A Kingdom in Exile: Dharamshala

'There is a saying in Tibetan, “Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.” No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster'
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.

After a twelve hour ride in an HRTC (Him Pride) bus from Delhi, an overnight journey, we got off at Dharamshala ISBT late morning on a cool clear day. At first it seemed like any average town in the foothills of the Himalayas, but after a five minute walk we came across a Caucasian girl, the sight of whom is still vivid in my mind. She must have been around 25. She was tall, had grey eyes, and yes she was very pretty and had a charming smile. She was also donning a bright red kasaya (Buddhist robe), wearing a serene expression, and had a clean shaven head. Pun unintended, she exuded a particular radiance, associated with the monks of lore. We realized then that we have come to a different world, a spiritual oasis, secluded in this niche of the Himalayas. Dharamshala indeed.

The white bhikkhuni and her more Tibetan looking colleagues were waiting at a jeep stand. We joined them for their next ride up the mountain road. Next stop, McLeod Ganj, also known as the 'Little Lhasa' and 'Dhasa', home of the current Dalai Lama, Tensiz Gyatso, and the exiled govrenment of Tibet.
Like most Himachal towns, McLeod Ganj too has a brief colonial history. In Fact, It was named after Sir Donald Friell McLeod, a Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. The place became such a favorite of the local officers that it was suggested to be the British Summer Capital back in 1862. Events of more recent history, however, are it's real claim to fame. 

Panchen Lama, Chairman Mao and Dalai Lama-- in 1956
It all started when World War II ended. Historians claimed it as the end of Fascism and the ultimate victory of the 'Free World'. Of course, historians tend to become incredibly naïve after major events. The end of the World 
War saw a spectacular rise of Communism throughout the world. In China, a civil war was being fought since 1927 between the communist CPC and the democratic KMT. In 1949, the communists, under Mao Zedong, took over the entire mainland China (dubbing it People's Republic of China or PRC) and the KMT's control was reduced to that of Taiwan, which is status quo till this date (an FYI, the civil war was never officially declared over). In 1950, incorporation of Tibet became a chief agenda for PRC. By 1951, a Seventeen Point Agreement was signed between PRC and the Tibetan Government, evidently through military blackmail, and PRC had a virtually complete political control over Tibet. Tenzin Gyatso, 15 years old now, had just risen to the throne of Dalai Lama. Dissent over the agreement was wide spread among the Tibetans and by 1956 armed resistances started breaking out over PRC's land reform experiments. A sequence of events led to a massive rebellion in Lhasa on March 10 1959. The objective of the uprising was clear: Tibetan liberation from Chinese atrocities. The aftermath also was too obvious: hugely outnumbered and poorly armed, the rebels were brutally crushed with reportedly 85,000 casualties. The Dalai Lama took flight from Lhasa and around 80,000 Tibetans followed him through the Himalayas into India. It was in Dharamshala where His Holiness made camp for this exodus. 
We made our camp at a motel once we reached McLeod Ganj, and it was completely its money's worth. It had a nice view of the town with the mountains in the background and the 'Pink House' right outside the balcony was full of western stragglers. The motel was right next to Chocolate Log, an old and a very fine bakery. The town truly is Little Lhasa, with a large Tibetan presence: Buddhist monasteries, markets, gifts and handicraft shops. The local population itself consisted largely of Tibetans, with Indians seeming to be a minority. The place is also truly a global travels' hub. There are artists, pilgrims, adventurers, traders and tourists from across the globe. However, no one thinks himself to be an outsider here.


On our first day in McLeod Ganj, we went to a famous waterfall. It was a four km trek, which was both exhausting and dangerous at times. . . 

. . . but it was all completely worth it.

It was on our return journey that we captured some breathtaking moments, especially that of a little diva and her kid brother. . .

. . . and the heavenly colors that the sunset brought out.

We took a wrong turn and lost our way back to civilization. Thus, we had encounters with Nelly, a young Norwegian girl who was there on a three month spiritual vacation, and a Spanish gentleman with an eight string modified acoustic guitar who just humbled us with his performance. We called it a day with dinner at an open air, roof top restaurant.
Day 2. We had planned a trek for another waterfall, but it ended up as a day of chivalry as we helped out a damsel in some serious distress. Sonia, a fifty year old German lady had broken her right leg badly while trying to cross a stony river bed, not far from where we were headed. We took a taxi down to Dharamshala to get her bandaged and then an ambulance to R.P. Govt Medical College, Kangra to get her plastered. Then back up we went to McLeod Ganj to drop her off at the monastery she was staying at (Dip-Tse-Chok-Ling Monastery). We were graciously welcomed and thanked and served tea (from Jaipur). As it turns out, this place is a monastery-in-exile. The original monastery was in Lhasa, which was destroyed under Chinese rule along with 6000 other monasteries.    

