Created | Updated Feb 23, 2007
Tibet | Dalai Lama | Panchen Lama | Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama
Dharamsala | Lost Lhasa | Friends of Tibet
Ngawang Sangdrol | Tibetan Diaspora | Tibet on Film | The Monks of Drepung | Tibet's Warrior Nuns
Tibetan Children's Villages | Why the Chinese are There
Nauzer Nowrojee (1917 - 2000) was a shopkeeper, visionary, and humanitarian. He was responsible for transforming a half-forgotten hill station in India, a relic of the British Raj, into the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. Mr Nowrojee moved to Dharamsala from Karachi in 1938, in order to take over from his father the shop which his great-grandfather had founded in 1860.
In 1959, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his family, along with an estimated 80,000 other Tibetan refugees, were forced to escape into India during the repression of the uprising against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. But where were they to live? Mr Nowrojee suggested the use of his hill station as a sanctuary. And so, in 1960, the Government of Tibet in Exile moved out of its temporary accommodations in Mussoorie, and was established in Dharamsala, and work began to salvage what the Chinese meant to destroy.
Nauzer Nowrojee died in his sleep on 24 October, 2000, at the age of 83, after a walk to greet his old friend the Dalai Lama.
A Sleepy Hilltop
Dharamsala is located in the north of India, in the state of Himachal Pradesh. It is nestled in high wooded hills that hint in muted tones of the majesty of the Himalayas beyond. At its feet lie the meadows of the beautiful Kangra Valley; and over its shoulder tower the snow-capped peaks of the Dhauladhar mountain range.
This is a region rich in Buddhist history, where the teachings of the Lord Buddha were promulgated, and whence they were carried by Indian sages and saints into the Land of Snows. Lamas from Tibet are now in a position to repay the favour, as Dharma1 seeks a new sanctuary in its old home.
Various tribal people have called the hilltops home through the millennia, though little is known about most of them. In 1849, the British sent a regiment of soldiers to occupy the place, but sent them away again, because they disturbed the tranquility which colonial officials had come to value as a respite from the clamour and dust of the plains. Lord Elgin, Viceroy of India, Governor-General of Canada, Governor of Jamaica, and Ambassador in Constantinople2, loved the place so much that he asked to be buried in Dharamsala. He even went so far as to die there on 20 November, 1863.
Dharamsala is really two distinct places joined by a name: lower Dharamsala, at 1,250m, and McLeod Ganj, almost 6,000m higher up. The inhabitants of Lower Dharamsala are mainly Indian, while McLeod Ganj is essentially Tibetan; so much so, in fact, that Dharamsala is often referred to as 'Little Lhasa'3. There are now more than 8,000 Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala. It is the home of his Holiness the Dalai Lama, as well as the seat of the Government of Tibet in Exile. It is also a mecca, of sorts, for tourists, escapists, and pilgrims from around the world.
It is no exaggeration to describe Dharamsala as a cultural lifeboat floating in the foothills of the Himalayas. In a sense, that is exactly what it is. The cultural institutions which were threatened or destroyed by the Chinese occupation of Tibet were rebuilt in Dharamsala in a conscious effort to preserve the best of what they represented. Other institutions, which never existed in Tibet, were created in response to the new needs of the exile community and the need to showcase a culture on the brink of extinction to an apathetic global community.
Tibetan Children's Villages - TCV operates a network of residential schools for destitute Tibetan children in exile. TCV is affiliated with the Austrian-based SOS Kinderdorf International, and provides a nurturing environment for more than 14,000 children.
Norbulingka Institute - Named after the summer residence of the Dalai Lama in Tibet, the Norbulingka Institute is dedicated to preserving Tibetan literature and visual arts.
Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts - Established by the Dalai Lama, TIPA serves the Tibetan community around the world by preserving and teaching the performing arts of Tibet in the context of a living culture.
Library of Tibetan Works and Archives - This is a repository of more than 80,000 manuscripts, 6,000 photographs, and other culturally significant artefacts. It preserves a documentary link to Tibet before the Chinese invasion, and provides resources for scholars and students researching aspects of life in free Tibet.
