Situated in the lap of Dhauladhar Mountains, McLeodganj doesn’t look like a beautiful hill station unless you venture out from its dense concrete jungle. The roads are congested, full of cars and people, moving from here and there. At the first look, it doesn’t look like a holy town of Dalai Lama, but an overcrowded mountain town dying under the heavy burden of tourism related activities.
It is a part of Dharamshala city and known as Upper Dharamshala, where people come to seek some sort of spiritual salvation. But in general, when most of the people talk about Dharamshala, they refer to Lower and Middle Dharamshala only. McLeodganj is of course a separate town, but in fact, it is a name given to Upper Dharamshala. (Read, Dharamshala: Serenity in The Lap of Dhauladhar Mountains)
The town of McLeodganj is the home to His Holiness The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political head of the Tibetan Buddhists. Once a British hill station, it received an influx of Tibetan refugees after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959. It houses the headquarters of the Tibetan Government in exile about two kilometers below the town, led by the Prime Minister, Samdhong Rinpoche. The town of McLeodganj is closest that one can go to Tibet while still in India. That is why it is also known as Little Lhasa or Dhasa (Dharamshala + Lhasa).
How To Reach? The Main Bus Stand is situated in Lower Dharamshala, which is about 10 kms away form McLeodganj. Most of the interstate buses terminates there only. From the bus stand in Dharamshala, one can get a local public bus to reach to McLeodganj in approx 20 minutes on a narrow and windy road. The buses are frequently available at every 10-15 minutes from sunrise to sunset and frequency reduces after that.
Where to Stay? McLeodganj is a backpacker’s delight. Many Hotels, Hostels and Guest Houses are available in McLeodganj. The most of the areas are always packed with the tourists and local crowd. To get some peace in McLeodganj, it is better to stay towards Bhagsu Nag Temple or Dharamkot area (both are approx 2 kms from the McLeodganj Bus Stand). But in this case, to visit the town, you have to walk for approx 2 kms one way.
Places to Visit: The town limit of McLeodganj is very congested, crowded and noisy, but once you stroll out from the town on any road, it seems like a heaven in the lap of nature. The surrounding Dhauladhar Mountains are covered by the lush green forests of pine and cedar trees. The pristine beauty in every directions around McLeodganj is enhanced by its surreal looking mountains.
Some popular attractions of McLeodganj are:
1. Namgyal Monastery: Namgyal Monastery is considered as Dalai Lama’s personal monastery and it was founded in order to assist the Dalai Lama in his religious activities. The monastery was originally set up in Tibet long ago in 1574, but after the invasion of Tibet by China is 1959, when Dalai Lama fled down in India, he re-established this monastery near his residence in McLeodganj. This is the place where the Tibetan religious, artistic and intellectual traditions are being preserved and maintained through the cooperative effort of the Dalai Lama and the Namgyal Monks. Once in a while you could also witness peaceful protest held by Tibetans against the decades of injustice they have faced under the oppression of China.
2. Tsuglagkhang Temple: The second important Buddhist site in town is Tsuglagkhang or Tsuglag Khang, the Dalai Lama’s temple. A straight is leading from the bus stand in McLeodganj to the temple, that is nearly 500 meters away. Hundreds of Buddhist monks visit this temple daily to offer their prayers. It has statues of Shakyamuni, Avalokitesvara, and a statue of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche). No entry fee is charged and Photography is allowed inside the temple.
Many people gathered in a large assembly hall and rotate the prayer wheel. A prayer wheel looks like a cylinder. Inside this wheel is a paper scroll on which thousands of prayers are written. These prayer wheels come in various size, smaller to hold in the hand and bigger one to fixed on the axle, so that people can rotate them. Prayers can also be written on the flags that is placed out in the breeze. Buddhists believe that each flutter of the flag and turn of the wheel signifies a prayer.The Buddhist chants reverberate everywhere in the temple bringing peace within your soul.
