Dharamsala: The Full Experience Beyond Yoga
Dharamsala, India. As yogis, we know this city as a hub for spiritual types. Loosely translated, Dharamsala means ‘dwelling of spirituality’. No wonder it’s such a popular—and perfect—place to go for yoga retreats and yoga teacher training.
But what many don’t know is that Dharamsala has much more to offer than yoga. From Buddhist temples, the church of St. John in the Wilderness and the home of His Holiness (HH) the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala has something for everyone.
Located in the northern part of India, Dharamsala is part of the Kangra district, which is in the state of Himachal Pradesh. It was previously known as Bhagsu.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
In 1959, HH the Dalai Lama had to flee his home of Tibet. It was then that the Indian Prime Minister at the time allowed him and his followers to establish the Tibetan exile community in McLeod Ganj.
Located in upper Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj had previously been a picnicking spot for the British. In 1960, the Dalai Lama established the government-in-exile and the Namgyal Monastery.
The Namgyal Monastery is the Dalai Lama’s personal monastery and is often referred to as the Dalai Lama’s temple. It is one of many temples in Dharamsala that is open to the public.
In 1970, HH the Dalai Lama founded the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA).
Shortly after his exile, many of the HH the Dalai Lama’s followers and Tibetan refugees made the journey across the Himalayas to Dharamsala. Along the way, they carried sacred texts that were protected above everything else.
The LTWA was created to preserve these texts and still houses them today, along with two additional libraries, a museum, cultural research and audio-visual archives. It is open to the public on weekdays and some weekends.
The Dalai Lama also wanted a space for Tibetan children to learn language, history, religion and more. Thus, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts was founded in 1959 and the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in 1967.
The Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts is located in Dharamsala today, while the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies is in the city of Sarnath, southeast of Dharamsala.
Teachings of HH the 14th Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama gives teachings throughout the year in India. These talks are usually free and open to the public.
Each February or March, depending on the year, the Dalai Lama gives his annual spring teachings (Monlam teachings). These are held over a period of fifteen days and are translated via an FM channel into English.
If you would like to attend public teachings from the Dalai Lama, here are a few tips before you go.
Bring as little as possible
Due to higher-level security checks, only bring what you need. It’s advised to take a sunhat, a cup and a cushion or something to sit on.
For the most part, the Dalai Lama’s teachings in India are open to the public.
However, for the teachings held in Dharamsala, you must register at the Tibetan Branch Security Office. You’ll need to bring your passport and Rs.10 (Indian Rupees) to pay for a teaching pass.
It’s recommended to arrive two or three days in advance to make sure your accommodations are set.
Find your seat—and stay there
Unlike events in the West, where seats are assigned according to the seat number on a ticket, at these teachings seats are generally on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Generally, the practice amongst Tibetans is to find your seat on day one, mark it with your sitting cushion and stay there throughout the teachings.
This way, there is no arguing about who is sitting where. You can go to the venue one or two days in advance to claim your seat.
Bring a radio
The Dalai Lama teaches primarily in Tibetan. To listen to a translation, you’ll need to bring an FM radio.
It’s important to note: no other electronics are allowed at the teachings.
Tea is often served during the teachings, which is why it’s recommended that you bring a cup.
You might notice that money is offered to the Sangha (Buddhist community of monks and nuns). The community and members of the public pay for these offerings, as well as the tea.
If you’d like to make a contribution, you can do so at an office area that is usually set up for donations near the teaching site.
It can get very hot in Dharamsala during the summer months, and in some situations, you may find yourself sitting in the sun during these teachings.
You need to be proactive in protecting yourself from the sun and dehydration. Wear plenty of sunscreen, bring a hat or umbrella and stay hydrated!
Keep your shoes on
Tibetans typically keep their shoes on while sitting on the ground. At the very least, if they take their shoes off, they wait until they’re seated.
If you want to take your shoes off, wait until you’re in your seat. Otherwise, you’ll be carrying your shoes through a crowd of seated people (i.e. the shoes will be at face-level), which is generally frowned upon.
Known as ‘Little Lhasa’, McLeod Ganj is still home to a large population (around 11,000) of Tibetans.
It is home to the Namgyal Monastery and the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, both mentioned above, as well as statues of Avalokiteśvara, Padmasambhava and Gautama Buddha and many other Tibetan sites.
McLeod Ganj also hosts the Dharamsala International Film Festival (DIFF) each fall. The DIFF began in November 2012 and shows Indian and international films. It was created to promote cinema, contemporary art and independent media in the Himalyan Region.
