The trip to Dharamsala was certainly one I would never forget. It was a mixed bag of emotions. I was excited yet fearful of a trip to a place I had never been before. The hours it took to convince friends to come along, the essential items that were supposed to be packed, the music that was supposed to be heard each and everything was a task in itself.
The day to the trip had finally come. I woke up in the morning, went for my walk, came back and packed my bag for the trip ahead. Due to my check list, I was done within an hour. Lunch was done in a jiffy. I went and brought some essential items before the train ride. Finally, after checking everything was in place I bid farewell to my family and proceeded to Old Delhi Railway Station. I met with friends and boarded the Himalayan Express at 2200 hrs that would take me to Amb Andaurra, a tiny but lovely village in Himachal Pradesh. The night of the journey was peaceful but thanks to a goofup by our dear ‘Bhartiya Rail’, I and my friends had to share my seat with an aunty and her kids who funnily had boarded a train that was the reverse of our journey. More sadly the aunty was fat and there were only 2 berths but 5 people who had to make do. Fortunately, we applied “Jugad’ and passed the night cramped but satisfied. Having tea at 3 AM at Ambala Station was a splendid experience. In many ways, if one wants to see India in all its purity and pollution, train journeys are the best. It does give perspective.
On the eve of Gandhi Jayanti, we reached Amb at around 1130 hrs, took a tempo and reached the bus stop from where we reached our destination, a small house in Amb amidst lush green trees and absolute tranquillity, something I sorely missed in Delhi. The air and water, aah….. So fresh and pure. And the best thing was that we got to eat 100% organic food, the vegetables were grown in the backyards of the guesthouse free from pesticides. Funnily, due to years of eating chlorine water and pesticide food, my body had a tough time adjusting to organic produce but after a few sessions in the toilet I was fine.
Post freshening up. Our first trip was to ‘Charni Ganga”, probably a tributary of the Ganga, where we were advised by our driver to have a quick bath in the stream of water that flowed from a steep height somewhere in the mighty Himalayas. We had a chilled and refreshing second bath, thank god I had an extra pair of trunks else I would have been in trouble. The road to charni ganga was bumpy and stony but we managed. The sight of hills as far as the eye could see was breath-taking, how the creator had used such ingenuity and creativity to make such wonders is something that awed me.
Next we visited Vadh Bagh Sahib, a holy and revered gurudvara. Legend has it that a devout disciple of Guru Nanak Vadh Bag meditated under the holy Peepal tree, a descendant of which survives till today, and achieved divine knowledge. The beauty of the place wasn’t just in its calm and charged surroundings but also in its hustling market that sold an assortment of goods from Aam Papad to Saunf to Batasha and many more. A gurudvara trip is never complete without the customary ‘Suji ka Halwa” which we received with both hands.
We finally called it a day after the visit to the gurudvara. Since winter was approaching, it got dark very soon and that meant dinner and sleeping were early. The area where we had put up was apparentlya ghost area and many paranormal sightings were claimed to be seen by the local populace. Tiger and leopard sightings too were not uncommon. People slept by 10:30 PM, something that for me wasn’t too big a problem since I had the habit of rising early. Hope it remains with me lifelong.
Day dawned and after my morning ablutions and bath, I sat down to a sumptuous breakfast of parsthas, full-cream dahi and a cup of tea. The hosts of the guesthouse were warm, cordial and loving. I didn’t feel like a stranger at all and felt at home. After breakfast, I packed and along with my friends bid my hosts and their young son goodbye. It was time to board the train to Dharamsala.
We caught a bus that took us to Nadaun, from where we took another bus to Kangra and from where another bus took us to Dharamsala. It was a fun and tiresome ride but absolutely fun. Me and my friends made constant jokes, abused each other left, right and centre and then just stared at the mountains and lakes that awed us with their gentleness and steepness. Due to Navratri, it was crowded at some places but thanks to our confident and expert bus drivers who navigated each corner and sharp turn like child’s play, the trip was relatively smooth. On the way, we came across many temples such as Kangra Devi, Jwala Ji, Mahadev Mandir etc. Himachal Pradesh was rightly the ‘Place of Gods’. Each aspect of the union, be it masculine or feminine was represented in one way or another in beautiful and sometimes terrifying incarnations.
