Finding benevolence in Bylakuppe, Karnataka's little-Tibet

Finding benevolence in Bylakuppe, Karnataka's little-Tibet
Finding benevolence in Bylakuppe, Karnataka's little-Tibet
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Even as the world celebrated the 80th Birthday of His Holiness The Dalai Lama recently, down in south India, Karnataka was the only state that seemed to take a personal involvement in rejoicing this occasion. One needn’t find this strange. Karnataka has had a long-standing association with ancient Buddhist and Jaina cultures. Several antique settlements mark the state’s landscape and have become world heritage sites of touristic attraction. In the 20th century, Karnataka is the only state in South India that could pride itself of a special connect with the Tibetan spiritual leader. It is a proud home to India’s, if not Asia’s, largest Tibetan settlement outside of Tibet.

About four kilometers from Dubare on the Kushalnagar highway lies one of India’s most fascinating geographical destinations, Bylakuppe, India’s largest Tibetan settlement.  It’s strange how this little Tibet came to be formed thousands of miles away from the mainland Tibet. Driving down the arch that leads to Bylakuppe, an air of scenery strewn with prayer flags, Buddhist stupas, and trilingual signboards written in Kannada, English and Tibetan, transport you to another time and space. A slice of authentic Tibet in the tropical dense of south India, Bylakuppe is a wonderful synergy of Indo-Tibetan cultures and traditions.  Practitioners of Vajrayana school of Buddhism freely move amongst the coconut groves and betel-nut plantations. That they have been politically displaced from the Himalayan highlands doesn’t seem to bother them. They’ve managed to acclimatize themselves over the decades. In total there are over two lakh Tibetans living in exile across the world and half of them are in India, according to the Tibetan central administration office.

The biggest attraction at Bylakuppe is the Namdroling Monastery.  Few decades ago the senior Buddhist monk Pema Norpu Rimpoche and a few others wandered into these sandal groves with barely three hundred rupees in their hands and laid the foundations for a three-storied temple. The place was later consecrated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Bylakuppe is a home to over fifteen thousand Tibetan families and the Namdroling monastery serves their spiritual needs.

Feeling like an unreal movie setting amidst the lush jungles of Western Ghats, the monastery is framed within well-architected boundaries. The walls inside the monastery are elaborately tapestried with richly coloured mythology from Vajrayana scenography. The exquisite traditional Thangka paintings can have you awestruck! The ornate red door opening and folding back, panel by panel welcomes you to a gallery. Behind the darkened study hall sit a row of Bodhisattvas with gilt skins and eyes the colour of a summer sky, teachers and heroes, guardians and saviours: Manjushri, Kshitigarbha, Maitreya, Padmasambhava.

In other places are images of other Bhodisattvas and philosophers like Nagarjuna from neighbouring state of Andhra. Time and again, a deep booming sound of the ceremonial Tibetan horn emanates from the upper storey. Monks of all shapes, ages, and sizes welcome you with a wide smile, grinning ear to ear. At any point of time, you can find some of these monks busy rehearsing the grand tantric poojas for which the Vajrayana system is famous, some of them making Mandalas, some more offering to show you around the place. On special occasions, there are spiritual sermons by veteran monks. If you are fortunate enough, you might encounter the Dalai Lama himself on your visit. These days it is a common sight to see shy monks being harassed by an odd social-media maniac tourist for the ridiculously ubiquitous ‘selfie’. One wishes visitors respected the peace of the place, not pollute it with plastic and certainly avoid invading into the privacy of monks’ lives.

Get out into the markets and you are taken aback by a stark contrast of reality. Billboards of branded apparel and shoes, endless stalls selling Tibetan knickknacks, trinkets, junk jewellery, posters of the Dalai Lama, Che Guevera and Pink Floyd will welcome you into the eclectic social life of Bylakuppe. If you are a foodie, head straight to the many food spots dotting the landmark into the town. The best thing to order in any of the stores here are the legendary Momos. Available in all varieties, these steamed dumplings are another reason to travel to the settlement.  Spend your evenings listening to the eternal chants of ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ at the monastery, practicing meditation, circling prayer wheels and having fun with the scores of giggly little Lamas who make their smiles unforgettable. What more! You should not be surprised to hear Tibetan women talking in chaste Kannada or the Kodava language, as they go about doing their business in the local markets.

Bylakuppe is an ideal weekend getaway from the capital city of Bangalore.  Direct busses are available from Majestic bus station in Bangalore and a car drive takes about three hours. You can also take the trains that go from Bangalore to Mysore and get off at Kushalnagar and take a local ferry. Accommodation options are plenty and at extremely inexpensive rates. Remember you are here to find peace and contemplation, and so give up your luxuries and adopt a humble, sweet and simple lifestyle like all the monks here do. Even if it is temporary, you will enjoy the calm and cherish it later. Hit an internal refresh button on your mind and soul before you return to the chaos of the world outside. The positive energy you gain will keep you wanting for more of Bylakuppe always.

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi)

Images courtesy : Rajesh T

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