I recently visited Macleodganj, the seat of the Tibetal government-in-exile, and the place where people generally go for smoking joint. It’s a calm place, a small sleepy town in the laps of Dhauladhar range of the mighty Himalayas, hustling with tourists.
Every visitor has a different purpose in mind – some want to see the famous monastery and listen to Dalai Lama, some are interested in adventure sports while others are there to enjoy Pahadi beauty. The market is full of Tibetans selling good fortune Buddhas, Thang-kas and Free Tibet flags, Biharis selling shirts and coffee, Kashmiris selling mufflers and overcoats. Hotels are full of authentic Tibetan food, continental items, and Punjabi dishes. Like Kasauli, the veritable Jewish town in the Himachal, Macleodganj is also famous for ease with which people can obtain some drugs. There are many Cafés here and there serving muffins and cafe latte. Tibetan owned hotels, along with serving thukpa and lamb momos, always exhibit a huge wallpaper size photo of Lhasa – a constant reminder to everyone of their homeland. Lamas in red robes rush up and down the streets. The firang visitors are interested in spiritual awakening or political understanding and are generally visibly involved in some kind of interaction with the Tibetans. Indian tourists of family type are more interested in visiting ‘spots’ and eating ice cream. And yes, taking selfies. Air is salubrious, sky is clear and weather is pleasant. It was a short trip for a couple of days.
There is one temple there – called Bhagsu Nag temple. And there is an old Church there – called St. John in the Wilderness. One is a typical of Shaiva temples all across the world – that are located in difficult terrains at some corner of the mother earth. The other is also a typical of neo-gothic architecture – impressive simplicity and profound sense of calmness amidst the Deodar forest. And yes, the Belgian tinted glass gifted by Lady Elgin. The one is a kul-devta of the Gorkha Rifles. All their regiments perform annual pooja there. The St John in the Wilderness is the Church of their former gora officers, as the numerous plaques and memorial stones indicate. Had Lord Elgin had his way, Macleodganj could have been India’s summer capital instead of Shimla.
In the western Himachal Pradesh, there is a Kangra valley and then the Chamba valley. Macleodganj falls near Kangra. Like all other Indian places, it has its own layered history. Its own original history is of of Gaddi tribe involved in transhumance, the vertical economy. They take their sheeps up and down the Himalayas seasonally and harness the costly and cozy wool. The landscape is full of lush green pastures in the valleys. Gaddi numbers are dwindling though as the next generation is not willing to get into the hard life of a migrant herder. Then the region also has the history of the numerous hill rajas, who gave patronage to the Pahadi paintings of rutu-mala and raag-malas, and the rajas who fought with each other and with the Mughals and also with the sikh gurus. Then it’s the same region that formed the inner line of defence of India during the British times. British Indian foreign policy that was obsessed with the Russian bear’s imminent aggression for over a century considered the inner line of Himalayas important for the defence of India. It was a favourite retreat of Lord Elgin, the famous liberal Whig viceroy in the 1860s, who is also buried here. When the Holy Dalai Lama, the spiritual-cum-political leader of the Tibetans, had to flee Tibet in late 1950s, he chose this place for his permanent residence and thus ensued a huge immigration of Tibetan population that changed the demography of the region. At that time it was called PEPSU and was a part of the larger Punjab. It was carved out separately by Indira Gandhi in the next decade. Today it’s a complete khichadi, like any other part of India. Common in uniqueness.