known, snuggled its way into my heart immediately. I think it reminded me of Nepal’s warm, calming aura and the resilience and optimism of the Nepalese people. I felt an instant respect, empathy, awe and love for this beautiful and welcoming community. The remarkable Dalai Lama temple provides the same peace and undercurrent of quiet strength of the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu. A thrumming energy which catches in your chest and overcomes you. The country lifestyle is like an enchanting fairytale with various shades of green, ‘Lord of the Rings’ style slate houses and women hand washing their clothes in the freshwater stream that trickles down from mountain to meadow.
Steep winding roads are filled with market stalls selling colourful prayer flags, singing bowls, chimes, silver rings with every stone, turquoise trinkets, mini prayer wheels and other handicrafts. Buddhist book shops dotted around are filled with wisdom and paths to enlightenment. For the arts & crafty types among you, there are batik and textile galleries and workshops. Trekking and camping are some of the main attractions in Dharamsala, and the handmade chunky knit hats, gloves and multicoloured socks for sale provide warmth for hikers and income for local families. Rickety roadside cafés serve delicious momos, fresh fruit smoothies and sweetly spiced chai tea while providing panoramic views of the valley and Bhagsum waterfall.
Apart being a great place for backpackers it is also the hotspot for Indian holiday makers and nature lovers. It is a perfect place to retreat to if you are planning an extended stay in India, or if you are interested in finding out more about Buddhism or Tibet.