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The Vaishnodevi Experience 2023

My first trip to Vaishnodevi was unimpressive. Climbing was hard, and it only served to highlight how badly out of shape I was, while my in-laws managed to cope so much better. Further, I hadn’t quite realized that the cave experience wouldn’t be the same as I had imagined, since the original cave was only opened at certain times a year, and that we only entered a newly created tunnel, one far easier to access, and hence more manageable with the crowds that thronged the mountain shrine. The resulting experience at the shrine, for barely a fraction of a second, hardly compared to what I had expected / imagined / heard about. So, for me, Vaishnodevi was like any other temple, nothing to write home about, something that was reflected (though not explicitly mentioned) in the blog post I wrote then.

Heritage in the Wilderness

Nestled within a copse of towering Deodar trees, the Church of St. John in the wilderness stays true to its name. As we walk into the gates and approach the church from the busy road leading to McLeod Ganj, the silence is marked – a much needed respite from the honking of cars stuck in a traffic jam outside. The church comes into view, shadowed by the trees, lit by a few rays of light escaping the green canopy.

“How aptly named” is my first thought. It is indeed, a haven in the wilderness, even today. Inside, the centuries-old stone adds a touch of warmth, and the brilliant reds and blues of the stained glass appear like jewels in the evening light.

One of the stained glasses depicts the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, to whom the church is dedicated. 

Above is a beautiful depiction of the "Lamb of God"...

Another represents Justice, with a sword, and Sacrifice, with a wreath.

The Anglican church was built in 1852, though the stained glasses were a gift from Lady Elgin, wife of James Bruce, Lord Elgin, who was the Viceroy of India from 1862 to 1863. He died of a heart attack while at Dharamsala, and is buried here. His memorial stands behind the church, an impressive structure despite his too short a tenure as the Viceroy.

More interesting however, are the other memorials inside the church. One speaks of a death due to a bear attack! We can only imagine how wild this region would have been then!!

Another pays homage to British soldiers who died in the First World War, as far away as France, Mesopotamia and Palestine, as well as those who died in Baluchistan. It is a poignant thought to see these memorial stones, commemorating those who left their homes and came so far, only to die away from their loved ones.

We walk around for a while, savoring the silence, searching for the bell a board outside mentions. The original bell and tower were destroyed by the 1905 earthquake, but a new one was cast in 1915 by Mears and Stainbank, and brought all the way from England. The bell tower was never rebuilt, and the new bell was installed outside. After much searching, we find the bell, now enclosed in a cage, keeping it out of bounds from curious tourists and thieving hands. It is sad to see the bell so confined; it is meant to toll, after all.

Yet, it symbolizes so well, the state of our heritage today, which needs to be kept in a cage, under lock and key, to protect it.

We walk back to our car, the honking assailing us as we approach the road. The traffic jam is still on. Our brief tryst with peace is at an end. Yet, there is an odd sense of serenity we carry with us. Isn’t that the point of a place of worship, after all?

Incidentally, the church reminded me very strongly of Jageshwar. We had visited the ancient temple of Shiva during our visit to Binsar, and I have written about it here. The similarity of course, stems from the fact that both places of worship are nestled within Deodar forests. The trees tower over the shrines and their spires, making us look up, towards the heavens. It is a feeling I can only describe as deeply spiritual, and awe inspiring. Is this the reason the builders chose these sites for their shrines? What do you think?


  • Location: The Church of St. John in the Wilderness is located just before McLeod Ganj on the road from Dharamsala. It is within walking distance of the main market and the bus stop.
  • Where to Stay: Both, McLeod Ganj as well as Dharamsala have lots of options for accommodation. If you stay at McLeod Ganj, walk down to the church. If you stay at Dharamsala, combine it with a sightseeing trip to McLeod Ganj and around.
  • Timings: The church is open from 7 AM to 6 PM on all days. Services are held on Sunday mornings. 

This post is part of my series on my #summertrip 2015, and I hope to take you along with me as I recount stories from my month long trip, which took me across the country. To get an idea of all the places I visited, and what you can hope to read about, click here.  

Related Posts:
  • The Himachal Series- 


  1. Such a lovely church amidst the greens. Nice post, Anuradha.

    1. Thank you, Niranjan. and you are welcome! its a beautiful place.

  2. The very first photo rewinds memory of church in Lansdowne in Uttarakhand. Thanks for writing.

    1. Yes, Tushar. it is very similar to other churches built in the area during that period.

  3. It was lovely to tour the church with you via your photos and commentary. It reminds me of some parish churches I saw in Britain when I was visiting there many years ago. It is a shame that the bell tower wasn't rebuilt. Like you stated, the bell should have a chance to ring out instead of being confined to a cage.

    1. Thank you, Natalie. I guess many of these churches were inspired by those in Britain, since they were built by the British officers serving here. I just wish the bell tower was still standing and the bell was up there.. but then, we wouldnt have been able to see it up close!

  4. A lovely post for a beautiful church! I missed going into it to explore although I did see it on my way to McLeod ganj from Dharamshala. Hadn't stayed long enough to walk to the Church. This is a must do on my list for a future trip to that area :)

    1. I guess we really did see very different Dharamsalas, Usha... time to make another trip!

  5. Beautiful snapshot of the heritage!

  6. Hi Anuradha, Thank you for the lovely blog and photographs. I too remember having seen this huge and magnificent bell back in 2000. It is still very vivid in my memory even after many years. I would recommend this as a must see attraction on the way to Dharamsala.


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