In Search of Higher Ground

Dharamsala, nestled in the Himalayan foothills, offers solace to all sorts of seekers.


December 14, 2003|By Nicole Leistikow | Nicole Leistikow,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As my year of writing and volunteering in Delhi was drawing to a close last July, the weather approached inferno status (highs of 113 degrees, lows in the upper 80s). I slept in sweaty dread of the moments when the lords of Delhi's electric grid would cut power to my neighborhood and I would wake to the last pathetic turns of my ceiling fan.

Motivated by a very unspiritual but focused craving for cooler weather, I fled with two friends from the baking Indian plain and headed for the hills of Dharamsala, 370 miles north and 5,000 feet above sea level, when the Himalayas would be wearing their best face: misty, with mingled rain and sun.

Since 1959, when the 23-year-old Dalai Lama escaped to India from Tibet across stark mountain passes, Dharamsala has been home to the Tibetan government-in-exile and thousands of refugees.

The Dalai Lama's residence in McLeod Ganj is the epicenter of the community and draws people of all persuasions: dreadlocked backpackers, political junkies and professionals seeking a spiritual/yoga-inspired break, Eastern and Western monks and nuns, road-tripping Indian families, shoeshine boys, shopkeepers and beggars.

It's a lively mix in Dharamsala, with enough gift boutiques, video halls and German bakeries to keep the narrow streets buzzing at night.

Our plan was to walk some trails, learn about the Tibetan struggle for independence, eat some momos - those tasty little Tibetan dumplings - and maybe even improve our karma. Preoccupied with earthly matters, I clearly wasn't racking up any soul points in Delhi.

Two of India's major colonial inheritances - widely spoken English and a love of summer excursions to the mountains - make Dharamsala a particularly rewarding place for budget travelers, as long as you survive the short but harrowing drive to the top.

Dharamsala consists of two centers, a bustling city at the base of the hills and a smaller but more traveler-packed tangle on top. The latter, McLeod Ganj, is one of dozens of hill stations in India, resort towns established by colonial Brits escaping the Indian summers.

David McLeod, for whom it is named, was a colonial-era lieutenant governor of Punjab. He loved the place so much that he had himself buried in the foggy cemetery at St. John in the Wilderness, a gray stone cathedral that you can glimpse on the way up, if your eyes are open.

We arrived to alpine air at least 20 degrees cooler than Delhi's and a sunset over the handle-shaped valley framed by Himalayan cedars. A friendly magenta-and-red-robed monk walked us up a thin lane to Chonor House, an 11-room inn set back among pines. Looking out from our private balcony over the valley, I thought I had reached paradise and nervously looked around for the bouncer.

Murals and monks

My friend Ruth Auerbach, who retained her natural skepticism in the face of our rather luxurious surroundings, doubted that Richard Gere stays at the surprisingly affordable Chonor House when visiting his friend, the 14th Dalai Lama. If not, Gere is missing out.

Our room, named "Mythical Creatures," like the other 10 was adorned with Tibetan furnishings created by masters at the Norbulingka Institute, one of the last places where artisans can learn how to make thangkas (religious scroll paintings), or sculpt giant bronze Buddhas.

Best of all were the murals, making each room seem a portal into another world. Our room featured frolicking snow lions, sinuous dragons, a woman with chicken feet, and happy "precious fish," who swim the ocean of suffering but never drown.

At the restaurant downstairs, for under $3 I celebrated our new digs with a steamy bowl of mothuk - vegetable dumplings and fresh spinach floating in a savory broth - and capped the evening with a dark chocolate torte.

The next morning, with the sun and rain playing tag, we walked down the hill to Tsuglagkhang Temple, the counterpart to Lhasa's Jokhang Temple, the holiest site in Tibet. We ran into some pilgrims making a ritual kora, or clockwise lap, around the complex. An old Tibetan man with a wind-buffeted face shielded by a Cleveland Indians baseball cap was spinning a silver prayer wheel and pointed us in the right direction.

Not much was happening at the Dalai Lama's residence in back of the temple. Though we had heard rumors he was in town, his public teaching wasn't scheduled for another two weeks, too late for us to attend.

We took off our shoes to enter the magnificent Kalachakra chapel on the side of the main temple. Ringed by murals showing the Wheel of Time mandala for which the room is named, this is the place where the Dalai Lama lectures from a shoulder-high throne and where ceremonies "to cleanse spiritual pollution and revitalize the natural energies of places" occur.

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