I first notice the flags. Thousands of big and small pieces of red, blue, green and yellow fabric hanging from thin ropes fluttering in the abundant monsoon breeze. Some are tied in between tall, thin silver-oak trunks, some to tall poles. They have appeared suddenly among lush green fields and they disappear as quickly – even before I can pull my camera out. Soon more signs begin to appear: monks in deep red robes on two-wheelers, houses with slanting roofs and small iron gates, groups of young boys, also in robes, getting in and out of a large yellow building, stalls selling momos, thukpa and noodles, and a large gateway with golden pagodas.
I have known about Bylakuppe for some years now, but in all these years of knowing and wanting to come here I had somehow failed to visualize the place: how could I visualize a Tibetan monastery in the heart of South India when my experience said they belonged to the peaks of Himalayas among birches and deodars? I get my answer soon.
Located next door to Mysore, Bylakuppe is not only home to the largest Tibetan population in India (some estimates say there are close to ten thousand Tibetan refugees settled here), but it also houses Buddhist schools, universities and the largest Tibetan monastery in India called Namdorling.
We reach Namdorling around noon after a flavourful breakfast of rava idlis and tomato sambar and a pleasant drive along the mountains of Coorg. The sun is already warm but the breeze is soothing; the air meanwhile is infested with the heady smell of ripe jackfruit being sold in cellophane packets right outside the monastery gate.
The red and gold gate of the monastery leads us to a large courtyard with rooms and dormitories along its periphery. Another ornate gateway and a series of well-manicured lawns later, I come face to face with the temple.
The three-storied temple at Namdorling is a classic example of Tibetan craftsmanship. Its high tiers are painted in bright blue and gold and decorated with paintings, sculptures, prayer wheels and other Tibetan symbols. A large golden arch with intricate statues hanging from it dominates the structure while a huge picture of Pema Norbu Rinpoche, the creator of the temple, smiles gently at us from its façade. The doors of the temple however are firmly shut and the red-rimmed windows locked. I pay my obeisance to the white Tibetan lions guarding the doorway, take some pictures of the demons painted on the walls and disappointedly walk ahead.
It is difficult to believe that the sprawling monastery, the gompa and the town itself began with what was only a makeshift temple made of bamboo in just 80 square feet of area. The land had been sanctioned to the Tibetan refuges by the state government after the exile of Pema Norbu Rinpoche from Tibet in 1959. The temple came up in 1963.
A little ahead of the temple I spot a congregation of visitors entering a hall. I hastily deposit my shoes at the little kiosk and follow the congregation through a short flight of stairs. What I see inside leaves me spellbound: at the far end of the hall are three mammoth statues of Budhha, they are encrusted in gold and semi-precious stones, and are placed on high platforms. The walls behind them are covered in elaborate Tibetan paintings and the walls on the side are covered with classic thangkas; the pillars in front meanwhile have exquisitely carved dragons wrapped around them. Right in front of the central Buddha are pictures of The Dalai Lama and two other saints who I cannot recognize. A part of the ceiling is covered with victory banners, tassels and chandeliers, and another, which I cannot see, is perhaps open to sky allowing the sun’s rays to fall directly over the Gods.
The statues, a small board in English tells me, are made of copper and plated in gold. Inside every statue are scriptures, relics of great beings, and small clay moulded stupa that signify the body, speech and mind of the Buddha. While the central statue of Shakyamuni Buddha is 60 feet high, the ones on the sides – of Amitayus and Padmasambhava Buddha – are 58 feet each. The board further says, “Seeing the statues, venerating them, circumbulating and making offerings to them generates peace, wisdom, loving kindness and compassion in our minds and cleanses unwholesome thoughts and action.”
I am not sure if it is the rays of the sun or the words that I have just read that make the Buddhas look even more awe-inspiring. I suddenly want to go closer to them but am restricted by the prayer mats.
The mats – long and draped in colourful fabric – occupy more than two-thirds of the hall. On some mats I spot prayer books, bells, empty teacups and other knick-knack while some, probably belonging to older, or the senior monks, even have low desks attached to them. Towards the end of the rows stands a green drum suspended to a brightly painted stand.
The amount of adornment, colour, and gold in the hall would make any other place look gaudy and ostentatious, but here it blends with the calm. I regret having missed the prayer session, which, I am told, enhances the beauty of the place manifold. But am thankful for being able to witness the golden splendour anyway.
Outside the fragrance of a large Frangipani tree breathes life in the stillness of the lawn. A little far away, to my right are rows of silver prayer wheels and beyond that, from what I can make out, a row of stupas. Young monks, laughing and backslapping, emerge from the school situated on the near end of the monastery, their deep red robes complimenting the bright yellow school building in the background; on the far end, in what look like residential quarters, also yellow, I see some not-so-young monks going about their daily business – some are listening to music on Bluetooth headphones, some are taking pictures of each other on their smart phones, some are working out in racer-back vests.
The monks, the monastery, the stupas, the temple, and the Buddhas, tell me that Tibet can, and does, exist among coconut groves and date palms of South India, just as well as it exists among birches and deodars of the Himalayas.