North India – Dhauladhars, Dharamsala and The Dalai Lama

Published on January 2006 in Monal - Tourism Publication of Himachal Pradesh


“It’s a LEOPARD!” I cried in a reverent hush as we ascended the Himalayan foothills. My heart pounded. This was a rare afternoon sighting – leopards are nocturnal.

Adrenaline-fueled camera grasp gave me no time for viewfinder precision. Snap. Click. Hope. Whatever I might capture of this remarkable feline would be what was meant to result.

We pulled over to observe the bush into which it fled. Yet Mother Nature’s exquisite camouflage had fused leopard into landscape. No longer could we distinguish shapes, colors nor animals. One photo did capture its hindquarters – leopard proof in pixels for the tale I would share later.



The leopard thrill occurred having just seen eight finely-carved temples anchored in the riverbed of the Beas River. Known as Bathu Ki Larhi or ‘a string of Bathu stone temples,’ these ancient structures became modern casualties to hydroelectric power when India’s demand for Himachal’s significant energy was required. The temples were totally submerged when the Ponga Dam Reservoir came on-line.

Submerged though they were, these temples have great karma: they arise phoenix-like every March for a few months, given conditions of drought or water diversion, as necessary. The Beas River’s dry bed provides a path for an odd pilgrimage given the many Bathu Ki Larhi homage-paying visitors. And The Ponga Dam Reservoir and temples are situated within a wildlife refuge that is home to over 200 migratory birds species.



Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj

The soaring, snow-capped Dhauladar Mountain peaks that surround Dharamsala and define the Himalayas’ southern branch are fringed with deep green forests of native Himalayan cedars. This sight is a feast of simplicity and majesty. This aroma is its own uniquely verdant scent. Dharamsala means “a spiritual dwelling place.”  As the town that maintains Tibetan culture some 100 miles from Tibet, and the locale for the Tibetan Government-in-exile for half a century, it fulfills its Sanskrit name.

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Upper Dharamsala, is actually called McLeod Ganj, named for the Scottish Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab. It houses the Dalai Lama’s actual residence and the offices for the Tibetan Government-in-exile. Five miles lower a Hindu resthouse or ‘dharamsala’ stood, a structure that bequeathed its name to the entire town below McLeod Ganj. That these distinctions matter is only within the town, among the cognoscenti. Worldwide, Dharamsala is its name.

The surrounding physical beauty reflects the spiritual aspirations that Dharamsala fosters: aspirations for an end to exile, for self-awareness and fundamentally, for compassion in self and others. That the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile established residency is owed to the enterprising Parsi shopkeeper Nauzer Nowrojee (Naoroji), who became the Dalai Lama’s life-long friend.

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The self-described, ‘simple Buddhist monk’ named Tenzin Gyatso, then a 13-year old Dalai Lama, had to flee Lhasa Tibet’s Norbulingka Palace in March, 1959, to escape the Chinese take-over. He resided initially in Mussoorie, an Indian hill station some seven hours southeast of Dharamsala. But in 1960, Nauzer Nowrojee invited the Dalai Lama to move to ‘Upper Dharamsala,’ along with his entourage.

Nauzer’s family was Parsi, Zoroastrian Persians who had migrated to present-day Pakistan a century before. In 1862, they established the first general store in McLeod Ganj, Nowrojee & Son, which Nowrojee managed from 1938 until his death in 2000. After the devastating 7.8 magnitude-  earthquake of 1905, those remaining Parsi and Hindu families moved to lower Dharamsala. Yet the Nowrojees remained in McLeodGanj. Nauzer had a hunch a new cultural influx would bring prosperity, and was proved correct with Tibetan migration.

Nauzer and the Dalai Lama became lifelong friends. In October, 2000, Nauzer set out for his usual forest walk near his home. The Dalai Lama saw him in the distance and asked the driver to stop so they could chat. Greetings, laughter, friendship and warmth resonated across the woods that morning. It was a prescient exchange. The very next day Nauzer died in his sleep.

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Nowrojee & Sons is located in McLeod Ganj’s Central Plaza, today’s testament of yesterday’s British Raj.  Yet bus off-loads directly facing the vintage storefront, compounded by anarchic taxi drop-offs define a corner of commotion in a place where serenity is anticipated.   Melting snow and mud slush from an intermittent sunny day further exacerbate the uproar.

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Maroon-clad, shaven-headed monks fill the streets for the March Teachings. Elderly Tibetans whose long braids plaited together form a continuous “U,” wear chunks of rich turquoise in their earlobes. Color, rain, sunshine, hope, devotion, spirit and respect permeated the afternoon when I arrived for the Dalai Lama’s annual Teachings.

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