Mcleod Ganj

By Tsering Dhondup

Dharamshala is situated at 32° 15’ 42” north latitude and 76° 22’ 46” east longitude in the foothills of the Himalaya in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. With an average elevation of 1457 metres (4780 feet), it falls on the spur of the Dhauladhar Range, a part of the Sub-Himalaya that forms the southern front of the Himalayan mountain ranges. But unfortunately, the town— which is the political and spiritual hub of the Tibetan Diaspora— is located in the zone V (highest risk zone with intensity MSK IX or greater) in the earthquake hazard zoning map of India.1

Dharamshala was originally formed as a subsidiary cantonment for the troops stationed at Kangra and was first occupied as a station in 1849. It was virtually destroyed in a massive earthquake in 1905 and remained almost uninhabited until the arrival of the Tibetans in 1960. Today, the town has grown in all dimensions and is inhabited by 13,701 Tibetans2 and 19,124 Indians3 . Due mainly to the charismatic presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama coupled with several centres of Tibetan culture and politics, Dharamshala has in past decades become the fulcrum of the Tibetan across the globe and attracts thousands of tourists year round.

1905 Kangra Earthquake

However, the peculiarly grand scenery and tranquillity of the town hides a major threat. The 1905 Kangra earthquake of 7.8 Magnitude4 at Richter scale (Mw) serves as a grim reminder of this unpleasant yet severe problem. According to an eyewitness account of this deadly tragedy,5 “…the morning of 4th April, 1905 at Kangra started as usual in a calm and beautiful manner but then in a moment with two fearful lurches every house in the affected area collapsed amid the thunder of falling rocks, the roar of the falling rafters and walls. As thousand shrieks for mercy, confusion prevailed all over followed by terror and death”.

Considered as a deadliest earthquake in the history of India, the Kangra earthquake claimed 19,727 lives and devastated Dharamshala, Kangra and neighbouring towns and villages. The earthquake hit at 6:19 am (local time) and is thought to have lasted at least 2 minutes. This earthquake, which was felt over an area of 416000 Sq. Km, destroyed around 100,000 buildings and disrupted farming by the loss of 53,000 domestic animals. It was later concluded that the earthquake might have been caused due to a displacement that took place along a low angle fault at a depth of 34 to 64 km. The devastating Kangra earthquake of 1905 severely damaged the Kangra Fort built in 470 A.D. along with St. John’s Church (1852) near McLeod Gunj where many British officials were buried in April 1905 speaking volumes about the colossal damage.

Although much of the deaths can be attributed to the severe shaking and the timing of the quake, when most people were indoors, but another major factor was the death of many government officials leading to the lack of direction and supervision in the rescue and relief efforts. Reports suggest that voices could be heard for many days from beneath the rubble crying out for help. But due to the death of most subordinate officials and escape of others, there was hardly anyone alive for directing rescue operations. The reports of the scenes after the earthquake are dreadful and the horror of the actual calamity is beyond imagination.

However, 1905 was surely not the end, if not the beginning. The fate and fortune of the people and their treasured creations in the town have been tested repeatedly in the following years, although with lesser intensity. Since 1905 several minor earthquakes have struck the region especially in June 15, 1978 with Mw 5.0 and April 26, 1986 earthquake of Mw 5.7, which occurred in the same general epicentral region. Dharamshala continues to experience frequent minor earthquakes.

Probability of Future Earthquakes

Recently, the recurrence of an earthquake similar to the 1905 Kangra Earthquake has been the most talked about issue in Dharamshala. On one hand, some beaded astrologers dwell on making predictions and/or speculations while on the other hand, the scientific community delve into the potentials for future damaging earthquakes in the Himalayan region. It is generally believed that the under-thrusting of the Indian Plate beneath the Tibetan Plateau drives earthquakes in the Himalaya.

A study by Wallace and associates (2005) found that the Kangra region currently has a slip deficit of at least 1.4 m, and probably more than 5 m if slip in 1905 was as little as 4 m, and further earthquakes are necessary to permit slip of the entire plate boundary. They further concluded that the Kangra rupture could fail again in Mw 7.5 earthquake (1.4 m of slip), or the surrounding ±150 km region could re-rupture the Kangra region as part of a much larger earthquake (9-11 m of slip, M8.6).6

Similarly, Bilham & Wallace (2005), in a separate study predicted a worse scenario wherein re-rupture can accompany a contiguous or enveloping rupture to the northwest or southeast of the region with a much larger magnitude.  Such a future earthquake, they believe, could exceed Mw 8.6 with 9 m of slip.7

In a study of western Himalayan plate boundary, Ambraseys & Bilham (2000) suggested that the 1905 Kangra earthquake occurred by an extended rupture in a major intra-crustal low angle thrust fault dipping gently under the Northwest Himalaya. They further indicated the possibility that major earthquakes are characteristics of the mode of plate boundary slip and such events occur at 50-200 year intervals in the western Himalaya.8

Furthermore, there are several seismic gaps in the Himalayan region where a segment of active fault has not slipped in a long period of time, in comparison with other segments along the same structure. Especially, the 500‐800 km long central segment popularly known as the Central Himalayan Seismic gap has remained unruptured for a long period of time. This long quiescent seismic gap located between Garhwal and Kumaon sectors to its west and east, respectively, is believed to be the most vulnerable segment, due for a great plate boundary earthquake of magnitude over 8.9
Such a major earthquake in the Central Himalayan Seismic gap, around 400 km southeast of Dharamshala, could also cause heavy damage to the community in Dharamshala.


