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Bhagsu Falafel. "Discount to soldiers in uniform"

The Israeli Phenomenon in India, Part 3 – The Case of Bhagsu

Israelis in Bhagsu
India’s “Community Center”

Fogs over mountains, Bhagsu Nag, Himachal Pradesh

Bhagsu Nag, a Himalayan Village

Bhagsu Nag, or Bhagsu for short, is a beautiful township (village) in the Dharamshala area, Himachal Pradesh. It is located in the lower Himalaya and is characterized by steep “streets”, houses reached only by mountain paths or stairs, a plethora of small businesses, friendly locals and LOTS of israelis.

Everybody is cruising up and down the hills all day long. 

Here are some girls on their way to the government school up Bhagsu’s Main Street:

School started. Girls going to government school, Main Road Bhasgu, Himachal Pradesh

These poor donkeys will soon toil up the road carrying construction materials:

The poor donkeys carrying construction materials up Bhagsu's main road

Bhagsu is one of three villages in the region of Dharamshala. The names are confusing. Most tourists who say they had been to Dharmashala, actually mean McLoed Ganj, Bhagsu or Dharamkot. McLoed Ganj in particular is a tourist magnet since it hosts the Dalai Lama and a large Tibetan community in exile.Very few visitors actually stay in Dharamsala City itself. 

Bhagsu, where I was lucky to stay for almost a full month, is at the center of the three-village aggregate, an easy and enjoyable walking distance to the other two. McLoed is a universal tourist attraction, but Bhagsu and even more so, Dharamkot, are overwhelmingly Israeli in color and culture. “Other” tourists might find themselves in the strange position of being a minority among Israelis…

For Hindus, Bhagsu is a Pilgrimage Site

According to legend, 5000 years ago, Nagdevata, the snake god, fought with Bhagsu, the local king, who dared to steal water from the sacred Nag Dal Lake. The king lost the battle and was forgiven. The site was consecrated as Bhagsu Nag.

Today’s pilgrims bath in the sacred pool (the men do, the women watch).

Pilgrims bathe in pool by lower temple. Bhagsu, Himachal Pradesh

They pay reverence to Lord Ganesh, remover of obstacles, by the pool, and to Shiva (and the snake god?) at the Temple.

Ganesh with mouse vahana and banana offering, Bhagsu Pool, himachal Pradesh

They walk up to the sacred Bhagsu Nag Falls and take a cold plunge and many photos.

Pilgrims and vacationeers at Bhagsu Falls

On the way to the Temple and back there are many opportunities for small shopping.

Indian pilgrims for Shiva Festival, Lower Bhagsu, Himachal Pradesh

For Israelis, Bhagsu is India's Community Center (Matnas)

Even the Indians remark on the “Israeli Phenomenon” in Bhagsu. The site “Mysterious Himachal: Land of Faith and God” states: 

The town of Bhagsu, 2 km from Dharamsala, has been fully settled by young Israelis, fresh from military service, and hanging out large groups

The Israelis in Bhagsu come in such large numbers that there is no culture shock; everything is written in Hebrew, and India is transformed into a familiar land of nice hikes, cheap food/drink, and no parental supervision.

What is not mentioned is that many people my age, as well as whole Israeli families also stay in the hotels and guesthouses in the area, and probably spend a bit more money on accomodation and food than the younger cohorts.  As to “parental supervision”, as I mentioned elsewhere, some parents nowadays even join their post-army offspring for sections of their trips. 

I promised in my post on Tushita to try and analyze the esoteric outlier Israeli phenomenon in India. A monumental task, but one has to start somewhere. Bhagsu is a good starter.

If Bhagsu can serve as a model case, some interesting findings quickly emerge:

Israelis Come to India to Study Crochet

Yes, indeed. The first reason Israelis flock to India is to study crochet. The Israeli pays a quarter of the price s/he would pay in Israel per lesson, and brings home awesome pendants and dream catchers to hang over the bedroom window.

Sign for Lolo Dreadlocks (rastot), Bhagsu

The Hebrew part of the sign states: 

With God’s help [somebody religious wrote this one].

Lolo is Perfect.

Killing (literally: faint-producing) dreadlocks (Rastot).

From here the Daughters of Israel emerge the prettiest!

On location you can also get lessons in crochet and dream catchers

The English part writes: 

Hair Braid with thread.

This is a classical example of Israeli Sahbek culture. “Sahbek” is hard to translate, but generally means: befriending, easy communing, making everybody into a “brother or sister”, a part of the “hevre” (another Israeli term, meaning “the group of friends”). It usually works very well in India due to some cultural similarities.

Draw Portraits

Number two reason Israelis come to India is to draw portraits.

On an investigative walk of Upper Bhagsu, I met a sweet Israeli girl on her way to a drawing class. She raved about the teacher and the course and encouraged me to try. My protests that drawing was not my strength were in vain. She insisted the teacher would succeed to teach me even if I had zero talent.

