If you're reading my reviews about Dharamsala and thinking "Why on earth would anyone go there?" then the purpose of this is to explain where the attraction lies. The Indian state of Himachal Pradesh has a lot of cities and many of them get largely ignored by the tourist trade but Dharamsala's a bit special and draws visitors from all around the world. Strictly speaking, it's not really Dharamsala itself which draws the crowds – is a little place just up the hill from the main city. Some refer to it as Upper Dharamsala or by the absurdly multi-racial name of McLeod Ganj which combines aspects of both its British colonial history and its Indian roots. All surprising when the main thing the place is known for is neither British nor Indian. The answer is simple and it's one man and a Tibetan at that - Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso – more commonly known as the Dalai Lama.
When China invaded and occupied Tibet in the early 1950s, there was a viscious crack-down on Buddhism. In 1959 the Tibetans rebelled with the Tibetan Uprising and fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama and some of his followers fled to India. The Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru allowed His Holiness and his followers to set up their ‘Government in Exile’ in Dharamsala. Interestingly, the region of India more commonly referred to as 'Little Tibet' is not the Dharamsala area, that's further north and higher in the Himalaya in Ladakh, but the area is very cut off from the rest of the world and perhaps a touch too close to the borders with Pakistan and China. No sense relocating and then risking getting invaded again.
It’s estimated that another 80,000 of His Holiness's followers also went into exile in order to follow their leader and escape the Chinese oppression. Since setting up in Dharamsala the Dalai Lama has worked tirelessly to promote the rights of his countrymen and women back home in Tibet whilst spreading his Buddhist teachings to people all over the world. I honestly don't know anyone who doesn't think the Dalai Lama one of the world's most widely recognised ‘cool dudes’.
It's not beyond possibility to actually see His Holiness if you plan ahead, apply in advance, can be flexible about your dates and fit around his travel programme but for most of us who roll up without any such preparation, it's unlikely that you'll just get lucky and run into him. That's no reason not to go though – think of the many people who go to Buckingham Palace every year without expecting to see the Queen. Whether His Holiness is there or not, it's still a fabulous place to visit, and offers a unique possibility to observe a community retaining their very specific culture whilst living in exile. Dharamsala isn't so much a place to 'do' as a place to soak up the atmosphere and to just enjoy hanging around in a town full of Tibetans, Buddhists from all over the world, a large number of hippies and a few random tourist like us.
The Dalai Lama's temple is the biggest show in town and the chief attraction for most visitors but there's a lot more to do. The hippy visitors are well served with people happy to realign their chakras, teach them meditation and mindfulness, sell them crafts or teach them yoghurt weaving or whatever's the big new-age trend at the time. It's a very un-Indian place, and it’s well worth a visit for the experience of something very different.
Dharamsala is also historically linked to the Ghurka regiments who have an important Hindu temple in the town, and also retains elements of the city's past as a British colonial outpost. Even if history means nothing to you, it's a lovely cool, high altitude retreat, surrounded by spectacular mountain views.