Dharamsala is famed as the holy abode of Tibetan Charismatic Leader Dalai Lama and houses the Tibetan Government in exile. Dharamsala is a synonym for Buddhism in India. Situated on the upper hilly terrains of Kangra valley and set against the scenic backdrop of exquisite Dhauladhar Mountains. The gorgeous city is distinctively divided as upper and lower divisions with two altitude ranges. Home to the Tibetan leader, this is the perfect place to learn about Buddhism and the Tibetan struggle for Freedom. The city is dominated by the Tibetan populace while still retaining the British fervor and English lifestyles. Numerous Buddhist Viharas or Gompas, presenting great cultural values and Tibetan architectures, are the main attractions of Dharamsala
When in Dharamshala, one must visit the Tsuglag Khang Complex and Namgyal Monastery, which is the home of the Dalai Lama, and also the largest Tibetan temple outside Tibet. Namgyal Monastery was originally founded in 16th century Tibet by the second Dalai Lama. The monastery was established so that Namgyal monks could assist the Dalai Lamas in public religious affairs, perform ritual prayer ceremonies for the welfare of Tibet and function as a center of learning and meditation on the profound Buddhist treatises. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was granted asylum in India, the monastery was re-established here to preserve and continue the Tibetan culture and traditions. The monks here go through a rigorous and streamlined course of training, which includes a study of philosophy, sacred arts, meditation and debates. Even those who are not particularly inclined towards religion, will be fascinated by the serene ambience all around the campus and the imposing figures of Buddha.
The Tsuglag Khang complex is one of the first structures to be built when His Holiness the Dalai Lama arrived in India in 1959. It houses the famous Namgyal monastery, a museum, a café, a book shop, a library and the private residence of the Dalai Lama. Located just about 1 kilometer out of the center of McLeodganj, down the Temple Road, apart from being a place of worship, the temple is also where the Dalai Lama holds his public and private audiences and his public teachings. Thousands of pilgrims come here every year seeking the blessings of the Tibetan leader. Several religious festivities and dances are organised here through the year. Visitors can see all parts of the monastery except for the monks’ residences. Named after a 7th century temple in Lhasa, Tibet, Tsuglag Khang is an extremely peaceful place reverberating of Buddhist culture.
One of the most famous monasteries in Tibet, the Gyuto Monastery is known for its study of Tantric meditation, Tantric ritual arts and Buddhist philosophy. It was founded in Tibet in 1474 by the main disciple of the first Dalai Lama, Jetsun Kunga Dhondup. After the communist Chinese invasion in 1959, the monastery was re-established in India. The monks here practice the major Tantric texts including Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara and Yamantaka. They have passed these lineages on to the younger generation of monks for more than 500 years. The main chamber of the monastery has a majestic statue of the Buddha and with the backdrop of the snow-clad mountains, this is an extremely serene and peaceful place to spend an afternoon.
Norbulingka Institute was founded near Dharamshala in 1988 for preserving Tibetan culture, literature and art. The institute is named after Norbulingka, the summer residence of the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa, Tibet. The institute primarily works towards carrying on Tibetan traditions and heritage by providing training, education and employment to Tibetans in the region. Norbulingka produces high quality art objects, clothing and home furnishings. The institute also has the two-storeyed ‘Seat of Happiness Temple’ (Deden Tsuglakhang) set amidst the Japanese inspired Norbulingka gardens. It is especially known for its 1,173 murals of Buddha, frescoes of all the Dalai Lamas and drawings from the life of the 14th Dalai Lama. You can take a free guided tour of the institute on any day except on Sunday. Those interested in studying the Tibetan arts can also enroll into short-term workshops here. Norbulingka’s art studios include Tibetan statue making, Thangka painting, screen-printing, applique and tailoring, woodcarving, wood painting, papermaking, and wood and metal craft.
The Dalai Lama Temple Complex is a beautiful and peaceful place located in Upper Dharamshala, just a short walk away from the Mcleod Ganj Bus Stand. Decorated with the colourful prayer flags, it’s perfect for long serene walks, or early morning meditation with chanting monks.
Meeting (or at least getting to see) the Dalai Lama is the dream of a lifetime for many people, an intensive spiritual experience for Buddhists and a memorable moment for people of other faiths. It’s also very difficult to pull off, so don’t plan on it. It requires a good deal of luck.
If you want to give it your best shot, the first thing to do is make sure that His Holiness is actually in town when you visit. He travels frequently. His website lists his yearly itinerary and an email to the office will confirm his travel dates. While he does give scheduled public teachings, these are crowded. There are some that are only scheduled a few days in advance, so keep your eyes and ears open in Dharamsala. He no longer gives public audiences, so the ultimate goal is a private audience. However, requests for private audiences are carefully screened and studied – and you have to have a really good reason or an “in”. Applicants are asked to provide detailed information on themselves as well as the specific reasons why they want to see His Holiness. Private audiences are usually scheduled three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. In general, requests for individual meetings need to be made very far in advance. Requests made at short notice will not be entertained.
The Dalai Lama’s administrative office is in the Tsuglagkhang Complex. When you face his house, which has a gate with Indian guards in front of it, it’s the last door on your right, at the end of the complex. This office is open all day, six days a week. The man behind the desk will tell you to apply online and give you the website address. Go to an internet cafe and do it if you haven’t already done it and been rejected months in advance so that you can say that you have, but it probably won’t get you anywhere. If the receptionist is there alone, then His Holiness is not giving private audiences. If a bunch of people are there holding slips of paper with their personal information and their passports, he’s giving private audiences, they usually occur around noon. There is heavy security and you need a reason. Chat with everyone.
Some people get in as a group, like a documentary crew or a family whose father is a politician. Actually, talk to everyone in Dharamsala about His Holiness, and you’re bound to run into someone who is on his staff or knows someone on his staff. At the office, drop the name of every person you met. If you are visibly ill, you may get an audience based on that. Granted, this “audience” will probably last the time it takes for him to bless you, which is about 10 seconds, and an additional Rs 5 to pose for a photo. A photographer is provided and you are not allowed to bring your own camera.
To meet the Dalai Lama is something most Tibetans worldwide only dream of so count your blessings if you receive an audiance. Bring a khata (white scarf) – they can be purchased for a few rupees, but since you’ll probably be treasuring that khata, you might want to shell out Rs 20 for a nicer one. If he poses for a picture with you the security office will tell you to return with a blank CD and they will burn the picture onto a CD. Blank CDs can be purchased from the tech stores on Temple Rd for about Rs 50. Remember to show appreciation for anyone whose name you might have dropped to get in. Donate to their monastery, eat at their restaurant or whatever you feel is appropriate. This isn’t expected but it’s a nice thing to do.
Every year in February-March for ten days or so, and occasionally at other times, the Dalai Lama holds public lectures. Registration at the Tibetan Branch Security Office (near Hotel Tibet) is necessary, preferably 3-4 days beforehand although shorter notice may be possible. Bring a cushion to sit on, a FM radio with headphones to listen to the simultaneous translation from Tibetan to English, a cup for tea, and a sunhat/umbrella, but as little else as possible since security is tight. The last day of teaching concludes with public prayers, for which no security pass is needed. Donations are welcome.