Nirvana in Little Tibet

Bhavya Dore 9 June 2009

A couple of years ago I took the overnight bus from Delhi to Mcleodganj in the upper Dharamshala district of one of India’s most prosperous states: Himachal Pradesh.
Surprisingly, it turned out to be one of the best gastric holidays ever. In the lower reaches of the Himalayan range, the little town has Weekend Getaway written all over it. But “Little Lhasa” is more than that; it’s also a sanctuary for Tibetan refugees and winter home to the Dalai Lama.

The first stop on the tour was an obvious choice: the monastery where the Dalai Lama stays. The security team stopped us in our steps as soon as we entered the complex. After much parleying we were told that we couldn’t just waltz in and ask to meet His Holiness but had to have a prior appointment. And where was such an appointment to be made? We were summarily directed to thedalailama.com. I kid you not.

Never mind that, the Temple Road still leads straight to nirvana—the culinary kind. When at the monastery I did as the Dalai Lama does: eat pizza. At the in-house café they serve an array of Italian dishes. I ordered the “pizza too much hot”; hard to resist with a name as intriguing as that. It was indeed hot—in temperature, spiciness and overall value. But it was the street fare that made the weekend truly worthwhile. For a three street town Mcleodganj does well in terms of street grub. I had my fill of momo (dumplings) and tried something the street vendor told us was laphin. The yellow noodles were diced and submerged in liberal doses of chilli sauce and assorted spices. Served cold. Other all-time favourite’s thenthuk and thukpa were served in all the hole-in-the-wall eating joints sprinkled around Mcleodganj. Both are clear noodle soups (the former flat noodles; the latter thin and stringy) with various vegetables, served simmering hot—great in the biting Himachal winter.

An hour climb away was the much touted Shiva Café (named after the adjacent Shiva Temple). Though it didn’t have a lot to offer by way of food it made up for that with its ambience. Just outside Mcleodganj, overlooking a waterfall, it turned out to be a quaint outdoor joint atop a hill, rocks for seats and stoned men playing folksy musical instruments for entertainment. All these establishments encouraged a kind of languid lingering, and with the atmosphere of candlelit cosiness, eating and drinking became self-indulgent aesthetic rituals. Equally worth mentioning were the Himachali fruit wines: pear, plum, apple, strawberry, orange, rhododendron, and apricot—the fruits have really come out in support of the Tibetan beverage industry! Rotten fruits actually. What began as a way of churning profits out of rotten apples has now burgeoned into a full-fledged tourist attraction and developing economic sector.

Another popular beverage in Tibet is tea. It made several appearances, in several forms—ginger, lemon, ginger lemon, ginger lemon honey, apple—you get the picture. Even butter tea was on the menu. A Tibetan breakfast staple, it was pale, milky, salted and made of yak butter. Not quite my cup, as I discovered. By the time I was through with all the eating and drinking, the three day weekend had come to an end. From a great spiritual outpost I returned filled and fulfilled. Looks like spiritual fulfilment will have to wait.

Bhavya Dore