Amnye Machen Institute - AMI aims to repair the damage to the Tibetan worldview, inflicted by semi-literate Communist cadres, by providing access in Tibetan to the cutting edge of modern thought.
The Tibet Museum - Demton Khang houses a collection of artefacts relevant to the modern history of Tibet. When those who remember how things were are no longer amongst us, the need for tangible reminders becomes ever more crucial.
Religious institutions, such as Norbulingka Temple, Namgyal Monastery, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Geden Choeling Nunnery, and Nechung Monastery (the seat of the State Oracle), which were damaged or destroyed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976), have been rebuilt in or near Dharamsala.
Dharamsala has become a significant tourist destination, attracting visitors from around the world, each with his or her own outlook and expectations. The tiny hilltop settlement has come to represent diverse and often conflicting ideals to many people, who may sometimes leave feeling disappointed and discouraged because the place failed in some way to provide what they hoped to find there.
Many tourists are attracted by what they imagine to be the intrinsic holiness of Dharamsala, just as they are to pilgrimage sites throughout India and around the world. People go there in the hope of finding some spiritual meaning in the concentration of sacred art and ritual, and the sheer abundance of monks and religious devotees.
This is a mistake because, while it is true that the concentration of religious scholarship and devotion in Dharamsala has made it a holy place for some, it is probably just as true that a similar concentration of effort in a hotel in Las Vegas could have achieved similar results... with a better buffet.
The degree of Dharamsala's holiness is therefore more a result of what people have given than what people take away; and Dharamsala's special appeal has at least as much to do with the mundane activities of its residents and to the natural beauty of its surroundings as it does to the esoteric affairs of its monasteries, temples, and retreats.
In a nutshell, then, it is a bad idea to go to Dharamsala looking for spiritual answers unless you have already asked yourself some fairly serious spiritual questions. It is much better to go there as an unabashed tourist, open to new experience and ready to snicker surreptitiously at the misguided seekers and posers who obviously take themselves and their spirituality far too seriously. Better yet, go there as someone with a willingness to learn more about Tibetan culture, as it is revealed in Little Lhasa, and about everyday life - the good and the bad - in what is, after all, a refugee community.
One of Dharamsala's main attractions, of course, is His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who does receive visitors in public audiences at his residence, which is located just outside McLoud Ganj. But bear in mind that His Holiness has many demands on His time, and may not even be in Dharamsala when you visit. Private audiences can be arranged by applying to His Holiness' secretary. But written requests must be sent several months in advance; and most of us should think carefully about whether or not it is appropriate for us to ask for something so precious.
Dharamsala offers accommodation to fit every budget, from modern, well-appointed hotels to more humble and spartan hostels and rented rooms. Serious Buddhist practitioners may find shelter in a number of retreat centres. And houses are often available for rent to those who wish to stay for longer periods.
Trekkers may encounter solitary men and women living in caves around Dharamsala. These are people who have withdrawn from the distractions of the modern world in order to focus on their religious practise. Please make every effort not to disturb them.
Getting to Dharamsala can be straightforward if you book an inclusive package with a reputable travel agent (preferably one with some expertise with travel in India) and leave the details to the professionals. Good tour operators will meet international visitors at the airport in Delhi, and escort them from bus to hotel, and back again, through the entire experience. Most offer guided tours of the main attractions, and also allow some free time for visitors to explore on their own.
More adventurous travellers can make their own way to Dharamsala by bus or by train... and then another bus... or two. The bus journey from Delhi takes between 12 and 14 hours. The train journey from Delhi to Pathankot takes about 12 hours, with a four-hour bus ride, covering the last leg, at its conclusion. A choice of bus or taxi, ferrying passengers between Lower Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, rounds off the adventure.
Due mainly to its elevation, Dharamsala enjoys a fairly temperate climate, with a maximum temperature just shy of 40°C and a minimim which hovers around 0°C. By far the most pronounced feature of Dharamsala's weather personality is the monsoon, which drenches the place with anything between 290cm and 390cm of rain every year between July and September.
The almost constant rain, which falls on Dharamsala like something intent on washing it - or at least its visitors - away, is hard for anyone unaccustomed to the monsoon to imagine, or believe, or ever forget. If you must visit during monsoon season, be sure to pack an umbrella.