Bhagsu Falls is one of the most popular tourist spots of McLeod Ganj. Apart from enjoying the beautiful waterfall, there are a number of treks for Triund from here.
Tsuglagkhang Complex is the residence of the Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama. Thousands of pilgrims and tourists come here to seek blessings of his Highness, the Dalai Lama. The well-known Namgyal Monastery is also within this complex.
The Tibetan Museum
The Tibet Museum of the Department of Information and International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration, was established in 1998 with the purpose to document, preserve, research, exhibit and educate Tibetans and non-Tibetans on all matters related to Tibet’s history, culture and present situation.
Many temples are open to the public. But there is a certain temple ‘etiquette’, if you will. And, as always, it’s better to know before you go.
Remove Shoes and Hat
Shoes should be removed and left outside the temple. This keeps the temple clean and leaves any dirt outside.
Removal of hats is a simple sign of respect. You don’t have to leave it outside, carrying it or stashing it in a bag will suffice.
Put Your Camera Away
Some temples may allow photography, but many don’t. If you’re not sure, put the camera away. Unless there is a sign saying that photography is allowed, assume it isn’t.
Turn off your phone, lower your voice and steer clear of inappropriate conversation. Smoking, of course, is not allowed inside and it’s best to throw out your chewing gum before you enter the temple.
If you happen to be sitting when a monk or nun enters the room, stand up. This is a subtle way to show respect. Wait until they leave the room or finish prostrations to sit again.
Many temples have donation boxes for visitors to leave modest donations. A lot of these temples run solely on these donations from visitors, so if you enjoyed your visit, consider leaving a small sum of money on your way out.
Prayer wheels are often found in Tibetan Buddhism and are a way to release prayers out into the world.
These wheels contain printed mantras on each spoke. When spun, the idea is these mantras, or prayers, are let out into the universe.
If you decide to give a prayer wheel a try, make sure to remember that they are supposed to be spun clockwise, as you walk clockwise around the temple.
However, keep in mind that a prayer wheel already in motion should never be stopped mid-spin. Wait until the wheel comes to a stop to take your turn.
Norbulingka Tibetan Institute
Situated about 20 km from McLeod Ganj, this is an abode for preserving Tibetan culture. With colorful and ornate interiors, it is reminiscent of Tibet in every way. Within the complex beautiful gardens, ponds, and architecture will mesmerize you.
One wing of the complex has artisans working on Tibetan arts and crafts. There is also a souvenir shop, so you can take home a piece of this rich culture.
A historical monument by all means, this fort has been referenced by Alexander the Great in his writings and has been witness to plunges from the likes of Muhammad of Ghaznavi and Muhammad Bin Tughlak. It is one of the oldest forts in India
Museum of Kangra Art
This museum showcases beautiful miniature paintings from the Kangra school, along with craftwork such as fabrics and embroidery, and artillery of the region.
Kareri lake is a natural freshwater lake formed by melting glaciers of the Himalayas. It is at a height of 1,983 m above sea level. It has become a favorite tourist spot for many nature lovers
Popular for its scenic view, this lake is much smaller than the original Dal Lake of Kashmir. Surrounded by deodar trees, the lake is a popular tourist sunset observation point. A festival is celebrated here in honor of Lord Shiva every year.
Hot water springs, at Tatwani attract a lot of tourists. Tatwani is about an hour’s drive from Dharamsala.
Macchrail boasts of waterfalls twice as big as the Bhagsu falls.
Jwalamukhi temple is a place greatly revered by Hindu deities as it is believed that a blue flame constantly burns from the rocks of the temple. Many tourists from other religious backgrounds also come to partake in this legend.
A large monastery on the outskirts of Dharamsala, Gyuto Monastery boasts magnificent Tibetan architecture and décor. It has a lot of spiritual significance too as it is the abode of the 17th Karmapa, who is the head of one of the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
St. John in the Wilderness
A must-see during your visit to Dharamsala, St. John in the Wilderness is located just outside of McLeod Ganj.
St. John in the Wilderness is an Anglican church built in 1852 and was dedicated to John the Baptist.
It’s known for its Belgian stained-glass windows depicting the saints. Built with neo-Gothic style architecture, this church is set within an enchanting deodar forest.
This church is one of the last surviving remains of the McLeod Ganj’s time as a British station.
In 1905, an earthquake shook the Kangra Valley. Its magnitude was measured at 7.8 and killed over 20,000 people. While most buildings in Kangra were destroyed, St. John in the Wilderness suffered only bruises in comparison.