We walked into the studio. A group of Israeli girls was sitting on the floor around long wooden tables, working on their portraits. The teacher was walking around, correcting, commenting. I was invited to join. The girls proudly showed me their true-to-life creations in black charcoal. By the end of the course, the pictures are rolled into large cut empty water bottles, so they can be carried in a suitcase. 

The teacher, a gifted painter, charges 2500Rs (~120 NIS, or $40) for a 4-session course. In the first lesson (11:30 to 15:00) you learn how to draw eyes, noses, mouths, and shading techniques. By the second, you start drawing your portrait. From then on, you continue every day until portrait completion. No extra charge if more time is necessary.

Smartly, the first lesson is conducted mornings, starting Monday, and the others in the afternoons. This way the teacher can oversee several rounds of students simultaneously, maximizing his profits.

How About Wood Carving?

A third option for expanding horizons in India, or at least in Bhagsu, is to study wood carving. A bit off Main Street and on the way to several Israeli restaurants and hangouts, an active woodworking class is taking place in an open shed. Both genders participate, enthusiastically.

Make Silver/Gold Rings for Mom and Friends

All over Bhagsu Israelis (and others) are busy learning Jewelry making. 

Dr. Gulak's jewelry shop and workshop, Bhagsu, Himachal Pradesh. Signs in Hebrew and English

The Hebrew part of the sign adds over the English:

Gold and silver nose rings

Presents for mom and friends

Decent prices and a huge smile.

Israelis also buy jewelry in Bhagsu, but the real biggie for jewelry is Pushkar, Rajasthan, where I spent hours on Whatsapp buying the “right” silver earrings for my daughters. Prices unbeatable!

In Bhagsu, I was lucky to buy a beautiful quartz pendant on an intricate woven chain from a French jewelry apprentice for only 300Rs (~15NIS, or $5).

Learn How to Prepare Parantha

This is a BIG ONE.

If you are not interested in any of the above arts and crafts, Bhagsu, India’s Matnas (community center) still has much much more to offer.

Breakfast parantha and omellete in a Bhagsu dhaba. Himachal Pradesh

Indian cooking. By definition, every Indian lady can cook wonderful Indian food (OK, perhaps some matrons in Delhi or Mumbai with a bunch of servants attached can’t). Ninety percent of them would happily teach you for free or for some rupees how to make dahl, chapati and biryani. Israelis in Bhagsu adopted several local ladies, who by now teach regular classes to the crowd. By adopting I mean Hebrew signs in front of their doors and on the street, extravagant recommendations on popular Israeli Facebook/Whatsapp sites.

The results of this widely popular undertaking can be seen even in backwards Jerusalem, where several Israeli-run restaurants offer Indian dishes. Also, Indian food is a major component of the ever-more popular Indian festivals and gatherings that nowdays take place all across the Holy Land.

Israelis Come to India to Eat Israeli Salad

Cooking is a mutually beneficial enterprise for Israelis and Indians. Most restaurants in Bhagsu (and in other Israeli favorite destinations, like Pushkar) offer a rich Israeli menu side by side with the Indian one. The flux of Israeli visitors makes learning how to make falafel and hummus a profitable investment of time and effort.

Israeli salad in a Bhagsu restaurant, Himachal Pradesh

The locals catch up fast, and cook tasty and fresh Israeli food that will pass the most critical tests. 

Here is a comprehensive menu of a Pushkar restaurant (Bhagsu’s equivalent in Rajasthan):

Israeli menu in a Pushkar restaurant - Mango Tree Cafe
Breakfast menu in a Pushkar restaurant - Mango Tree Cafe with stron Israeli emphasis

Totally delightful. Even the name “Balagan Breakfast” demonstrates how the Indians flow with the Israeli Sahbek culture (balagan means big mess).

The traditional Indian “fix breakfast” itself had been penetrated by the Khavita (omelet)…

And Falafel - With a Discount for Soldiers in Uniform...

Dudu Falafel on Main Street, Bhagsu, is a polular Israeli hangout. On the counter it reads in big letters:

“Discount for soldiers in uniforms”.

Maybe you need to be an Israeli to appreciate the humor… Bhagsu Falafel. Hebrew sign declares: Discount for soldiers in uniform.

This one post cannot do justice to everything Bhagsu – Israel’s Community Center in India – has to offer, so you are invited to read The Israeli Trail In India – Lower Bhagsu to Upper Dharmakot;  and Bamba, Turkish Coffee and the Legendary Hezi. 

In preparation is also: The Israeli Phenomenon in India, Part 5 –  Music, Grass and the Spiritual Salad.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. The word מסע (trip) which has so many meanings is the key. It sounds so fascinating. It is used a lot in advertising. There are many מסע books and films. The tourism magazine for young people in Israel is called מסע אחר. The passion that one feels is לצאת למסע, which also means to change one’s life. India can provide adventurous and spiritual מסע.

  2. It seems that the Israeli traveler in India is like a snail, it moves around and finds itself in different places, but carries home along on its back…nothing is as good as home away from home!

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