McLeodganj, A Buddhist Pilgrimage
Tashi delek! Here we are at the bus stand, the heart of McLo
(short for McLeodganj). This is where youll find yourself when
you reach the town.
Roads radiate from here to various points around the town including
back down to Dharamsala.
Youll find Buddhist monks walking around in their burgundy
robes, telling a rosary as they go about their daily business. In the
centre of the bazaar, south of the bus stand, is the Namgyalma Stupa
surrounded by golden prayer wheels that are turned by two main roads
Temple Road and Jogibara Road.
A Home of Dalai Lama
McLeodganj is best known as the headquarters of the Tibetan
Government in Exile and home of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.
The Tibetan settlement here is a delightful example of their agreeable
The community has taken over the hospitality business and provide
cheap and clean hotels and small friendly restaurants.
All this makes McLeodganj is a colourful little town, a perennial den
of tourists a place you can chill out in and do your own thing.
While you stop to wonder at a Tibetan trinket or a shawl, youll
realize that your stomach is involuntarily responding to the lovely
smell of wantons wafting from a nearby joint.
McLeodganj is steeped in Buddhist culture you can find
anything from Tibetan food, good luck charms and thangkas to
Enlightenment. In fact, many disenchanted foreigners come here seeking
solace, meditation or to champion the Tibetan cause.
¤ Main Attractions of The Town
As for sightseeing, youll be quite agog with the sheer length
of the itinerary. Begin with the quaint church of St
John-in-the-Wilderness, and then going over to the host of Buddhist
sites like the Tsuglag Khang, Namgyal Monastery, Dip Se Chok-Ling
Gompa, Gangchen Kyishong with its Library & Archives andMedical
Institute, TIPA, Mani Lakhang Stupa, Nechung Monastery, Norbulingka
Institute, and the Chinmaya Tapovan. If youre looking for some
classes on the Tibetan language or Buddhism, therere enough
options for that. The walks around this place are just too good to be
missed. Whether its Naddi or Dharamkot, Bhagsu or Triund, Dal
Lake or Kareri Lake, youll be nothing less than spellbound.
¤ Take Care While You are In Dharamsala
With heavy tourist traffic, Dharamsala is quite cosmopolitan in
character. However, a certain decorum needs to be observed while
visiting Buddhist shrines.
Walk clockwise around shrines and stupas and on the left-hand side
Buddhist monasteries are open to all and you may even visit the
resident lama. But be sure to be dressed modestly. An audience with
the Dalai Lama can be arranged too but one cannot record the event
no cameras, video cameras or sound recorders allowed.
¤ His Holiness - The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. The title
does not belong to any person.
As soon as the Dalai Lama dies, his reincarnation is identified by
traditional means and tests.
The Dalai Lama is believed to be a reincarnation of the Buddha. When
he dies, his soul is thought to enter the body of a newborn boy, who
is then declared the new Dalai Lama.
The first man to bear the title of Dalai Lama was Sonam Gyatso, Grand
Lama of the Drepung monastery and leader of the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat
sect. (Sonam Gyatso received it from the Mongol chief Altan Khan in
1578. Yellow Hat sect was then applied retroactively to
the previous leaders of the sect.)
In 1642 another Mongol chief, Gushri Khan, installed the fifth Dalai
Lama as Tibets spiritual and temporal ruler. His successors
governed Tibet first as representatives of the Mongols, but from 1720
to 1911 as vassals of the emperor of China.
¤ Tenzin Gyatso-- The Present Dalai Lama
The present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th spiritual leader
in line. When Chinas Communist regime occupied Tibet in 1950, it
came into increasing conflict with His Holiness.
The Dalai Lama left Tibet after an unsuccessful rebellion in 1959 and
has since lived in India. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989
for leading the nonviolent opposition to continued Chinese rule in
Tibet. In 1995 the Dalai Lama came into conflict with Chinese
authorities over the identification of a new Panchen Lama (the second
most senior Tibetan religious authority).
In 1996 he published Violence and Compassion, in which he and French
screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière discuss topics of political
and spiritual interest.
One look at the Dalai Lamas bright beaming face is enough to
convince you that if anyone can bring happiness and solace to this
world, it is him.
¤ Fairs & Festivals
Losar is the Tibetan New Year, the most popular festival of
Dharamsala and Buddhist populated places like Lahaul. Its
celebrated with great gusto in late February-early March and its high
point are the ritual dances. Homes and kitchens are cleaned vigorously
to appease Thalpa the god of home and hearth.
The Losar Celebrations
A grand feast and ritual dance are held two days before Losar. The
dance, signifying destruction of evil spirits, is accompanied by drums
and radong (long trumpets).
Originally it used to be performed at the courtyard of the Potala
Palace, the main temple in Lhasa. The chhaam dance on the eve of Losar
is a spectacular event with dancers wearing elaborate costumes and
masks. Symbolizing good over evil, the dance marks the killing of a
cruel Tibetan ruler Langdarma (9th century).
