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            Himachal Pradesh
DHARAMSALA 1:Tibet’s lost and found

In all these centuries in all its reincarnations, Dharamsala Pilgrims’ Rest House — has unfailingly lived up to its name, welcoming tired travellers in search of spiritual bliss; providing a brief, noisy, colourful, hectic respite before the snow-clad Dhauladhar Range beckoned them onwards. It was the pilgrim’s last temptation: a final backward glance at all the pleasures they would forgo for the hard climb ahead. But somewhere along the way, in less than 40 years, it has reinvented itself from halting station to destination: this is the end of the journey. Dense rows of brightly lit hotels with their fake Lhasa rooftops and bazaars now seem to dwarf the giant deodar pines and oaks that split it into upper and lower towns, perched like a spiritual Las Vegas on a spur of the Himalaya. And the town — especially the upper half, better known as McLeodganj — is still celebrating its total conquest of the pilgrim’s soul.

Upper reaches of Kangra Valley are a curious mish-mash of cultures: Tibetan&Kashmiri curio shops, pizza shacks vying with alu chaat&tandoori dhabas, Tibetan hippies& American monks, prayer gongs&Hindi film songs, quaint English&Jalandhar mod.Dominating it all, as pristine as in its original home on other side of Himalaya, a brand new Lhasa — Dalai Lama, summer palace, temple, monasteries&all.

British first discovered little hill station some 150 years ago, when they were searching for a suitable place in district to which they could shift their civil administration&cantonment. McLeodganj, at that time, was a dozen or so scattered English homes, each perched precariously on ridge above cantonment for best view of spectacular snowcapped Dhauladhars. These sturdy wooden country houses preserved their very English privacy behind walls of giant deodar pines&rolling green lawns. All roads led at that time to Nowrojee & Sons.

Established in 1860, five years after British administration shifted here, this 3-storeyed, glass-fronted kirana shop of Raj Cantonment still stands where it was, balefully watching over town’s transformation. Business began to dwindle when British shifted themselves& their offices to Lower Dharamsala, after devastating earthquake of 1905. But Nowrojees battled on, keeping the shop going on the few pensioners and missionaries and the odd summer visitor, selling everything from newspapers&medicines to arms&ammunition, even running their own dak service — until India’s Independence drove even these few customers away.

It was customer-starved Nauzer Nowrojee — an eccentric who ruled over family shop for 63 years,inspiration behind unbending shopkeeper in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance — who, in 1960, persuaded exiled Dalai Lama to settle down here. Fleeing from Chinese, his people dying in heat&dust of Indian plains,14th Dalai Lama found perfect refuge in this little pine-covered spur of mountains, with snow peaks round corner. From day Dalai Lama stepped into his temporary home, abandoned summer mansion of one of Lahore’s gentry (Rai Bahadur Gopal Das) that is now Indian Mountaineering Institute, McLeodganj has never looked back.

 

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