Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!

Are you ready to embark on a transformative journey filled with spiritual awakenings and breathtaking landscapes? Look no further than McLeod Ganj, a serene hill station nestled in the Himalayas of Himachal Pradesh, India. My own experience in this mystical haven left an indelible mark on my soul, igniting a newfound sense of wanderlust and inner peace. Join me as I recount my adventures and discoveries in this enchanting destination.

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!

Unexpected Contrasts: McLeod Ganj vs. Dalhousie

Most people have the impression that Macleod Ganj is mostly similar to Dalhousie. We also assumed that the main difference between the hills might be height. But when we reached Macleod Ganj by local bus, our first impression proved to be wrong. As soon as we entered McLeod Ganj, we saw a scene as if we had come to the shooting set of any Bollywood movie. Foreign tourists and Tibetans were more visible here than locals.

Vibrant Streets and Cultural Diversity: Exploring Maclodganj

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!
Pedestrians walk past stores at dusk in the McLeod Ganj area in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh,

Shops lined a narrow main street, selling a variety of wares, books, antique artifacts, beads, Buddhist literature, Buddhist prayer wheels, colorful Tibetan scarves, etc. Red-and-yellow lanterns fluttered everywhere, and one main thoroughfare was lined with large prayer wheels, which crimson-robed lamas and other local Buddhists turned to and fro. Advertisements for short courses teaching ‘Indian’ subjects like Vipashyana to classical music, dance, yoga, and tantra were loosely plastered on the walls of houses in McLeod Ganj. The posters depicting the oppression of Tibetans by China were also everywhere. After seeing such scenes, it was felt that McLeod Ganj had a different mood.

The Ancient Roots of Dharamshala: A Buddhist Legacy

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!

The details of how Dharamshala was established have been given in the previous article. (Click here to view the previous article.). According to one view, Buddhism was widely practiced in this area about 2,700 years ago. Plenty of evidence proving this is found in the Kangra Valley. The Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang (Xuanzang), recorded that there were fifty Buddhist monasteries and about two thousand Buddhist monks living in the fertile area of Kangra, during his visit to India in 635 BC. Of course, after a century or so, all the monasteries were destroyed. In short, Buddhism was prevalent here before the arrival of Tibetans.

Origins and Influences: The Evolution of Dharamshala

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!

When Dharamshala came to be known as Kangra’s headquarters in 1855, it had two main areas. One of them is McLeod Ganj, named after the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, David McLeod. Another area is Forsythganj, named after Divisional Commissioner Forsyth. The British Viceroy, Lord Elgin, loved the Dharamshala woods so much that after his death, he wished to bury his body in the churchyard of St. John’s here. It is said that had Elgin lived longer, Dharamshala would have become the summer capital of British India instead of Shimla.

Revival and Renewal: The Rebirth of McLeod Ganj

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!

After the terrible earthquake in Kangra in 1905, most of the people came to live in the present Dharamshala, called ‘Lower Dharamshala’. Maclodganj, known as ‘Upper Dharamshala’, became deserted. Before independence, Britishers used to visit McLeod Ganj, which was stopped after independence. In 1959, after 12 years of independence, the Dalai Lama, exiled from Tibet, arrived in India and was given refuge in Dharamshala. After that, many of his followers also left Tibet. Thus, McLeod Ganj was once again buzzing.

Places that make you feel like you are in Lhasa

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!
A Tibetan monk in exile takes a break after a teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Tsuklag Khang Temple.

Situated at an altitude of about 1,800 meters, densely covered with abundant cedar and banyan trees, McLeod Ganj has become a unique tourist destination today. There are many scenic spots in and around McLeod Ganj. There are many institutions related to Tibetan culture here, which can be visited according to personal interest. Known as the Dalai Lama’s temple complex, Tsuglakhang Temple is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists. The complex houses the Tsuglakhang Temple, Photong (the Dalai Lama’s residence), the Tsuglakhang Temple and the Tibet Museum within it, and various statues/paintings of Lord Buddha.