We reached Dharamsala at 2 PM and reached our hotel by 2:30 PM. The roads were clean, broad and steep but offered a great driving experience. It was perfect for some quick racing and drifting events. Hehehe….
Post freshening up, we dropped our luggage and headed off to grab lunch. I had Tibetan food consisting of Thukpa and Momos while my friends had chowmein and Chinese food. We were about to head out to explore Dharamsala when it started to rain heavily. Out plans had to be cancelled since we hadn’t bought umbrellas and didn’t have the mind to buy one. It stopped pouring at 7 pm. By that time all tourist spots had closed shop. Only a few eateries and the local Ram Lila Committee gave us entertainment. The Ram Leela was perfomed in a very funny and unique manner. The mood was sombre yet poor at the same time. The portrayals of Ram, Sita and Hanuman and the antagonist Raavan was done in a fairly OK manner. The announcer was a jolly fellow who acted as a prompter, quiz master and stage manager at appropriate times. The audience was appreciative of the Ramlila Committee’s efforts and lauded their performances accordingly. After a small dinner and sweet desert, we called it a day.
Owing to the high room rent, leaky roof and less than satisfactory ambience, we changed hotels and after a night at Hotel Svagat, we shifted to Hotel Krishna which apart from a fantastic room, commendable room service and warm water offered us a magnificent view of the Himachal mountain ranges that were littered with trees, homes and people as far as the eye could see. The sunlight was strong and energizing and the sunrise offered a peak of the ultimate reality in all its glory.
After morning ablutions and breakfast, we decided to head to Chamunda Devi temple, a ‘Shakti-Peeth’, built thousands of years ago as a tribute to the feminine power of creation. Situated almost 25 kms from Dharamsala, it was the venue where the British-Indian and the Indian Armed Forces fought with foreign invasion both pre and post independence from the First World War to the Kargil War against Pakistan in 1999. The names of the martyrs both Himachali and others were imprinted on the gate leading to the temple. The view of the river flowing nearby Chamunda Devi and the splash we took in it was amazing. People washing clothes, utensils and even their bottoms put me off at times. What hypocrisy! Saying cleanliness is godliness and then doing the reverse. I wont say I am not a victim of such hypocrisy. Sometimes I am even a participant but I try consciously not to litter as far as possible. To say to others to not litter is something I still have to learn to say boldly.
Anyways, after a quick splash and fast food as lunch, it was time to head back to Dharamsala. Like the Metro is the lifeline of Delhi in recent times, the same can be said for the buses of Himachal Pradesh. HRTC and private buses covered every part of Himachal and were fast, clean and punctual with their service. The ticket was cheap compared to Delhi standards.
After coming back to the hotel, we decided to head to McLeodGanj but it was already twilight by the time we reached. So we had to stay content with local exploration and the painfully funny Ramlila. Dinner was a short affair. After walking for a few kilometres at night, it was time for hit the bed.
Day dawned and we thought we’ll explore our selected spots today itself but as its said man proposes, god disposes. First on our itinerary today was Gopalpur Zoo located in the Dhauladhar Range. I saw a leopard for the first time in my life and was stunned to see it yawning and stretching in all its beauty. Among other animals, I saw a Porcupine, an Emu, a Himalayan Griffon, Leopard Cat and Asian Black Bear. Ahh, Mother Nature never ceases to surprise with its marvellous creations in exotic sizes, shapes and colors.
After a hearty lunch, we boarded the bus to Dharamsala and then quickly boarded another bus to McLeodGanj. McLeodGanj was simply awesome. It was located at a height from which one could see the clouds. I even ate a few!. The Dalai Lama temple was the highlight of the trip and housed a tall and handsome image of the Buddha and Avalokiteshwara. The Kaalchakra too was represented along with the female manifestation of power as prescribed in Pitakas. Chanting of ‘Om. Mani. Padme. Hum’ energised the place. We revolved the Buddhist Wheel as well. Tourists had flocked this place from Romania, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, USA, Europe and of course India. There were meditation rooms and sleeping places for all devotees. Monks and Nuns of various nationalities in Maroon and Yellow Robes thronged the place. There were Anti-China posters as well which was obvious considering the enormous destruction reaped by the Chinese army on Tibet, its culture, life and people. Saying ‘China Zindabad’ or ‘Chinky’ or ‘Chikni Chameli’ meant you’d most probably lose your head or end up with a broken limb.
