This hill town owes all its fame and tourism to the Chinese government whose invasion of Tibet in the 1950’s caused a mass exodus of Tibetans and lamas over the Himalayas to India. After realising that the Chinese were hell bent on genocide and destruction of Tibetan culture, the Dalai Lama followed suit and escaped over the mountains as a refugee. After suffering in the plains for a while the Indian prime minister Nehru finally agreed to relocate the Tibetans in Dharamsala.
Spiritual masters or not the Tibetans aren’t dumb and they brought with them all the gems and antiques they could from Lhasa and these helped them get by in the first few years. Now they’ve established monasteries in Dharamsala and the village has become the international capital for Tibetan Buddhism. Since the whole Tibet thing became fashionable in Hollywood on the back of supporters like Richard Gere, the prominent lamas now fly around the world on helicopters to give seminars and lectures. The Dalai Lama has books on the his life story and the Art of Happiness in all the big bookshops and through the Western world his face is synonymous with peace and wisdom. Whether you buy into the Buddhist thing or not, you’ve got to admire how the Tibetans managed to reverse their fortunes and win the hearts of the world, if not the UN.
These days travellers and backpackers flock to Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama and study the basics of Tibetan Buddhism. You’ll see the odd Westerner with shaved head in orange robes looking fairly pious whilst the Tibetan monks sneak around to the Indian village to watch dirty movies at night.
Dharamsala is still an Indian village and is one of the wettest places in India. The mountain rises suddenly from the plains and the road winds around the hill to 3 villages. Just up from Dharamsala you have McLeod Gang, the strip of restaurants, guest houses and Kashmiri boutique shops where most backpackers hang out. It’s a nice place to hang around and support the local tourist economy in a very grassroots kind of way.
Much nicer though is Dharamkot up the hill where there are fewer places to stay and lots of nature between the houses. Most of the spiritual stuff happens up here as travellers congregate to study Reiki, make Vipassana ten day meditation retreats or study other meditation systems. Tibetans and Indians live together here and the backpackers are often of the Rainbow tribe or modern hippies.