Tsuglakhang Temple

Three beautiful statues of Lord Buddha in Shakyamuni, Padmasambhava and Avalokitesvara forms have been installed. The 3-meter-high statue of Shakyamuni Buddha made of bronze is particularly worth seeing. The faces of the Avalokitesvara and Padmasambhava statues face towards Tibet. There is folklore associated with the idol of Avalokitesvara. Accordingly, the original bejeweled idol was installed at Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa by King Songtsen Gampo in the seventh century.Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!

From the time of its establishment, it became the center of faith for the people of all of Central Asia. However, when the Chinese army returned to Tibet in 1959, the looting and vandalizing soldiers broke the statue of Avalokitesvara and threw it in the streets.

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!
Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama (C) arrives to attend a prayer ceremony offered to him for his long life at the Main Tibetan Temple in McLeod Ganj.

Some Buddhist lamas collected fragments of that statue and other artifacts. After some time, they were secretly taken out of Tibet, avoiding the eyes of the Chinese soldiers, and in 1967, the broken idol of Avalokitesvara reached McLeod Ganj. The face of the broken idol was superimposed on the newly created statue. Suglakhang Temple contains various ancient texts related to Buddhism. There is a large meditation room in which one can feel ethereal peace after sitting for a while. In a ritual known as kora, the temple is circumambulated in a clockwise direction, with a mesmerizing view of the Dhauladhar mountain range.

Tibetan Museum

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!

The history of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the struggles of the local people are depicted in the Tibetan Museum located in this complex. Here is the tragic story of why hundreds of Tibetan refugees leave their country to seek refuge in India. Some Tibetan monks immolated themselves in protest against the Chinese invasion. Their story is narrated around a pillar in one of the museum’s rooms. Videos of Buddhist and Tibetan cultural teachings can be seen here.

Photong

Photong is the residence of the Dalai Lama, which can be visited with prior permission. Dalai Lama meets visitors if he is not busy with any special program. Apart from this, the Dalai Lama can be seen and heard during public sermons.

Namgyag Gompa

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!
Inside_Dalai_lama_temple_Dharamsala

The atmosphere here seems quite peaceful. Buddhist monks dressed in crimson robes and colorful prayer flags fluttering around the temple create a unique atmosphere. A special attraction of Namgyal Gompa is watching the monks discuss. Most of them speak in Tibetan, so we don’t understand it. However, their manner of discussion seems a little strange. During the discussion, some monks sit on the ground and others stand in front of them to present their arguments. During this, they clap their hands loudly and tap their feet on the ground. We are naturally surprised to see such scenes.

 

Kalachakra Temple

The Kalachakra Temple was built in 1992 in the Thekchen Choling Temple complex, towards the west of Tsuglakhang Temple. The temple is known for beautiful murals built in it. Kalachakra means wheel of time. The fresco paintings done by the artists on the walls and pillars of the temple are a must see.

There are also some paintings in the traditional thangka style of Tibet. The temple has a beautiful statue of Shakyamuni Buddha and behind it is a picture of the 772 deities of the mandala with an image of a time wheel in between. A painting (see picture above) consisting of circles, auspicious signs and a large platform in the center in which the deity is depicted is known as a mandala.

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!
View of town from a McLeodganj Hotel

There are many Buddhist monasteries in McLeod Ganj, like a mini Lhasa, where one can witness some of the rituals going on there. We went to see a monastery where prayers were going on. Nothing was understood from the chanting or other chatter, but it was a pleasure to hear the playing of the humble Tibetan instruments. After the ceremony was over, something like holy water was served in a bowl-like copper vessel, which was only for the lamas. We tried to communicate with one of the young lamas who were departing after drinking water, but they could speak no other language than broken English.

Tibetan Handicraft Centre

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!
View of market at McLeod Ganj.

