Very few sights trump the grandeur of the Himalayan mountain ranges that spread over India, much of Nepal and southern Tibet. The idea of traveling to McLeod Ganj (little Tibet) and it’s crisp Himalayan mountain air emerged into my India travels during a stay at the Sivananda Ashram.
Dharamsala was familiar name from TV, and is most often named as the Dalai Lama’s home. Mcleod Ganj, about 5-10kms North of Dharamsala, was the heart of the settlement and cultural activities. The permanent residence of the Dalai Lama, a colony of monks and Tibetan refugees all co-exist here. Maroon robed monks wander the streets talking on cell phones and spinning prayer wheels on sticks that they use as meditative tools. His holiness the Dalai Lama is frequently away from McLeod Ganj, but even when he is away, books and teachings are a major presence.
An array of international travelers grace the streets of McLeod Ganj, particularly Asians which otherwise are few and far between in much of the rest of India. Shops line dirt streets selling Buddhist paintings, postcards, malas, and Tibetan singing bowls.
My engagement in meditation at Shambhala centers, of Tibetan lineage is a likely reason for my fascination and comfortableness with the Tibetan buddhism and culture encountered in McLeod Ganj. Founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a monk forced to escape Tibet during the 1959 Chinese occupation, Shambhala http://www.shambhala.org offers a place of meditative practice in locations all over the world. Temples of McLeod Ganj operate in a more traditional Eastern manner but the Tibetan Buddhist art and the mentality are rooted from the same principles.
A room at The Yellow Guest House with two twin beds and private bathroom cost 375 rupees a night. Granted- there was a cold water bucket shower, and the room was quite small, but there was a gorgeous view of the valley with mountain peaks spiked with snow caps in the background. What is a cold water bucket shower? It’s uncomfortable, that’s what! Taking a sponge bath from a bucket is one of the ways one might define a “traveler” as opposed to a “vacationer”.
At the time of my travels about 50 rupees converted approximately into one $CAD, which meant that split between Joanna and I, my share was $3.50 a night on accommodation. I won’t delve too thoroughly into the fact that I dealt with my first ever case of head lice also as I wrapped up my final day in McLeod Ganj. Where they came from, I will never quite know. Perhaps the homeless looking people that robbed Joanna on the 3rd class train on the way here from the Golden Temple also gave us the gift of head lice, in memory.
Thanks for riding Indian Railways. Thanks for your money. Here’s a little something to remember us by.
On costs, a masala chai (spicy tea) cost about 10 rupees from a local tea stand, 150 rupees would easily cover a meal and tea at a typical restaurant. $15 (750 rupees) a day could easily cover daily expenses, and $10 (500 rupees) if you’re thrifty or sharing a room with someone.
One of many yoga studios in McLeod Ganj offered activities of spiritual development such as one hour Om sessions. Om is an interesting sound. It is the heart of Buddhist and Hindu mantra meditation. Meditating on any one object such as a candle flame or a single repeating sound allows the mind to focus on one thing and everything else dissolves away. The yoga studio, like many McLeod Ganj buildings was perched on the mountainside with windows peering out into the valley. Between the repeating Om’s, glancing out over the evergreen speckled valley, it’s hard not to feel at peace with just about everything, and hoping that peace extends beyond the self.
Last I heard, entry to Tibet was officially forbidden for foreigners, so one of the best chances of experiencing Tibetan food at its best, really is in McLeod Ganj. Momo’s, Tibetan bread, Tibetan butter tea and Thukpa noodles are among the specialties one can sample at Peace Cafe. Two travel mates learned to make Tibetan Momo’s (dumplings), and subsequently fell ill to food poisoning for a few days so it makes sense to use judgement when choosing a cooking class! I had chosen another activity that day, and by a random streak of luck escaped the food poisoning.
Both Oasis and Common Ground were the top two traveller cafe’s in town, in my opinion. One particular waiter at Common Ground would take your order, and randomly insert the phrase “yes please” , which was great!
A mass prayer service for immolations is advertised below.
Painted rocks and prayer flags lined pathways around the main temple center in McLeod Ganj bordered by cliff edges overlooking valleys with mountains in the background. Monks and pilgrims of various types wander down meandering dirt pathways through a lightly forested area. A 45 minute walk around the temple ended passing several armed Indian military police. They were likely there for the residence of the Dalai Lama. A shame after such a peaceful meditative walk down temple paths and walkways to be reminded of such violent conflict.
Within a day’s hike of McLeod Ganj one could visit the Bhagsu Waterfall, Tushita Meditation Center up the mountain (past many wild monkeys peeking through treetops), Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre or one of many guided trekking excursions into the mountains.
McLeod Ganj’s charming locals with their peaceful modesty are a definite highlight of India. My prayer flags and Tibetan singing bowl souvenirs serve as reminders of my visit. As my last stop in a three month Indian journey across jungles, deserts, oceans, through caves and filthy garbage-laden urban centers, and royal palaces, this place was the perfect ending. Lessons in spiritual development were literally around every corner, and emerged through encounters with the many travelers and Buddhists that converge on this Himalayan mountainside. For myself, it was now time to leave India, and head by 12 hour overnight bus through the winding, moonlit Himalayan mountain roads into New Delhi for my flight to Bangkok. Tibetan singing bowls, prayer wheels and Om mani padme hum will remain in my memory bank, waiting to resurface when I’m in need of serenity.