Dharamshala for Americans: His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Hometown

Dharamshala, India. First, it’s in India. Second, it’s spelled four ways. And third, it’s His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s hometown. At least, for now.

We arrived in Dharamshala (also spelled Dharamsala, etc.) last month to have an audience with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama has been in residence there since about the time he fled his native Tibet in 1959 to escape Chinese persecution. The headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan government in exile) is also located there, in a neighborhood lying in the upper reaches of the city known as McLeod Ganj.

IMG_5401The author and Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura meeting with His Holiness.
Photo: The Stewardship Report.

Following the 1959 Tibetan uprising, Prime Minister Nehru, allowed His Holiness and followers to settle in Upper Dharamshala, a former colonial British summer picnic spot. Nehru seemed delighted to offer what was considered a ‘forgotten ghost-town wasting in the woods.

IMG_6683The Tibetan Government in Exile also has a president who we met with as well.
Photo: The Stewardship Report.

In 1970, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives opened which today houses over 80,000 manuscripts and other important resources related to Tibetan history, politics and culture and is considered one of the most important institutions for Tibetology in the world.

IMG_3864Photo: The Stewardship Report.

The presence of His Holiness and the Tibetan population have made Dharamshala a destination for Indian and foreign tourists alike, including students studying Tibet. The town also includes a large number of Israeli backpackers freshly out of the armed services there, looking for a spiritual high. The mountainsides and valleys produce both tea and marijuana.

9_kThe area around Dharamshala is extremely mountainous.

In terms of India, Dharamshala was a mountain retreat under the British Raj. The city is one of the hundred Indian cities to be developed as a “smart city” under Prime Minister Modi‘s flagship Smart Cities Mission. Interestingly, it is one of two capitals for the state of Himachal Pradesh – basically ‘Himalayan State.’ 

IMG_1396A Tibetan-style door in Dharamshala. Photo: The Stewardship Report.

Dharamshala is in India, of course, and although it has thousands of Buddhist adherent living there, it is still roughly two-thirds Hindu. With a population of about 30,000, it is not unlike the small cities of Oxford, Marietta or Wooster in my native Ohio.


Dharamshala is a Hindi word, derived from Sanskrit that is a compound of dharma (धर्म) and shālā (शाला). A loose translation into English would be ‘spiritual dwelling’ or, more loosely, ‘sanctuary.’ Rendering a precise literal translation into English is problematic due to the vast and conceptually rich word dharma and its cultural relevance in India.

IMG_8901Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura and staff from The Tibet Fund
at a Tibetan-owned hotel in the neighborhood McLeod Ganj.
Photo: The Stewardship Report.

In common Hindi usage, the word dharamshala refers to a shelter or rest house for spiritual pilgrims. Traditionally, such dharamshalas (pilgrims’ rest houses) were commonly constructed near pilgrimage destinations (often in remote areas) to give visitors a place to sleep for the night. When the first permanent settlement was created in the place now called Dharamshala, there was one such pilgrims’ rest house on the site, and the settlement took its name from that Dharamshala.

IMG_4183Inside a Tibetan-owned hotel in the neighborhood McLeod Ganj.
Photo: The Stewardship Report.

Several thousand Tibetan exiles have now settled in the area; most live in and around McLeodGanj in Upper Dharamshala, where they have built monasteries, temples and schools. It has become an important tourist destination with many hotels and restaurants, leading to growth in tourism and commerce.

IMG_1265A steep, narrow road connects McLeod Ganj from Dharamshala and
is only accessible to taxis and small car. Photo: Stewardship Report.

The city is divided into two distinct sections. Kotwali Bazaar and the surrounding markets are referred to as “Lower Dharamshala” or just “Dharamshala.” Further up the mountain is McLeod Ganj. A steep, narrow road connects McLeod Ganj from Dharamshala and is only accessible to taxis and small cars, while a longer road winds around the valley for use by buses and trucks. McLeod Ganj is surrounded by pine, Himalayan oak, and rhododendron.

IMG_0070Nature reflects the rainfall Dharamshala receives.
Photo: The Stewardship Report.

The best times to visit are the autumn and spring months. Dharamshala’s weather is heavily influenced by the monsoon rains. Summer starts in early April, peaks in early June when temperatures can reach almost 100°, and lasts till mid-June. From July to mid-September is the monsoon or rainy season, when up to 120 inches of rainfall can be experienced, making Dharamshala one of the wettest places in the state. Autumn is mild and lasts from October to the end of November. Autumn temperatures average around 61–63°.