The 15th day of the fourth month of the Tibetan calendar is believed
to be a very auspicious and significant day. It was on this day that
Sakyamuni (Buddha) was conceived by his mother Queen Mayadevi; on this
very day 35 years later, Buddha attained complete Enlightenment; and
to top it all off, he passed into parinirvana, the ultimate state of
peace, on the same day.
In fact the whole month is said to possess such potency that anything
you do, good or bad, is said to be multiplied a hundred thousand
Consequently, people refrain from eating non-vegetarian food, so much
so that they even buy animals and set them free. Prayer wheels are set
into motion with rare devotion during this month.
Held near the Dal Lake (1,700m) every August-September, this fair is
especially favoured by Girths and Gurkhas (hill tribes). There are the
usual festivities of feasting and dancing.
¤ Shopping Hubs - The Bazaars
Shopping at McLeodganj Bazaar is great fun. It is a good place to
bargain for carpets and handicrafts (metalware, jewellery, jackets,
handknitted cardigans and gloves).
Tibetans usually quote a fair price to start with, so there may be no
need for bargaining. Tibetan textiles, especially carpets, can be
purchased from the office of Tibetan Handicrafts opposite the State
Bank of India.
Fine New Zealand wool carpets and Indian wool carpets are also
available. In fact you can even watch them being made at the same
outlet. You can also have a chuba (the dress worn by Tibetan women)
stitched on order.
Books on Tibet, its religion and culture are easily available in
McLeodganj (try Charitable Trust Bookshop), and so is Tibetan music.
You can take your pick from meditation music, folksongs and Tibetan
chants. Look out for Tibetan herbal incense at the Tara Herbal Gift
Shop near the bus stand. At the Green Store you could pick up some
hand painted T-shirts and handmade paper. But the most interesting
shop is undoubtedly the old-fashioned Nowrojee Store run by a charming
old couple. The couple are a storehouse of information in McLeodganj
and are also extremely friendly.
¤ Arts & Crafts
Here are beautiful carpets of traditional Tibetan designs. They are
delicately woven and are a riot of colour. Motifs may vary from
natural scenes to monuments to incidents from a folktale or mandalas
(traditional Tibetan designs of the cosmos).
McLeodganj is the place for excellent thangkas. These are actually
ritual paintings displayed during certain Buddhist festivals, but they
happen to be extremely popular with foreign tourists (and cost the
Thangkas are intricate and brightly coloured scroll paintings on
canvas, edged with a border of rich silk.
They usually depict the Buddha and other deities and the wheel of
life. The painting follows complex dicta like proportional grids for
each diety and traditional vegetable or mineral colours are used.
The Norbulingka Institute is the centre of learning this ancient art
of Tibet. You could also place your orders here.
carpets and thangka painting, woodcarving is also something which the
Tibetans excel in. It is in Dharamsala that the masters have kept this
ancient tradition alive. and the centre for all these activities is
The woodcarvers make traditional and ceremonial carved furniture,
like altars of all sizes, elaborate thrones, folding tables, incense
burners and so forth. After the carving is done the pieces are either
polished or painted in bright colours.
¤ Gastronomic Delights
While youre in McLo, the best grub to have is, of course,
Tibetan chef-doeuvre. The aroma wafting from Tibetan food joints
run by the locals is enough to tell you that. Try their wide range of
delicious, non-spicy dishes including thukpas (soups), noodle dishes
(gyathuk, thin noodles; thenthuk, flat noodles), steamed or fried
momos (dumplings) and shabakleb (pretty much like flat and round
¤ Eating Joints
However, theres a lot more on offer. Keeping the taste of both
the international and domestic tourist in mind, McLeod has a wide
range of eateries that serve all sorts of cuisine Indian,
Tibetan, Italian, Continental, Israeli, to name a few.
Friends Corner is good for breakfast; Hot Spot for fast food;
Shambala for cakes and pancakes; and the German Bakery on MI Road for
bread and brown rice (open till 0100). Aroma on Jogibara Road serves
excellent Israeli fare. The log-shaped, shack-like Chocolate Log
surprises with its delectable cakes and snacks. Try Tibetan Dasang for
excellent porridge, fruit muesli and whole-wheat bread.
¤ Think Globally, Act locally The residents of this tiny
town of McLeodganj are great environment freaks, so dont ever
throw empty bottles and other garbage just anywhere; drop it all in
the green bins. This new project, started by the Welfare office and a
young Dutch man, is like a boon for this tourist crammed place. Manned
by only a few, this profect does some great work.
The four green workers in the scheme collect about
40-50kg of recyclable stuff from around the place each day, like
paper, glass, plastic and metals. In fact wherever you stay at McLo,
you will find a bin planted by these green workers. The Nechung and
Namgyal gompas, the Dialectic School and Gaden Chuling Nunnery have
special baskets with separate sections for different materials. These
are emptied once a week and the materials are then separated and sold.
However, the money got is little more than one workers salary.
Step into the Green Shop on Bhagsu Road if youre an environment
freak. The shop, another scheme run by the Welfare office, sells
rechargeable batteries, hand painted T-shirts, natural cosmetics and
boiled and filtered water. In the tourist season the shop to sells
some 100-120 bottles a day.