Rewalsar, a pilgrim’s paradise!

Welcome to Rewalsar!

Rewalsar was suggested to us by a friend who lives here.  He said it was peaceful, had good weather and was easy on the pocketbook. It is slightly cooler than Mandi and significantly smaller (2011 census figures for Mandi are 26,422 versus the 2001 census figure for Rewalsar of 1,369).  It is basically a place of pilgrimage with activity centering on the small lake in the center of town with the enormous statue of Guru Rinpoche perched high on the hill overlooking the lake.

Guru Rinpoche at sunset

This magnificent statue took Nepali and Bhutanese craftsmen 10 years to build and is the second largest statue in India.  The area is studded with caves which bear religious significance as well.  Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists all come to Rewalsar for its religious significance.  In addition, many residents of the Himalayan mountains descend to Rewalsar in the winter months to escape the harsh winter weather.  

A good night’s sleep

The town IS small.  Aside from the road around the lake which is a bit less than 1 kilometer long there is one main road leading in and out of the town. The main road serves as both a taxi and bus stand.  Most lodgings are found around the perimeter of the lake and many pilgrims come in large groups by bus.  The Buddhist monasteries and Sikh Gurdwara offer accommodation along with commercial hotels and guesthouses.  Most accommodation is quite cheap even by Indian standards running between 300 and 500 rupees a night.  Some of the hotels charge as much as 1,000 rupees a night and I would guess that these rates might rise during periods of high demand. Some people even rent places and use them sporadically throughout the year.  There are many good places to enjoy a decent meal either a tasty Himachal thali which is less spicy and oily than thalis found in other parts of India, or a mild Tibetan dish of dumplings (momos) or noodles (thukpa, thentuk, etc.). 

Nikko Dhaba is name you’ll hear over and over from the locals.  It is a small restaurant just off the road encircling the lake and is usually full of customers, both locals and visitors alike.  They serve the best tea in town as well.  One establishment of note is the Buddhist Monastery Guesthouse Cafe which serves a wide range of cakes (apple, carrot, lemon blueberry, etc.) as well as homemade brown bread, a vast array of really good coffee and lassis to name just a few of the treats. 

The cafe  is perched on a terrace with a stellar view of the lake and Guru Rinpoche. 

Gazing out at Guru Rinpoche

It seems to be a favorite spot for both visitors and locals alike and with decent wifi it attracts the laptop crowd.  

The ebb and flow of pilgrims and other visitors

Colorful pair of Arunachal Pradesh ladies

The crowds and activity ebb and flow according to the arrival and departure of various groups.  When we arrived there was a significant group of pilgrims from Arunachal Pradesh, the easternmost state of India.  I was especially pleased as they were all wearing their very unique red costumes. 

Ladakhis also arrive in large numbers wearing their more somber but traditional garb.  All walk clockwise around the lake fingering their prayer beads and chatting amongst themselves. 

Elegant pilgrim from Zanskar Valley

As the place is so tiny I find myself doing the rounds of the lake several times of day as well.  We even spotted a visitor from Zanskar Valley, a very elegant older man sporting a traditional dark purple robe. 

A plethora of holy places

While many visitors to Rewalsar have a religious agenda, we came for some peace and quiet.  That didn’t stop us from enjoying the numerous sites that attract pilgrims to the area.  One must mention the imposing statue of Guru Rinpoche perched midway up the hill/mountain and seemingly visible from just about everywhere. 

The statue is the second largest in India which explains his visibility.  The statue is a short walk up the hill from lakeside and is well worth the climb if only for the stellar view of Rewalsar Lake. 

Selfies are obligatory, sometimes even with strangers! 

There is a small cafe at the base of the statue and pilgrims sometimes sit in groups on the lawn having picnics. Beneath this statue lakeside one finds a number of Hindu temples.  We didn’t explore these too much, but my favorite is the blue temple with the lifesize black bull statue outside. 

