India! Many love it; some say they hate it; but no one is indifferent to this vast subcontinent teeming with almost one billion people. A kaleidoscope of color swirled and shifted endlessly; people, cows, and vehicles pressed in closely. Pilgrims chanted, turned prayer wheels and elbowed past us to present gifts to Jawalamukhi, the Mother Goddess of light.A cacophony of beeping horns, barking dogs and shopkeepers hawking their wares assaulted the ears; while dust, rotting garbage, exhaust fumes, incense and tantalizing food aromas tickled the olfactory nerves. This is life as glimpsed in the small villages and towns in the Himalayan foothills of Himachal Pradesh, one of the most picturesque, historic and culturally diverse areas in the entire world, not just in this most unique country.
Though my personal travel list has included India for many years, I, a single, female traveler, wanted a tour that met my needs for security and support while concentrating on a small geographical area of northern India far off the typical tourist route. This tour included Pragpur, India’s first Heritage Village; McLeod Ganj, also called Little Lhasa, since the Tibetan government-in-exile is in residence here and in nearby Dharamsala; Tashi Jong, a small Tibetan community and home to the Tashi Jong Monastery and its famed lama dances; Manali, the last major settlement in the far north end of the Kullu Valley; and Naggar, a lovely mile-high village containing a castle, ancient temples and a Russian art gallery. The Eagle Connection, a tour company run by a husband and wife team living in New Zealand, offered an opportunity to journey to these towns and villages and learn about and see first hand the spiritual threads that weave through and bind these small communities. Tour leader, John Broomfield, and his wife, Jo Imlay, lived in the Kullu Valley area for many months, and their friendships with the villagers have for the past fifteen years provided an additional dimension to their tours. Free time was built into the schedule to allow for individual exploration, essential for a diverse group with differing priorities.
Thirteen travelers, with professions ranging from law to engineering, pharmacy, nursing, jewelry design and psychology met in New Delhi to begin the 21 day Spirit of the Himalaya Tour. Hailing from London, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand; we were three married couples, six single females and one single male. The cost of traveling in India remains fairly low, including all accommodations; three full meals each day at two of our more isolated stops, and partial meal plans at two others; airport transfers and baggage handling; entrance fees, cultural performances, and presentations by local teachers; a first class train ticket north from New Delhi to the city of Jalandhar near the Kangra Valley; and a comfortable, air-conditioned bus for the duration of the tour until our return by plane (airfare included) from the Kullu Valley to New Delhi. Of course, the price did not include incidentals such as laundry service, alcoholic beverages and other items of a personal nature. Neither did it include international airfare, but I found American Airlines’ new 15 hour non-stop service from Chicago to Delhi to be both affordable and extremely comfortable.
A few days in New Delhi provides an opportunity to acclimate to Indian weather and cuisine, tour Old and New Delhi and shop for the distinctive clothing worn by locals. You can buy anything from elegant silk Kashmiri designed tunics to a cotton salwar kameez, which consists of a long tunic over loose pants gathered at the ankle The latter is both comfortable and modest, a plus when traveling for long distances and spending time in small dusty villages. Additionally, the dupatta, a long scarf worn with this outfit, comes in handy when visiting temples or shrines where the head needs to be covered.
Train travel offers a voyeuristic glimpse into this bigger than life country. Expect to be entertained by processions of stately women clad in jewel-tone saris walking toward an endless horizon and families living their lives in full view of the train tracks. Long after darkness fell, the evening ended with a flautist piping ethereal music heavenward as he circled the lawn where an alfresco dinner was served at the Judge’s Court Hotel in Pragpur.
The Judge’s Court, a country manor home built in the early 1900s for an Indian justice, is surrounded by acres of trees just a short walk the Heritage Zone of Pragpur in the foothills of the Himalayas. Updated, elegant rooms are available in both the expansive manor house and the 300 year old ancestral cottage located on the grounds. Additional lodging can be obtained in the charming village, which provides a much needed respite to transition from hyperactive New Delhi to this serene Northern India region.
The author resting after a 4 hour hike to the Beas River near Pragpur.
In the hills above McLeod Ganj (also called Upper Dharamsala), the home of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama; Mr. Singh, owner of the Glenmoor Cottages, capably caters to the needs and whims of his guests. He can summon a tailor to quickly stitch together a salwar kameez, check on the Sunday service starting times at the nearby Church of St. John in the Wilderness, arrange laundry services, organize a lecture by a local physician on the subject of traditional Tibetan medicine and answer any question posed to him as he attentively serves his guests. This retreat, high in the forested hills, reigns high over the noise and dusty air of India and is home to millions of white butterflies, which swoop and cascade down the slopes like the scattering of rose petals.
The village of McLeod Ganj is a 15-minute walk downhill from Glenmoor and provides a wide array of opportunities to sightsee, shop, lunch, watch the monk debates at the Central Cathedral (the Thekchen Choling temple), visit the nearby Tibetan Children’s Village (the TCV boarding school houses over 2000 Tibetan orphans and refugees…try to arrange a visit in advance), attend lectures or concerts, have an ayurvedic massage, take yoga lessons or just watch the colorful populace and visitors swirl by. A favorite lunch and hanging-out place is McLlo’s, a 2-story restaurant/bar at the center of town, perfect for people watching and communing with nature. Its mushroom soup is a favorite, as is Kingfisher beer. Tamana, a local jewelry store, sells elegant pieces made from semi-precious stones and designed by the owner’s French wife.