3. Bhagsu Nag Temple: This temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and located at 2 km from McLeodganj Market. It is mainly worshipped by 14 Gurkha villages in Dharamshala. A freshwater spring, in which pilgrims to take a holy dip flows through the temple. According to legend, 5000 years ago, Nag Devata, the snake God was drawn into a battle with a local King Bhagsu, who dared steal water from the sacred Dal Lake. King Bhagsu was vanquished and forgiven by the Snake God and the site consecrated as Bhagsu Nag. Amongst all the devotees, the temple holds a special significance for the Gorkhali community.
(Read: Other Famous Temples in Kangra Valley)
In front of the temple, a bathing pool is developed by the local authorities. Tourists and pilgrims take bath in the pool before offering their prayers at the temple.
4. Bhagsu Waterfall: Bhagsu Waterfall is situated nearly one and half km away from the Bhagsu Nag Temple. The trail to the waterfall is in reasonably good shape, except for the final 50 meters which are distinctly dodgy, especially in slippery weather. The trail offers an excellent view of lush green cover over the mountains. The trail move upwards beyond the Bhagsu Waterfall to the small village situated on the hill.
The waterfall may or may not appear good, depending on the season of your visit. When I visited it first time in the month of September, it was full of water and looked very serene. But, during the second visit in the month of June, the water is depleted from the waterfall and it looked like a narrow stream falling from the hills.
5. St. John’s Church in the Wilderness: Due to the shortage of time, I did not visit this beautiful church in McLeodganj, but somehow managed to click a picture from the running bus. It is an Anglican church built in net-gothic style in 1852. The site also has a memorial of the British Viceroy Lord Elgin, and an old graveyard. The church building is surrounded by trees of Deodars and Pines all around.Though the church structure survived the 1905 Kangra earthquake, its spire, Bell tower, was however destroyed. Later, a new bell, built in 1915 by Mears and Stainbank, was brought from England and installed outside in the compound of the church.
6. Dal Lake: Dal Lake another famous religious and beautiful site in McLeodganj, approx 4 kms away from the bus stand. However, when we visited the lake many years ago, it only appeared as a dustbin for trashes. We walked for 4 kms amidst the lush green forest of McLeodganj and natural beauty on the road was simple awesome. But, if you don’t have time, then a visit to Dal Lake is not recommended at all.
7.Triund Trek: McLeodganj also provides many opportunities of trekking in snow-covered Dhauladhar Ranges. There are plenty of agencies in McLoedganj offering these treks for one-day, three-day or more duration.
Most famous one day trek is Triund trek, which is located 9 kms from McLeodGanj. Triund is highly popular trek, that can be done without hiring any agency, guide or porter. It is a highly recommended trek for any traveller visiting McLeodganj first time. The trail upto Triund is well marked. If you plan to do it, better to do it in two days , so that you can spend a night at Triund. A forest rest house is the only place to stay at Triund, however, an advance booking is required during the peak season and can be done in Dharamshala. Most of the people stay in the tents either arranged by themselves or by trekking agencies. Water source is not available, so better to carry your own water bottle. During the peak season, a temporarily erected dhaba provides basic meals and water, but in the other season, you have to carry your own supplies. (Read: Some Beautiful Places in The Spectacular Kangra Valley).
Another popular trekking trail in McLeodganj is Indrahar Pass Trek that can extend upto Chamba.
My Bad Luck with Tibetan Momos: McLeodganj is also a paradise for Tibetan Food lovers. Many eateries offer delicious and mouth-watering Tibetan cuisines. I was particularly interested in the momos. I went inside a Tibetan Restaurant to have the taste of famous Momos and ordered special Veg.Momos. After 15 mins, I got two big pieces of Momos. I had never seen the Momos of such size in my life. The taste of those momos were really bad. I could not able to eat and finally threw them in dustbin. However, later I indeed found delicious momos during my 3-weeks long stay in Dharamshala. (Read, Chetru : A Beautiful Village in Kangra Valley)
In my personal experience, I find many people treat McLeodganj only as a weekend destination. I am afraid that soon it is going to become the next Mussoorie due to large influx of tourists and the trashes on the trail to Triund is just a glooming example of its future. Still there is so much to explore in and around the mountain ranges near McLeodganj, that it needs a relax visit with relatively good duration. After all, this town is the India’s closest connection to Tibet and provides ample opportunities to learn and understand Tibetan culture.