McLeodganj looked familiar even at half past five in the morning, before dawn broke. The narrow streets that would be bustling during the day were empty at that hour but yet, inviting. The taxi drivers were inviting as well – whether to help find a hotel room, or to drop off at the hotel already booked.

The sky was still dark when I found myself standing outside the locked doors of the hotel that I’d booked for myself. Just as I was about to call the front desk, I felt a strange sense of guilt – I could wait a little while, until the day broke – I thought to myself.

I took a brief nap and then a warm shower before setting out to explore this lovely town.

The morning was bright and sunny with a hint of a chill in the air. Domestic tourists are few at this time, so the streets weren’t too crowded.

The local street market had a charming bustle – vegetable and fruit sellers were doing brisk business, eateries were about to open, little Tibetan children were walking to school.

I noticed a few Bengali tourists on their annual Durga Puja vacation. Many of them carried the universal symbol that sets apart a Bengali travelling to the mountains – the venerated “muffler”.

I sat at the TCV Cafe, sipping a cup of Americano and watched life in McLeodganj go by. Every now and then, I’d look up at the Dhauladhars in the distance. The peaks are now devoid of snow, but, with winter fast approaching, they won’t be for very long.

I’ve looked at those mountains innumerable times before, sitting at that exact same spot, but never during winter. How glorious would those tall peaks look on a clear winter day, I wonder! How would the busy street in front of me look like after a fresh dusting of snowfall? I don’t know; I hope to find out one winter. I want to sip coffee in TCV Cafe on a January day. Until then, I’ll imagine it.

I ambled along the narrow street that led to the Tsuglakhang Temple. That name is quite a mouthful, so I’ll just call it by the moniker it is better known as – the Dalai Lama temple. I love the place – the vast courtyard, the colourful thangkas, the giant statue of the Buddha, the rows of the large mani wheels. I think the temple would’ve invoked reverence in me even if I weren’t a student of Buddhist philosophy.

In the afternoon, young monks gathered at the temple courtyard for the traditional Tibetan debate. It drew plenty of curious tourists. The traditional Tibetan style of debating is spectacular. Two (or more) monks come face to face, one sits on the ground, while the other stands facing him. The one who is defending a tradition sits, while the one challenging it, stands. The standing challenger begins the debate with a sharp clap and invokes Manjushri, the deity of wit and wisdom. Every time the challenger throws an argument, he repeats the same sharp clap. The clap is delivered close to the seated defender’s face. Naturally, the standing challenger must swing his body while delivering the clap. To an onlooker, young monks making the animated movements and clapping sharply while saying something is nothing short of an esoteric spectacle. Naturally, everyone’s cameras were out.

As the monks wrapped up their debate sessions, I decided to leave as well. Perhaps, Bhagsu would be a good destination for the evening, I thought.

The winding road to Bhagsu is a delightful walk. Unlike the roads in the town, the one to Bhagsu doesn’t have too many buildings obstructing the view. At every corner, you get a full view of Mcleodganj town. In the distance, you can even see the lovely cricket stadium in Dharamsala.

Expectedly, Bhagsu was teeming with tourists. Instead of adding to the crowd at the small waterfall at the end of the trail, I decided to find myself a quiet spot downhill, by the stream. I sat on a large rock and just listened to the water gurgling.

The setting sun shone on the peaks of the surrounding mountains. I had to leave before it got too dark at my rocky seat.

The mountains were the same as what they were when I visited them last. They’d be there tomorrow, the next day, the next month, the next time I visit. They’d stand strong, and patient.

I retraced my steps back to town and went back to the temple. The young monks were chanting their evening prayers.  I stood at a distance and listened.

As I prepared to leave the temple, I sat on one of the steps, tying my shoelaces. An old monk who was walking by affectionately pulled my ears and gave me a wide, toothless grin. His chuckle sounded like the most heartfelt blessing that I’d received in a very long time.