It is three in the afternoon. We have just arrived at a small town on the Mysore-Madikeri road, not far from the coffee plantations of Coorg or Kodagu in the Western Ghats of Southern Karnataka. Ahead of us is a long stretch of road that undulates gently as we enter a quaint looking area, with plenty of shops, residences and fluttering prayer flags sending out millions of prayers through the wind. Inside the shops neatly stacked hand-crafted sling bags, scarves, shawls and woollen cardigans, Buddhist artefacts, and paintings, small-sized Buddhas of silver and other metals and ethnic jewellery displayed in a corner. Outside, on the steps leading to the shops, the gentle weather-beaten faces of elderly women, sitting and knitting at leisure, whilst chatting among themselves. Bright sunshine and a sense of quiet that envelopes one like a blanket.
Every house here has a line of prayer flags near the entrance or driveway. Some even have it in their terraces. Gradually, the road narrows to an empty stretch as we leave the houses behind, to enter a wider road. From a distance, we can see the imposing structure of the monastery at the far end. The road leads up to the entrance gates. Before us stands the famous Namdroling Monastery. We have finally arrived. Welcome to Bylakuppe or Little Tibet!
One of the monks we spoke to, tells us, that in the early sixties, the Indian government had set up one of its first refugee camps here, to accommodate the fleeing Tibetans, who arrived here literally in thousands, following the 1959 Chinese invasion. Today, there are over 10,000 Tibetans living here, including more than 5000 monks, making it one of the largest Tibetan settlements in the country.
Bylakuppe has a number of small camps or agricultural settlements close to each other, and a number of monasteries, nunneries and temples in all the major Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The most well-known among them is the educational monastic institution Sera, the smaller Tashilunpo monastery in the Gelukpa tradition and Namdroling monastery in the Nyingma tradition). Namdroling Monastery today is the largest teaching centre of Nyingmapa tradition in the world.
As we enter the monastery, we are greeted by a group of giggling monks or little Buddhas in their traditional attire. No, they are far from sombre and look like they’re full of the gleam of mischief that they are ready to play upon the unsuspecting visitor every once in a while. I smile at them and they giggle even more, a kind of quiet understanding that we will keep out of each others’ way and carry on with our respective agenda for the day. Later, we also gather that this monastery is also home to monks from across Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh and Nepal who are trained in logic, philosophy, debate, and all of the traditional teachings during the course of their education here.
The Golden Temple draws a lot of tourists on an average day. The place is teeming with visitors but there is a sense of calm around us.
As we enter the monastery through a door with a curtain of beads, we are immediately drawn to the three resplendent golden statues of Buddha Shakyamuni, flanked by Padmasambhava and the Buddha Amitayush on either side.The one of Buddha in the middle is about 60 feet high and the other two about 58 feet high.
Our guide explains to us in great detail about how, in accordance with the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, sacred scriptures and stupas have been placed inside these statues as a means of consecration. We are pleasantly surprised that there is no restriction on photography and as we go about clicking, he appears quite pleased. Not only that, he gladly poses for us too, but only once he is outside the shrine, guiding us, ever so willingly, to the other surrounding temples. In the large prayer hall of the Golden Temple, we also see huge drums that are carefully kept aside, for special occasions.
Looking above, on either side, one finds the walls are adorned with beautiful paintings that depict important aspects of the Buddhist philosophy and tradition. The paintings are very large and cover most of the walls and evoke a sense of awe and inspiration in the eyes of every visitor, as we discovered first-hand. The scale and the proportion of the artefacts and the statues inside the temple are as striking as the beautiful but gigantic paintings that hang outside the shrine, at the entrance displaying a rich tapestry of Buddhist tradition that reaches out as much to the believer as to the skeptic.
Looking around, one can tell that this temple is also popular with local Tibetans. They seem to attend ritual ceremonies on a regular basis here, as part of the endless stream of visitors, eager to stroll around the monastery grounds and turning the prayer wheels and sometimes, walking around the stupas.
For a moment, I imagine this place when prayer is in session and it is ringing out with gongs, drums and the drone of hundreds of young monks chanting. How wonderful it would be to sit quietly and listen or perhaps meditate in this haven of calm and peace…Ah wishful thinking, I say to myself! A gentle nudge by my ten-year-old brings me back to reality. He tells me that a group of noisy tourists are barging in and we must make way to see the other temples.
Whilst they are very beautiful and serene as places of worship, the other two temples in the monastery, however, are no match for the colour, grandeur or richness of the Golden Temple. In one of the temples, there is a large prayer hall with a few devotees in prayer, seated on the floor.
The more I see, the more I realise that although a lot has changed in Bylakuppe since the refugees arrived here in thousands, in many ways, life has remained unchanged for a whole generation of people. But, if for once,you feel the little town is in a time warp, you’d be wrong. Because beneath the serene, peaceful orderly life of prayer and meditation at Bylakuppe, the custodians of dharma are increasingly facing challenges in preserving their unique way of life.
In another temple, I stroll in to find an empty hall with not a soul in sight. I stop short of entering. As I turn towards the doorway, I notice a beautifully hand-crafted door knob. It is so intricately carved that the slanting rays of sunlight create a sharp contrast that heightens the craftsmanship. I cannot resist trying to capture it in a frame.
For a while, I have completely forgotten where I am. This place, like any Buddhist temple, brings a lot of peace and quiet to the soul. We sit on the steps for some more time before realising that it is time to head back.
As we make our way out of the monastery, we do a quick tour of the area surrounding it. After picking up some souvenirs we do a quick browse at the handicraft shops, followed by a brief stopover at the Tibetan-run Malaya Restaurant for a quick snack. (Do not miss the vegetarian momos (steamed dumplings) and thukpas (noodle soup) which are especially worth a try). A short and a memorable trip for a long time just came to an end.
As we set off for Mysore, driving past the narrow lanes, I promise to be back soon. I came here looking for peace and I found it here in these prayer halls, of this quiet sleepy town, far from the buzz of the metropolis. If you, like me, wish for a bit of quiet and solitude, do make a trip to Bylakuppe someday.
How to reach Bylakuppe: This little town is situated near the town of Kushalnagar on the Mysore-Madikeri road. There are buses to Kushalnagar from Mysore and Madikeri.
- Road : The nearest Town : Kushalnagar
- Train : The nearest rail station is at Mysore
- Air : The nearest Airport is Mysore Airport.
Best done on a day-trip, many tourists find it useful to base themselves in nearby Kushalnagar – its’ twin town about 5 kms away. There are many hotels in that area with clean functional rooms, and is within easy, commutable distance from the monastery.
Worth noting though, that foreigners are only permitted to stay overnight in Bylakuppe if they have a Protected Area Permit (PAP) from the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi. This usually takes five months to process. For more details, the best place to contact would be the Tibet Bureau Office.