7 Ways to Create a Real Cultural Experience with Tibetans in McLeod Ganj, India

by Rachel Rueckert

“Tashi Delek!” or “Welcome!” is how you would be greeted when stepping off the bus in McLeod Ganj, India, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile. This community is a brightly painted town built along the southern side of the lush Himalayan Mountains in Northern India. This unique settlement is a spiritual pilgrimage and refuge for Tibetans, Indians from all over the country, and tourists flocking from all corners of the world.

Mcleod Ganj
Mcleod Ganj. Photo by Rachel Rueckert

Walking along the winding streets, one passes by rows of cafes, backpacker hotels, and custom shops playing Tibetan mantras on repeat. The roads of McLeod lead to the center of this community—the red and yellow temple of the Dalai Lama.

McLeod Ganj has so much to offer, and yet, it can be easy to get swallowed up in the tourism of the area and miss out on the rich spiritual traditions and opportunities available in this town. The following are a few recommendations of things travelers can do to truly explore the deep history of the area and to design a more meaningful cultural experience. 

1. Stay with a Host Family: Many Tibetan families are interested in providing traditional food and lodging for travelers and students who show genuine interest in the local culture. This is fairly common practice, and locals can direct you to those in charge of the home stay programs. Living in local homes gives you an up close view of Tibetan customs and ways of life you could never experience staying in the many guest homes in the area. It is also cheaper than guest house fees. 

2. Circumambulate the Temple: Walk the kora, or the circular path around the Dalai Lama’s temple. Tibetan Buddhists believe this improves your karma. Circumambulating the temple provides you with a special glimpse at the daily life in the area and a chance to meditate. You can also strike up interesting conversations as you stroll along with people from all walks of life hanging out around the temple. Afterwards, check out the temple. Visit the rooms available to visitors and see if you can do as many prostrations as the older woman next to you.

3. Sign up for Quality Classes: Sign up for a Tibetan language or religion class at the library. Ensure it is a course taught by a geshe monk or a local Tibetan and not a Westerner looking to make a bit of money. The courses offered at the library down the hill from McLeod Ganj are more authentic and informative than most courses geared towards tourists in the area. Many yoga courses and teacher certification classes are also available in the area. Many of the instructors will let you sample their classes before committing to their studio. 

4. Volunteer: Mcleod Ganj is rich with opportunities to volunteer. Helping to teach English at any of the many organizations in the area (geared towards monks, incoming refugees, and political prisoners for starters), is an irreplaceable part of being in McLeod. Many locals want experience conversing in English, and it is a unique opportunity to hear their stories and to ask them questions about the local community and culture. Volunteering is also a way to give back to the community in a meaningful way. There are other organizations to volunteer with depending on your interests.

5. Read Local Posters: Posters of upcoming events are plastered along many of the walls in McLeod Ganj.  Pausing to read some of these fliers will help you learn more about the local activities in the area. Whether you are looking to have your stars read, to watch a documentary, to attend the annual Miss Tibet contest, or to listen to the Dalai Lama speak, there are plenty of chances to get involved and push beyond the typical tourist experience. 

6. Avoid Western Hangouts. Backpacker hotels and restaurants catering to Westerners are places to avoid if you want a more meaningful cultural experience. When possible, try to eat at Tibetan and Indian restaurants where locals congregate. They are less expensive and more conducive to learning about the local culture.  

7. Build Relationships with Shopkeepers:  Spend time with local store owners in front of their shops and ask them questions about their lives. Practicing a few phrases in Tibetan from a travel guide go a long way in showing your real interest. Remember, they see hundreds of tourists a day. What sets you apart from the typical tourist? It is your job to show them. Many people in McLeod Ganj are eager to tell their stories and to hear yours in return, so start the conversation.