McLeod Ganj is famous for Tibetan handicraft products, especially weaving. The Tibetan Handicraft Center was started in 1963. The center is trying to keep Tibetan traditional carpet weaving alive. Through it, the undertaking of providing employment, housing and education to the refugee Tibetans will also be done. A variety of carpets, like samples of Tibetan art with attractive colors and patterns, are found here. Apart from this, The Tibetan dress can also be made there.

Institute of Performing Arts

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!
Tibetan artists perform traditional dance and song in celebration of Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama’s 83rd birthday, in McLeodganj.

In 1959, among the earliest institutions established by the Dalai Lama after his arrival in Dharamshala from Tibet was the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA), which attempted to preserve the Tibetan tradition of music, dance and acting. Various workshops are organized by them. Graduates trained from the institute are working as music and fine arts teachers in India, Nepal, Bhutan and some European countries. A school is also run at TIPA to enable Tibetan refugees from McLeod Ganj and Dharamshala to receive modern education as well as traditional Tibetan education.

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!
Tibetans living-in-exile wearing traditional costumes perform an opera at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) celebrating Shoton Festival at McLeod Ganj.

Every year, TIPA organizes two festivals, namely Yorki and Shotan, in which various programs, including folk plays, dance, and music, are held. The Yorki festival marks the foundation day of this organization and is celebrated for seven days around Shotton in the month of April. Sho means curd and Tan means banquet in Tibetan language. The name comes from a legend that says locals gave yogurt to Buddhist monks when they returned from a period of solitude for meditation.  

Ascetic monks broke their fast with curd for several days. Various arts are exhibited in this festival, which many people visit from India and abroad to enjoy.

These are the places associated with Buddhism, especially Tibetans. Apart from this, there are places where one can walk comfortably.

St. John in the Wilderness Church

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!
Saint John’s Church in The Wilderness, near McLeod Ganj

On the road from Maclodganj to Dharamshala, within walking distance of the main bazaar, the church is a lovely place amidst a dense cedar forest. The church was built in 1852 in honor of John the Baptist. Its neo-Gothic style of construction is an architectural masterpiece. The Belgian stained glass windows in the church are worth seeing. Many buildings were destroyed during the 1905 earthquake in the Kangra area, but the church survived except for the bell tower. A cemetery is located in the courtyard itself, with variously shaped, artistic tombs to be seen.

 

Bhagsu Falls and Bhagsunag Shiva Temple

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!
Bhagsu’s water fall, McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala

A rare waterfall falling from a height of about 300 meters originates from the valley of Dhauladhar. Nearby is the Bhagsunag Shiva Temple, built by the king of Kangra in the fourteenth century. Locals have a lot of faith in this Shiva temple.

There is a beautiful lake here, near which one can take a dip in the reservoir. After visiting the temple, one can proceed towards the waterfall. This road may seem a bit long as it is steep, but it is worth the journey. In a way, it can be called a small trek route. In monsoon, the waterfall looks very magnificent due to the abundance of water. In other seasons, the flow of water becomes less, but it is a pleasure to visit this place!

Trekking in the Himalayan Mountains

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!

The terrain around McLeod Ganj is ideal for trekking. Here, one can go for trekking in many places, ranging from easy to difficult. For trekking, there are many options, like Triyund, Bhagsu Trek, Guna Devi Temple, and Kareri Lake. Out of all these, Triyund’s trek is very popular as it is relatively easy and can be enjoyed by people of all age groups.

 

The distance from McLeod Ganj to Triyund is about nine kilometers, with the first five kilometers being easy, but the road becomes steeper as it progresses. The track is also known as ‘Twenty Two Mode’ as it has twenty-two turns. A wonderful view of Dhauladhar hills on one side and Kangra valley on the other side can be seen during this trek.

A four day trek can be planned starting from Maclod Ganj-Triyund-Lhesh Caves-Indrahar Pass-Chhattaru Paro-Kuarsi-Maitthar-Chamba. Triyund is also famous for paragliding. Reached there by trekking, paragliding, and landing at Dharamshala, one can see the wonderful views of beautiful hills, high peaks, and plains. A slightly longer and more arduous trek is to Kareri Lake, which takes four to five days. Kareri Sarovar (lake) is a beautiful freshwater lake situated amidst greenery. From here, one can come back to Maclod Ganj or proceed to the Minkiai Pass beyond.

