Tibet might be off limit for most of us. In search of a little Tibet in India, I landed up in Dharamsala / Mcleodganj, in the lap of the mountains.
Dharamsala feels so unlike India. I feel I’ve skipped legalities, missed stamps on my passport and entered a world I was taught is forbidden.
I see a foreign face around every corner. Interspersed with men and women robed in red and orange. A tranquil vibe flows through the chaos of Mcleodganj on the narrow streets. I am fascinated by the small stalls and shops selling colorful bric-a-brac. Little memorabilia from the “Little Tibet” in India that has been produced elsewhere in India or Nepal.
The side walls are covered with graffiti about Tibet, a reminder of the refugee lives of the people in Dharamsala. This has to be the only hill station in India where no shop-owners are shouting to sell their goods, nor touting foreign travelers. I can feel a spirit of acceptance among the people, or maybe a disguised form of dejection.
I think back to 1959, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama escaped China’s occupation of Tibet and found shelter in Dharamsala. Who knew that Tibet could (somewhat) sustain its culture and continue the much-needed propagation of the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism? I’m given to hear that Mcleodganj is much more akin to Tibet than present day Tibet itself.
That breaks my heart. I wonder if one day, I’ll find out for myself though.
I allow myself to be distracted, first by the typically-Tibetan handicrafts, and then by the alternate cafe culture that has housed itself in Mcleodganj. There are rooftop gardens, Italian joints, organic food cafes, and of course, authentic Tibetan food joints.
At first, I’m amused to see cafes being frequented by monks and nuns. But gradually become so accustomed to their presence that everywhere I go, my eyes subconsciously search for the deep red colors.
In my head, I had formed a strong association with Dharamsala while in Spiti. Everyone I met in the mountain desert had some roots in this relatively lower-lying valley.
The spiritual similarities now surface, though the mountains that were bare brown in the Spitian background have now been painted a lush green. I stroll behind some lamas, past blue tents selling knick knacks that remind me of the Tibetan market in Mussoorie, and resist an elderly lady scooping fresh momos from her high stool just outside the monastery.
In the alley that leads to both the monastery and HH Dalai Lama’s house, the first signs of security surprise me. I miss the innate trust of the people of Spiti, but things are different here in Dharamsala and for good reason.
I expect a solemn ambience at the monastery at this late-evening hour, but I’m greeted by a buoyant atmosphere. It’s debating hour and the monks are animatedly clapping and talking in what sounds like the Bodhi language. I can’t help but smile at the prevailing cheerfulness.
The monastery is beautiful, open and airy, as most monasteries I’ve visited before. I seat myself on a bench in the verandah, and watch the clouds play hide and seek with the Himalayas. As they gradually descend, they greet us mortals and reveal to us a gorgeous sunset.
No power, I assure myself, can rob the people of such natural beauty, and the conviction that comes with it.
Have you experienced “Little Tibet” in India?
Get my latest article in your inbox!
I’m the founder of this award-winning travel blog about offbeat and sustainable travel, and author of the bestselling travel memoir, The Shooting Star.
In 2011, I quit my full-time job, and gradually gave up my home, sold most of my possessions, stored some in the boot of a friend’s car and embraced a nomadic life.
Connect with me on Instagram to hear more about my adventures and personal journey.