As our local HRTC bus halted to a stop and dropped us right in the middle of a busy McLeodganj square after a mere 20-min ride up the hill from Dharamshala, a hill town in the Himachal Pradesh state of India in the shadows of Himalayas, a signboard said "Dharamkot, 1.8km". I'd previously heard of the place only in passing. Little did I know my mind was about to be both blown and expanded.
McLeodganj has long been in prominence largely because his Holiness the 14th and current Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso has called the hilly town his home for the last 60 odd years after escaping communist China in 1959. In his wake, thousands of refugee Tibetans followed and settled in the town. As such, McLeodganj retains a unique quality of sheltering a small half-Tibetan, half-Himachali population, making it look like a lovechild of Shimla and Ladakh.
In recent years, the once-to-be summer capital of the British colonizers has come to be the weekend capital of Indians, in the summer or otherwise, what with its proximity to the national capital Delhi and its cool mountain weather. Now, it's possible to grab a plate of momos from the many stalls almost poetically positioned against the Kalachakra monastery and its many prayers wheels, follow it up with a chole-bhature at a Punjabi dhaba, and finish it off with the very many bakeries selling anything from a croissant to a rumball. Buddhist monks stream in and out of monasteries in their red robes and yellow scarves standing out in a crowd of jackets and jeans. The smorgasbord of kitschy souvenirs, singing bowls and the famous multi-coloured Kullu shawls complete the ‘mall road-ification’ of McLeodganj.
Dharamkot however, just about a 2 km trek further up, at an altitude of 2100 meters seems like a different world altogether. The Tibetans give way to the Israelis, Laphings to Lafas, and English signboards follow Hebrew ones.
It's hard to tell which form Dharamkot existed in just about 20-30 years ago. Could it have been just a remote village very few knew about and was put on the global map because of the Vipassana Centre, which in recent years has become one of the must-dos on the traveller's menu of spirituality? Or much like its Himachali cousin Kasol, maybe it was discovered by just-out-of-military-service Israeli backpackers who decided that McLeodganj had become too crowded, trekked up further, attracted the community and found the elusive peace, sans the malana.
Whatever the genesis of its evolution, the Dharamkot of 2023 cannot be ignored. For a place, I had not heard of until very recently, as many as four of my acquaintances and friends had at some point worked remotely there COVID.
A 20-minute steep-ish hike on a winding but well-laid out mountain road, overlooking cedar and pine trees leads you to Dharamkot with the famous Tushita meditation centre on the right heralding your arrival. The aforementioned Vipassana centre lies just to the left of Tushita and right of a small tea-shop catering to Buddhist monks on a break from meditation and the Dharamkot-bound traveller alike.
The road then forks in two paths — one goes to Dharamkot, and the other goes down towards Bhagsu, famous for its eponymous temple and waterfalls. The whole of Dharamkot could hardly be larger than a radius of 5 km and yet the place packs in so much. Having been to the other side of the Himachal just a couple of weeks earlier, I wasn't sure if Dharamkot either matched the stunning mountain beauty of Manali, the , or the culture of Kasol, but as my days unfolded in this village, it became apparent Dharamkot was on to something.
Once in the heart of Dharamkot, a single road, nay walking path runs all along the main village, eventually forking into 2-3 hike trails. One of them goes to the famous Triund trek and most others lead into a yoga class.
When you're not looking at a yoga centre, you're probably in or outside a hip cafe, a shop selling macrame jewellery, boho decor or crystals or peering over a wall plastered with flyers of all the activities you could sign up for. Throw a pinecone at random and it’ll probably hit a dreamcatcher!
Dharamkot may not have the sacred Ganga running through its centre and hence there are no evening Aartis or temples for the pious Hindus or Hinduism-curious but there's everything else to satisfy the traveler — foreigner or otherwise — on a journey of spiritual awakening and healing, much like in Rishikesh, but with the bonus of great weather and views. The number of Yoga centres here are outnumbered by only the ones in Rishikesh, and other sister activities like sound healing, meditation, and tantric sessions are aplenty. When you're not balancing your chakras or attending a shaman-approved ceremony, you can break your intermittent fast with the best vegan shakshuka or a set English breakfast at a cafe that plays an EDM-sized Laxmi Mantra on a loop. Tushita too offers free drop-in meditation classes every day between 9-10 am, along with many other short-term courses including one that is an introduction to Buddhism.
