UNPACKING WELLNESS IN INDIA
Location: Chonor House Hotel, Temple Rd, McLeodganj, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh 176219
In good weather you can fly into Kangra just 13km from Dharamshala, perched above the Kangra Valley in the shadow of the Dhauladhar mountains of the Himalaya. But you’d be missing out on a great road trip, Shimla to Dharamshala, or better still a multi-day experience starting from Chandigarh down on the plains.
It’s about withdrawal. Withdrawal from hurly burly of the city, crossing rivers to mark that withdrawal as you move up and into the forested, deeper Himalaya to seek peace and balance. Aside from chai stops, there’s one must-stop on the way: Kangra. First, eat good local food (you'll be hungry, there are few cafes on the road) at the restaurant attached to the little museum about the ruling Katoch Rajputs of Kangra Valley. Revived, clamber over the river-encircled fort with elaborately carved temples tucked inside high walls, and incredible mountain views with no buildings, no people. This is important for what comes next because the final stretch and can take, as your driver will confirm, ‘some time’.
When His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet on March 31, 1959, to begin his permanent exile in India, he first went to Mussoorie where, a month later, he set up a Tibetan exile administration. Then, in May 1960, he moved to this small forgotten hill station set up by the British in 1855 as their local headquarters on an almost vertical slope amid hills thick with majestic cedar trees as well as pine, Himalayan oak and great rhododendron bushes. Here, His Holiness establish the democratically based shadow Tibetan government that continues today. Other refugees from Tibet joined him, then Buddhist students from around the world.
Dharamshala quickly became the Buddhist soul of India and its success has transformed it. No more a sleepy village, it is a two-tiered town: Lower Dharamshala with its Kotwali Bazaar, government buildings and museums, and McLeodganj above it, where His Holiness’s temple and Chonor House Hotel crown the hill and enjoy magnificent views. To reach them, you negotiate the one and only steep, narrow, switchback road.
Arriving at is a triumph. It’s tempting not to bother to return down to visit museums, or further to spend time at the Norbulingka Institute of Tibetan Culture, or further still to visit one of the little tea gardens growing delicious ‘Kangra green tea’. But these are well worth the effort. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have declared Dharamshala one of the hundred cities in his ‘Smart Cities Mission’ but fortunately it has geography and the Buddhist calming spirit on its side.
Must-do wellness experience: Temple chanting wafting to Chonor House yard
Chonor House buzz phrase: Can I come and see the murals in your room?
Ideas for unpacking your kind of slow-down wellness at Chonor House
Once you have explored all 11 exquisitely painted rooms at Chonor House, lingered in the courtyard to hear chanting wafting from the temple, and perhaps done some yoga, it's time for meditation using a brass shanti (peace) bowl (on sale in the nearby market) to makes sounds that will contribute to your wellbeing.
Give yourself plenty of time at Namgyal Monastery - or make several visits - across the road from Chonor House. Known fondly as 'Dalai Lama's Temple', it's his personal monastery founded in the 1960s. See trainee monks practicing vigorous debating skills (seen in this photo); observe the rituals of tantric practices such as Kalachakra and Vajrakilaya.
Learn about thangkas, originally painted by lamas and Buddhist priests but now made by lay artists who follow the strict rules for iconography, colours and composition. Visit the studio of a painter to see them working, then visit the craftsmen who stitch them into their fabulous silk brocade borders which are woven in Varanasi. Then, see them hanging in their glory in the temples.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama's spirit infuses McLeodganj, whether he is there or not. Spot references to him everywhere - here, displayed in a tiny alley, a mosaic portrait in the manner of the American artist Chuck Close.
Visit one of the little tea gardens outside the city in the Sheela Chowk to Khaniyara area, or at Kanal Pathri. Learn about the high-precision science of tea-growing, plucking, drying and rolling. Many kinds are now grown, but why not buy some of the traditional and rare Kangra green tea to take home?
Episode 24: Devigarh, outside Udaipur, Rajasthan
It really is time to start planning your Unpacking Wellness experience for 2022!
How will we want to travel, as the world opens up again?
We are emerging into a more cautious world, one where we perhaps want to move more slowly, be in control of our interaction with other people, avoid crowds, be outside as much as possible. I am here to help you achieve this in the Himalaya, on the Deccan Plateau, along the coast, in forests, desert and villages.
If you have not traveled with me in a group before ....
Please know that we experience great sights in the best possible way, with lots of add-on encounters and visits to off-beat places. We meet conservationists, curators, craftsmen and musicians, we walk with naturalists, we cook with local chefs. In sum, we imbibe the essence of each area thanks to my four decades of studying and visiting India - and making great friends who I share with you.
For private travel ....
I work with you to create your tailor-made trip to any corner of India, to any budget, for all interests and special needs, for families and parties of friends, for business groups and for honeymoon couples - India is ideal for everyone!