Some 400 claret-robed monks were sitting cross-legged, intoning the special prayers for the Tibetan New Year. The sun shone brightly with the promise of spring in the northern Himalayas, glinting off the ice-bound Dhauladar range across the valley. Some of the assembled monkhood wore the arching yellow caps which have given this reformed sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelugpa, the nick-name of "Yellow Hats". Among them, seated on a slightly raised dais, was a bespectacled figure who has become a 20th-century icon. The 14th Dalai Lama was performing his priestly office.
Afterwards, he addressed the crowd of Tibetans who had gathered outside the temple. Some had recently escaped over the snow-bound Himalayan passes; others were life-long exiles who had travelled for weeks across the Indian subcontinent to be there. When he appeared on the balcony, they threw themselves face forward on the ground in full-length prostration. The handful of Western travellers left standing looked around guiltily. Faced with such unconditional devotion they may have wondered, as I then did, what had brought them to Dharamsala in the first place.
For Dharamsala is an oddity - unless, that is, you are a Tibetan Buddhist. The upper town, where the Dalai Lama lives, is still known as McLeod Ganj, and in its first incarnation was just another hill-station where British colonial officers could escape the heat of the plains. Among its early fans was the Viceroy, Lord Elgin, who chose to be buried there in the Church of St John's in the Wilderness because the pine-covered hills reminded him of Scotland. True, there are some lovely walks out from town through rhododendron and deodar forests, and at times the snow-covered Himalayan peaks seemed close enough to reach out and touch. But the town suffered from earthquakes and never acquired the popularity (or notoriety) of Simla or Darjeeling.
Dharamsala's second incarnation began after the exiled Dalai Lama settled there in 1960, since when it has been capital of the Tibetan government- in-exile. Once more it is a bustling town, though nowadays it caters for the needs of a refugee population determined to maintain their culture. There is the Tibetan Childrens' Village, a rehabilitation centre for recent arrivals, a library of Tibetan works and a centre for traditional medicine. There are also brightly-painted monasteries and temples recently built to replace those left behind in Tibet. But it is not to see such modern renderings of lamaist architecture that Western visitors climb the hill to "Little Lhasa". It is to see the Dalai Lama himself.
Some, like the Canadian nun I shared a compartment with on the train up from Delhi, had clear-cut reasons. A dedicated Buddhist, she was there to attend the Dalai Lama's course of teachings - but most travellers go simply to experience Dharamsala's strongly Tibetan atmosphere, to mingle with the stream of pilgrims and recently arrived refugees who are constantly passing through town.
This was not my first encounter with Tibetans. While travelling through eastern India I had constantly run into them at Bodh Gaya and other places associated with the historical Buddha - beginning with his birthplace at Lumbini (just across the Nepalese border) and ending at Kusinagara, where his body was cremated. They were following a pilgrimage route which has existed for nearly 2,500 years; only here they were joined by pilgrims or "spiritual tourists" from other Buddhist nations
The largest gathering I encountered was at Bodh Gaya, where the Dalai Lama was expected any day to lead a series of teachings. This had naturally drawn many Tibetans, and a tented village had sprung up behind their monastery. But Bodh Gaya has become such an international centre of pilgrimage that their presence was diluted. In the gardens around the ancient Mahabodhi temple, facing the peepul tree beneath which the Buddha attained enlightenment, I saw saffron-clad monks from Burma and Sri Lanka performing their hundreds of prostrations alongside maroon-robed Tibetans and bare-armed Japanese. Some were getting through their quota of prostrations much quicker than others; and while I'm sure there was no spirit of competition, it did conjure up images of some religious variant of the Asian Games.
Apart from Mahabodhi temple and the Bodhi tree, there are not many "historical sites" at Bodh Gaya. Instead, there has recently arisen a clutch of new Buddhist temples or monasteries, each of them built in its own distinctive "national style". The Thai temple is delicate and gilded; the Japanese spotlessly austere; the Bhutanese covered in brightly-painted murals. Since most of these temples double up as pilgrim hostels, you can hear a dozen different languages being spoken just walking down the street. And yet, Bodh Gaya remains very much part of India. The street-hawkers, the bicycle rickshaws, the line of beggars outside the main temple calling for alms, never let you forget that.
Next on the classic pilgrimage cycle is the Deer Park at Sarnath, just outside Varanasi, where the Buddha gave his first sermon. Here, the massive Dharma Chakra stupa (monumental mound) gives a clearer impression of the importance of Buddhism in the land of its birth. As with practically all ancient Buddhist monuments in India, it lies in ruins, the victim of Muslim iconoclasm and nine centuries of neglect. But the Deer Park surrounding it remains a haven of tranquillity - especially after the sensory overload of Varanasi's Old City.
Not being a very good Buddhist, I failed to make it to every pilgrimage site on the Buddha Trail. But then, unlike the Tibetans and other pilgrims I met along the way, I was not storing up merit for a future life. I remained an onlooker; and yet I did not feel excluded. The calm, self-composed manner in which the pilgrims went about their devotions, offering up prayers not just for themselves but for all sentient beings, had something to do with it. So too did the suggestion of a benign presence still being there - not only in these places where the Buddha himself meditated or taught, but also in Dharamsala.
For no matter whether the Dalai Lama is "in residence" or travelling the world to spread his message, his presence hovers over this hill-top town. In monasteries and nunneries, prayers are being offered for his long life; while in crowded hotels and boarding houses, exiled Tibetans hope against hope that, one day, their spiritual ruler will lead them back across the Himalayas to their home in the Land of Snows.
PILGRIMAGE TO DHARAMSALA
New Delhi is the best international airport for Dharamsala and the main Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Lufthansa flies via Frankfurt for pounds 368 return, available through Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3939).
Direct buses to Dharamsala take 12 hours and cost pounds 3.50 single, or you can take the sleeper train to Pathankot for pounds 12 and continue by local bus or taxi. Most visitors stay in McLeod Ganj, where there is a broad range of hotels and boarding houses. For the Buddha Trail, Patna or Varanasi, easily reachable by rail or internal flights, are good starting points. Local agents run bus tours, or you can hire a car and driver for around pounds 15 a day.
A guided tour of the Buddhist pilgrimage sites - led by private tour operator and lecturer Alistair Shearer - is scheduled for next February. A 16-day all-inclusive trip costs pounds 2,300. Call Trishula Travel (tel: 01572 8213300).