In 2005, my husband and I went on a road trip through Himachal Pradesh. It was perhaps not the best time to visit: the monsoon had already arrived, and it was raining all across the hills. We were much younger and more adventurous, though, so we didn’t let that faze us. We went merrily on, umbrellas at the ready, driving slowly past a landslide near Baijnath, walking carefully down the slippery stone steps leading down from the Tashijong Monastery…
But not, obviously, carefully enough everywhere. Because, a few minutes after we checked into our hotel in Dharamshala and were walking to our cottage, I slipped on an algae-covered path and fractured my ankle. Our Dharamshala trip ended even before it had begun: the only sites we saw were an X-ray centre, a doctor’s clinic, and the hospital.
This time, therefore, we decided we had to see Dharamshala. Properly.
So, from Palampur, we took the road to Dharamshala. Or rather, to its neighbouring town (9 km away), McLeodganj. Home of the Tibetan government in exile, McLeodganj was named for Sir Donald Friell McLeod, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab between 1865-70. It’s flooded with Tibetans, and, at least during the summer, thousands of Indian tourists, all headed for cooler climes (Ahem. Us included).
On our first day, post the three-hour drive from Palampur (which included an hour of wandering around lost) we reached our hotel, The Fortune Park Moksha, in McLeodganj in time for a lateish lunch. We did want to get in some sightseeing, though, so decided we would hire a hotel cab—much easier than trying to navigate the hair-raisingly narrow and steep roads of this place. The ladies at the travel desk (both of whom quickly became enamoured of the LO, who is a pro at turning on the charm) advised us that it would be best for us to see McLeodganj that day and Dharamshala the next.
In fact, seeing that rain was forecast for later in the evening as well as the next day, they suggested we quickly go see Naddi View Point, before the clouds came rolling in.
Naddi View Point is aptly (if ungrammatically) named: you come here to get a great view of the snowclad Dhauladhar Ranges. There’s really not much here other than a stretch of road (which is motorable, even if most vehicles stop outside). There are lots of vendors selling Maggi noodles (why do Indians go to the hills to gorge on Maggi?), there are men hiring out telescopes, even silly hats you can wear to get photographed. One enterprising man even had the three ‘bum chairs’ from 3 Idiots, and was hiring them out to anybody who wanted that as a prop for their Naddi View Point selfies.
The view, though, is wonderful. After admiring it and taking some photos, we headed back to our cab, when beside the road I saw a clump of buttercups. Now, I have a confession to make: among the many names by which I address the LO is ‘buttercup’. The LO is ‘Mommy’s little buttercup’, so when I saw these cheerful little flowers, I had to show them to the LO. She, however, had already gone on ahead with her father, so I plucked one buttercup and took it to her. The LO was suitably excited and gushed over the wildflower, clutching it happily as we drove on to the next place…
… which was the Church of St John in the Wilderness. Built in 1852, this is the oldest Anglican church in the hills, and deserves its name: it really is in the wilderness, set in a grove of deodar trees a little below the road. The church itself, thanks to the grey stone of which it’s made, and the stark, forbidding lines of its architecture, has an impressiveness about it that’s almost puritan.
Having taken off our shoes outside the church, as directed by a sign nearby, we went in. The inside of the church is a little more inviting than the exterior, especially because it has some very beautiful stained glass. We had arrived shortly before sundown, so the light was coming in at an angle and lighting up those coloured windows beautifully.
We stopped briefly in front of the altar to pray, and I put some money into the donation box. When we came out, after having looked at some plaques lining the walls (and historic plaques these are, too, many of them from the late 1800s), my husband told me something I hadn’t noticed. While I had been busy putting money in the donation box, the LO had bent down and placed her buttercup in front of it.