Before the day ended, we paid a visit to the Tsuglagkhang Temple, Dalai Lama's residence. Although modest in comparison, it is Lhasa's Potala Palace-in-exile. We reached too late in the evening to see the main attractions of the temple, the central Buddha idols and the evening ceremony, but we did get to experience the peaceful spiritual ambiance of the place. However, being the political center, there were stark reminders of the bloody struggle Tibetans have been facing since the last 50 years and China's callousness towards human life (ref. the Youngest Political Prisoner). The day ended again at the same roof-top restaurant.

China's justification for the acquisition of Tibet was mainly the self-proclaimed moral righteousness of their ideologies. Communism at its core is against religion and feudalism, the very pillars of Tibetan society. After Dalai Lama's flight in 1959, an iron curtain fell over Tibet like the rest of communist China, and there is very little official information about what all has happened there since. The independent reports that are available tell about a systematic genocide of Tibetans during Mao's rule. After his death, there were some efforts of rapprochement from China's side, but there were too many conditions attached. In the 1980s, Dalai Lama's government launched a new drive for international support for their cause. This effort gained momentum and support after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing and Dalai Lama winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. 
After the fall of USSR communism was less of an enemy for the international community. Coupling that with China's massive economic surge, it is dubious to think that Tibet will find a hero at the United Nations. 
Day 3. We made our way to the Tibetan Children's Village, started by Dalai Lama back in 1960 for refugee children and orphans. Apparently it was a busy day at school with few people to be seen.

Next stop was the Nakki view point which had a spectacular view of the highest peaks in the neighborhood.

The final stop for us was the Tibetan Ministry. (I'll put the photos when I win the legal case for their ownership).

Before leaving for Delhi we sat down to have dinner at the same roof top restaurant. Suddenly there were sounds of chants and bells from below. There was a throng of monks in red holding a procession with candles and Dalai Lama's potrait at the front. What the chants were about is still a mystery, but it summarized for me what this kingdom-in-exile is about. Tibetans are a peaceful people with honor and regard for every living soul. The same could not be said about their powerful nemeses. Their struggle is hard and they still have a long way to go. What drives these people is righteousness, their determination to keep the traditions alive, their dedication towards their way of life, and most importantly, hope . . .

As a side note, some recommended viewings. Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion, a compelling documentary about the history and the current situation in Tibet, a must watch; and  Kundun, a Martin Scorsese film about a young Dalai Lama. Seven Years in Tibet is a good read and vintage Brad Pitt fans might want to see the film.


  1. Love it! The post, the photos, the description, the whole shebang! Only when you become one with the place you visit, does it become an experience you will cherish later... just the way I would do it too. Very nice :-)

  2. Dude you are a real dude:)
    I really loved the blog and its pictures are too good .....I didn't go with you guys to the Dharamshala but after reading this blog and seeing the pictures feel like i have seen it...

    keep on writing such good blogs ....

  3. Great work Kartik. As usual, the photographs are great (especially the cute diva!) and go great with the travelogue. I was also expecting a piece from you on Bangalore! Keep travelling and keep posting. Tu hi yahan baithe hum jaison ko India ghooma la :)

  4. Nice account of your adventures in Dharamshala, i hope you will remember all the unplanned events which took place during course of your journey.I hope you will convert from tourist to traveler soon. :)

  5. Great Post! Loved the moving in and out of the history of the place. People usually only end up talking about the views and the food, glad to see that was not the case.
    Though one minor point while the design of the blog is great, i love the sepia bike tone etc, but it is a tiny bit hard to read, especially the links, so just see if u can change that up.

  6. Nice post again… but sometimes looking like historical journal rather than a guide to life and travel. Overall a fine collection of cheery pics …
    Also, u actually performed what Dalai Lama said… “Believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness… happiness is not something readymade. It comes from our own actions” :-)

    Keep connecting these mind-boggling strings!!!

  7. thanks everyone... lot more to come, stay tuned....
    Di...really missed you there.. next time pakka..
    bawa... blore me time hai re thoda..
    maurya...i am not just a traveler, i am a wanderer
    LDM... ditto!

  8. I loved reading your blog post. :)
    A scenic hill station with a large Tibetan community. Being the seat of the Dalai Lama, Dharamshala is highly popular both as a pilgrim destination and a hill station. For travellers, there are numerous places to visit in Dharamshala.

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    1. Very gracious of you Larissa, Glad you liked the post. Saw your blog, maybe I will use your services someday :)

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