About the Bir-Billing-Bhattu Area
Situated at the foothills of the Himalayas in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh (just two or three hours by road from Dharamshala), amidst paths winding through tea gardens, the charming Indian town of Bir (Hindi: बीड, Urdu: بیڑ) is known worldwide as a destination for ecotourism and meditation studies, and praised by visitors for its natural beauty. Bir is home to a community of over a thousand Indians, a Tibetan refugee settlement and a small but growing international population (mostly students of meditation and philosophy, and also a number of paragliders and other outdoors enthusiasts).
Orientation to the Greater Bir Area
There are several neighbouring villages that are often referred to collectively as ‘Bir’ (especially by people who aren’t from the Bir area, but by some locals as well), including Chowgan (home of the Bir Tibetan Colony), ‘Bir Road’ market, and Bir proper (a.k.a. ‘Upper Bir’), as well as the surrounding villages of Billing, Bhattu (Sherab Ling), Ghornala, Keori, Ganed, et al. For clarity, we will refer to the larger area as ‘the Bir area’ and to the village of Bir itself as ‘Bir proper’.
The original settlement of Bir (established circa 1600 CE) sits at the northern edge of the constellation of villages forming the greater Bir area, perched at the top of the gentle slopes of the Himalayan foothills, just before the earth turns sharply upward to the snow peaks. It is a quiet Indian village clustered along the main Bir-Billing road, with only a few dozen shops. Near the centre of the Upper Bir bazaar is a large tea processing factory, which offers tours for those interested in a fine orthodox cuppa. (Note: To get to Bir proper from elsewhere in the area, you may need to specify ‘Upper Bir’. If you simply say ‘Bir’ to a taxi driver, for example, he will often assume you want to go to the Bir Tibetan Colony, since that’s the main tourist centre of the Bir area.)
Bir Tibetan Colony (a.k.a. simply ‘Colony’)
Located in Chowgan village, on the southwest edge of Bir, the Bir Tibetan Colony is one of the earliest Tibetan refugee settlements in India, established in 1962 by refugees from the Kham region of Eastern Tibet. The ‘Colony’, as it is called locally, features several Buddhist monasteries and temples and a large stupa. One of the main attractions for students and long-term visitors is the Deer Park Institute, which hosts a variety of quality lectures, courses, and practice programmes in the Indian wisdom traditions and other subjects. The Colony is also of interest to visitors as the main centre of accommodation in the Bir area, with several guest houses and a sampling of quirky cafés frequented by travellers and Tibetan refugees. (See the Bir Portal’s ‘Bir Beds’ page for information on accommodation in the Bir area.)
Ghornala & Dhanaari Hill: Home of the Dharmalaya Institute
The campus the Dharmalaya Institute is located approximately midway between Bir Proper and Sherab Ling on Dhanaari Hill, just below the tiny hamlet of Dhanaari and above the village of Ghornala. The valley of Ghornala is also home to the Ghornala Resort (in a clearing at the heart of Ghornala proper) and a handful of farming families nestled in a valley surrounded by government-protected forest.
Bir Road Bazaar: A Noisy Junction Market on the Way to Bir
The first corner of Bir most visitors will see is the highway junction market known locally simply as ‘Bir Road’, located at the well-signposted turnoff to Bir from the NH20 (the national highway running between Kangra and Mandi). This noisy cluster of shops is the best place in the immediate Bir area to shop for provisions (in terms of price and selection), with a good hardware store and a couple of veggie vendors with good selections of greens (not always available further up the hill). (Note that the name ‘Bir Road’ can refer to two different things: the Bir Road market specifically, or the whole stretch of road that connects the NH20 with the village of Bir to the north. If you need to specify the former, say ‘Bir Road Bazaar’ and, for the latter, say ‘Main Bir Road’.)
Billing: Paragliding Paradise
Bir is also the staging ground for what is regarded as the world’s second best paragliding launch site: the tiny hamlet of Billing, just a few kilometers above Bir. Hundreds of pilots from across the globe come to Bir every spring and autumn to paraglide over the mountains and tea plantations of Bir and the Dhauladhar Range of the Himalayas. Lessons and tandem flights are available for beginners (but be warned that paragliding is a sport with inherent risks: injuries are not uncommon and there have been a few deaths over the years).
Bhattu: Home of Palpung Sherab Ling Monastery
Just a few kilometers west of Bir is Upper Bhattu, better known by the name of its landmark, Sherab Ling, a sprawling Tibetan Buddhist monastery and retreat complex. Sherab Ling serves as the exile seat of the 12th Chamgon Kenting Tai Situpa, one of the regents of the Karmapa and the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Sherab Ling periodically hosts courses in Buddhist meditation and philosophy. Accommodation is available at the Sherab Ling Guest House except at peak times (when you can easily stay in the Tibetan Colony; it’s a lovely one-hour walk, a reasonably level bike ride or a quick taxi hop).
For Further Information on Bir and the Surrounding Area
See our Bir Links page for links to other websites related to Bir and the surrounding area. And for general information on the greater Bir area, including history, orientation, accommodation, food, sights, activities, and more, the best online resource is Bir Portal (BirHP.com).