Dharamsala (also spelled Dharamshala) is known as the home of the Dalai Lama, though in fact the Tibetan spiritual leader is based about two miles up the hill in McLeod Ganj, and that's where most visitors are heading. Dharamsala proper is a market town mostly useful for bus connections.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Dharamsala.
McLeod's main focus for visiting pilgrims, monks and most tourists is the Tsuglagkhang complex, a custard-coloured concrete monastic village that's home to the Dalai Lama (behind a guarded gateway) along with two colourful temple rooms and the excellent Tibet Museum, whose entrance you'll pass en route.
Soothingly set amid bamboo, trees and flowing water, the delightful Norbulingka Institute, 6km southeast of Dharamsala, was established in 1988 to teach and preserve traditional Tibetan art forms. It's a beautiful and fascinating place to visit, and (except Sundays) you can watch artisans at work on woodcarving, metal statue–making, thangka painting and embroidery.
Men-Tsee-Khang is an organisation established to preserve the traditional arts of Tibetan medicine and astrology. The Gangchen Kyishong branch includes a college, clinic, research centre and astrological institute plus a well-explained museum.
Inside the government-in-exile compound, nearly 2km downhill from the Tsuglagkhang complex, the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives began life as a repository for sacred manuscripts saved from the Cultural Revolution. Today it has over 120,000 manuscripts and books in Tibetan, and more than 15,000 books on Tibet, Buddhism and the Himalayan region in English and other languages. Upstairs is an interesting cultural museum with statues, old Tibetan artefacts and books, and a couple of complex 3D mandalas in wood and sand.
Standing in for the 1474 Tibet original, this large monastic complex forms an attractive scene backed by mountainscape at Sidhbari village (7km from Dharamsala towards Palampur). It is the adopted home of Ogyen Trinley Dorje, widely accepted as the 17th Karmapa – the leader of the important Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Three floors of displays explain the sophisticated sciences of Tibetan astrology and medicine.
Visiting the Tsuglagkhang clockwise, as is required by Buddhist convention, you pass a prostrating area then a door leads into the westernmost building, which contains the Kalachakra (Wheel of Time) Temple. Mesmerising murals are linked to Avalokitesvara, of whom the Dalai Lama is a manifestation.
This must-see, two-storey museum sets out to remind visitors of Tibet's history as an independent nation, mourning the Chinese occupation (since 1949) and reporting attempts at Tibetan resistance. This is strikingly presented through sometimes-harrowing photographs and clear English-language explanations.
Upstairs in the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives is a small but interesting cultural museum with statues, old Tibetan artefacts and books, and a couple of complex three-dimensional mandalas in wood and sand.