Dharamshala and the surrounding regions were a part of the Katoch Dynasty of Kangra for nearly two millennia. With the coming of the British Rule in India, Dharamshala became a part of the province of Punjab. The city as we see it today first came into being with the settlement of the 1st Gurkha Rifles near the site of a Hindu sanctuary on the slopes of Dhauladhar Hills. The name ‘Dharamshala’ was first used from this time onwards, due to the presence of the sanctuary. But the Gurkhas referred to this region as Bhagsu since they worshipped at the ancient Shiva temple of Bhagsunag.
The town was also a popular summer vacation spot for the British. Then came the devastating earthquake of 1905. Much of the cantonment along with the Bhagsunag Temple was demolished by the quake. The Gurkhas later rebuilt the town and the temple, which came to be known as 1st Gurkha Rifles’ Heritage. But from this time, the popularity of Dharamshala decreased until the coming of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees in 1959. Today, this town is an amicable mixture of Indians and Tibetans, with both contributing to the legacy of Dharamshala.
Things to Do in Dharamshala
Dal Lake In Dharamshala
This beautiful lake is set amidst lush green Deodar forests at an altitude of 1,775 metres and exudes transcendence in peaceful surroundings. Located at a distance of 2 kilometres away from McLeodganj Market, Dal Lake is just a walk away and also happens to be a major attraction for trekkers as it serves as a base camp for several trekking expeditions. But if you don’t want to walk all the way, you can also go by car or taxi. The lake is also known for a popular temple of Lord Shiva that’s located on its banks.
Kangra Fort In Dharamshala
The Kangra Fort is a majestic sample of architecture, which was constructed by the royal family of Kangra and dates back to around 4th Century B.C. This is known to be the largest fort in the Himalayas and is one of the oldest forts in India. This ancient fort is located about 20 kilometres away from Dharamshala and houses a few temples that can be accessed by passing through seven gates. A major tourist attraction at the Kangra Fort is the magnificent view of the Manjhi and Banganga rivers from here. Right next to the Fort is also the Maharaja Sansar Chand Katoch Museum, which is run by the Royal Family of Kangra.
Bhagsunag Falls In Dharamshala
Also called Bhagsu Falls, this site houses the famous Bhagsunath Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. This is a famous tourist attraction and also an important place for Hindu pilgrims. The cascading waterfalls, about 20 metres in height, are an absolute marvel to look at, especially during the monsoons. There is a nice cafeteria next to the falls and the area serve as an excellent picnic spot for tourists. Bhagsunag Falls are located about 2 kilometres away from McLeodganj and are best visit while on a trek, although you can also drive up to Bhagsu village.
Namgyal Monastery In Dharamshala
When in Dharamshala, one must visit the Tsuglag Khang Complex and Namgyal Monastery, which is the home of the Dalai Lama, and also the largest Tibetan temple outside Tibet. Namgyal Monastery was originally founded in 16th century Tibet by the second Dalai Lama. The monastery was established so that Namgyal monks could assist the Dalai Lamas in public religious affairs, perform ritual prayer ceremonies for the welfare of Tibet and function as a center of learning and meditation on the profound Buddhist treatises. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was granted asylum in India, the monastery was re-established here to preserve and continue the Tibetan culture and traditions. The monks here go through a rigorous and streamlined course of training, which includes a study of philosophy, sacred arts, meditation and debates. Even those who are not particularly inclined towards religion, will be fascinated by the serene ambience all around the campus and the imposing figures of Buddha.
Kangra Art Museum
The Kangra Art Museum is a fascinating museum displaying artifacts from Tibetan and Buddhist cultures. Inaugurated in 1990, the museum has preserved a treasure trove from Kangra valley’s cultural past, crafts, arts and other ancient artifacts including miniature paintings, temple carvings, fabrics and embroidery, weapons, and palanquins belonging to local royalty. It has a collection of rare pottery, coin memorabilia, sculptures and anthropological materials. It showcases jewelry of various tribes, embroidered costumes and wooden carvings. Some of the items displayed in the museum go back to 5th century. A section in the museum is also dedicated to contemporary artists and photographers. Located close to the bus station in Dharamshala, you can spend about an hour exploring the museum.
Festivals In Dharamshala
Being largely inspired by Buddhism, Dharamshala is filled with festivity during Buddha Purnima, which marks the birth date of the founder of Buddhism – Lord Buddha. As most of the locals are followers of Buddhism, the entire town comes alive with jubilance and vivacity around Buddha Purnima.
Norbulingka Institute In Dharamshala
Norbulingka Institute was founded near Dharamshala in 1988 for preserving Tibetan culture, literature and art. The institute is named after Norbulingka, the summer residence of the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa, Tibet. The institute primarily works towards carrying on Tibetan traditions and heritage by providing training, education and employment to Tibetans in the region. Norbulingka produces high quality art objects, clothing and home furnishings. The institute also has the two-storeyed ‘Seat of Happiness Temple’ (Deden Tsuglakhang) set amidst the Japanese inspired Norbulingka gardens. It is especially known for its 1,173 murals of Buddha, frescoes of all the Dalai Lamas and drawings from the life of the 14th Dalai Lama. You can take a free guided tour of the institute on any day except on Sunday. Those interested in studying the Tibetan arts can also enroll into short-term workshops here. Norbulingka’s art studios include Tibetan statue making, Thangka painting, screen-printing, applique and tailoring, woodcarving, wood painting, papermaking, and wood and metal craft.
