McLeodganj – the word evokes feelings from the meditative calm of the Dalai Lama to the exhilarating trek of Triund. It at once evokes Wilderness of green hills, and exuberance of cafes by the vociferous Bhagsu waterfall.
Nestled amid Deodar trees right above the town of Dharamshala, overlooking the majestic Dhauladhars, McLeodganj marries the chaos of the Indian heartland and the mystique of the Tibetan memory.
I always had an attraction for the apparent calmness of Tibetan Buddhism, accentuated by the charm of the Dalai Lama. Yet I had never been to his abode. Therefore, as soon as I got a little break between leaving a job and joining another, I set off, with my all-weather companion.
Our goal was clear- a day for regular sightseeing, another for hiking to the nearby Triund Hill, and another for quiet introspection aka meditation. It was a total rejuvenation plan for the mind, body and spirit.
McLeodganj is a little hamlet with a main square from where emanate five pathways- 3 of them chaotic and full of wanderers masquerading as treasure hunters- some looking for spiritual pursuits, others for mouth-watering delicacies, some even wandering their gazes in search of watering holes and other more advanced means to soothe the spirit. After all, to each his own. The town itself is un-impressive and not particularly well kept. However, that is not what we were there for.
One of the streets, known as the temple road, houses shops, cafes, a Tibetan Buddhist temple a few steps down from the main square, and leads to the main eponymous attraction – the Dalai Lama temple. Another leads to Bhagsunag- a loud but pretty waterfall, around which is the old temple of who else but Bhagsunag lending its the name to the waterfall itself. The famous Shiva Café is nearby up a longish flight of stairs. Yet another quiet pathway from the main-square leads to the hamlet of Dharamkot that further leads to the famous Triund Trek.
On another occasion, we would have chosen to stay away from the main square, in one of the quieter hamlets in the valley. However, the long weekend ensured very limited availability of resting abodes and we had to contend with lodging ourselves in the hustle of the place. Turned out, for a first timer, it was the best place to explore, in all directions.
The Dalai Lama Temple
The Dalai Lama Temple is a modern, not so outwardly impressive structure at the end of the Temple Road. However, there is an unmistakable sense of calm and poise about the place- much like the current Dalai Lama. As you enter the premises, you can see monks going about their lives or duties, chirps of little boy monks; a satisfied sense of duty on the old lady monks keeping the place clean and running, as well as the poise and sense of purpose evident in others reading, meditating, praying or generally milling about in the ample courtyard. There is an elaborate praying cum exercise ritual that monks go about on one of the numerous mats strewn on the first level. It is an activity in itself watching them, and we totally ticked it off, voyeuristically.
Inside the main hall at the temple, is an enclosed area with a tall statue of Maitreya- the future Buddha, and Tara. Out of the enclosure on a raised platform is a large sitting statue of a Bodhisattva. Right in front of that is a throne that the Dalai Lama uses for giving sermons, looking at people sitting in the hall in front of him with compassionate yet excited eyes that he has.
Illiterati- It’s a clan!
Excited eyes were what we sported too, looking at the bright, colourful attire down below, and gleaming sunshine up above. A few minutes’ walk downhill from the temple is the most beautiful café that the McLeod offers. Known as the Illiterati Café, it offers a gorgeous setting both inside and out. Filled with myriad books on warm teak floor to ceiling bookshelves all around, with wooden tables and chairs in the middle as well as sticking to the nimble corners, Illiterati is a delight to be in.
The view from the little balconies is pretty to the say the least. It adds to the overall charm- just picture yourself sitting by one of the chairs in a balcony, sipping hot honey-ginger tea, a sandwich in plate, and a book in hands as well as eyes; while the clouds play hide and seek above the Deodars and Dhauladhars. Ethereal I must say!
Trek We Must- Triund We Must Scale!
If the Dalai Lama was the draw, Triund was the action we had to partake. The weather threatened disruption, but who has ever stopped the willing. We bought a couple of cheap polythene raincoats, packed a few bananas and chocolates for those anticipated energy boosts we would require on the long way up, and set off. It’s a tarred road, till a little beyond Dharamkot, and then is the start of a rocky terrain. One cobble, step and rock at a time, we started scaling the mountain, counting our steps initially, and then forgetting all about it as we captured the beauty all around with our wide-eyed senses. There is rock to your left as you ascend, each step resembling a toddlers as you near the summit (joyfully though). To your right is greenery in the deep gorge. Somewhere a bird sings, and sometime you hear the rampaging waterfall. On a clear day, you can even catch a glimpse of it from certain corners.
However, it’s not wilderness. We spotted at least a couple thousand co-trekkers during our ascent and descent. It could be madness, the place is highly popular now; so gone is probably the charm of tranquillity. Yet the pull remains, especially to a first timer.
3.5 hours and 12 odd KMs later, we touched the Triund Hill Summit, and what a feeling it is to be there, green below your feet, and arrays of clouds at your eye-level, even below. If there were heaven, the gates would be right here.
As a side note, tea and Maggi (the unofficial national food of India at least in terms of availability at remote locations) are available at a few places along the way and even at the top. We relished the breaks totally.
Having filled up, it had to be time for siesta. We had encountered rain on the way up, and our latest purchase had totally saved us. We were indeed feeling smart. However, half an hour at the top, and sun was blazing in all its glory. We found a nice green spot, away from the crowd, took off our shoes and slept peacefully for about an hour.
We hadn’t planned an overnight stay, and there was none available with the scores of people coming in every minute. All the tents were occupied; we were not carrying our own either. Therefore, with a heavy heart, we bid goodbye, to the green summit, the greener summits beyond, the white clouds, and the whiter peaks, beyond which were only revealing themselves in a peekaboo. We also bid goodbye to a few fellow trekkers we had befriended on the way, and scores of sheep and dogs who were following us and probably were feeling vice-versa about us.
The descent was beautiful, and the legs got heavy as we were nearing the town. It was time to quench our thirst and get some sleep.
The trip ended with a relaxing meditation at the Tushita Meditation Centre in the morning followed by a relaxing brunch at the gorgeous Shiva Cafe. Tripoto has a nice piece on the place and the cult it’s spawning..