We didn’t do any of the above thankfully. The Tibetan Market alongside the temple was splendid. There were shops selling earrings, necklaces, prayer beads and Tibetan Yak shawls. Hotels and eateries were plenty. According to locals, the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso was present while we were there but sadly due to strict security concerns and previous assassination attempts, no one was allowed to see him. VVIPs that were given the permission to go see him were apprently blindfolded to avoid any potential spies from knowing his whereabouts.
Post the temple visit, we had butter tea, momos and carrot cake. The butter tea was salty but tasted nice. Post the power snacks, we headed to Bhagsunath Temple about 2 kms from the market. It was an arduous climb but we made it a little late since in the evening twilight we couldn’t see the waterfall but only the temple of Lord Bhagsunath, a manifestation of Shiva. The cloud cover at the top was dense and astonishing but we enjoyed every moment of it.
Post a short prayer we headed down and went back to our rooms. It was a day well-spent. Our aim to exhaust our body and mind was successful the result of which was a long slumber almost 30 minutes post dinner.
The last day of our stay at Dharamsala was spent in taking pics of our hotel room, the scenic beauty surrounding it and the hotel entrance. After a quick breakfast we headed to see the tea garden located about 3 kms from our hotel. We walked the entire distance absorbing the lush beauty of the almost never ending forest cover that thronged our path.
While on the way to our destination, we spotted a half dead calf lying on the side path, foam coming out of its nose. We gave it some biscuits but it didn’t respond but when we gave it water, it lapped it up hungrily. From its skeletal appearance and protruding rib cage, it seemed the calf hadn’t eaten in days and possibly had ingested a poisonous substance that almost crippled it. Seeing our group of friends surrounding the calf, a few bikers stopped on the barren path and one of them called the local animal rescue agency aligned with the forest department who assured us that they knew about the call and would administer it medicines accordingly.
After assuring ourselves that the calf was hopefully out of danger, we moved on, changed our mind and headed to ‘Shahid Smarak’ or War Memorial instead of the tea garden. It was built to commemorate the soldiers who had laid down their lives to safeguard India and her borders. Models of planes, artillery and ships used in the 1961, 1971 and 1999 wars were on display.
After that we boarded a bus to Dharamsala and headed back to our room. We checked out, had a small lunch and boarded the bus to Jalandhar. It was a 6 hour trip through Punjab and Himachal Pradesh but one that was at times long and at times full of wonder. On the way to Jalandhar, our bus stopped by Hoshiarpur and due to the Navratri Festivities, local fairs or ‘Mela’ adorned the villages. Punjab roads were actually wonderful since we encountered very few bumps and after a few pitstops for gas and grub, reached our venue. Our host picked us up and took us to the ice cream factory that was located on the ground floor. After a delicious dinner, we were treated to Rajbogh and Mango Ice Cream. After that, we went and saw the local Ramlila festival, which was certainly better than the one in Dharamsala. After a hectic day we laid down to rest.
Day dawned and we made our way to two famous dargahs belonging to possibly Sufi Gharanas. The mood at both places was sombre and peaceful and the items used by the saints were kept for display open to the general public. After paying our respects, we made our way to the railway station and bid farewell to our kind hosts for their warmth and open-heartedness. The Pathankot-Delhi Express brought us back home.
To be fairly honest, I didn’t miss my family or city. The mountains had a strange and hypnotic charm that’s difficult to explain but something I wouldn’t staying at for weeks on end. The vastness of the mountains can,I feel, be challenged by probably the mighty seas. Both are beautiful in their own right. I only wish to go back again and experience the spiritual power of creation because it really was supremely powerful indescribable, mysterious but yet boundless in its creation.