Tsuglag Khang In Dharamshala
The Tsuglag Khang complex is one of the first structures to be built when His Holiness the Dalai Lama arrived in India in 1959. It houses the famous Namgyal monastery, a museum, a café, a book shop, a library and the private residence of the Dalai Lama. Located just about 1 kilometer out of the center of McLeodganj, down the Temple Road, apart from being a place of worship, the temple is also where the Dalai Lama holds his public and private audiences and his public teachings.Thousands of pilgrims come here every year seeking the blessings of the Tibetan leader. Several religious festivities and dances are organised here through the year. Visitors can see all parts of the monastery except for the monks’ residences. Named after a 7th century temple in Lhasa, Tibet, Tsuglag Khang is an extremely peaceful place reverberating of Buddhist culture.
One of the most famous monasteries in Tibet, the Gyuto Monastery is known for its study of Tantric meditation, Tantric ritual arts and Buddhist philosophy. It was founded in Tibet in 1474 by the main disciple of the first Dalai Lama, Jetsun Kunga Dhondup. After the communist Chinese invasion in 1959, the monastery was re-established in India. The monks here practice the major Tantric texts including Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara and Yamantaka. They have passed these lineages on to the younger generation of monks for more than 500 years. The main chamber of the monastery has a majestic statue of the Buddha and with the backdrop of the snow-clad mountains, this is an extremely serene and peaceful place to spend an afternoon.
The Dalai Lama Temple
The Dalai Lama Temple Complex is a beautiful and peaceful place located in Upper Dharamshala, just a short walk away from the Mcleod Ganj Bus Stand. Decorated with the colourful prayer flags, it’s perfect for long serene walks, or early morning meditation with chanting monks.
Hanuman Ka Tibba In Dharamshala
Hanuman-ka-Tibba is the highest point in the Dhauladhar mountain range. Also known as the ‘White Mountain’ this is at an altitude of about 5,639 metres (18,500 feet) above the sea level and offers breathtaking views of the valley. You can also spot the Pir Panjal range from here. Legend has it that this is where Lord Hanuman rested while returning with the Sanjeevani Buti in his hand. While this makes for a scenic and adventurous route for those up for trekking, it’s not recommended for amateurs.
BEST TIME TO VISIT DHARAMSHALA
A hill station in Himachal, Dharamshala has pleasant weather conditions through the summer months, sees heavy rains during monsoon and snowfall in winters. Here’s a monthly break up of Dharamshala’s climatic conditions so you can plan when to go: March to mid-July: If you are looking to beat the scorching summer heat, then March to about mid-July is just the time to go. Summer months are perfect for a trip to the hills when the temperatures range somewhere between 22°C and 35°C. It’s also the ideal time for trekking tours on scenic trails dotted with flowers in full bloom. Most tourists prefer going to Dharamshala at this time so it’s also the most crowded. It’s a good idea to plan your trip around the Buddhist Losar Festival that takes place in February or March. Mid-July to mid-September: If you are keen to enjoy the romantic rainfall in the hills, then mid-July to September is the time for you when the mountains are at their greenest. But do remember that the terrain can get pretty tricky in the monsoon so you have to be prepared for road blocks due to continuous rainfall.Mid-September to November: Rains stop around mid-September and the weather is pleasant for sightseeing as well as other adventure activities such as trekking. But keep in mind that the nights start getting chilly at this time so you must carry adequate layers to keep yourself warm. December to February: Winters in Dharamshala are freezing, but if you enjoy the cold and snow-white mountains, then this is a beautiful time to visit. It snows here during this time and the temperature tends to dip below -1 °C. Remember to carry lots of woolens and protection against chilly winds.
HOW TO REACH IN DHARAMSHALA
The nearest airport is at Gaggal, about 13 kilometres away from Dharamshala. Gaggal airport connects Dharamshala to Delhi via Air India and Spice Jet flights. Tourists from other parts of India would find it easier to take a flight till Chandigarh and book a taxi for their onward journey to Dharamshala, which is about 275 kilometres away.
An overnight train journey is a good option to reach Dharamshala. The nearest major railway station is at Pathankot, 85 kilometres away. There are numerous trains that go to Jammu and Kashmir that stop by in Pathankot. You can take a taxi or bus from Pathankot to reach Dharamshala. There is also a smaller railway station, Kangra Mandir, just 22 kilometres from Dharamshala but none of the important trains halt here.
Dharamshala is well-connected to Delhi and other parts of North India via a network of state operated buses as well as private tour operators. The journey is almost 520 kilometres from Delhi. Most buses stop at the main bus terminal in Lower Dharamshala, but there are also some public Haryana Road Transport Corporation (HRTC) buses that go all the way to the main square of McLeod Ganj. An overnight journey from Delhi takes about 13 hours. You can book HRTC tickets online.