Momos, monks and more - Bylakuppe
My birthday was on the horizon
and but it was on a Monday. Before you give me the pitiful look, let it be known that on that day there was no work done, fun was had and rest of the time spent at the Chinnaswamy stadium for an IPL match, without paying a penny. How’s that for a Monday?
*smug look on my face*
I knew that a weekend trip would be the most befitting gift to myself and, if the superstition is to be believed, to set just-the-tone-i-want, for the next one year. I was going through various options when one morning, while half-asleep, the name floated into my head - and stayed there.
Tip-off: That semi-awake state makes for a very good nesting place for good insights. Leverage it.
Bylakuppe is home to one of the largest Tibetan settlements in India. It is home to two of them since the 60s. Located in the West of Mysore district in Karnataka (India), it falls a bit off the main road and the nearest big town is Kushal Nagar.
Friends were pestered and desperate attempts were made at ticket-booking on the KSRTC website.
Tip-off: use the site on Internet Explorer, if you wish to actually book tickets. Cards are accepted only from ICICI or Axis Bank and netbanking option for SBI doesn’t work.
The bus was non-a/c but the weather more than compensated. By the time we exited Bangalore, the seats were full. The journey had commenced with packets of Choco Fills and Pure Magic - predictably, nothing went wrong.
Tip-off: Chocolate on a travel trip is a must. Any form will do.
We alighted at Kushal Nagar (the nearest major bus stop to Bylakuppe) at 4:30am. A surprising number of active auto wallahs were stationed there as were local buses running on both sides of the road. We boarded one of the buses which was supposed to drop us near our place of accommodation. I was beginning to love the trip…
..Until the bus dropped us off in the middle of a road where nothing was plying.
That’s when we pulled out our Trump card - a Malayali friend. Within a few minutes, he had found a fellow Malayali at a small tea shop who arranged an auto wallah for us over a phonecall. Before we knew it, we were
speeding rocketing towards the Namdroling Monastery. Apart from fighter jets, i think we have super sonic autos too, now.
Tip-off: always carry along a Malayali speaking friend. They become your magnets for attracting the local Malayalis along with the help they offer.
Happy to have touched land and welcomed into the Paljor Dhargey Ling guest house, we trudged into our rooms and decided to catch some Zs before we stepped out to meet Bylakuppe.
After stuffing ourselves with not-so-great south indian fare, we stepped into the flagship spot - the Golden Temple a.k.a. the Namdroling Monastery. It’s the biggest of its kind in the world and belongs to the Nyingma tradition of Buddhism and is a religious college+community home+hospital, all rolled into one. It houses thousands of Monks and a few hundred Nuns, young and old, teachers and students, from various parts of India and neighbouring countries.
The temple sat calmly ahead of us, shining in contrast against the dull, clouded sky. The morning prayers were just winding up and the sound of chanting was hanging lightly in the air. During prayer hours, one is not allowed to step inside (and rightly so), so the intermittent breaks witness bursts of tourist activities. Most of them visit the place on their way to or back from from Coorg. No one sees any tourist value in Bylakuppe beyond getting pictures clicked next to colourful murals and rotating the prayer wheels around the periphery. A curiosity of two hours; ours was going to be two days long.
Once inside the main temple, three behemothic statues of Buddha and two more Buddhist figures loomed at the end. The silence added to the overbearing feeling of stupefaction which engulfed us. The detailed colouring all over the walls and ceiling left me awestruck. And to think, mere human hands did all of that! Tiny sparrows chirp around the sanctum and if you sit still enough, will come and perch right next to you.
Tip-off: Leave behind your phones and prattling friends. Even a whisper feels like a sin here.
The inhabitant Monks here are extremely amicable and those who can speak English and/or Hindi are more than eager to talk to you and answer your questions. We spotted a bunch sitting under a tree and had a great time talking. Most of them were young ones and had the same interests like any other teenager. The aura of Monk-ishness was soon broken.
We ventured further and found the school for the young ones where a huge playground was dotted with figures in maroon-red robes playing football, cricket, basketball and netball. All the Monks (except for some oldies) were superbly fit & healthy. They had a common drinking water point where each one brought his own pipe and water canister/bottles. They generously quenched our thirst but were too shy to talk.
It was a relatively hot day so we found ourselves this cool, shady (literally) spot and rested ourselves. It was around here that i spotted the first Nuns that day; totally engrossed in their android phone. Their cute eyes moved between curiosity and caution as we moved past them.
We moved to another temple (which to our dismay was closed) with a charming windmill on its side and a backyard with its one side (almost 300m long) filled entirely with Buddhist prayer flags. Just looking at them interspersed between the trees and fluttering in the wind was an act of solace.
