The Complete Guide to Dharamshala, India

Dharamsala
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Dharamshala is a picturesque hill town in the lap of the Dhauladhar range. Located in the upper reaches of the Kangra valley, it serves as the winter capital of the Himachal Pradesh state. Often overshadowed by the more popular suburb of McLeodganj, Dharamshala is more of a laid-back and calm destination to spend a long weekend. Plan your trip to Dharamshala with this comprehensive guide.

History

Historically, the Kangra valley was part of the ancient Trigarth region that extended from the plains of Punjab to the hills of Himachal. It was ruled by the Katoch dynasty until the British invaded in 1810. In the year 1860, the 66th Gurkha light infantry moved to the site of an old rest house at the seat of Dhauladhar range—known in local parlance as Dharamshala—and converted it into a subsidiary cantonment. This soon grew into a cluster of 14 Gurkha platoon villages, and the battalion later became the 1st Gurkha Rifles. The town of Dharamshala was thus established.

In 1959, thousands of Tibetans, along with their leader His Holiness Dalai Lama, fled their homeland due to Chinese invasion and atrocity. They were given refuge in India, and resettled in the upper reaches of Dharamshala that has eventually come to be known as McLeodganj. Over the years, several Tibetans have settled here, establishing schools, monasteries, and temples.

The cantonment still exists in Dharamshala, coexisting with the Tibetan settlement and the local pastoral Gaddi tribe villages.

INDIA, DHARAMSALA
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Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit Dharamshala is from March to July and again from September to November. The months of December through mid-March are the coolest months, with temperatures dipping to single digits and heavy snowfall hitting upper Dharamshala.

The annual Dharamshala International Film Festival is an unmissable event held every year in the first week of November. It's a perfect time to catch exceptional Indian and international movies, documentaries, and workshops.

Things to Do

Stroll through the lush forested town and visit the Neo-gothic 19th-century St. John in the Wilderness church, nestled amidst oaks and pines. A little further along, you'll stumble upon Dal Lake, which draws tourists with its 200-year-old temple dedicated to Lord Shiva as well as boating facilities.

In the upper reaches of Dharamshala is the Tibetan settlement of McLeodganj, dubbed Little Lhasa. Be sure to check out the Tsuglagkhang Complex, the temple and monastery where the 14th Dalai Lama currently resides, before visiting the Tibet Museum and grabbing a helping of momos (Tibetan dumplings) at one of the local restaurants.

Drive down the hills of Dharamshala to watch a match at the HPCA cricket stadium. Even if you're not into the game, it's worth stopping to get a glimpse of it at the very least; with the Dhauladhar mountain range in the backdrop, it is one of the most picturesque cricket stadiums in the world. 

Further down (4.7 miles from Dharamshala) is the Gyuto monastery, where you can get a glimpse into Buddhist tantric rituals and traditions. Nearby is the supposedly 500-year-old Aghanjar Mahadev temple; also dedicated to Lord Shiva, it draws many devotees who seek spirituality and serenity. At a 1.9-mile distance from the Mahadev temple is the Norbulingka monastery.

Located on the banks of the rivulet Bindusaras, the Chinmaya Tapovan, Sidhbari (5 miles from Dharamshala) is the perfect place to attend spiritual classes and meditate. The ashram complex includes a Rama temple; meditation hall; 30-foot-high statue of Lord Hanuman; and the samadhi hall of Swami Chinmayananda, a noted exponent of the Bhagavad Gita. 

A detour from Sidhbari takes one to Kangra valley (12 miles from Dharamshala). Perched high on a hill overlooking this valley is the Kangra fort; considered one of the oldest forts in India, it offers spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. Don't miss the 8th-century Masrur rock-cut temples, around 21 miles from the Kangra fort and 25 miles from Dharamshala.

Learn pottery at India's first pottery studio, Andretta artist village, which is around 28 miles from Dharamshala and near Palampur and Bir Billing. While you're here, you may want to visit the 13-century Baijnath temple, where Lord Shiva is prayed to as the god of physicians.

Dharamshala is also the perfect place to complete the pilgrimage circuit road tour of ancient and revered temples, including Bajreshwari temple in Kangra and Chamunda Devi temple near Palampur.

Foods to Try

Apart from the regular north-Indian fare, Dharamshala is famous for momos; thukpas (Tibetan noodle soup), and hot tea with ginger, honey, and lemon. There are numerous food stalls and restaurants across town where you can find all of the above.

Where to Stay

There is no dearth of accommodation in and around Dharamshala. From guesthouses to homestays and five-star properties to dormitories, this Himachal town caters to every pocket. The Himachal Pradesh Tourism Department Corporation (HPTDC) runs government-owned guesthouses and hotels at different locations around town; online bookings are available and room rates start at around $22 a day.

The five-star Hyatt Regency at Dharamkot is a 20-minute uphill drive from Dharamshala. With well-appointed rooms and an in-house restaurant that serves international and Indian cuisine, it offers exceptional comfort amidst luxury, plus stunning views of the snow-capped mountains.

The tea plantations of Dharamshala and Palampur are quite famous, and many of them conduct guided tours. If you fancy staying in a beautiful resort with a revolving restaurant and tea plantation views, then look no further than RS Sarovar Portico in the beautiful town of Palampur (22 miles away from Dharamshala, near the Gopalpur zoo). Room rates start at $53 (excluding taxes).

However, if you plan to stay in a typical Himachali architecturally-styled home, then your best bet is the boutique property of The 4Rooms. It's run by Frank Schlichtmann, an Indo-German artist who also manages the 4tables cafe, located a stone's throw away from the property. It's located in the village of Gunehar, around 42 miles from Dharamshala and close to the paragliding site of Bir Billing.

Getting There

To get to Dharamshala, you'll first need to get to Kangra, which is 8 miles away. You can take a domestic flight from Delhi to Gaggal airport in Kangra; alternatively, you could board a train that takes you to Pathankot, then hop on a toy train that chugs through a scenic route on the way to Kangra.

From Kangra, you can either drive up to Dharamshala in a hired taxi or get into a comfortable minibus. If you're on a budget, you can board a government or private Volvo bus and travel directly from Delhi to Dharamshala.

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