Hindu temple

Aside from Guru Rinpoche, Rewalsar attracts many Buddhists with a number of monasteries.  We spent many weeks in one of the five rooms available for guests at ,the Drikung Kagyu Monastery Guesthouse just off of the main road leading into town on the lakeside road and near the entrance gate to the lakeside area. 

The guesthouse cafe has an ideal location for visitors with a birdseye view of the entrance gate from the main road as well as a curve on the lakeside road giving a view in two directions.  The statue of Guru Rinpoche is visible from most rooms. The actual brick red monastery sits on a hill above the cafe and guesthouse and houses a couple dozen young monks. 

Above the monastery compound is an elaborate building accommodating more long-term primarily western visitors who are in Rewalsar to deepen their Buddhist practice.  When Drikung Kagyu Monastery Guesthouse had a prior booking of a large group we moved over to Nyingma Gompa monastery

Nyingma Gompa Monastery just down the lakeside road in a clockwise direction.  This monastery is somewhat of a hub for Buddhist pilgrims especially with its 21 room capacity with single, double and triple rooms and even a room accommodating 5 guests!  The central courtyard of the Monastery hosted the Wednesday traditional dance nights for the Tibetan community. 

There is even a special room in the monastery reserved for the Dalai Lama.  Many pilgrims regularly gather in this courtyard and often traditional Tibetan tea is available for guests and visitors alike. Our own room was on the fringe of the complex one of three rooms along a corridor facing the lake and on the backside of the main street storefronts.  We even had a little glimpse of Guru Rinpoche and more monkeys than I would care for.  One evening I met a Tibetan man who had resettled many decades ago in Switzerland and he raved about the newest monastery, the Tso Pema Monastery perched up on a hill overlooking the lake and the former zoo.  This was also worth the climb.  It was a sumptuous place with a lot of gilded decorations including a wall of a thousand Buddhas encased in glass. 

A thousand Buddhas

This monastery had meditation houses available for those who wished to pursue a long course of meditation lasting 3 years and 3 months.  

Not far from the Tso Pema Monastery is the large white Gurdwara which also sits up on a hill.  Its architecture reminds me a bit of Islamic architecture with a simple facade in white with many arched doorways and windows. 

We ventured up there one gorgeous evening and explored the premises.  Sikh volunteers were busy preparing for the evening meal which is offered free to the public. 

Sikh volunteers helping to prepare the evening meal

We opted to have some tea instead but first took a tour of the premises. 

This included the main temple and the small, austere rooms around it that are available for visitors.  There is a daily bus to and from Chandigarh which parks here as well and which we wound up taking when we left.  Although there are a number of Hindu temples situated on the side where Guru Rinpoche is located, we merely walked past them occasionally catching an evening ritual in progress. 

Evening ceremony at Hindu shrine

Our agenda was not religious but for other visitors the many caves up in the mountains that were home to meditating monks were a draw.  I did step inside a cave just off the main lakeside road though.  The entire area is quite sacred and for those so inclined, there is a lot to do. 

Meet the locals

Life in this little town of a couple thousand people is tranquil which appeals to most visitors.  The locals make a living serving the pilgrims and other visitors with their small businesses such as restaurants, guesthouses, and stores selling clothing, groceries,  tsampa (Tibetan toasted barley flour), religious relics, and produce. 

Nikko Dhaba thali

Our favorite eatery was a well know restaurant called Nikko Dhaba serving a simple but delicious thali (rice, lentil and vegetable set) to both locals and visitors as well as the best milk tea in town.  As we walked around road following the 1 kilometer perimeter  of the lake almost 10 times a day, we became quite familiar with many of these businesses and with the locals who ran them.  When we weren’t enjoying breakfast at the Drikung Kagyu Monastery Cafe, we could be found at a truly tiny restaurant with an open front and one table where the husband and wife team served up hot, fresh chapatis and a savory vegetable dish.

School children would stream by on their way to school often stopping to purchase their small packaged snacks. 

