Dharamsala (pronounced Dharamshala) is a hill station in Himachal Pradesh, famed for its large Tibetan community centered around the Dalai Lama.
The Tibetan Buddhist roots of Dharamsala stretch back into 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. This over the years grew to be district headquarters of Kangra, and the very 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 4th April 1905, which 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 – many would say the town (esp. McLeod Ganj) is little more than a backpacker ghetto. Don’t come here expecting calm and tranquility.
The town is divided into two distinct areas that are separated by a ten minute (9 km.) bus/jeep ride: Dharamsala itself (or Lower Dharamsala), a typical small Indian town that, other than for the bus station, is of little interest to tourists, and Upper Dharamsala, known more commonly as McLeod Ganj (named after David McLeod, once the British Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab). It is this upper district that is home to the Tibetan community and the center of tourist activity. Unless specifically stated, all listings in this article refer to McLeod Ganj. Other villages near McLeod Ganj include Forsyth Ganj, a short hike away on the way up from Lower Dharamsala, Bhagsu (2 km north), already a commercialized warren of concrete, and Dharamkot, the flavor of the month. For a really quiet (and basic) experience, try Naddi (3 km) or Talnu (11 km). Lower Dharamsala consists of most of the government offices, Schools, Zonal Hospital, and commercial areas. It also has a few tea gardens. One in the area of Chilgari and another just beyond Dari. One can enjoy the view while driving through.
Lower Dharamsala is at an altitude of 1400m, while McLeod Ganj is at around 1750m, making them considerably cooler than the plains below. Temperatures in January can dip below freezing, while June can go up to 38°C, and the monsoon season from July to September is very wet indeed. Even in March, when the Dalai Lama holds his teachings and the weather down in Delhi is downright balmy you will still need a heavy winter coat, but these can be purchased at reasonable prices in town.
This makes it understandable why a native of the place would wish foreigners to stay away. Certainly one of the reasons I don’t expect to spend too much time in Tibetan Buddhist refugee camps is that Tibet has such a good international PR thing going, that there is bound to be too much attention going that way. At the expense of ‘normal’ India and other suffering people worldwide. On the other hand there must be something to a place where spiritual people from all over the world gather to learn about (Tibetan) Buddhism and put their hands to helping out others.