In March of 1959, a young, bespectacled Buddhist monk born under the name Lhamo Thondup secretly escaped from his home among the snowcapped Himalayas. Leaving “the rooftop of the world,” he disguised himself as a soldier and, along with a retinue of supporters, traveled through the rugged mountain terrain towards freedom and safety.
For two weeks, the world wondered and waited, not knowing whether he was dead or alive. On March 31, he reached Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India, and his followers rejoiced. Rumors spread that he was hidden and kept safe by mists and low clouds, conjured up by the prayers of holy men.
This young monk was of course the 14th Dalai Lama. His escape from Chinese-occupied Tibet is now regarded around the world as one of the most dramatic and harrowing incidents of the 20th century.
The Dalai Lama’s Life in Dharamsala, India
The nation of India welcomed the Buddhist monk and leader of the Tibetan people, as well as his supporters, as refugees. The following month, India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru granted the Tibetan exiles a home among the lower Himalayas of North India, in Dharamasala, Himachal Pradesh. They have lived there ever since.
Today, the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1989, is a household name. The beloved Buddhist teacher now travels the world non-stop, spreading a message of love and compassion. His home is still in Dharamsala, India, the center of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
Due to the frequent presence of the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala has emerged as a popular pilgrimage destination for Tibetan refugees, Buddhists of all stripes, spiritual seekers, hippies, and many others who are drawn to his bright light. Unfortunately, a darker element is also attracted to the town, so the usual cautions about being alert to con men, beggars, and those who prey on gullible tourists are in order.
I once missed out on meeting with the Dalai Lama by about two weeks, as I had to head back to Delhi. But many lucky visitors to Dharamsala do get an audience with his Holiness, including a recent Zegrahm Expeditions tour group! He also holds teachings in Dharamsala every year, which people come from all over the world to attend.
Things to Do in Dharamsala, India
There’s a lot to see and do in Dharamsala, and lots of places that cater to domestic tourists and international visitors alike. You’ll find dozens of modest guest houses and small restaurants worthy of exploring. Along with momos—the tasty dumplings that are a mainstay of Tibetan cuisine—you can also find Japanese restaurants, pizza parlors, and the ubiquitous German bakery.
A sprawling town has developed around the Dalai Lama to support the Tibetan refugee population. Some of the most notable landmarks include:
- Namgyal, the home monastery-in-exile of the Dalai Lama
- Nechung Monastery, the seat of the State Oracle
- The Tibetan Medicine and Astrology Center
- The Tibetan government’s Parliament-in-exile
- The State Library and Archives and its adjoining Museum of Tibetan Art
- The Tibetan Children’s Village, which houses 2,000 students
- Norbulingka Institute, which works to preserve the arts and traditions of the Tibetan cultural world
Many visitors to Dharamsala choose to volunteer their time to work with the Tibetan community; I volunteered with a program called Art Refuge on the roof of the Tibetan Reception Centre. The program is run by Ama Adhe, a hero to the Tibetan people. She was imprisoned for 27 years by the Chinese for aiding resistance fighters. After her release, she traveled to Dharamsala to support the Dalai Lama and wrote a book called The Voice That Remembers. She oversees the Art Refuge program to help Tibetan refugee children adjust to life in India before they start school at the Tibetan Children’s Village.
The Beauty of Nature in Dharamsala, India
While visiting Dharamsala, you can immerse yourself in Tibetan Buddhist culture by visiting monasteries, volunteering, and attending lectures and spiritual talks. But no trip to the area would be complete without enjoying its immense scenic beauty.
The state of Himachal Pradesh is known for deep, fertile valleys that cut through soaring Himalayan peaks. Here, trails wind through forests thick with deodar, oak, rhododendron, and pine trees, and across alpine pastures and streams.
It’s an ideal destination for nature lovers, as it is home to 12 national parks and animal sanctuaries. Among the most noteworthy is Great Himalayan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was established in 1984 to protect endangered fauna and flora. There are around 1,200 species of birds and 359 animal species in Himachal Pradesh, including leopards, ghoral, snow leopards, and musk deer, the official state animal.
Dharamsala is located in the Dhauladhar mountain range, which forms part of Kangra Valley. The area is famous for its scenic landscapes and picturesque locations. The town spreads out along a slope, ranging from an altitude of 4,101 feet in lower Dharamsala to over 5,000 feet in upper Dharamsala, also known as McLeod Ganj.
There are several treks you can take directly from Dharamsala, and the city is a good jumping-off point for expeditions around Himachal Pradesh. Within walking distance of the city are trails to Dharamkot and the Bhagsunag Waterfall. Meditation and yoga retreats (including the Dhamma Sikara Vipassana Centre), cafes, resorts, and guest houses abound in this area.
So whether your interest is cultural, spiritual, or natural, Dharamsala, India is sure to make a lasting impression. In fact, many visitors to India cite it is as their favorite destination. It was certainly a hit with the Dalai Lama: He’s known for being “the longest guest of the Indian government.”
Mariellen Ward is a travel writer and digital storyteller. She has a BA in Journalism and has been published in many leading online and offline publications around the world. Her award-winning blog BreatheDreamGo is one of the world’s top travel blogs about India. Mariellen is an advocate of female solo travel and responsible travel. Though Canadian by birth, Mariellen considers India to be her "soul culture" and has spent many years immersing herself in the culture.