Inspiration comes easy in Dharamsala. Away from the madding crowd of bustling India, it is a laid back city where the Himalayas provide a spectacular backdrop.
We were a motley mix of travelers as we made our way to Dharamsala—spiritual pilgrims, monks, trekkers, backpackers, mountain-climbers—all on a quest for our own kind of happiness.
The domestic Kingfisher Airline flight from New Delhi to Dharamsala was a welcome sign of progress in modern India. We were all feeling fortunate to be spared the usual arduous road trip to one of India’s most visited hill stations.
As we landed in its quaint, rustic airport, a majestic welcome greeted us by way of a breathtaking view of the snow-capped Himalayas. Dharamsala is world-famous as the domicile of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who has been living in exile in India for over five decades.
Revered by Tibetans as the reincarnation of the “Buddha of Compassion,” His Holiness is believed to be a “bodhisattva,” a spiritual master whose soul will keep returning to earth until all sentient beings are saved.
Dharamsala consists of several towns interconnected by a hilly road. An ideal place to get off the radar, the city teems with “bliss junkies,” ranging from erudite scholars and youthful idealistic “renounciates,” to motorcycle-riding monks, all aspiring for their own eureka moment, as the Buddha did centuries ago.
Unclutter the mind
I was on my way to an ashram. An ashram stay unclutters the mind and enables one to zero in on the essentials of happiness. It’s about simple living and high thinking, as a stay here entails serene, meatless, no-TV days with austere accommodations and no room service.
Founded by a former journalist-turned-author, educator, and spiritual mentor, this ashram is renowned throughout India for English translations of profound Sanskrit texts. The bookstore is stocked with a wide selection of literature on every subject of Hindu philosophy.
Most of the ashram guests were professionals, school teachers, health practitioners having a relaxing holiday along with a hefty dose of enlightenment. There were no chores to be done by the guests, as the complex is run by volunteers who served us as part of their spiritual devotion. Meals are all basic vegetarian comfort food provided in a common dining area where volunteers filled our trays as they chanted Sanskrit mantras culled from ancient texts.
Daily, after an enlightening morning discourse and some hot cardamom tea, I would venture out of the ashram and eagerly explore the sights like a regular tourist.
McLeod Ganj is Dharamsala’s most famous town, as it is where the Dalai Lama resides. Tourists flock to McLeod hoping to catch a glimpse of the revered Nobel Laureate, whose headquarters and temple are all within an area called the Tsuglagkhang Complex.
The area’s ambience is that of a Tibetan town, with women in traditional dress, vendors selling momo, a popular Tibetan dumpling with potato stuffing, shops displaying thankas, singing bowls, prayer beads, and shawls.
The main attraction is the Namgyal Temple which houses the shrine of the Tibetan Sakyamuni Buddha, a gilded three-meter high statue flanked by Avalokitesvara, diety of compassion, and Padmasambhava, the Indian scholar who introduced Buddhism to Tibet.
The altar is ornate, adorned with offerings of fruits and incense as well as relics rescued from the original Jokhang Temple in Tibet.
In March and July, the area is filled with visitors as Tibetans celebrate Losar Festival and the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6.
His public appearance is much awaited by believers who converge in McLeod from all over just to see and hear him speak. Richard Gere is said to be a frequent visitor, as he has now made the transition from spiritual seeker to a devotee of the Dalai Lama.
Other tourist attractions worth visiting are the Kangra Art Museum, Norbulingka Institute, Tibetan Museum and Bhagsu Nag Temple Waterfalls.
The Kangra Museum houses intricate delicate miniature ivory paintings of an Indian art style distinctive of the area.
The Tibetan Museum, just outside the Namgyal Temple, chronicles the struggle of the refugees.
The Norbulingka Institute is a complex that teaches authentic thanka art painting to young Tibetans in their effort to preserve their sacred cultural heritage. Thankas are vivid, exquisite artworks of Tibetan deities painted on silk scrolls, preferred for convenience over bulky canvases.
The Bhagsu Nag Temple Waterfalls is scenic and uplifting. As one treks through the mountain path, water cascading down from the Himalayan range provides a cool mist and a serene feel.
Many temples and monasteries dot the landscape, and a fusion of Indo-Tibetan culture seems to thrive beautifully in their eclectic lifestyle in an atmosphere of respect and tolerance.
There are hotels and inns where most tourists opt to stay instead of an ashram or monastery.
Surya Hotel in the Mcleod area is most central on the Temple Road densely populated with souvenir shops, restaurants and Internet cafes. Outside the ashram is the Club Mahindra, where Bollywood celebrities opt to spend their holiday and just visit the ashram for lectures and the occasional vegetarian meal.
Many make the trip to Dharamsala toting their yoga mats and prayer beads expecting to find answers to life’s challenges with just a superficial visit. Even more go on sabbattical hoping to catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama.
But the real charm of this spiritual enclave is in its internal lessons. After an ashram stay, because of all the wisdom imbibed, transformations are inevitable.
Some of the insights that will continue to resonate with me:
Do everything from happiness, not for happiness.
We are all “sparks of divinity.” It is like a pilot light within. Meditation enables us to tap into this huge reservoir of creative energy that lies within all of us.
Change is the only constant in life. Expect change, and embrace it.
Live in the present. Stress is caused by regrets from the past or having anxiety for the future. The key to joyful living is to honor the present moment.
Live simply. Simplicity is not self-denial. It is a return to values that matter most in life. It helps us to rediscover feelings of wonder, joy and spontaneity that we have lost as adults.
Emotions stem from the mind; therefore guard your thoughts. Be aware of jealousy, anger, greed, pride, and obsession as they rob you of your happiness and lead to sorrow.
The quickest way to gain happiness is through selfless service or volunteer work. Devote some of your time and talent regularly to improve the community you live in. It keeps depression at bay and anchors you to the core values of living: patience, compassion, kindness and humility.
After I have listened and absorbed a trove of compelling wisdom in such an uplifting setting, it became clear that my brief respite from city life turned into quite a “happiness project,” the stuff travel does when you venture to unfamiliar places and expose yourself to new experiences. Is this the “whiff of nirvana” that visiting the Himalayas offers? I will always remember Dharamsala as my own slice of heaven.
Singapore Airlines flies regularly to New Delhi via Singapore. For tours and bookings, contac: Sheena Shroff of Shroff International Travel Care at 0917-8903637.