Dharamshala came into being in 1849 when it was selected as a site to accommodate a native regiment that was being raised in the town. It is divided into two parts – lower Dharamshala which is the civil and business area with courts and the Kotwali Bazaar; and upper Dharamshala, which includes Forsythganj and McLeodganj. It is located in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, in the heart of the Dhauladhar mountain range, and serves as the headquarters of the district. Its altitude ranges from 1250 meters to 150 meters at various points.
Dharamshala can be reached by air, rail or road. The nearest airport is Gaggal, 15 km from Dharamshala. The closest railhead is Pathankot, 95 km from Dharamshala, from where many private taxis and buses are available. Dharamshala can also be accessed by road, with many routes through Punjab and through the huge network of Himachal Road Transport Corporation buses that cover the entire state and cater sufficiently to the needs of the people. The distance from Delhi is 514km, and from Chandigarh it is at a distance of 239km. Many private buses, deluxe and regular are available from these cities also. These buses run many times a day with immense frequency during the peak season.
The best time to visit Dharamshala is during the months of April, May and early June. The temperature is pleasant and the sun is quite strong. It can get chilly when it rains, and short, spontaneous bursts of rainfall are common. Light jackets and socks should be taken along, though the days are warm and summer clothes are comfortable.
Dharamshala offers a wide range of activities for tourists. Treks in the Dhauladhar ranges are extremely popular, and many travel agencies offer organized treks for groups. Other attractions include the 19th century St. John’s Church in the Wilderness, a Gothic structure that lies between Forsythganj and McLeodganj, with a large cemetery where many British officers are buried. It also houses the tomb of Lord Elgin, who was one of the Viceroys of India.
Below Dharamshala, in the Kangra valley lies the Kangra fort, which is worth the steep climb for the spectacular views it offers. There is also a small museum attached to the fort. The lower town of Dharamshala houses the Kangra Art Museum with spectacular examples of miniature paintings of the fabled Kangra school. The Chinamaya Tapovan Ashram and Ram Mandir in Siddhbari, 13 km from Dharamshala, are also worth a visit for the spiritually inclined.
McLeodganj has also been the home of the spiritual head of Buddhists all over the world, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama since he fled Tibet in 1959. Many Tibetan refugees have also settled in the surrounding areas and run various establishments. The Buddhist Temple and Dalai Lama’s temple are a must see for everyone. McLeodganj is the centre of the struggle of exiled Tibetans to free their homeland from Chinese occupation, and their energy and will are almost tangible in the atmosphere of the town.
McLeodganj is also a gastronomic delight, and is full of wonderful eateries serving Italian, Israeli, Korean, Japanese and Tibetan food at very reasonable prices. Jimmy’s and the vegetarian Pema Thanga are popular for pizza and desserts, while Tibet Kitchen is the best place to sample authentic Tibetan fare. McLlo’s is also a popular multicuisine joint. Dozens of shops and roadside stalls sell Tibetan clothes, jewellery, prayer beads and incense.2 km from McLeodganj is Bhagsunag, where the temple and the Bhagsu falls are very popular with tourists, as is the Dal Lake which is 11 km ahead.
Dharamshala and Mcleodganj offer an interesting vacation for everyone, whether it be nature lovers, pilgrims or those looking for recreation. Given a chance, one should aim to spend at least a week there to soak in the ambience.