Discover the magic … of the Himalaya
In the north-western reaches of India are the angelic towns of the Kangra Valley and the opulent Sikh architecture of Amritsar. Get a feel for rural Indian life by walking through pine forests spotting birdlife and flora, admiring the colourful rhododendrons that carpet the valley and interacting with locals at markets who make textiles and crafts by hand.
Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh
Best known as the home of the Dalai Lama and the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile, Dharamsala has a rich Tibetan cultural heritage. Surrounded by a dense coniferous forest, it was originally a British garrison town. It had been a popular retreat in the summer months to escape the heat of the plains until the devastating 1905 earthquake.
The market town has bustling bazaars filled with Tibetan artefacts, crimson-robed monks from the monastery and beautiful tea gardens that produce black, green, oolong and white tea. We highly recommend taking a gentle hike through the indigenous Gaddi villages to Naddi, which offers picturesque views of the Dhauladhar mountains and pine forests. In the surrounding forests there are a number of bird species including eagles and bearded vultures, and leopards have also been spotted.
Start your morning with an energising yoga class before delving into the local culture. Visit the Thosamling nunnery where nuns talk through the Buddhist traditions they follow, learn to cook momo – a South Asian dumpling – and witness craftwork such as thangka paintings, metal and silk work being created by locals at Norbulingka Institute. Don’t miss the panoramic views from the golden roof as well! The Dalai Lama is often in residence between May and July and may be leading prayers, so do ask our India experts who will be able to check for you.
Kalaczakra temples, Dharamsala
Kangra Valley, Himachal Pradesh
One of the most beautiful and dramatic valleys of the lower Himalaya, the Kangra Valley also has an intriguing history. The ruins of the regal Kangra Fort, built by the royal Rajput family of Kangra State, are the largest in the Himalaya. Carved out of monolithic rock, the Hindu temples of Masroor date back to the early 8th-century and have elaborate carvings. The main sanctum has nine seated deities; Shiva is in the centre and is surrounded by Vishnu, Indra, Ganesa, Kartikiya and Durga. From the temples’ grounds you can take in the views of the snow-clad Dhauladhar ranges.
The best way to reach the Kangra Valley is by the Kangra Mountain Railway – also known as the Kangra Toy Train. It covers a distance of 163km across beautiful sub-Himalayan terrain and passages tea gardens, rice fields and ancient Hindu shrines. First commissioned in 1929, this incredible feat of engineering passes many small stations, travels across 971 specially designed bridges and through two tunnels. At its highest point of 1,291m, the journey provides views of the glistening Dhauladhar mountain range.
This small, verdant hill station is 35km from Dharamsala and on the edge of the Dhauladhar mountains. Surrounded by pine forests, Palampur is Himachal Pradesh’s tea capital and benefits from the area’s mild climate. Here you can visit a working tea plantation, to wander through the manicured gardens and interact with the tea pickers before seeing how the tea is processed in the small factory. After which, you can sample all the different delicious infusions. From Palmupur, you can join the Kangra Mountain Railway from Nagrota, taking in the scenic views of the countryside.
Tea picking in Palampur, Kangra
This medieval village in the Kangra Valley retains its charm from a bygone era. Walk along the narrow, cobblestone streets passing small shops with mud plastered walls and slate rooves, fort-like houses and colourful havelis – traditional Indian townhouses. The local market has a lively artisan tradition, while the area is renowned for its blossoming flowers in spring. From here, you can walk through the forests keeping an eye out for the birdlife, cycle around the villages or spend the afternoon fishing.
Pragpur lies near to the Dhauladhar mountains, a location believed to receive the astral influence of prayers that have been offered for thousands of years at the three nearby ancient Shakti temples: Bajreswari (Kangra), Jwalamukhi and Chintpurni. If you are fortunate enough to be visiting in January, you will be able to celebrate the Punjabi Lohri festival with the lighting of bonfires. The festivities mark the movement of the sun between the hemispheres.
The vibrant city is home to the spectacular Golden Temple, which is the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion and is one of India’s most humbling sights. The temple is built around a man-made pool and was destroyed twice by Muslim armies from Afghanistan. The shrine was rebuilt in marble and copper by the Sikh’s greatest secular leader, Maharajah Ranjit Singh. The top section was then adorned with 100kg of pure gold in 1830, leading to its moniker, the Golden Temple. An impressive 75,000 people every day eat for free from the temple’s kitchen, which is open 24 hours and serves simple but wholesome vegetarian food including dal.
A short walk from here is the Jallianwala Bagh public garden and memorial that commemorates the devastating events of the 1919 massacre by the British occupying forces. Just under an hour's drive from Amritsar is the Wagah border between India and Pakistan. Each evening as the sun sets, the closing of the border is marked by much pomp and ceremony as each countries’ flags are lowered to the accompaniment of loud Bollywood music and displays of military peacocking from the border guards.
Golden Temple, Amritsar