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India: Dharamasala / McLeod Ganj

Immersing in the amazing high altitude home of the Dalai Lama and learning from the wonderful Tibetan community; plus yoga, a tabla course, new friends and being in the moment

sunny 28 °C
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McLeod Ganj


McLeod Ganj is just above Dharamasala in Himachal Pradesh, and is absolutely one of my favourite places, not only in India, but the world.
It has a large Tibetan population and home to the Dalai Lama where he teaches freely and campaigns for Tibet's freedom.
India welcomes any Tibetan who can make the journey over the Himalayas, and most of them come here.
There is a steady stream of international volunteers to help the community.
Aside from the heartening community spirit here, it is a gorgeous high altitude, spacious area with courses offered in literally ANYTHING.
It has good accommodation options and great food!

Pretty much an ideal place for any intrepid traveller to stay awhile.


It was a 17 hour bus ride from Rishikesh to McLeod. It was pretty cramped and a bit sweaty, but you get used to these journeys after a while in India.... thinking back to Vipassana - staying equanimous, and understanding impermanence... eventually made it :-)


I headed over to Bhagsu (about 2km from central McLeod) with fellow travellers from Switzerland and Ukraine, as it is a bit more traveller friendly and quieter than McLeod - with lots of yoga and more courses available than you can poke a stick at - music, Ayurveda, painting, stitching, didge making, singing / chanting, reiki, jewelley making, wood carving, etc. Yes Bhagsu is one of the many traveller ghettos .... and particulartly popular with young stoners on the move.

Anyway, we found Cloud 9 (next to Hezi's travels). It's a really nice place. Good clean rooms, nice courtyard and cheap. Rp200 (AUD$4) per night for a room with a bathroom. Unbeatable for me so far for the price.
The only problem for me was that it is a party place. So, if you want sleep before 2am, then look elsewhere.
Israeli kids (I call anyone under 25 kids) come to Himachal Pradesh or Goa straight out of intense army training to let loose.
If I was 10 years younger I would have stayed up drumming to their heavy guitars, and showing them the Melbourne shuffle whilst they blast psy-trance.... but I am here for early morning yoga, volunteering, and generally getting some shanti.

After 2 nights of not much sleep - I spoke to the owner, and told him I was leaving because of noise.
He had No noise after 11pm signs around the hotel, but this fellow was too amiable to enforce it.
He pleaded and said he'd speak to the kids - I told him ..."it's not you, it's me"
If kids want to party, the Himachal mountains are a good place for them... they should be able to!

I found a gorgeous room offered by a family, in their home further up towards Dharamkot. Peaceful sleep for the rest of the time.
Bhagsu is awesome. If you want early sleep just go a bit further up the hill :-)

I encountered this group of Hare Krishnas (video):

Gorgeous Surrounds

Himachal Pradesh is one of India's most scenic states. McLeod Ganj sits at about 3800metre elevation with steep sweeping decorated and stunning views wherever you look!
I went on a few nice walks - up to the waterfalls near Bhagsu, and then higher up towards one of the Tibetan monasteries above Dharamkot.


Mahi is famous in McLeod Ganj. His yoga classes are fun and informative.
Unlike many yoga courses in India, he takes the spirituality out of it, and replaces his explanation of asanas with science.
He explains the impact of every pose throughout the body, and how all muscles are linked.
For example, when we do toe stretching we are improving the function of our sinuses.
He likes to adopt random names his students too - even if he recalls your name - he will just call out "Olga" or "Simon".

I got a lot out of each class - and they are cheap.... Rp200 each!
Ask anyone in Bhagsu where to find Mahi's class and they will tell you.


Rohit Mishra and his wife run a fantastic music school in Bhagsu.
They offer courses in tablas, jembe, flute, guitar, singing, and are both ex teachers of Banaras University in Varanasi.

Tablas are a particularly difficult instrument to learn. Finger placement is essential to getting the correct tone, and usually every beat is a different intone or strike. It's like playing a melodic instrument without keys or strings and continually adding accents.
Rohit is a great teacher. I learned a lot within one week (and a bit of practice between classes).


Through his affiliations with Banaras University, his able to have instruments made at fairly good prices.
I had a pair of tablas made, as did an Israeli couple who were studying with him for a month.
I found good sets of tablas in the stores for around Rp14000
My order for good wood/live skin drums was Rp8000 through Rohit.

I definitely recommend studying here if you are thinking of learning tablas.
The teaching is solid, and you will learn Indian rudiments very quickly.


