The hill station of Dharamshala sits on a narrow ridgeline along the Dhauladhar range. Dharamshala town is roughly divided into two sections – the lower town with its traditional settlement and market areas and the upper town of McLeodganj, famous for its celebrity resident, His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The heights of the two sections vary from 1,250 metres to about 1,770 metres with a steep winding 10 km road linking the two sections. Around a 150 kms from Mandi, this hill resort of Dharamshala in the Kangra Valley of northern Himachal Pradesh is the most important town of the district.
Surrounded by pine forests, the grand Dhauladhar ranges tower like sheets of rock over Dharamshala, making this a great place for the adventure lover. The influx of Tibetan refugees after Chinese occupation in 1959 changed all that. The Dalai Lama set up his temporary residence at McLeodganj, the upper town and has continued to stay here.
Dharamshala gets a steady flow of refugees who cross from Tibet through Nepal. As a result, the large Tibetan settlement and the Tibetan Government in Exile have transformed this sleepy Himachali town. Many western visitors come to Dharamshala in search of spiritual guidance and an audience with the Dalai Lama.
So travel to Dharamshala if you are looking for some adventure as well as spiritual rejuvenation.
How to Reach Dharamshala?
By Air : There is no airport at Dharamshala. The closest airport is Gaggal 15kms away. Airlines like Kingfisher Red offers daily flights from Delhi to Dharamsala arriving at Gaggal Airport, well known as Kangra Airport. From the airport feel free to hire a cab to get to the main town.
By Rail : The nearest rail station for Dharamshala is at Pathankot, 150 kms down in the plains. There is a narrow guage train from Pathankot to Kangra (18 kms). After getting off at the railway station, you can avail the bus service or hire private or shared taxis to get to Dharamshala.
By Road : Dharamshala is well connected to all the cities of New Delhi though the Inter State Bus Services. From Dharamshala and McLeodganj there are regular bus services to Dalhousie, Chamba, Manali, Shimla and further down to Delhi. You could drive in by rented car from any of these towns as well. The countryside is interesting but the roads are not so great.
Best Time to Visit Dharamshala
Dharamshala is good to visit most times of the year. The months between March and June are probably the best time to visit, even though there is a heavy tourist rush as people from the plains clamour to get to the cooler climes of this gorgeous hill station. The day time temperatures are very pleasant and though it doesn't get too cold it is pleasant enough for the city slicker escaping the heat and dust of the plains.
The monsoons descend on Dharamshala in July and carry on for the month of August petering out in September. If you don't mind getting your feet wet at this time, Dharamshala presents some very scenic views of the freshly washed forest around. Another spin off would be good hotel rates because of low tourist traffic.
Come October and the toursit activity picks up. The days are much cooler and night temperatures decidedly chilly, so carry a cardigan or two. The winter months are cold with the snow normally coming down in January and February. A good time of the year to be in Dharamshala is late February or March when the Losar Festival takes place.
Things to do in Dharamshala
Dharamshala has on offer things to do that will suit all travellers alike. Dharamshala – home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama -- is also known as Lhasa of India. Tsuglag Khang – the temple complex houses the Buddhist pilgrimage monastery – Namgyal Monastery from where the Dalai Lama performs prayers for Tibet’s welfare. The Dalai Lama also resides within this temple complex.
McLeodganj is also famous for various authentic Tibetan products like carpets, thangkas, jewellery, and other knick-knacks. Just a kilometre away from McLeodganj is the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) where you can find musical, dance, and theatrical traditions of Tibet.
In case you are interested in the history of Tibet then you can visit the Losel Doll Museum which is located in the Norbulingka complex. The museum showcases elaborately detailed beautiful dolls that depict the costumes of each region of Tibet.
Trekking enthusiasts can trek to their heart’s content in Dharamshala. Situated along the Dhauladhar range, Dharamshala has some of the best trekking trails for trekking enthusiasts. Trekking too strenuous for you then take a leisurely stroll in the tea gardens near Kunal Pathri temple.
For those who love art a visit to the Museum of Kangra Art at Kotwali Bazaar is a must. The museum has a rare collection of miniature paintings from the Kangra School, in addition to local jewellery, traditional wood carvings with some of the exhibits dating back to the fifth century.
If all that sightseeing has made you hungry then you can just drop in to one of the restaurants or café scattered around McLeodganj for some traditional Tibetan, Israeli or even a German cuisine.
Places Near Dharamshala
Some of the interesting places near Dharamshala that you can visit on a day trip are Dharamkot, Naddi Gaon, Bhagsu Village, Jogindernagar, and Palampur among others.
Dharamkot a settlement three kms north from McLeodganj past the Mountaineering Institute is set amidst tall pines and rhododendron forests the site offers good views of the Dhauladhar range and has the Tushita Research Centre that runs courses in meditation.
At Dharamkot is the Tibetan Children’s Village, which runs a school and training institute to about 2,000 students. Many of the children who stay here are orphans, while some have been left in safe custody by the parents who returned to Tibet.
Naddi Gaon, one-and-a-half km, further up along a bridge near the Dal Lake offers some fabulous views of the Dhauladhar range. An 8 km trek from Dharamkot leads to the plateau of Triund at 2,827 metres. With a forest lodge set on top of the hill, the retreat is at the foot of the Dhauladhar peak with trails going further ahead into the Chamba valley.
Bhagsu Village about 2 kms east of McLeodganj, sits on the banks of a small mountain stream. A waterfall feeds the stream and goes into a tiny pool where pilgrims bathe before praying at the Shiva temple of Bhagsunath. Some small lodges and family guesthouses are available for staying at Bhagsu.
Jogindernagar, at 1,220 metres is the railhead for the narrow gauge railway line from Pathankot. A small town with nothing much happening, it has a hydel power project that draws water from the Uhl river. Hotels, including Himachal Tourism’s bungalow are adequate for an overnight halt.
Baijnath the temple town has a complex with some ancient shrines dating back to the early 13th century is another interesting place near Dharamshala. The most important temple of Vaidyanatha dedicated to Lord Shiva is considered one of the 12 sacred jyotirlingams (lingams of light) and was originally built in the 9th century.
Devoted to Shiva’s incarnation as the lord of physicians, this temple is built in the classic Nagar style with niches containing images of other deities. A life-size Nandi bull (Shiva’s carrier) stands at the entrance. There are some small hotels for overnight halt at Baijnath.
Palampur a charming little town 40 kms from Dharamshala is surrounded by tea plantations and beautiful snow peaks and this quiet retreat thrives on its fruit orchards. A 300 metre wide gorge called the Neughal Khad is worth seeing when the Bundla River swells and spurts through it during the monsoons.
Palampur is also on some popular trek routes and the nearest railway station is 5 kms away. There are several good hotels and resorts besides the Himachal Tourism hotel at Palampur.
Andretta, associated with the modern Indian painter Sardar Sobha Singh and Norah Richards, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi is a secluded village. The Sardar, who revived the Kangra School, is famed for his bright surrealistic paintings, often with devotional themes. A pottery centre run by an artist couple and a Writers’ Retreat run by the Punjab University are the other attractions at Andretta.
Hotels in Dharamshala – Choice is Yours
There are numerous hotels in Dharamshala ranging from 3-star, 4-star and 5-star deluxe to budget hotels.