 

McLeod Ganj: The capital of the Buddhist monk Dalai Lama

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!

Dharamshala’s first national and international recognition is as the headquarters of the 14th Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama. He had a permanent residence in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, but in 1959, the twenty-five-year-old Dalai Lama was forced to leave Tibet with some of his disciples due to China’s increasing military pressure on Tibet. The then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made arrangements for his residence in India at McLeod Ganj.

 

McLeod Ganj was originally a cantonment area set up by the British, that was completely deserted after a severe earthquake in the Kangra region in 1905. After the residence of the Dalai Lama and his followers, McLeod Ganj began to develop anew. Here, Dalai Lama established his ‘Government-in-Exile’.

 

Even today, when visiting McLeod Ganj, it feels as if we are returning to some part of Tibet. Buddhist monasteries, schools, and temples have been built here by Tibetans. There is a system where one can turn the ‘prayer wheel’ on the way even while walking in the market of McLeod Ganj. About 80,000 Tibetan manuscripts and other important documents are preserved in the library. In these six decades, many generations of people who settled here after being exiled from Tibet were born, and their birthplace is India. However, they still dream of returning to their motherland, Tibet.

Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!
View over McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh

Strolling through McLeod Ganj, one can see writings and posters about the oppression of Tibetans by the Chinese everywhere. From here, the Dalai Lama keeps his contact with the whole world alive. A visit to McLeod Ganj underscores three historical facts. One is the brutality and shamelessness of the Chinese as well as the lust for regionalism, which forced the original inhabitants to leave the homeland. China has made Tibet a part of China.Eat, Pray, Love: How McLeod Ganj Transformed My Life and Wanderlust!

Another is the generosity and tolerance of India, which have made the Dalai Lama and his followers their home for the last six decades, conducting all activities and speaking to the world from here. The third thing is the exiled Tibetans, who have not given up their dream of returning home even after six decades.

Although they made their abode in another country, made sincere efforts to preserve the culture, they still hope that someday they will be able to return to their homeland, It is difficult to determine whether history is made because of invaders or because of peace lovers.

Conclusion: Embracing the Journey of Self-Discovery

My sojourn in McLeod Ganj was not merely a vacation but a transformative journey of self-discovery and personal growth. Amidst the breathtaking landscapes and spiritual serenity, I found the courage to confront my fears, embrace the unknown, and cultivate a deeper sense of gratitude for the wonders of the world. Whether you seek adventure, spiritual renewal, or simply a moment of tranquility, McLeod Ganj welcomes you with open arms, ready to ignite your wanderlust and nourish your soul.

Dharamshala-McLeod Ganj is a must if you want to feel like you are in Tibet and enjoy the natural beauty of Dhauladhar even though you are in India.

 

 

Essential Information for Tourists Visiting McLeod Ganj

Category Details
Location McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India
Best Time to Visit March to June and September to November
Weather Cool summers, cold winters with occasional snow
Major Attractions Dalai Lama Temple, Bhagsu Waterfall, Triund Trek, Namgyal Monastery, Tibetan Museum
Accommodation Range of options from budget hostels to luxury hotels
Local Cuisine Tibetan dishes like momos and thukpa, local Himachali cuisine
Shopping Tibetan handicrafts, carpets, garments, Thangka paintings
Transportation Nearest airport: Gaggal Airport (13 km); Nearest railway station: Pathankot (90 km); Buses and taxis available
Health and Safety Basic medical facilities available; advisable to carry necessary medications
Local Etiquette Respect local customs and traditions, dress modestly in religious places
Adventure Activities Trekking, paragliding, camping, rock climbing
Emergency Contacts Police: 100, Ambulance: 102, Local helpline: +91-1892-22070
Local Festivals Losar Festival, Dalai Lama’s Birthday, Himachal Winter Carnival

 


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