There are a huge number NGO's operating to aid the Tibetan community in McLeod Ganj.
They are listed here
I taught conversational classes each day (at 2pm just outside Oasis cafe).
It was a totally amazing, informative and rewarding experience.
People from all aspects of the community turn up to learn - youngsters, monks, nuns, shopkeepers, elderly, etc.

Each day a topic is decided upon, and the facilitator writes up 4 questions based on this topic to discuss in groups (1 teacher to 2 or 3 students).
After an hour of discussion each student must have written a succinct answer for each question, and present at least one of them back to the class.
One day the topic was inspiration
We had to define the term, what it means, discuss books and actions that inspire.

Another day the topic was ego: what is it? do we need it in life? what would the world look like without ego?

In my group I had a young nun, a student, and a shopkeeper. The answers I got were so profound and well thought out to me - but they flowed so very quickly naturally from them, without hesitation.
Tibetan culture is studious and considered. All Tibetans fervently study Buddhist philosophy and the Dalai Lama's books.

My students may have improved their English; correct sentence structure, how to express themselves and find more appropriate words to suit their thoughts, etc.
However, I got so much more.... an insight into the hearts and minds of enlightened people; pragmatic, compassionate (even towards their aggressors), and acknowledgement that utopia still requires an ego.

I saw people who are happy and at ease despite their disposition....happy in the present, but determined and fighting. Studious and hungry to learn and better their lives.

Tibet in Exile

After China invaded Tibet, the Dalai Lama fled to India where he was received with sympathetic arms. He was able to setup headquarters here in McLeod Ganj and continue teaching.

Tibetan refugees are given land, accommodation, assistance, etc and an (albeit tenuous) status of residency.
In McLeod Ganj this community seems to flourish. The Dalai Lama temple is an amazing peaceful place and there are many schools and programs here for Tibetan people.


I attended two talks from people who fled Tibet to live in exile here.
The first was by a young man who left his family behind forever to escape, and build a life for himself.
He told of the harsh oppression facing Tibetans by China, and the banning of their Buddhist customs and rituals.
Monasteries have been burned to the ground and most statues of Buddha have either been destroyed or sold on the international market.
China has also encouraged / forced mass migration of Chinese people into Tibet, so now Tibetans are a minority in their own country.
Slowly they are being swallowed up and completely repressed.
This fellow started an NGO to help Tibetans in exile make a life for themselves in India - through language teaching programs, upskilling (IT courses), etc... a platform allowing visiting volunteers to help whilst they are here.
His story of escape was inspiring yet harrowing at the same time - he will never see his family or Tibet again, unless China releases it's grip.

China perpetuates programs to get people (especially young) to renounce the Dalai Lama in return for entrance to schools and government aid, etc.

The Dalai Lama named the new Panchen Lama (born in 1989) to become his successor.
In 1995 this boy was kidnapped by China.
China then named a new boy of Chinese origin to be the Panchen Lama.... which in effect means once the Dalai Lama passes, they want their own controlled person to take his place - Tibetans of course would not accept this.

The second talk was from a political prisoner who fled to India after being released from a 5 year term in prison - for simply protesting.
He was part of a peaceful protest in a monastery in 1996. He was continually tortured and told to renounce the Dalai Lama during incarceration. He showed photos of the tools he was tortured with, including having a nail hammered into the point between is finger nail and finger.

After 5 years of continual physical and mental abuse he was released to a very different looking Tibet.
He spoke of China's envelopment of Tibet and how it is disappearing.
He also spoke of the hard journey to India, and trying to make a life for himself without his family.

It is hard for all Tibetan's here... those who flee, have to go forever and almost all will never see their families again. Family is so important in Tibetan culture.

I have spoken to quite a few Indian people this, and asked for their thoughts.
India does not have a social welfare system for Indians, yet Indian people understand that without family to support them, Tibetans should be somewhat looked after when they come to India.

Some Indians are disparaging of the fact that the Dalai Lama remains here in protecion.
They say he should be in Tibet, fighting back and leading his people. Gandhi liberated India peacefully and from within India.
Indians are proud, nationalistic, stoic and unafraid to speak their mind. I have never heard this argument from any western friends.

Regardless, the Dalai Lama is a popular figure internationally. However it seems no nation or organisation is really brave enough to take decisive action for Tibet, and risk business with China.

Tibet deserves to be free... we can only hope..... or maybe do!

On to Manali...

Posted by SkinnyFists 06:09 Archived in India Tagged tibet mcleod_ganj bhagsu volunteering_india learning_tabla_india yoga_india

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