Feature Story

Discovering McLeodganj

Noted classical flautist and world fusion musician, Milind Date, avails of every opportunity to spend a few days in Dharamshala in-between his concerts. Starting this week, Milind provides us insights from his travels to Dharamshala-McLeodganj through a series of articles. Photos and text by Milind Date.

When people say that they are going to Dharamshala, they mostly mean they are going to McLeodganj. That’s where the Dalai Lama (and most of the Tibetan population in Dharamshala) is based: McLeodganj. Dharamshala – also spelt as ‘Dharamsala’ – is the town almost at the foothills of the McLeodganj Mountain. ‘Ganj’ means market or neighborhood in Hindi, so you would find several areas in North India with names ending with ‘ganj’ such as Pahadganj, Purabganj. So McLeodganj is the market or area named after Sir Donald McLeod – former governor of the undivided Punjab under British rule.

In 1960, the Indian government gave this land to The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees accompanying him. Since then, it has become one of the foremost Buddhist pilgrimage and tourist centres of the world. The Dalai Lama isn’t there all the time since he travels but you can easily find his schedule on his website. If you are lucky you can get a personal audience with him too! But you can certainly attend his sermons while he is in town.

In my experience, the easiest way to reach McLeodganj is to take a Volvo bus from the new Kashmiri Gate (Maharana Pratap) Inter State Bus Terminus in Delhi. After the overnight journey, you are in McLeodganj by 7 am. The Main Square or Chowk (intersection) is walking distance from the bus stand; The rest of the town is in close vicinity as well.

McLeodganj, like many other Himalayan towns, is a small town with a population of about 10,000 but, of course, this figure does not include the long-term residents and hundreds of tourists. At high tourist season, the town is buzzing with people. I personally like to avoid crowds and prefer to go to McLeodganj and Dharamshala just after the tourist season. That way, I can enjoy the charm of high season without having to rub shoulders with too many in the crowd.

There are two main roads into town from the Main Square, both running parallel for about 100 metres and then going their own way. The Jogibara Road goes down to the lower (and actual) Dharamshala town; The Temple Road leads to the Tsuglagkhang complex. The Tsuglagkhang is a big complex and it houses the Dalai Lama temple, his residence and the offices of the Tibetan government-in-exile. The complex has a big gate manned by some very friendly guards, and it boasts some very beautiful British era buildings with long verandas and such. When I visited Him (The Dalai Lama), it was here in the Tsuglagkhang complex.

Now while I did say that these two are ‘main’ roads, I must elaborate that they are quite narrow and would probably allow only one car to pass at a time. Both roads are lined up with quaint, interesting shops, selling everything from exotic-looking necklaces, garments, rings, and diaries, to T-shirts, stickers and such like. Naturally, these shops are tourist magnets. You will also find a couple of bookshops, a doctor’s clinic, medical shops, a tailor shop, some bigger souvenir shops and several restaurants. Incidentally, the first-quote at these shops can be very high; Some extensive and intense bargaining should serve you well. On my many travels to the region, I have observed that while some tourists enjoy a good bargain, some don’t bargain maybe out of habit, or because of sympathy to the Tibetan cause. The markets around the main roads are extensive. Relaxed cafes, more relaxed cafes, and colorful indoor events such as music jam-ups, lectures, cookery classes make this a happening part of the town.

The Main Square/Chowk is just a bigger area, with several modern shops around. There’s also a now-neglected, little shop, ‘Nawrosjee and Sons’, which is more than 150 years old! This shop was set up for providing utilities and groceries and general items to the British population. In all, there are seven roads that meet in this chowk, each full of eateries and hotels of varying size and repertoire. The more expensive and bigger hotels are to be found near the other end of the main roads (probably because that area is nearer to the Tsuglagkhang Complex). One of the little roads goes to Bhagsu Nag Temple and there are also some shops, hotels for about a kilometre: the Kunga Guest House is on this road. One steep road goes to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA).

Main Square is an eventful place – the scene of numerous Tibetan Freedom rallies and traffic jams. In the high-tourist season, it is difficult even to walk without brushing against other people, cars or even stray cows. Stumble down one of the tiny lanes and you will find shacks selling absolutely fabulous tea and snacks. A little further along on Main Square is the office of the Taxi Union – although I have found that it is best to book a taxi through your hotel; They usually provide more dependable drivers.

In the buildings around this square are some bigger cafes and eateries, an ATM and an Osho Book stall. Usually the chowk is full of people. It is a highly recommended place if you are into people watching!

For the first day of a visit to McLeodganj, the most interesting thing is the market and then of course, the really fabulous eateries which serve Tibetan, Italian, Indian and other exotic cuisines. By the time you have surveyed all these, the day ends and your legs demand you call it a day!

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