Whether that was the LO’s way of offering up a little something, or she simply forgot it there, we didn’t know, but anyway, we were already off, exploring the woods in the immediate vicinity of the church. The gravestones here are old, nearly all dating back more than a century. We didn’t have the time to wander around the other side of the church (the cemetery extends for a long way around the mountainside), but we did stop to have a look at the memorial to Lord Elgin, which stands behind the church.
Lord Elgin, he of the ‘Elgin Marbles’, was Viceroy and Governor General of India, and his memorial, erected at St John in the Wilderness by his widow is here because Elgin died at Dharamshala.
Interestingly, embedded in an outer wall of the church is another memorial, to a ‘Priya Rajvanshi’. I was a little taken aback at that, and my husband even asked me if that was the actress, but I said I didn’t think so, since Chetan Anand’s protégé had been Priya Rajvansh, not Rajvanshi. However, after checking online (though I’ve not found any irrefutable proof that this memorial is to Priya Rajvansh herself), I did discover that the dates of birth and death mentioned on the plaque match Priya Rajvansh’s. And she had been born in not-too-far-away Shimla, too…
After the church, we headed for a Buddhist Temple: the Dalai Lama’s Temple. Since the Tibetan government in exile is headquartered in McLeodganj, and the Dalai Lama spends a good bit of his time here, it’s not surprising that his temple is one of the prime attractions in town.
The path to the temple lies past a monument commemorating Tibet’s struggle for freedom.
Past this, we climbed a flight of stairs and into the temple. The central hall, with its glittering Buddha, its prayer lamps and thangkas, is serene, and outside, surrounding the hall, are rows of prayer wheels. Each cylinder contains the mantra Om mani padme hum, written thousands of times, so one rotation of a wheel is supposed to confer, on the person rotating the wheel, merit and blessings equivalent to that of reciting the mantra those many times.
The LO went mad rotating the prayer wheels…
So I’m hoping she is getting, despite all her naughtiness, something by way of salvation. (That buttercup must count too, I suppose).
By the time we emerged from the Dalai Lama Temple, we were in need of refreshment. At a very popular nearby café called Coffee Talk, my husband and I had coffee and cake, while the LO, having abandoned the cake we’d ordered for her, spent her time staring admiringly out of the window at an artist who’d set up a temporary studio of sorts.
Our first day, because of the relatively little time we got before nightfall, was therefore not jam-packed with sights. We got back to the hotel, the LO went off with her father to play, while I gazed out at the mountains (yes, the Fortune Park Moksha is situated in such a way that you can actually see the Dhauladhars from here).
Next morning, we had more to see. First up was a tea garden.
This one, unlike the Wah Tea Estate we visited in Palampur, has the tea bushes growing right till the road and spilling over, like a muffin from its overfilled tin. You get off the car, climb up onto the narrow path that snakes its way up between the rows of tea bushes, and walk along. Our cab driver, on being asked, informed us that the tea factory of this estate was closed at present.
This, therefore, was not an informative trip to a tea estate, but a pretty one: a chance to admire the beauty of the hillside with its thick carpet-pile of tea bushes, the trees dotting the gardens, the birds singing in the trees… beautiful.
While we were at the tea gardens, it began drizzling. Not bad enough to soak us, but enough to send us scurrying into the car, and enough to make us have to use our umbrellas for the rest of the day.
The next stop, the Norbulingka Institute, was one place where we could do without our umbrellas for at least part of the time, because so much of it is indoors. This institute devotes itself to the preservation of traditional Tibetan arts and crafts, such as appliqué, thangka painting, tailoring, woodwork, metalwork, and so on. This is done in a very organized way: every year, 27 apprentices are taken on to work with master craftsmen, and they all live on the premises of Norbulingka, working in their studios, learning the craft and keeping it alive.
The institute itself is beautifully designed, spread across a series of terraces that are filled with trees, flowers, flowing water, a fish pond, prayer wheels—all against a backdrop of traditional Tibetan architecture.
