A Trip to Dhasa
Experience Tibetan Culture in Northern India
Story and Photograph by Lu-Sa-Ka
Upper Dharamsala is a country within a country, but one that is bursting at the seams, with tourists flocking to buy "spirituality on a platter." Out here, souvenir shops jostle with barbershops, which in turn are fighting for space against the ever-mushrooming yoga and meditation classes. As soon as you step down from your bus, the cacophony of sights, sounds and smells hits you hard.
McLeod Ganj — the headquarters of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile — has the spirit of the true Tibet: joy in the face of hardship. A smiling little monk practiced his "English" with me, while I sipped salty butter tea. "Tashi Delek" (hello), he softly said as he joined me at my table. He was my introduction to volunteering opportunities in Dhasa, as Tibetans fondly call the region.
If you wish to volunteer, plan your trip by logging on to Volunteer Tibet, a free referral service to help you connect with the right NGO or government organization.
Even a short stint as a volunteer is welcome in this region. If short of time, you can always spend some time with friendly monks, teaching them English and in turn getting much more — a glimpse into Buddhist teachings.
Dhasa has no shortage of volunteers — the problem is finding responsible volunteers. Be a volunteer if you really want to get involved.
The most readily available projects involve teaching English, environmental science, or computers.
Please note that most projects offer neither boarding nor lodging. For a long-term stint you can stay at one of the cheaper guesthouses. A comfortable stay costs around $10 per day. If you want to volunteer for only a few days, you are still warmly welcomed. It is your attitude that counts. Volunteer Tibet provides tips on how you can be a volunteer for a few days.
Visas and Permits Required
Obtaining a visa: Residents/citizens of most countries - including the United States of America - must obtain a visa prior to their arrival in India. The application forms can be obtained from the nearest office of the Consulate General of India. Also required with the application are: the original passport which is valid for at least the next six months with at least one empty page; two passport-size photographs and the processing fee, which may vary depending upon the period of your proposed stay in India.
Obtaining a special area permit: For a visit to Dharamsala, a special area permit is not required. As Tenzin Tsunde, a social worker and activist for a Free Tibet explained, "Dharamsala is not an exclusive area given to Tibetans for resettlement. It happens to be a hill station where Tibetans following His Holiness - The Dalai Lama - got settled. You do not need special permission to come here."
There are a few other Tibetan settlements in India. For such settlements a special area permit is required and is available free of cost from the Home Ministry of the Government of India. The downside is that it takes quite a bit of time to obtain such a clearance. Visit the tibet.net site for further details. You can also contact the Bureau office of the Tibetan Government in Exile at 10 Ring Road, Lajpat Nagar IV, New Delhi 110024, India. Their telephone numbers are 91+11+ 26474798, or 26218548, and the email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Getting to Dharamsala
By train from Delhi: The best way is to travel by train from New Delhi. Take an overnight train from Delhi to Pathankot (it is approximately a 12 hour journey) and then switch over to the narrow gauge railway (toy-train), which passes through the serene Kangra valley. The train journey from Patahankot to Kangra is time consuming, but those who take it are amazed by the scenic views. From Kangra, it is a short road trip via taxi or bus. Alternatively from Pathankot you can take a bus or a taxi and reach McLeod Gang in around four hours.
By road from Delhi: You have a variety of choices. Luxury coaches are available from Delhi run by private bus operators. Travel agents are found in the tourist district of Pahar Ganj in Delhi. Otherwise, head to the Interstate Terminal and board a deluxe/semi-deluxe government-run overnight bus to Dharamsala.
Other important tips: The cost of accommodations.
Being a Tourist at Dharamsala
Besides being a center of Tibetan culture, Dharamsala is also a favorite tourist spot. A visit to the Norbulingka Institute is a must. For the past several years, a team of Losel monks have created more than 160 dolls, each of which vividly depict Tibetan culture. The doll's names are carefully selected to fit the personality of each individual doll, preceded by the common surname Losel. At times, Losel artists confess that they name the doll according to the person it most resembles!
As the website of the Institute points out, the visual focal point is the main temple. More than a thousand images of Buddha decorate the temple hall. The impressive gilded copper statute of Buddha Shakyamuni is also found here.
If your budget permits, you can also stay at the Chonor guest house or Norling guest house. You can also take in a meal at the restaurants attached to this Institute. The Chonor House offers a spread that is a delight for non-vegetarians. You can make your very own spring rolls — Tibetan Bobi. Tofu, slightly fried veggies and mushrooms, glass noodles and delectable strips of lamb are available as stuffing for the Bobi. Or try Shabri, fresh meatballs in a pungent garlic sauce. Momos are also available in plenty. Besides Momos, the Norling Café offers Thenthuk — noodles in hot soup. Or Gyathuk — noodles in a vegetable broth flavored with ginger and garlic. If you taste buds can handle it, wash down your repast with Bod Jha — the famous Tibetan salty butter tea. If you are a real foodie, avoid a trip during the Saga Dawa Festival (held sometime in May-June) as everyone turns vegetarian.
Shopping for trinkets is best done in and around Bhagsunag Road. While most shops sell cheap "Free Tibet" T-shirts, you can find some interesting souvenirs to take back home such as a traveler's safety coin. The Kotwali Bazar, some distance away from McLeod Ganj is also well known for local handicrafts. An interesting stone temple — Kunal Pathri — is close to the bazaar.
If you are willing to explore further, take a trip to St. John's Church, which lies in the suburb of Forsyth Ganj. Under the shades of massive deodar trees, lies the memorial of Lord Elgin the British Viceroy, who expired in 1863. Summer months are just right for trekking (April to September), and a famous Mountaineering Institute is also located in Dharamsala.
Lu-Sa-Ka has traveled extensively in India. She describes herself as a curious traveler, an occasional writer and a vociferous reader.