Dharamsala (Hindi: धर्मशाला, pronounced [d̪ʱərəmˈɕaːlaː] or [d̪ʱərmˈɕaːlaː]; Tibetan: དྷ་རམ་ས་ལ་), is a hill station in Himachal Pradesh, famed for its large Tibetan community centred around the activities of the Dalai Lama.
The Tibetan Buddhist roots of Dharamsala stretch back to the 8th century, although most of the local population long since reverted to (and remains) Hindu. “Dharamsala” literally means an “inn attached to a temple”, and it was so until the district headquarters in Kangra became too crowded and the British moved 2 of their regiments in the late 1840s to what is now Dharamsala. Over the years, this grew to be district headquarters of Kangra, and the location is now known as the Police Lines.
Dharamsala was mooted to be the summer capital of India. But this was not to be, as much of the town was destroyed in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake of 4 April 1905. The disaster killed over 10,000 people in this sparsely populated area.
After falling into obscurity in the early days of Indian independence, Dharamsala regained some social standing in 1959 with the arrival of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile. Currently, it is a very popular hang-out for foreigners and students of Buddhism. Indeed, it is now perhaps a little too popular and many would say the town, and especially McLeod Ganj, is little more than a backpacker ghetto. Don’t come here expecting calm and tranquility.
Dharamsala is divided into two distinct areas that are separated by a 10 min, 9 km bus or jeep ride.
- Lower Dharamsala, consists of most of the government offices, Schools, the local Hospital, and commercial areas. It also has a few tea gardens. One in the area of Chilgari and another just beyond Dari. It is a typical small Indian town that, other than for the bus station, is of little interest to tourists. One can enjoy the view while driving through.
- Upper Dharamsala, known more commonly as McLeod Ganj is named after David McLeod, who was once the British Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab. It is home to the Tibetan community and the centre of tourist activity. Unless specifically stated, all listings in this article refer to McLeod Ganj.
- Bhagsu, is 2 km north and has become a commercialised warren of concrete.
- Dharamkot, a 20-30 minute walk above McLeod Ganj and has a number of guesthouses and restaurants.
Villages near McLeod Ganj include Forsyth Ganj, a short hike away on the way up from Lower Dharamsala.
For a quiet and basic experience, try Naddi (3 km) or Talnu (11 km).
Lower Dharamsala is at an altitude of 1,400 m, while McLeod Ganj is at around 1,750 m, making them considerably cooler than the plains below. Temperatures in January can dip below freezing, while June can go up to 38°C. The monsoon from July to September is very wet. Even in March, when the Dalai Lama holds his teachings and the weather down in Delhi is balmy, you will still need a heavy winter coat. These can be purchased at reasonable prices in the town.
Most people arrive in Dharamsala by bus. It has good connections with other parts of North India, although the journeys are often slow due to the narrow winding roads in the hills.
The main bus terminal is in Lower Dharamsala, but some public HRTC buses to Delhi and Pathankot go all the way to the main square of McLeod Ganj, where you can also book advance tickets for the return trip. Privately operated buses travel from Manali, Dehradun and Delhi. Overnight buses travel from Delhi with many leaving from the Tibetan colony of Majnu ka Tilla. These services take upwards of 13 hr and cost from ₹450 for a basic bus to ₹1,000 for a plusher Volvo. Tickets for Himachal Road Transport Corporation ( HRTC- A State Government body) can be booked online at http://hrtc.gov.in/HRTCTickets/
- From Pathankot: Unreserved HRTC buses from Pathankot cost around ₹160 and take 3 – 4 hours to Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj. Buses depart frequently throughout the day.
- From Amritsar: There are direct private buses leaving in the afternoon for ₹800 that are advertised as taking 5 hours. There are no direct public buses between Amritsar and Dharamsala; however, there are many buses leaving to Pathankot (₹130 / 3 hours) where you can transfer to another bus to complete the journey.
- From Chandigarh: 236 km distant from McLeodganj, is a gruelling 8-9 hr trip in an ordinary bus.