My favorite place was a real hole-in-the-wall open-faced storefront where the proprietor sat hunched amidst an array of old items and parts of items offering his services as a repairman.  I am constantly impressed by the amount of recycling and repurposing of old items that goes on in India. 

School notebook bag

The cards I bought came packaged in a bag made from a used school notebook (complete with the corrections!). 

The budagas man had a cart which had the front wheel of an old scooter welded to the front. 

recycled scooter

A group of women street sweepers kept the road around the lake tidy and gathered any recyclable materials for the truck that would take them away. 

Tsampa shop dog

Then there was the Tibetan tsampa store which emitted the most pleasant aroma of roasted barley and which had its own dog usually sleeping near the massive, old-fashioned scale.

One Madame Defarge-like woman sat knitting in her chair as she waited for customers. 

Religious relics store

Several stores sold colorful religious relics made of resin and hand painted right there in Rewalsar. 

Past the Hindu Temples on an empty stretch of the road several ladies attempted to support themselves selling Hindu related items for worship or offering their bathroom scale to get your weight.  

Who needs a zoo?

According to a long time visitor to Rewalsar, there used to be a zoo by the lakeside just below the Meditation Center and Tso Pema Monastery which had a malnourished bear and a few other unfortunate animals.  I was delighted to hear that it had closed a few years ago but the premises are still very visible.  But who needs a zoo in Rewalsar?  Animals are everywhere!  As with most holy places in India, monkeys are in abundance. 

They can be seen scampering around the lake road, rooting through garbage, swinging from tree branches over the lake and occasionally facing off with the dogs. 

Young monkeys playing lakeside

Enormous cows ply the main and lake road (and I mean ENORMOUS…about shoulder height) often parking themselves outside of eateries in the hopes of some chapatis. 

We would save our organic waste and give it to the cows on one of our many walks. 

Feeding the cows

At one point a large aggressive monkey spotted my bag of organic treats and marched aggressively towards me forcing me to surrender its contents on the spot.

Bessie gets some tsampa

As with most of India street dogs are everywhere and are for the most part well loved.  However at times it appears that there is no animal control and the large population of dogs leads to packs of roving dogs barking and fighting through the night.

Lakeside abounds in animals.  The lake itself is full of fish almost 2 feet in length that congregate on the shoreline in a very creepy fashion.  In some spots they break the surface of the water with open mouths seemingly gasping for air. 

Disturbing fish behavior at Rewalsar Lake

Ducks are kept near the Hindu Temple end of the lake and allowed to roam around in the day but put back in cages in the evenings.  Large white ducks make quite a show bathing themselves on the edge of the lake. 

Bath time for the ducks

One tree ladkeside across from the Drikung Kagyu Monastery Guesthouse Cafe is host to a great number of bright green parakeets with long tails who chatter away in the day time. 

We even thought we saw a mongoose darting across the lakeside road and disappearing into the bushes which we of course took to be a sign of impending wealth and prosperity. 

Looks like rain!

As in many small and quiet places, weather was a good topic of conversation and conjecture.  Some days Guru Rinpoche shone brightly under the sun.  On other days the statue was shrouded in mist.  Towards the end of our visit the rain became incessant making a muddy mess of the dirt road around the lake.  

Why travel, why India?

As with the weather, books have a prominent place in quiet out-of-the-way places.  I carry a Kindle with me on my travels and it gets some very heavy use.  One of the books that kept me riveted during my stay in Rewalsar was Lost in the Valley of Death by Harley Rustad.  It tells the story of a young American man who vanished into the mountains in a place called Kulu Valley not too far from Rewalsar.  It is particularly pertinent reading for anyone coming to India.  The book discusses the many reasons westerners are drawn to India as well as the reasons many become lost there.  Religion plays a role as well as people’s need to escape from life.  In trying to untangle the story of Justin Alexander Shetler one gets a pretty accurate view of the kind of tourism found in the northern mountainous regions of India.  The role of social media in creating a public image is dealt with at length and it is spooky to be able to visit Justin’s Instagram account to reference posts he made which are discussed in the book.