A Gem Shines in the Himalayas post-COVID
With travel restrictions lifting and the world starting to find its travel-happy feet, old favourite haunts seem to glow afresh. A year without pressing crowds has brought about a sea change in the way travel will pan out in the coming years. Yes, people will seek to travel more but the opportunity lies on the custodians to ensure that, unlike the pre-COVID era, not all ecological havens turn into a replica of bustling metropolitan cities.
Alternate travel will become the norm and even popular hill stations such as Dharamsala, Shimla, Ooty, Mussoorie, and Darjeeling have an opportunity to revisit and reinvent now – especially Dharamsala, a place that has always retained a tinge of magic about it. As a town, there is nothing exceptionally special about it. However, appreciated for its simplicity, the entire region including the town area, Mcleodganj, Bhagsu Nag temple, and Chamundi Devi mandir has a special charisma about them. The town itself may just be a stopover for many on their way to Mcleodganj, but the quaint old-time charm it exudes fills the imagination. Just standing at the bus stand and staring up at the Dhauladhar range can be awe-inspiring with the entire range being covered with pure white snow imposing itself upon the landscape.
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But there is another thing very special about Dharamsala – the many nooks and corners where a normal tourist scarcely goes but those places in themselves leave a lifetimes’ imprint upon the mind. Maybe, the pandemic will convince the over-indulgent tourist to pause and see a place for its placid beauty and not just the adrenaline rush.
Just before the bus stand, a small road diverges to a place named Chilgari. The woods here are lovely and dark and the view of the Kangra valley is unbelievable. Reaching that particular place with the setting sun enveloped by a cover of dense clouds, little straight lines of rays appear to be shooting down from the skies. The entire Kangra valley, well over 10 km long acquires a glow and is bathed in orange and white light, painted as it is by some master artist.
Another less frequented area is that of the tea gardens. Though it is a private property, nobody really prevents you from having a look. Beautiful ladies carrying their baskets full of leaves remind one of Darjeeling. The silence is stunning with your breath being the only companion. Still further up and away from the normal population, very close to Chilgari is a vast stretch of pine forests. It is surely an interesting experience listening to the pine trees whispering amongst themselves.
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There again is the Kotwali bazaar, the region around the bus stand, the beautiful and well-kept cantonment, and the imposing Chamundi Devi mandir. Another secret is the Kunal Pathri temple that is a leisurely three km walk from the bus stand through the best-preserved forests of the region.
When you leave Dharamsala for Mcleodganj in a Rs. 10 per trip jeep, it is an amazing sight. As companions, you will find an assortment of naturalized Tibetans, several foreigners, some beggars shifting their routine to the profitable region in and around the monastery, and local residents – all oblivious to one another, busy in their thoughts, as if in a search. And that well may be a truth, for many come to Mcleodganj to fill up a gap missing from their lives, and many return content in the basking warmth of the monasteries and temples that abound in the region.
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These jeeps driving to Mcleodganj are an event in themselves with quirky characters abounding. The ancient Indian uncle stands out for he has the strange Indian habit of reading his newspaper throughout the journey, oblivious to the natural beauty all around. He prefers missing the view but then he may be an old-timer and the view may not hold much importance to him now. However, it is impossible to comprehend that such a spectacular ride through the cantonment, Forbesganj, and the old church will have nonchalant characters focusing on the destination and not the journey. To add to the confusion, the very first sight of Mcleodganj might put a dreamy-eyed traveler in disarray. Overpopulated with gentry from all parts of the world who walk over the filth without a bat of their eyelids and a garbage disposal system that needs much more improvement, milling crowds is what the town offers to a visitor.
Nevertheless, soon you join the thronging crowds as you realize that everything in that town and every road, also every person that you see walks up and down one path – that leading up to the main monastery and the Dalai Lama’s residence. A mass movement of faith and curiosity, enough to give one a heady feeling worth a lifetime!
The small monasteries on the way, innumerable shops selling Tibetan handicrafts and trendy clothes, and even the barber with his Tibetan styled shop add to the mystique of the place. All visitors have a certain look of amazement about them as if they are being led by a pied piper, the pied piper of Mcleodganj.
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But as one stops and ponders, the town seems to have regained its charm post-COVID and for once, the new normal may be preferable. The town which was on the verge of getting lost in the rush of tourism over the past decade seems gentler and more welcoming now. Maybe, COVID will help Dharamsala regain its lost charm.
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About the author
Kunal Sharma works at Azim Premji University on issues of Sustainable Development and Conservation