The lunch was an indulgent and scrumptious affair with lots of Momos, noodles, soup and lime sodas. W.r.t. Momos, it was just a trailer. The movie followed at dinner time, the next day at breakfast and then again at brunch time, just before we left. The Malayali friend i mentioned earlier, had never eaten Momos before (*gasp* i know, it’s a ghastly sin) and for him, it was love at first bite. We ordered plate after plate of the stuffed, steamed bags and downed it with bottle after another of Maaza (mango flavoured beverage), the penchant for which the other friend had developed. So enamoured we were with these, that we came up with a whole list of Momo-words to describe our trip - momoful, momoable, momowesome, momorable and on and on. Can you think of
We spotted some activity happening atop the hillock where that temple was perched and realized that its doors had been opened. What happened next, we would have never imagined nor expected. Turned out that the one of the second-in-command in the line of Lamas (i.e. one line below the Dalai Lama) was visiting that temple for the very first time, along with the child Monk who is thought to be the reincarnation of a revered Lama, and hence an elaborate function was in place. Just as we reached, the cards starting coming in.
I hazarded a request to be allowed to see the proceedings. Now, in most other religions (at least in India), we would have been told to leave (politely or otherwise). But here, we were graciously welcomed and were not only allowed to be a witness but be a part of the ceremonies in whole. A good man sat next to us on the floor cushion and explained to us the occasion and every bit of what was happening. The chanting, the prayers, the music, the butter tea (just loved it!) and sweet rice served to us - everything just seeped inside me. We couldn’t believe what we were part of (including taking blessings from the Lama) and went through, totally spellbound.
Still feeling like we were in a dream, we went on to explore the other settlement with Sera Mey and Sera Jey monasteries. Wall after wall of enrapturing murals moved in front of our eyes. The late afternoon laziness hung in the air and we succumbed to it by lying down and dozing off lightly - all this, inside a monastery..!
Tip-off: the Monks are highly tolerant except one thing - noise! Be quiet and make minimal noise. Sleeping is a good option. The interiors are exceptionally cool and allow some very peaceful sleep.
The siesta ended with the rumbling of clouds and hurriedly taking an auto to get back to our base. The countryside sang a duet as the sky and earth held hands and met. Dark clouds gathered and the soil opened up in expectation. After the downpour subsided, we decided to take a walk along the fields. Breathtaking views welcomed us as Mother Nature reveled in the treasure it had just experienced; followed by a most dazzling and radiant sunset i’d seen in years.
The next morning had an early start and found us sitting with the Monks during their prayer sessions. The chants, the boom of the drums and the call of their horns - the reverberation enveloped every cell of my body. It calmed my mind, relaxed my body and the spirit felt balmed. Buddhist prayer chantings, since the time i first experienced them, have always had a deep effect on me. The language feels entirely ancient, speaking to your oldest part. One of the things high on my list is to learn Buddhist chants. I’m so fascinated with their prayer tools and instruments (one of which i bought on this trip - the amazing prayer Bell).
Tip-off: switch off your phone. Wear loose, comfortable clothing. Close your eyes, shut your mind and let the magic begin.
Another lucky and chance discovery was when we roamed around the campus of a college and came upon this gathering of monks of all ranks which turned out to be an examination in progress! While the judges and the top guy (principal of the college?) sat in front on a higher level, the student monks sat on either side with space in the middle where they would come in pairs to enact a most lively discussion, which varied from comedic to serious to highly animated. The one thing common to all was the hard clapping of hands frequently during the entire conversation. Their hands would be a tomato red by the end of it.
Tip-off: Don’t go through the monasteries hurriedly. Be patient and hang around a while - and let something serendipitous happen to you.
We strolled along the streets, aimless and unplanned. The houses were unassuming but subtly colourful. A place untouched by time; and enriched by time. We ventured into tailoring shops, local grocery shops, many more monasteries - until it was time to go back. I had to tear myself away from it. And more so when i thought of going back to a city.
We left the place with a longing, a tummy full of momos and Maaza and a wish to have a house like the one below.
When your batteries are low and the spirit has gone dry - this is where you can come. Rediscover a religion, a way of life steeped in the layers of mankind, spirituality and a higher self.
Know how it feels when things are how they ought to be - simple and pure. Let yourself frolic and run around free. Breathe in dollops of fresh air. Let the thoughts go unattested and the finally, released. Watch time struggle to pass.
Open your eyes and look beyond the monasteries and the monks and you will find the stillness of life looking back at you. Sometimes, it asks questions; at others it whispers reminders. Can you see?