"Dharamsala" literally means "a spiritual dwelling" and in loose translation as a shelter or rest house for pilgrims and travellers. Traditionally, such dharamshalas pilgrims' rest houses were commonly constructed near pilgrimage destinations often in remote areas to give visitors a place to sleep for the night. When the first permanent settlement was created in the place now called Dharamshala, there was one such pilgrims' rest house on the site, and the settlement took its name from that dharamshala.
After the arrival of the British, the area was developed into a cantonment. At one point, it was mooted to be the summer capital of India. But this was not to be, as much of the town was destroyed in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake of 4th April 1905. The disaster killed over 10,000 people in this sparsely populated area.
Dharamsala came on the world map in 1959 with the arrival of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile (http://www.tibet.com). Currently, it is a very popular hang-out for foreigners, backpackers and students of Buddhism. Indeed, it is now perhaps a little too popular and many would say the town, and especially McLeod Ganj, is little more than a backpacker ghetto. Don't come here on a long weekend expecting peace and tranquility.
Lower Dharamsala is at an altitude of 1,400 m, while McLeod Ganj is at around 1,750 m, making them considerably cooler than the plains below. Temperatures in January can dip below freezing, while June can go up to 38°C. The monsoon season from July to September is very wet. Even in March, when the Dalai Lama holds his teachings and the weather down in Delhi is downright balmy, you will still need a heavy winter coat. These can be purchased at reasonable prices in the town.
Dharamsala is divided into two distinct areas that are separated by a 10 min, 9 km bus or jeep ride.
Lower Dharamsalaconsists of most of the government offices, Schools, the local Hospital, and commercial areas. It also has a few tea gardens. One in the area of Chilgari and another just beyond Dari. It is a typical small Indian town that, other than for the bus station, is of little interest to tourists. One can enjoy the view while driving through.
Upper Dharamsalaknown more commonly as McLeod Ganj is named after Sir Donald Friell McLeod the once the British Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab. It is home to the Tibetan community and the centre of tourist activity. Unless specifically stated, all listings in this article refer to McLeod Ganj. To know more about mcleodganj history and have some up-to-date information, MclloPedia is a page dedicated to mcleodganj and beyond.
Bhagsuis 2 km north-east and is a small quiet urban area. Bhagsu is full of shops and restaurants and has a public pool popular with locals.
Dharamkotis 3.5 km north and is up the hill from McLeod Ganj. Divided into lower and upper Dharamkot, lower Dharamkot is similar to a smaller Bhagsu, with a number of restaurants and hostels all in close proximity. Upper Dharamkot is nestled in the woods and is ideal for those looking for a quiet escape from urban life or those wanting quicker access to the trails that start just at the edges of Dharamkot.
Villages near McLeod Ganj include Forsyth Ganj, a short hike away on the way up from Lower Dharamsala.
For a quiet and basic experience, try Naddi 3 km or Talnu 11 km.