Structural Vulnerabilities in Dharamshala

In addition to the region’s high seismic vulnerability, the surface materials and the methods of construction are further aggravating the underlying problem. Most of the buildings are built on surface material which is colluvium in nature meaning soils moving downhill under the force of gravity or deposited by downhill movement. The colluvial slopes are subject to gravity driven processes of soil creep and, over time, movement can destroy building foundations that are not designed to resist the resulting forces.

The stern and majestic landscape of Dharamshala with lush green vegetation is fast transforming into a bustling and congested town with high-rise concrete structures. People seem to have been so intoxicated in keeping pace with the growing demand for housing and commercial complex with no consideration of our risk. The growing number of multi-storied buildings built on unstable colluvial slopes and without following building codes suggests that we have not given a damn to seismology as we are increasing our vulnerability every day, every hour.

Anyone, who closely observes the haphazard construction scenario of Dharamshala- the little Lhasa, cannot help but be alarmed about its safety in the near future. The assessment performed by a team of GHI engineers and additional specialists in September 2006 found numerous earthquake vulnerabilities that endanger the Tibetan community’s efforts to preserve their cultural heritage. Scholars and artisans live in seismically vulnerable brick and concrete buildings, Tibetan children attend school in potentially vulnerable buildings and a number of cultural and historical treasures are currently at risk in structures.10 

Tibetans at large have explored and performed different spiritual methods to ward off any harmful events. It is believed that the construction of ‘stupas’ at different corners and  prayers such as ‘sa-chu-me-rlung’, a prayer to Guru Rinpoche and his retinue of the four elemental dakinis can help remove all obstacles caused by the four elements of fire, earth, water and wind. However, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has repeatedly emphasised to, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst” and, it is far from enough to rely solely on spiritual preparations.

Although it has been over a century since the great 1905 earthquake razed the whole region of Kangra, but we need to be prepared for any eventualities and remember ‘farther we get from the last major earthquake, closer we are to the next’.

Tibetan community needs to be seismological wise by constructing safe structures by following proper structural design and engineering practices while constructing a house. All structures must be designed and built as per the norms laid by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) codes to reduce our risk as, “Earthquakes don’t kill people, unsafe buildings do”. The preparedness measures must be adopted at all levels of community and administration. An earthquake risk reduction program should be carried out to sensitize our community to preparedness and response. In this way, we can save lives, reduce injuries and property damage, and avoid prolonged disruption of functions.

Earthquake Hazards in Schools

School children are at greater risk during an earthquake and needs to be highly prepared. Due to the fact that there are hundreds of students together in a building when the school is in session with fewer exits, and possibility of panic and disorder among students could result in heavy causalities. During the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake, more than 18,000 school children were killed and at least 50,000 injured. Similarly, an estimated 27,000 children died and nearly 7,000 school buildings collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.

Out of around 7011 Tibetan schools across India, 54 are located in high-risk zones (IV & V). We urgently need to promote a safe and healthy learning environment where students are secure in their pursuit of educational success. Every school must have a ‘Disaster Preparedness Plan’ and sensitize school community to respond to an earthquake. In the past few years, many schools in the northern India have been carrying out ‘Tibetan School Shake-out’ drill on April 4 annually to commemorate the Kangra Earthquake of 1905. Tibetan schools should practice earthquake mock drills at regular basis and make it an important part of their school curriculum.

When the event of 1905 took nearly 20,000 lives when there were hardly any multi-storied buildings, one can imagine the loss to life and property if the same event were to be repeated today. Undoubtedly, today the loss figures would be manifold, as we are increasing our vulnerabilities and multiplying the risk every day. If the devastating 1905 earthquake had not been forgotten, we should proceed safer with development and be a prepared community.

The writer works at Environment and Development Desk, Department of Information and International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration.

(The views expressed here are that of the author and shall not be regarded as views and policies of Central Tibetan Administration.)


1. As per the Seismic hazard zoning map of India, (BIS-1893-2002), the districts of Chamba, Kullu, Kangra, Una, Hamirpur, Mandi, and Bilaspur Districts lie in Zone V (Maximum risk zone).

2.  Tibetan Demographic Survey (2009),  Planning Commission, Central Tibetan Administration, Dharamshala, India

3.  Census of India, 2001 published by Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner India, Ministry of Home Affairs. New Delhi: Government of India; 2004.

4.  Over the century Kangra quake has been downgraded from 8.6 to 7.8. Earlier the magnitude was believed to be 8.6 at Richter scale.

5. Kaul, P. H., (1911) Census of India, Report, Punjab Government Press, p. 14.

6.  Wallace, K., Bilham, R., Blume, F., Gaur, V.K., Gahalaut, V., (2005), Surface deformation in the region of the 1905 Kangra Mw = 7.8 earthquake in the period 1846–2001, Geophys. Res. Lett., 32, L15307

7.  Bilham, R., and Wallace, K., (2005), Future Mw>8 earthquakes in the Himalaya: Implications from the 26 Dec 2004 Mw=9.0 earthquake on India’s eastern plate margin, Geological Survey of India Spl. Publication 85, 1-14.

8. Rai, B., (2004), Himalayan seismicity and probability of future earthquake, Guidelines for IAGA WG 1.2 abstracts

9. Valdiya, K.S., (2001), Reactivation of terrane‐defining boundary thrusts in central sector of Himalaya: implications. Curr. Sci. 81, 101– 114.

10. GeoHazards International, (2006), A Culture at Risk: An Initial Assessment of Seismic Vulnerabilities in Upper Dharamshala, An assessment report submitted to the Flora Family Foundation, California

11.  Includes all Tibetan schools in India administered by Central Tibetan School Administration, Department of Education, Tibetan Children’s Village, Tibetan Homes Foundation and those governed by autonomous bodies.


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