McLlo’s is a great café, though sometimes the cows block the doorway.
Located nearby is the Norbulinka Institute for Tibetan Culture, which was organized to preserve Tibetan arts and crafts, especially those of thangka painting (traditional Tibetan scroll paintings depicting deities and other subjects), weaving, embroidery, and constructing painted wooden furniture and smaller items. A gift shop and café make this stop a welcome interlude.
A partially completed thangka awaits the return of its student artist at Norbulinka.
The grounds and gardens of the Taragarh Palace Hotel, a former maharajah’s palace near the town of Palampur, is an oasis providing options for meditative walks and contemplative time in the gardens. The owner’s polo ponies add a touch of class. The highlight of a Taragarh stay can be the opportunity to attend the lama dances at nearby Tashi Jong monastery. Held every year, these dances (which are actually teachings by the monks) last for three days; several hours each day with a break for lunch. This is a small monastery, and only about 150 people, mostly Tibetan locals, attend the colorful proceedings. A discordant rhythm consisting of a cymbal clang and two beats of a bass drum interspersed with deep elephantine blasts bellowing from six foot long horns provides the musical backdrop to a religious tale pantomimed by monks garbed in spectacularly colored silk brocade costumes and dancing with slow, stately moves. In many of the dances intricately designed and colored masks of gods and goddesses, demons, and animals are worn; think of the Cirque de Soleil dance company in slow motion. Though an air of solemnity prevailed, locals sit in the few remnants of shade holding fussing babies while twirling prayer wheels. Some attendees take a break to wander down the street from the monastery to find a cold drink and shop, while others meditate and doze in the warm spring sunlight.
Elaborately costumed monks pantomime stories at Tashi Jong Monastery’s lama dances, part of their annual calendar of rituals.
Tenzin Palmo, formerly of Britain and now a Tibetan Buddhist nun, resides nearby at her newly constructed Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery. She meditated for twelve years in a mountain cave and is the subject of the book, Cave in the Snow. Occasionally entertaining visitors, her frank dialogue and pithy humor give fascinating insights into the status of women in Tibetan Buddhism.
Tenzin Palmo, responds to a question at her Nunnery near Tashi Jong.
Manali, formerly a small, quaint village, has grown in recent years into a crazed, free-for-all town where traffic resembles bumper cars; dogs sleep in the streets indifferent to their own risky behavior; shopkeepers offer anything you might want and much that you don’t; and diners can sample everything from a reasonably good pizza, to trout broiled on a cedar plank and Tibetan momos, small steamed or fried dumplings containing meats and vegetables. Within a few miles of town a ski area attracts winter visitors; a glacier beckons to summer tourists wanting to hike or ride a horse up to its leading edge; and treks into the Himalayas begin. Old Manali, a maze of narrow streets leading to small temples and shops, is a short taxi ride away from its raucous, frantic new stepchild. A visit to the Manali zoo allows for an unhurried, peaceful stroll on paths that circle under its towering trees for a modest 5 rupee (about ten cents) entrance fee. Unfortunately, for those looking for animals in this zoo, there are none except for a few caged and unhappy looking partridges.
On the way to the village of Naggar (pronounced Nugger), travelers pass new hotels springing up to cater to the recent avalanche of summer tourists and trekkers. A castle was built on the edge of a precipice about 500 years ago overlooking the Beas River valley and is now called the Hotel Naggar Castle. Within walking distance of the hotel is the Nicholas Roerich Gallery. He and his wife, Helena, were spiritualists, writers, and painters who lived and died here in the first half of the 20th century. His paintings are a mix of vivid impressionism and Himalayan grandeur as viewed from their home and gardens. A calm serenity pervades this special place.
Flying from the town of Kullu to New Delhi is an awe-inspiring experience as the small plane climbs out of the Kullu Valley amid terraced, green fields and zigzags around the steep mountains. Houses and villages are connected by footpaths seemingly stitched to the tops of the ridges. All too soon scenic mountain views give way to the urban sprawl and haze of New Delhi. Incredible sights; incredible sounds; incredible food. Incredible India!
Postscript: While you could travel to this area and these villages alone, it would be more difficult. Driving is best left to the professionals; highway speeds average about 20-25 miles per hour in this mountainous region; and any long distances are best traveled by plane or train. Although an occasional minor cold and/or stomach upset plagued a few in the group, as a whole we stayed healthy; no easy feat given the change of climates, altitudes and diets. I attribute our general good health and high level of satisfaction and enjoyment to the excellent pre-trip information and tour guidance provided by the Eagle Connection leader, John Broomfield. While begging is ever present in India and sad to behold, our group came prepared to donate clothing, toys and money to organizations working to ease the suffering of needy individuals. Those listed below worked with Tibetans-in-exile and were grateful for the smallest donation and very proud to show visitors their accomplishments.