The bell tower and spire were destroyed, but the rest of the church went untouched. A new bell replaced the damaged one in 1915. Many victims of the earthquake are now buried in the cemetery at the church.
St. John in the Wilderness is open to the public. You can get there on foot, by hiring a driver or rickshaw.
Dharamsala Cricket Stadium
For all those sports fans out there, Dharamsala has something for you, too!
It’s thought of as one of the most appealing cricket stadiums in India due to its breathtaking backdrop of the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas.
Due to harsh winters, it can often be difficult to schedule international tournaments here but it does happen every once in a while.
The stadium was established in 2003 but it wasn’t until 2013 that they hosted England for a One Day International match, which the English won by seven wickets.
The IPL is the most popular cricket league in the world and the season runs from March to October. For more information on the league and its schedule, click here.
Palampur is a small town located in the Kangra Valley. It’s the tea capital of northern India and filled with luscious green hills and pine forests.
Palampur comes from the word, palum, which means, ‘a lot of water’. There are many streams that flow into this area from nearby mountains, which inspired the town name.
There are tea gardens that cover a large part of Palampur. You can see large tea plantation estates along the drive from Dharamsala to this beautiful town. And you can also make your stay an overnight trip by visiting the Country Cottage.
The Country Cottage is a small resort nestled in a large tea garden with small cottages and holiday packages for outdoorsy types. From trekking through the Dhauladhars to paragliding, you won’t be bored on this getaway!
Speaking of outdoorsy types, Dharamsala is a fantastic place for trekking. With the Dhauladhar mountain range of the Himalayas nearby (Dhauladhar directly translates to, ‘white range’), there are endless possibilities. Whether you want to trek for hours or days, there is a hike for just about everybody.
Try not to go alone. It can be scary walking new territory on your own.
Triund is one of the most popular treks in the region. A 9 km trek from McLeod Ganj – it offers breathtaking views of the Himalayas. Summer months, April to June, and the autumn and early winter months, September to November, are the best times of the year to go on this trek.
This trek starts from a place called Tang Narwana – about 10 km from Dharamsala – and goes to the Toral Pass.
At an average elevation of 4,780 ft (1,457 m), Dharamsala has a humid, sub-tropical climate and three major seasons.
With relatively mild temperatures, the yearly average high is 74°F/23°C and average low is 58°F/14°C. Summer begins in April and reaches its high in early June. In summer months the temperature can get up to 96°F/36°C.
Then monsoon season hits in early July and lasts through October. During this time, Dharamsala can get up to 120 inches of rainfall.
Winter begins in November and runs all the way through February. During winter, snow is common, as well as sleet and rain. Temperatures can drop to 45°F/7°C.
Finally, spring is short and usually sticks around just for March and part of April.
As for visiting, the best times to experience Dharamsala are March through June or October and November. However, because it’s so mild in this area, visiting times depend on your personal weather preferences.
You have many options for getting to Dharamsala—by air, train or bus, or by driving yourself.
The nearest airport to Dharamsala is only 13 km away. Gaggal Airport (also known as Kangra Airport or Dharamsala-Kangra Airport) connects from Delhi, via Air India and SpiceJet.
Tourists coming from elsewhere in India might consider flying into Chandigarh Airport and taking a taxi into Dharamsala, which is 250 km away (about a five hour drive).
Alternatively, Dharamsala is connected to Delhi and other stops in northern India by bus. See bus options.
Train is another option, but you’ll have to take a taxi from Pathankot which is the nearest major train station, 85 km from Dharamsala. See train options.
And finally, you could rent a vehicle and drive yourself, but this isn’t recommended unless you know the roads of India well. You’re probably better off flying into Gaggal Airport and hiring a taxi from there.
It’s easy to see why Dharamsala is such a great place to visit. Not only does it provide tourists with everything mentioned above, it’s also a perfect place to do a yoga teacher training or retreat.
With the influence of Buddhist spirituality, history, and modern activities like cricket and hiking, you’d be hard-pressed to find a place that has more to offer when it comes to looking for a place to learn how to teach yoga.
So what are you waiting for? Sign up for yoga teacher training in Dharamsala today!
Meera Watts is a yoga teacher, entrepreneur and mom. Her writing on yoga and holistic health has appeared in Elephant Journal, Yoganonymous, OMtimes and others. She’s also the founder and owner of Siddhi Yoga International, a yoga teacher training school based in Singapore. Siddhi Yoga runs intensive, residential trainings in India (Rishikesh, Goa and Dharamshala), Indonesia (Bali) and Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur).