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Sightseeing in Dharamshala

Sightseeing in Dharamshala includes visiting museums, or marvelling at the architectural splendour of Buddhist monasteries here.

The lower town of Dharamshala is crowded with shops, local houses, and government offices. The Museum of Kangra Art is the only significant site to visit on the main road in Dharamshala. Exhibits include a collection of miniature paintings from the Kangra School, some local jewellery, excellent traditional wood carvings, and copies of some paintings by 20th century Russian artist Nicholas Roerich. The artist who lived for quite a while in Himachal Pradesh was renowned for his vivid Himalayan mountainscapes.

A road leading up through the crowded bazaar is a steep 10 kms climb up to the northern edge of McLeodganj. This winding road takes nearly 40 minutes by bus, or about 20 minutes by a shared taxi. The alternative is a short cut along a steep trail that leads to the southern end of McLeodganj past the Dalai Lama’s residence.

The residence of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is surrounded by high walls and sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley. Besides the Dalai Lama’s living quarters, the complex also includes offices of the government in exile.

It is extremely difficult to get a private audience with His Holiness and requires sending your request at least four months in advance to his secretary. But the Dalai Lama also appears in public audiences for a gathering of about 300 people, which are organised according to demand. On special festive occasions, the Dalai Lama leads the Kalchakra Ceremony that is performed by Buddhist monks for universal peace and harmony.

The Dip Thekchen Choeling Monastery nearby is another interesting sight as it stands out with its golden roof amidst tall pine forests. The monastery also offers accommodation, along with breakfast and dinner as well.

Going down towards Dharamshala from the southern end of McLeodganj is the complex of the Central Tibetan Administration. Set up in 1988, this complex runs courses in Tibetan language and philosophy and houses a library and small museum.

The Library, open from Monday till Friday, has an exhaustive collection of books, manuscripts, and archival photographs on Tibet. One of the most extensive sets of original Tibetan manuscripts is preserved here, besides sacred texts and prayer scrolls. In addition to books on Tibet, there is also information on Indian culture and history.

On the first floor of the complex is the museum with Buddhist images, bronze figures and a collection of mandalas (geometrical drawings used in Tantric Buddhism for meditation), including the only wooden mandala outside Tibet.

In front of the library is a good café selling hot drinks and snacks. The Tibetan Secretariat’s information centre is just next to the entrance, while the Astro Medical Institute with its Tibetan medicinal cures sits outside the compound.

McLeodganj is another place to visit as it has a distinctly different character, with its brightly painted buildings, Buddhist temples, prayer flags fluttering in the air and saffron monks and nuns hurrying along the streets.

The main Buddhist temple or Tsuglagkhang (cathedral) is a five-minute walk from the main bazaar. It is believed that the temple resembles the one in Lhasa, and is surrounded by red and gold prayer wheels that are set in motion by devotees to scatter prayers in the air.

Inside are images of Shakyamuni (Buddha of the past), Padmasambhava the propagator of Buddhism in Tibet, and Avalokiteshvara (the compassionate one). All the images are in a posture of meditation with offerings of fruits, incense sticks, and prayer flags in front.

In the courtyard of the temple a curious tradition is enacted every afternoon by lamas from the Namgyal monastery. Punctuated by lots of shouting and clapping, the monks conduct serious debates on various theological issues.

The Norbulingka Institute, named after the 18th century residence of the 7th Dalai Lama, teaches about 100 students various skills including wood and metal-craft, silk weaving and thangka paintings. The Institute has a four-and-a-half metre gilded image of Buddha besides over a thousand painted images on its walls. A small museum has an interesting display of traditional dolls made by the local monks.

Besides the overpowering Tibetan presence, few remaining Raj edifices testify McLeodganj’s colonial history. Amongst them is the Church of St. John in the Wilderness, built in 1860. Worth a visit for its beautiful stained glass windows, the church was severely damaged in a major earthquake that rocked the region in 1905.

Rebuilt subsequently, the church has old bells that had been cast in London and installed in 1915. Lord Elgin, one of the few Viceroys of India who died in office, lies buried here.

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