However, the spiritually enlightened also need to have enough money to pay for the freshly brewed and not-so-cheap coffees in Dharamkot. Aided by Covid and the new wave of online-first digital companies, yogis by early morning turn into smart digital marketers and developers come noon, the Balinese-brand wave of digital nomad-ism and all its trappings has found its Indian counterpart in Dharamkot too. Most cafes offer wifi with decent speeds — better than the mobile network at any rate, and then there are places like 'Nomad Gao' (literally nomad village) that offer a coliving and coworking solution that is riding the wave.
Having just acquired a spanking new Macbook Air and a remote marketing job I was well-equipped to fit in at the famous Khanabadosh cafe. (easily, one of the best views in all of D'kot.) Now only if I had a pair of trekking shoes and a weather-appropriate jacket too to go on the 4-day Kerari Lake trek that the few tour organizers that existed had advertised on their shop fronts.
Dharamkot isn't just for the laptop-wielding, cafe-hopping digital nomad or the weekend trekker. It offers many workshops that can make your trip wholesome and even life-changing. Most yoga centres offer a 100 or 200-hour YTTC or Yoga Teacher Training Courses. Most shops selling jewellery, macrame, and psychedelic art also teach you to make your own jewellery, weave your own macrame masterpieces and do your own psychedelic dark. If you're ever traveling abroad and spot a shop selling either, there’s a good chance they learnt it in Dharamkot. (Much like how most Yoga-instructors abroad have probably learned it in Rishikesh.) For the more career-minded, there's also a pottery studio that offers a 1 day, 3 day and even a 35 day pottery course to get the basics right.
If Dharamkot starts to get boring and one eventually runs out of all the unique cafes to eat and work from, the sister village of upper Bhagsu is just a small hike away. Bhagsu is a slightly more raw, 'less hip-cafes' version of Dharamkot, but it has a lot more action as its remoteness and lack of a motorable road make it less susceptible to the watchful eye of the local authorities. There's a live gig almost every day at one of the 5-6 art-and-music spaces which runs into the wee hours of the morning. Most are free to attend but a donation is encouraged.
Egged on by a compelling flyer on a wall, I attended a lovely folk-acoustic gig by a collab between a few Indian artists and a violinist they just met at another event the previous night and a flutist the night before. That's just kinda the place Dharamkot-Bhagsu is. The small community bumps into each other on the one main lane that runs across Dharamkot and the few trails off it. By day three, you know at least 5 people by name and have learnt more from second-hand involvement in adjacent conversations at the tiny Space Out cafe than you would ever from Lonely Planet. On one of my dinners at Malka, an Israeli restaurant, I overheard a conversation about how the community has been coming to Dharamkot for the last 30 years which suddenly makes me feel like the outsider.
Just a 20-minute hike down towards the Bhagsu temple and the once-existing Bhagsu waterfalls, the Tibetans and Israelis are all but gone and Indians begin to reclaim their land, reassuring you that indeed, you didn't accidentally land in Tel Aviv. Crowds throng the market area, shop their dream catchers and Happy Hemp merch, and make their way towards the Bhagsunag temple, the main draw being the swimming pool for men right below a natural pond, where Lord Bhagsu is supposed to have invoked Lord Shiva to bring a constant flow of water all year around. A few also make the steep 15-min hike up to the Bhagsu waterfalls, which is a stream at best but could be a source of some respite from the heat and makes for some watery-fun for the whole family.
Stay options in Dharamkot are limited, but given the pace of construction going on around, it won’t be too long before there’re glass-panelled multi-storeyed hotels all around. As of now, there’re quaint, multi-coloured houses perched on hills that offer a room and a view for as little as $10 a night as well as many hostels and co-living spaces that are perfect for the more community-minded folks
The locals, far and few in between as they seem to be, haven't missed the Dharamkot boat. They've been quick to pick up a few words in Hebrew and cobblers seem at ease sharing a freshly rolled blunt with their white customers, giving their $150 Birkenstocks a new lease on life. “Shanti Shanti”, he coos as the Birken-owner offers me the joint too which I reluctantly but politely refuse.
In Dharamkot, “Shaloms” in the streets seamlessly merge into “Namasteys” on the Yoga sheets. Selfies, thankfully are conspicuous by their absence. As the locals say, "Shanti Shanti."
About The Author:
Monica B. is a digital marketer by profession but a nomad at heart, having backpacked to 40 countries. She's currently exploring slow travel in the Himalayas in India.