Winter starts in December and continues until late February. Snow and sleet are common during the winter in upper Dharamshala (including McLeodganj). Lower Dharamshala receives little frozen precipitation except hail. Winter is followed by a short, pleasant spring until April. Historically, the Dhauladhar mountains used to remain snow-covered all year long; however, in recent years due to Climate Change they have been losing their snow blanket during dry spells.

IMG_0091Mahatma Gandhi, or “Bapu,” welcome you at Kangra Gaggal Airport
in Dharamshala. Photo: Stewardship Report.

To get to Dharamshala, you fly into Kangra Gaggal Airport about six miles down the mountain. You can also reach Dharamshala by train through Kangra via the Kangra Valley Railway line from Pathankot, some forty miles distance. I was intrigued to learn that Pathankot is a broad gauge railway while the other line from Pathankot to Jogindernagar is a narrow-gauge line.

C97CCDD2-6BBE-44B1-A746-33BB21EB3E37The nightlife does not quite rival New York, but it does exist.
Photo: The Stewardship Report.

The Dharamshala International Film Festival is a major draw for the town. DIFF was established in 2012 and is presented by White Crane Arts & Media trust, established by filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam to promote contemporary art, cinema and independent media practices in the Himalayan region. Academic institutions of note include Central University of Himachal Pradesh, the Government College of Teacher Education Dharamsala, and Himachal Pradesh University.


Series on/from Tibet in India, September 2019 in 20 Parts

  1. The Dalai Lama & Dr. Kazuko: A 47-Year Friendship
  2. Tibetan Children’s Village: Step One to Success
  3. India: Great Protector of the Tibetan People
  4. With Incredible Tibetan Orphans, Reflecting on How I Got Here
  5. Meet Japanese Grandmother of Tibetan Orphanage in India
  6. Lama Thupten Phuntsok: Tibetan Monk’s Life Outside Monastery 
  7. First Trip to Tibetan Orphanage High in Himalayas
  8. Dharamshala for Americans: His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Hometown
  9. Himalayas: From India/Pakistan to Bhutan & Nepal + Chinese Tibet
  10. Himalayas: Once Greater Tibet, Now Tragically Divided 
  11. Meet American Lobsang Sangay, President of Tibet
  12. Dr. Kazuko: Planning Nine Orphanages Globally Through Gaia
  13. Viewpoint: Whatever Faith Tradition, It’s All About Kindness
  14. Orphanage Burns in Indonesia; Matt Luce Pledges to Rebuild
  15. At Fifty, I Gave Away My Wealth; at Sixty, My Possessions
  16. Autumn Elegant Evening to Highlight Charity Efforts Around World
  17. New Look: Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness at Tenth Year
  18. Luce Leadership Experience Looks to Israel after Greece, Indonesia Trips
  19. Charities at Twenty Confer Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Kazuko
  20. New Look: Orphans International Website Refreshed for 20th Anniversary

Series On Pilgrimage: Following Footsteps of Buddha Across India in 15 Parts

  1. On Pilgrimage: Following the Footsteps of Buddha Across N.E. India
  2. Under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya Where the Prince Became The Buddha
  3. Photo Essay of Bodh Gaya, Where Buddha Became Enlightened
  4. Next Step of Indian Pilgrimage: Vultures’ Peak Where Buddha Preached
  5. Touching the Untouchable in a Rural Indian Village
  6. Rediscovering the World’s First Great University in Buddhist India
  7. Buddhism for Beginners: Insights from a Non-Buddhist
  8. Buddhism and the Universal Concept of Social Responsibility
  9. Help Me to Support Education & Orphan Care in Bihar, India
  10. Most-Photographed Man in the World Prepares to Retire
  11. Yoshimitsu Nagasaka Photo Exclusive: The Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya
  12. Varanasi: Holy City of Buddhists – As Well as Hindus, Jainists, Jews
  13. On the Banks of the Ganges: Reflections of a Journey in Time
  14. My Pilgrimage Complete: Life Continues Like a Wheel
  15. Pilgrimage Postscript: Pneumonia and Possible T.B.

See Also

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

View all posts by Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce (www.lucefoundation.org) writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (www.oiww.org), he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

Comments are closed.