Dharamshala is the winter capital of Himachal Pradesh and is located in the Kangra district. Prior to the British raj, it was ruled by oldest surviving royal dynasty in the world (dating 4300 BC!); the Katoch dynasty-which finds mention in both the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The second mention of Dharamshala is in Alexandra the Great’s war records. The royal family’s lineage still has a residence at Dharamshala in a place called Clouds End Villa. Wow! I thought as a boarded a one and a half hour flight from Delhi to Gaggal Airport. A car, provided by the Asia Health Resort where I had booked in, picked me up. Lush green surroundings and the profound Dhauladhar mountain range greeted me as I approached the hotel which was in a place called Strawberry Hill. I was welcomed with a drink and a delicious fruit basket. The weather was still pleasant in the mid 20 degrees centigrade.
I wondered where to begin. Upper Dharamshala, (at 183O metres) was full of colonial heritage which I was tired of, but it was the only way to MacLeodgunj (often called Little Lhasa) where the 14th Dalai sought refuge in the 1960s. His settlement was full of white prayer flags, people seeking Nirvana or transcendence into the highest point of happiness all intermingled with pious chants and whir of the prayer wheels. Lots of Monastery type structures were strewn everywhere. His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s residence was near the Gelugpa Monastery which has a massive statue of Buddha. No, I didn’t manage get a glimpse of him as he was out of station. Lovely, geometrically precise Thangkas painted on cotton and silk, some personifying the Buddha, some, some deities, various animals and alms bowls gave me a little visual relief.
I went towards Triund ridge to get a better view of the Kangra Valley and Dhauladhar range which rose up to 3000 metres. Magnificent groves of rhododendron, oak and deodar surrounded me. The view was indeed spectacular. Being a cricket lover why not check the Dharmshala Stadium I said to myself, so off went and amidst the spellbinding backdrop of the mountains. The stadium itself is at a height of 4,780 feet. I wondered if the snow capped mountains were a distraction to the cricketers.
The next day I went to Lower Dharmshala (at 1380 metres) wherein the Kotwali Bazaar lies. It had a lot of Tibetan artifacts like singing bowls, wood and bamboo carvings- colourful woolens being among the major attractions. I sipped a steaming cup of tea and then brought a miniature painting from the Kangra School of Art. Not too far away was the War Memorial commemorating Himachali war heroes, just adjacent was the Yol camp, where Italian prisoners of war were kept during World War II.
I took a trip to Chinmaya Tapovan on the banks of the river Bindursras where a giant 9 metre statue of Lord Hanuman, a Ram temple and a meditation hall held me perplexed for a while.
Kangra Fort came next. I hired a guide as it was twenty kilometers away from Dharamshala. The two imposing gates known as Patak, date from the Sikh period. A narrow passage lead up to the Mughal era Ahani and Amiri gates, said to be made by Nawab Alif Khan, the first governor of Kangra, then came the great Jahangiri Darwaza raised by Jahangir in 1620 AD. On the southern side were Hindu shrines of Lakshmi Narayana, Sitala and Ambika Devi.
Just a little further was the Maharaja Sansar Chand Museum inaugurated by his Holiness the Dalai Lama on April 6, 2011. It showcased the Katoch dynasty and the fort history through audio aids rather vividly. I saw and listened with rapt attention. There was a shop for mementos too.
Back in town and wondering what to eat, I stepped onto Tushita Road and into the Common Ground Café, which was set up to promote harmony between Tibetans and the Chinese. I put my feet up and gorged on some awesome Taiwanese and fusion food.
What next? Nainital beckoned me with open arms.