With memories good and painful, the idyllic hill town Mcleod Ganj stands apart. It has regained its position as the perfect hill retreat and its glory is burning as bright as the flickering flame of Buddhist butter lamps.
McLeod Ganj, the hill town of Himachal, was once a dream retreat for the European community living in this part of India who found it a fitting replacement for Darjeeling and Shimla, the other two preferred hill stations where our former rulers found their second home.Though McLeod Ganj was never blessed with huge development such as railways, top class educational institutes and the best of luxury hotels — all that Darjeeling and Shimla got over the years — it was still a piece of little Europe for many who left their homes for this country years ago.
Walking down the memory lane will show us that three historical incidents shaped the growth of McLeod Ganj in the past 165 years. The first was in 1850, just after the second Anglo-Sikh war, after which the East India Company took control of Kangra Valley and a garrison was set up in the upper part of Dharamsala, then a small village.
It was the time when Lord Elgin fell in love with the hill town, which boomed with activity. Then came the devastating earthquake of Kangra Valley on April 4, 1904, that left 19,400 people dead and destroyed the entire region. This made the place lose its shine in comparison to Shimla, which became the new favourite destination of Europeans to set up home. After 1947, with India’s Independence, McLeod Ganj almost became a ghost town.
It, however, got a new lease of life in 1959 when the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual Buddhist leader of Tibet, fled his homeland after a failed armed uprising against the Communist Party of China and took refuge here with a large number of Tibetan aristocrats and common people. Soon, the Tibetan Government in exile was set up here and the city, which was once a peaceful home for many Europeans, became a bustling mini Tibet.
No colonial hill station of India changed its character as drastically as McLeod Ganj did and that is why it is still exceptionally attractive. The radiant touch of the British is still visible in its dilapidated houses, decaying shops, near-destroyed burial ground, and a well-built church.
The romance with McLeod Ganj starts from the city square which was once a picture postcard arena but is now an overcrowded traffic jungle. Here stands a silent solder of time in the form of a fade shop which has been witnessing the people of the place since 1860.As unbelievable as it may sound, the Nowrojee & Son shop founded in 1860 was once the lifeline of this town because it was the only place that ensured the supply chain of commodities to the European dwellers here. From the best quality wine to chocolate or the latest European matchbox to British newspapers, every single domestic need was met by this shop. It even had its own postal service!
Today the shop is not even a shadow of its past but still bears testimony of a bygone era. It still has old furniture, giant glass jars, cabinets, electrical lamp holders and switch boards. The wall is full of publicity materials of petrol, soda water and cigarettes for brands that Europeans used to enjoy. No wonder a glow signboard hanging from the ceiling reads: “The Statesman — the dependable daily”, clearly implying what was the most preferred newspaper of Europeans in that era.
Another interesting spot is the St John’s Church built in 1852 to serve British soldiers and their families. A masterpiece of typical European architecture, the church is built of hand-cut local granite stone placed block by block.
Today with many memories and pain, Mcleod Ganj still stands apart. It has regained its position as the perfect hill retreat and its glory is burning as bright as the flickering flame of Buddhist butter lamps.