Dharamsala is a city that also serves as the district headquarters of the Himachal Pradesh district of Kangra. It has a total covered area of 29 square kilometers and, as of the 2001 Indian census, has a population of 19,034 people. It has a high literacy rate at 77%, which is significantly higher than the national average of 59.5%. Dharamsala is perched on a spur of the Dhauladhar mountain range in the Kangra Valley, at an altitude of about 1,457 meters above mean sea level. It is counted as one of the most famous tourist destinations of India, mainly due to its rich historical past as well as its spiritual significance.
There isn’t much known about the ancient history of Dharamsala but it is widely acknowledged that the earliest tribes to have settled in the area were the Dasas, a warrior tribe that were later assimilated by the Aryans. The name was taken from the Hindu word Dharamshala, which means “sanctuary”.
The city’s modern history started in 1848, when the British empire annexed the place and, a year later, established a military garrison in the town. In 1852, Dharamsala became the administrative capital of Kangra District. There were two main areas at this time: the McLeod Ganj and Forsyth Ganj. In 1860, the Gurkha Light Infantry was transferred to Dharamsala from Kangra.
In 1905, The Kangra Valley suffered a major earthquake and destroyed the cantonment in Dharamsala, which was never re-settled. The residents were then relocated to the safety of Lower Dharamsala; at that time, the place consisted of nothing more than a jail, a cobbler’s shop and a police station. In time, Dharamsala became a popular spot for British workers assigned in or near Delhi to escape the summer heat. This ended in 1947, when India finally gained its independence.
1959 was the start of the establishment of the Tibetan settlement in Dharamsala, when the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet after a failed uprising against the Chinese. The Prime Minister of India allowed the religious leader and his followers to settle in McLeod Ganj (Upper Dharamsala), where they established a government-in-exile in 1960. Now, several thousand Tibetans in exile have also settled in the town, where they have built monasteries, schools and temples. All this sometimes causes the town to be called as “Little Lhasa” after the Tibetan capital city, and has become an important tourist destination, boosting the town’s tourism and commerce.
The town is divided into two different parts: Upper Dharamsala or McLeod Ganj, which has a height of nearly 1,800 meters, and Lower Dharamsala, which has a height of about 1,250 meters. The former is primarily a Tibetan area and houses the residence of the Dalai Lama while the latter is inhabited mostly by Indians. The town can be reached by railway via the Pathankot line and from there, requires a three-hour journey to the town. By road, there are bus services from Delhi via Kiratpur, Chandigarh and Bilaspur. The journey takes about eight hours. The nearest airport is located at Gaggal in Kangra which is just 15 kilometers away.