If you are daydreaming at work about a break in the mountains, a place where you can unwind, someplace you can just get away, then Dharamshala is where you want to be.. Surrounded by the pristine, snow clad mountains ranges, Dharamshala is a hit with all kinds of travelers, for the travelers that crave a break, what better place than to relax amidst the mighty Dhauladhar mountain range, surrounded by pretty arching Deodar cedar trees.
For those craving adventure, again, the Dhauladhar range offers access to many interesting treks that are easy to start from Dharamshala.
Dharamshala is also the seat of His Holiness The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan Government in Exile is also based out of Dharamshala. The Tibetan influence is easy to spot with all the beautiful monasteries spread across the Kangra Valley. With a plethora of great Middle-eastern, Tibetan, and Himachali food options, the food and cafe culture in Dharamshala is also growing steadily in prominence.
History and culture of Dharamshala
Nestled in the Kangra Valley, surrounded by the Dhauladhar mountain range, Dharamsala has been home to the Gurkha regiment of the Indian army for the longest time. The mountain town was a popular hill station among the British officers stationed in Delhi, they would frequent Dharamshala for respite from Delhi’s extreme heat in summer months.
Since 1959, Dharamshala has become home to the Tibetan community in exile, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists had to seek refuge in India and was allowed to settle down in Mcleodganj in the upper parts of Dharamshala. The Dalai Lama, has established the Tibetan Government in exile in Mcleodganj Dharamshala, he also established the Namgyal Monastery, the personal monastery of the Dalai Lama.
Thousands of Tibetan exiles have found a home in Mcleodganj, and since Dharamshala has always been relevant in Buddhism, you are likely to find Monasteries throughout the region, some were built as early as in the 15th century.
Dharamshala is not just a town, but also a district that comprises smaller towns like Mcleodganj, Dharamkot, Bhagsu and Triund. These villages are gateways to great hikes in the Dhauladhar and also make for a great spot to view the birds of Kangra Valley.
How to get to Dharamshala
By Air – Flying into Dharamshala is an option from Delhi and Jaipur. Gaggal airport which is the closest to Dharamshala lies approximately 15 kilometres away. You can choose to fly into Amritsar and drive about 4 and a half hours from Amritsar to get to Dharamshala.
By Rail – To be honest Dharamshala doesn’t enjoy great rail connectivity, the two closest railway stations to Dharamshala, Pathankot and Amritsar are 3 and 4 and a half hours away respectively, traveling by road or air is the best option. Although the scenic view makes the drive worth it.
By Road – Dharamshala is well connected by road to Delhi, Amritsar and most other big cities in Himachal and Uttarakhand. Most buses are overnight buses, there are also a few day buses but we recommend overnight buses as the congestion on the narrow winding Himachali roads is lesser. Amritsar to Dharamshala is a straightforward 4 and a half hour drive or you have a choice of non a/c and a/c buses too. The buses can be booked online on the himachal state transport website.
Best time to travel to Dharamshala
It’s always a good time to explore Dharamshala. The summer months from March to June are extremely pleasant and are arguably the best time to visit. While you can also visit in the winter. Winter in Dharamshala and Mcleodganj can be quite extreme and most guest houses aren’t really equipped to help you combat the heat, so if you’re on a budget and expect to have a heater or have access to hot water at all times, then winter is not the time for you. Dharamsala in the monsoons can be very wet and not conducive for heavy treks but the place is quite green, serene and very pleasant.
Getting around Dharamshala and Mcleodganj
Finding a taxi, rickshaw or bus in Dharamshala isn’t hard at all as Dharamshala, the town itself is at the base of the valley as you make the ascent further up to smaller towns in the district like Mcelodganj and Dharamkot, exploring these towns on foot is not only the easiest option but also the most efficient way of exploring these cute mountain towns
Breaking stereotypes about Dharamshala
Dharamshala and Mcleodganj are the same – While they are the same places. Dharamshala in its entirety is a district. It is made up of a lot of hamlets like Dharamkot, Triund, Bhagsu and Mcleodganj. And while you are visiting Dharamshala you are likely to spend a lot more time in these hamlets (which are all a part of Dharamshala)
Go check out
Namgyal Monastery – Namgyal Monastery is also called The Dalai Lama’s temple and is the personal monastery of the Dalai Lama. Founded in the 16th century, after the arrival of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans, the monastery was relocated to Dharamshala in the 1960’s and houses 200 monks to this day and is the most prominent monastery in Tibetan Buddhism
While the monastery may be deemed a bit simple from the outside, the place is known to have an extremely calming effect on people. Try making it for the evening prayers to witness the chanting of the monks and maybe even interact with them after for life lessons and perspectives.
Tsuglagkhang Complex – The official residence of the Dalai Lama, if you plan well in advance, you may even be able to meet with the Dalai Lama and attend one of his discourses ( caution : plan well in advance to see if there are discourses around the time when you’re going. You can check the schedule on their official website)
Should the Dalai Lama’s discourse not be scheduled for when you are in Dharamshala, you can still explore the complex and you should definitely worth a visit!
Try the Bhagsu Cake – The local delicacy of the Bhagsu hamlet and all of Dharamshala is the Bhagsu Cake, it’s the ultimate sweet dish. It has an extremely buttery taste to it and is loved by locals and tourists alike.
Norbulingka Institute – The Norbulingka institute in Mcleodganj offers a different perspective and lets you delve deeper into the culture and traditions of Tibetans. You can not only visit but also participate in the different workshops that are held at the institute. Try your hands at woodcarving, wood painting, applique, Thanga painting etc and play a part in conserving century old art that has been passed down through generations. If workshops aren’t your thing then walk around the huge campus; the architecture would certainly make you feel like you are in Tibet and check out their gardens, museum, cafe and local shop that has many a interfacts on display. The institute is open from 09:30 to 05:00 daily but the workshops are closed on Sundays and second Saturdays of the month.
Bhagsu Waterfall – Bhagsu is another small town in Dharamsala like Mcleodganj and you can either trek upto Bhagsu by road or the waterfall route. To make it accessible to most tourists, a fair length of the trek has steps alongside the waterfall and for those you wish to hike further, you have to climb up rocks and boulders which make it more of an adventure. The trek can get difficult if traveling in the monsoons because as you go higher it tends to get colder but it is worth the effort as the view from the top is spectacular and there is a cafe, where you can chill and reward yourself with a delicious bowl of maggi or hot chocolate! The hike to Bhagsu waterfall is a day trek of about 3-4 hrs.
Triund trek – For those you love walking, hiking and being close to nature; make the most of your trip to Dharamsala by trekking to Triund. This is a one night two day trek of about 2900 metres which starts from Mcleodganj going through Dharamkot and the Galu Devi temple upto Triund which is at a height of 9500 ft. Wake up to the snow kissed Himalayan ranges that glow orange under the sun; the Dhauladhar mountains on one side and the Kangra Valley on the other. One the way back to Mcleodganj, go via the Bhagsu waterfall route.