The First Snowflakes
A winter holiday in a town in Himachal Pradesh, India…in the lap of the Himalayas!! It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Sublime and surreal is more like it!
Dharamsala, or more accurately, MacLeodganj, the headquarters of the exiled Tibetan religious leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is a bustling town. With the growing interest in Buddhism worldwide and in its charismatic leader, the monastery and proximity to the benevolent leader are the major attractions. Europeans spend weeks and months in this quaint town, passing the days in prayer at the monastery or at the welcome warmth of the numerous coffee shops and cyber cafes that dot the cobbled street. Vendors sell Tibetan woolens on the roadsides, people hang about or work. Everyone is out on a fine day, the cold notwithstanding, enjoying the breathtaking view of the valley below. Happiness pervades and infects everyone.
The monastery is simple and serene. Hordes of exiled Tibetans come and turn the massive prayer wheels, probably praying for a safe and quick passage to their homeland. Besides the regular citizens who visit for a bit of divine grace, novitiate monks and nuns sit and pray in the main hall of the monastery. The monastery sits picturesquely on the edge of the conifer-covered mountain; one of the balconies near the temple neatly zigzags itself around a fir tree rather than destroy it; testimony to their respect for life.
The book store (which also sells other merchandise) and the picture gallery show us a chapter of history that we have not studied in our schoolbooks – the Tibetan struggle to keep their homeland, the Dalai Lama’s escape, Tibetan settlements in the various places in India and other countries. There is also a Tibetan school that educates the children of the community about the Tibetan way of life. The Tibetans uphold the spiritual aspect of their culture and this is delightfully evidenced in Little Lhasa (or Dhasa as Dharamsala is called by the Tibetans who live there).
It’s a place to spend a few quiet hours (or days or weeks) with yourself.
Winding our way through the cascade of pretty houses lining the hillside (with their car parks on their roofs, for obvious reasons) for more than five hours, we found ourselves on the difficult, gravelly road to Shoja. Shoja is a destination less visited, especially in the dead of winter. It was growing dark and we hardly passed a soul. We reached Shoja and saw sleet for the first time on our lives, settling on the steps and on the ghost-like abandoned swings in the amusement park of the resort.
The guest house (whose name escapes me now) was lovely, insulated. You have to remove your outdoor shoes and wear their soft slippers on the polished wooden floors. Hot meals are provided to cold and weary travelers, and a hot water bottle in its flannel jacket ensures a good night’s sleep. We had caught them just as they were closing that season.
Shoja is a quiet village; the morning light saw the village women laboring; mountain dwellers lead a hard life and it was gratifying and humbling to see it firsthand, as we simply sat with hot tea and gazed at the mountains beyond.
It’s probably a good idea to give up the regular trek in favour of impromptu ones. As we made our way past Jalori pass (3135 mts above sea level, with the characteristic little temple to remind the Gods to look after you), we got off the car and asked the driver to drive on and wait 2-3 km ahead.
In that early afternoon in December, we relived Robert Frost’s Walking Down the Woods on a Snowy evening. The snow fell very softly, but it seemed like you could hear it, the air was so still. A brave crow cawed and continued cawing through the first snowfall, the rest were safely tucked into their nests, perhaps.
It’s a good time to visit if you want the unforgettable experience of the first snowfall. You can almost smell the snow. You can feel that the cold lessening marginally as it falls; see the drops melt and spread on your jackets, catch them on your tongue and taste them.
It is a truly meditative experience, all five senses engaged in that simple expression of nature – snowfall. Ours lasted more than 20 minutes.
The woods were lovely dark and deep, but we had miles to go before we sleep…and so the grey-green-brown conifers were left behind. A peaceful 2km walk brought us to our impatient driver and we drove away from the most exquisite experience of our lives.
Himachal is a place to drive and walk through. Visit with plenty of time on your hands.