As it happened, we’d arrived at Norbulingka just before 1 PM. 1 to 2 is when all the artisans break for lunch, so even though visitors are welcome to enter studios and watch them at work, there was nobody around whom we could watch—a metalworker who was just leaving for lunch kindly informed us about this, and suggested we come back after lunch. Before going, he pointed out something he’d made specifically to show visitors like us the sort of work he does: the various stages in the crafting of a little head of the Buddha.
We decided to go eat lunch too. Fortunately (though there are several cafés outside Norbulingka), the institute itself has two restaurants—a somewhat outdoorsy one (it has a roof but no walls) which is rather like a café, and an indoor one which serves Tibetan, Chinese, and North Indian food. The indoor restaurant, Norling, was what we settled for, and we loved it. The LO, who is a noodle soup freak, adored their Tibetan noodle soup, and we loved the Tibetan noodles and the chilli-basil fried potatoes we adored.
Finally replete, we set off to see Norbulingka. The artists’ studios were interesting, but since these were people concentrating on their work, we didn’t want to disturb them with questions. We did see some wonderful work being done, though.
The LO (and yes, I’ll admit it, even us) were also enchanted by the Losel Dolls’ Museum, a small gallery of traditional dolls arranged in dioramas and tableaux to showcase Tibet and its many facets: a chham masked dance in full swing; an opera; a family of nomads out on a picnic; the royal court; and so on.
We made our way up to the topmost level of Norbulingka (or at least as far as visitors go), the temple. Though it’s not too old (when compared to my favourite Buddhist temples—the stunning gompas of Ladakh), it’s tastefully decorated, and a richer showcase of Tibetan religious paintings than is the Dalai Lama Temple. The walls are beautifully painted, too, with images of deities and scenes from scripture; and thangkas hang from the ceiling.
On the floor above is the Art Gallery, which further showcases the work of Norbulingka’s artists: every piece of sculpture here, every painting and every work of art, has been produced right here in the institute.
More of this art and craft is to be seen (and bought) at the local shop in Norbulingka. It’s gorgeous stuff, ranging from clothing to jewellery, paintings, lampshades, furniture, carved wood and more. It was all way out of our budget, but we ooh-ed and aah-ed in the time we could spare from preventing the LO from rushing about and possibly knocking over something valuable.
After we were done with Norbulingka, we went to the last place on our list: the Gyuto Monastery, a Tantric school. The monastery, of course, is off-limits to casual visitors, but we’re allowed into the main temple, which stands at the top of a few flights of stairs, the centre of the complex. Inside, there are the usual idols (and—something which goes to show that this place is, all said and done, a school—rows of neat mats on the floor). There is also a sign asking visitors not to sit on the monks’ mats.
And there are plenty of monks to be seen around the striking bright yellow buildings surrounding the temple. An old monk, weather-beaten and venerable, was sitting outside one verandah and looking benevolently out. A young man, maroon robes flapping, raced away inside what we later noticed was the library. A gaggle of little novices emerged from one building and hurried across into another.
The LO, watching on with curiosity, wanted to know why these boys, just a little older than her, were wearing robes, so I told her. At the end of that explanation, the LO looked a little disbelieving. “They’re chipmunks?” she said.
Later, when we had climbed up to the temple and were looking around, the monks (not chipmunks, as the LO knew by then) began chanting their lessons loudly in the adjoining building. It was a wonderful experience, even though we couldn’t understand a word of what they were chanting: the rest of the place is silent except for the sound of birds, and there’s this high-pitched, childish and yet perfect chanting going on in the background.
That, along with the rugged beauty of the Church of St John in the Wilderness, remains my favourite memory of Dharamshala and McLeodganj. Oh, and the view of the Dhauladhars, so majestic, seen from the narrow balcony of a café-and-art gallery named Illiterati: The Other Space, where I had a fabulous carrot cake and cold coffee…
A lovely trip. No wonder that by the end of it, the LO was pretty much digging her heels in and refusing to return to Noida.