Nestled in the northern Indian foothills of the Himalayas lies Dharamsala, a tiny city of only 20,000 inhabitants known widely as the center of the Tibetan exile community and home of the Dalai Lama. A beautiful town with Hindu and Buddhist influences, a friendly expatriate existence, and magnificent natural surroundings, Dharamsala is an ideal destination for volunteering abroad in India. Not only will you positively impact an underserved community, but you will undergo tremendous personal development amongst a deeply grounded and highly spiritual culture while volunteering in Dharamsala.
Projects & Placements
Volunteering in Dharamsala provides you with a quainter alternative to placements in urban areas of India, where everyday life can be intense and very chaotic. Volunteer placements in Dharamsala are often centered on the areas of healthcare, education, and community development. While Dharamsala has a higher literacy rate than most rural areas, it still hovers below 80 percent which means there are plenty of opportunities to facilitate economic advancement through education volunteer placements. Individual who volunteer in Dharamsala will also find placements in fields such as women’s empowerment and social justice.
Many volunteer programs target specific interaction with the Tibetan exile community of Dharamsala, which constitutes about half of the city’s population. The suburb of McLeodganj is home to the Tibetan government in exile, and many volunteer programs in Dharamsala are aimed at easing the transition into Indian life for Tibetans living in this area. Teaching English, computer skills, and other practical skillsets to refugees can be a great way for volunteers to help this often overlooked community in adapting to their new home and finding gainful employment.
Individuals can volunteer in Dharamsala year round, and programs typically last anywhere from two weeks to six months. Volunteers typically have a good amount of flexibility in determining their own departure dates and length of stay. Summers are hot and humid, followed by the rainy monsoon season. But, in some of the upper reaches of Dharamsala it can snow in the winter as well, so plan accordingly.
Life in Dharamsala
The city itself is very small, so volunteers can expect an experience reflective of Indian rural life while volunteering in Dharamsala. In short, life will be basic. While the city is a popular tourist destination and there is a modest expatriate community, volunteers will not have access to many of the entertainments or luxuries of a larger city. Early to bed and early to rise is the norm, and volunteers will certainly discover how to make the most of their days in this tiny hill town in the Himalayas.
Dharamsala is heavily influenced by both Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, creating a rich spiritual culture, which volunteers will have the opportunity to learn a lot from. Everyday life throughout India is more conservative than most Westerners are accustomed to, so whatever your personal beliefs it is important to be respectful and understanding of the culture which permeates your new home. If you keep your eyes open, volunteering abroad in India might just change your perspective on a lot of things in life.
When not volunteering, volunteers will have a lot of free time to explore the city and its glorious natural surroundings. Trekking is very popular in this part of the Himalayas, and even on an afternoon hike volunteers can come upon beautiful landscapes, such as Dal Lake, Naddi, and Bhagsu Waterfall. There are also many stunning temples in and around the city which merit at least one visit.
While volunteers will likely be living very basically in Dharamsala, they can also expect affordable prices to match the simple lifestyle. India is one of the most inexpensive countries to live in, which makes life within the city and travel elsewhere cheap and easily accessible. Those who volunteer in Dharamsala should be sure to take advantage of their location by travelling to other parts of Northern India, as there is tremendous diversity and beauty throughout the northern region of India.
Accommodation & Visas
Since Dharamsala is such a small city, it is likely that your volunteer program will organize housing for you ahead of time. Homestays are quite popular, affording those who volunteer in Dharamsala with an invaluable and intimate experience living with a local Indian or Tibetan family. Individual or group living options are also often made available – consult your volunteer program in advance to see what specific housing plans they offer.
You will need to apply for a visa in order to volunteer abroad in Dharamsala. What type you’ll need will depend on the length of your stay, but most commonly volunteer programs will help you obtain either a volunteer or tourist visa. Communicate with your volunteer program in India about what option is best in advance, and check out GoAbroad’s Embassy Directory to locate the nearest Indian consulate to you.
Benefits & Challenges
Volunteering abroad in Dharamsala will be a defining life experience. India has a mystical quality about it which has attracted foreign travellers for centuries, and as a volunteer you can experience the magic while also making a positive contribution toward the social development of the country. In Dharamsala specifically, you will find yourself in a unique environment influenced by both Indian and Tibetan cultures, a fusion of vibrant spirituality in the foothills of the Himalayas. Volunteer work in Dharamsala provides individuals with the chance to contribute valuable resources to a community in need while obtaining valuable life lessons in return.
Will you take the leap?