The winter capital of Himachal Pradesh. One of the wettest places in the state of Himachal. It receives the second highest rainfall in India. Home to one of the most attractive cricket stadiums in the world. The starting point for a number of trekking trails. The centre of the Tibetan exile world in India. The land of Wheat, Rice and Tea. Well this is Dharamshala which literally translates to a spiritual dwelling or a sanctuary. It is located in the picturesque Kangra valley overlooked by the Dhauladhar range of Himalayas. It had been on our wish list for the last few years and we finally visited it during the last week of September.
We went to Dharamshala by road from Dalhousie and it took us around four hours. Dharamshala can also be reached by an overnight train journey till Pathankot starting from Delhi and then a road trip from Pathankot which takes around 2.5 hours. Another option is to take a flight from Delhi to Gaggal which is around 15 km from Dharamshala.
Dharamshala and the Kangra valley was ruled by the Katoch dynasty for nearly two millennia before the British annexed it in the mid-nineteenth century. Under the British Raj, the status of the dynasty was reduced to mere Jaagirdars and the area became part of undivided Punjab which was ruled by Governors of Punjab from Lahore. The indigenous people of this area are the Gaddis who are predominantly Hindus and lead a semi nomadic lifestyle.
The British established Dharamshala as the headquarters of the Kangra district. The 66th Gurkha Light infantry was moved here from Kangra. They later came to be known as the First Gurkha Rifles and are considered as the bravest of the brave. In 1905, a major earthquake affected the Kangra Valley and demolished most of Dharamshala and Kangra. The Gurkhas rebuilt the towns. After this disaster, the British dropped their plans of making Dharamshala the Summer Capital of India and moved it to Shimla instead.
The Gurkhas performed heroic feats in both world wars and the battalions from Dharamshala made history in WWII. Even to this day the Gurkha villages established in those days like Sidhbari, Yol and Khanyara exist. Many places in the town still retain the cantonment terminology names. Many of the Gurkhas of Dharamshala were freedom fighters of the Indian National Army (INA) founded by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Ram Singh Thakuri, the Captain of INA, was from Khanyara village and he is credited with composing quite a few patriotic songs including the likes of ‘Qadam Qadam Badaye Ja‘.
In 1959, the Tibetan Settlement was established in Mcleodganj or Upper Dharamshala by Jawaharlal Nehru when the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet and seek refuge in India. The Tibetan Government in Exile has been run since then from here.
The Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Stadium in Dharamshala is one of the most picturesque Cricket stadiums in the world. The snow-capped Himalayas can be seen in the background on clear days. The stadium has begun hosting international matches in the last few years. It must be quite an experience to watch a match here soaking in the beauty of the backdrop of the majestic mountains! Unfortunately it was a cloudy day when we went which meant no views of the Himalayas :(
Museum of Kangra Art
The Museum of Kangra Art located in the Kotwali Bazar of Dharamshala is a must visit for all those of you who want to know more about the arts and culture of the Kangra region. It was established for preserving and reviving the arts of Kangra. It has a good collection of Kangra Paintings, traditional jewellery, photographs and stone artefacts found in this region. The museum is closed on Mondays.
Popular subjects in Kangra paintings include the love story of Radha and Krishna, love poems of Gita Govinda by Jayadeva, stories of Nala and Damayanti and stories from Keshavdas‘s Baramasa. Lush greenery is depicted in most of the paintings and varied shades of green are used. Great attention is paid to details. The paintings depict the feminine charm in a very graceful manner. The colours used are made from vegetables and mineral extracts.
Kangra Arts Promotion Society which is an NGO started conducting classes here in the last decade to save the art which was on the verge of extinction. There is a workshop behind the museum where artists can be seen at work on weekdays. As we went there on a Sunday, we missed an opportunity to watch the paintings being made.
A War Memorial has been constructed in Dharamshala in memory of soldiers who fought valiantly in battles for their motherland and lost their lives. Set amidst tall trees and gardens, the memorial has names of the soldiers inscribed on stone slabs.
Kunal Pathri Mata Temple
Kunal Pathri Mata Temple is a little rock temple dedicated to Goddess Durga. The temple is surrounded by lush green tea gardens. Carvings of various Gods and Goddesses can be seen here. There is a rock here which always remains wet. Locals say that it starts raining when the rock gets dry. As per local legend, a part of the skull of Goddess Sati is believed to have fallen here when her lifeless body was cut into 51 pieces by the Sudarshana Chakra of Lord Vishnu in order to stop the Thandava Nritya of Lord Shiva. This is supposed to have given the place its name of Kunal Pathri Mata.
The Norbulingka Institute has been dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan Arts and Culture. It is located at Sidhpur in Dharamshala. The institute has been named after the summer residence of the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa in Tibet which is called Norbulingka. Traditional arts are being imparted to Tibetans here thereby providing education as well as employment. This also creates awareness about their culture and art at an international level. The institute also runs two guesthouses in the campus for tourists. Free guided tours are available for visitors.
The art studios here include Thangka painting, wood carving, paper making, applique and tailoring, Tibetan statue making, wood and metal craft. There is a shop as well where the objects made by the artists can be bought.
Losel Doll Museum is definitely not to be missed when in Norbulingka. It has diorama displays of miniature dolls dressed in traditional costumes depicting traditional Tibetan scenes. This is a one of a kind experience and provides an insight into the Tibetan culture and way of life.
There is a ‘Seat of Happiness’ temple inside the institute set amidst the Japanese styled gardens. This beautiful temple has exquisite murals and frescoes inside. There is a four metre high gilded Copper statue of Shakyamuni Buddha in the main hall of the temple and it is one of the largest statues outside of Tibet.
The Gyuto Monastery is the temporary residence of the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. It is a Tantric monastery and located in Sidhbari on the Dharamshala – Palampur highway. The Karmapa is head of the Karma Kagyu school which is one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Karmapa fled from Tibet at the age of 14 and arrived here in 2000 through Nepal. The Gyuto monks are known for their tradition of overtone singing. The Karmapas are holders of the Black Crown due to which they are known as the ‘Black Hat Lamas’. The crown is said to have been woven by the Dakinis from their hair and given to the Karmapa in recognition of his spiritual realization.