Peace, reflection, solitude in Dharamsala, India

Shirin Bhandari
Peace, reflection, solitude in Dharamsala, India
'There is no gray area. Just black or white. Love it or leave it... India is where the heart is king,' writes Shirin Bhandari

India. A civilization from the most ancient of times, filled with color, stunning landscapes, monuments, spices and culture.  Over a billion people of various religions and languages.  

HUSTLE AND BUSTLE. Street scene of Mcleod Ganj. All photos by Shirin Ghandari

There is no gray area. Just black or white. Love it or leave it. I’ve had the privilege to live in Hindustan for many years. With each visit, you fall deeper in love with the curry and the country! It’s a sensory overload. India is where the heart is king.

Amritsar, my father’s hometown, is about 30 kilometers to the border of Pakistan, in the Punjab – likely one of the first to get bombed if another war breaks out. But it’s just something we have learned to live with. I moved to help run a family guesthouse, but mainly to look after my grandmother. The plus point of living in the plains – it can serve as your base before heading to the Himalayas.

My first encounter with Dharamsala was in 2001, when some hippie friends  invited my father and I to visit. It is about a 5-hour drive up north from our house in Amritsar.  I’ve been going every year since. One can go halfway by train from the nation’s capital Delhi, by bus or a private car.

The roads are not for the weak of heart. Single lanes, massive trucks, buses, cows and impatient drivers are all part of the maze. Popping a sedative might be a good idea!  

Dharamsala, meaning “spiritual dwelling” in Sanskrit, is situated almost 5,000 feet in the district of Kangra and the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. It is aptly named, because the Dalai Lama has called this his home since 1959. 

The main monastery of The Dalai Lama is located in a higher suburb, called Mcleod Ganj. Thousands of Tibetans followed His Holiness to live in this “Little Dhasa” or the Tibetan government in exile.

THE VIEW. Beautiful Mcleod Ganj

Tensions are still strained between China and Tibet, but despite this, the residents of Dharamsala have managed to assimilate with the Tibetans and accept them as part of India.  

CAPTURED MOMENT. Tibetan followers at the main Monastery of the Dalai Lama

During the time of the British Raj, it served as a popular hill station, to find respite from the summer heat. Originally it was ruled by the Katoch dynasty. The Royal Family still resides there today at “Cloud’s End Villa.”  How I managed to get invited to stay at Cloud’s End every time I’d go up is another yarn in itself!

Because of the Dalai Lama’s charming disposition and teachings, Mcleod Ganj has attracted a number of tourists and celebrities alike. Dumplings named after Richard Gere, anyone? Tibetans selling football jerseys, Nutella, gluten-free bread – everything for California health nuts can now be purchased at an average stall.  

This form of Tibetan Buddhism appeals to the many from the West. And I’ve seen people take a back seat with their own religion, and embrace something from the East. Many of these tourists conveniently leave anyway when they’ve had enough of the incense and beads.  People like us who actually live in India, can’t.

There are various treks, Hindu temples and Tibetan monasteries that one can explore. The crisp air, dense forests and snow capped mountains are breathtaking.  Prayer flags are tied to trees, and as the wind blows, these heavenly banners are mesmerizing.

PEACE. Snow on the Dharamsala mountain range

The main purpose at the time was to get away from work, to rest despite the declining health of my grandmother. Caring for the elderly can take its toll on a person. Six years of my life I gave to serve her. And year after year, any given chance, I would spend a night or two to gather my thoughts and recharge before going back down to wait for the inevitable.

SANCTUARY. The Church of St. John in the Wilderness

Lose your guidebook

If you’ve been traveling long enough, lose your guidebook. Walk. Tourists always know where they’re going – a traveler doesn’t know where to. That’s the difference.

There is one place, The Church of St. John in the Wilderness, that most tourists overlook. Who would want to visit a Christian Church in the middle of nowhere, when you have the Dalai Lama to go to?

The 19th century Church is situated right across the valley, facing the Dalai Lama’s monastery. The view is achingly beautiful. St. John’s suffered a massive earthquake in 1905, which killed a lot of the people of Dharamsala. The Belgian stained glass windows miraculously remained intact and so did its structure.  A cemetery is located around the church and you can go from tomb to tomb, to read who once lived amongst those majestic mountains.

THE PATH TO ST JOHN. A quiet walk to the church

Ironically, the air of death that I was so desperately trying to escape brought me to this place, where I could sit in solitude and think.

My grandmother died at the grand old age of 101 in 2007.  She chose the Hindu rites of passage and we cremated her at a temple near our home. Her ashes were scattered in the Ganges.  I kept some of her ashes and buried them at the Church of St. John in the Wilderness.  

RETURN. Painting my grandmother's stone after the winter

Dharamsala, in Hindu usage, refers to a shelter for spiritual pilgrims.  And it does live up to its name. This time the travel to the mountains was not an escape.  I finally found what I was looking for – peace. –

Shirin Bhandari is an artist, writer and jewelry designer. She graduated from the University of the Philippines with a degree in Fine Arts. She established her accessory and handicraft store Sundari in 2005, and supplies her designs to Rajo Laurel and the Ayala Museum. She’s lived in India and Manila and enjoys travel and dabbles in photography during her free time. Follow her on Facebook and on Instagram


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