As the darkness envelops the towering three storied temple adorning colourful victory banners, tassels, bright red canopies and a golden pinnacle hundreds of earthen lamps give birth to soothing light which grapples with the night. The hustle and bustle of the day has given way to a surreal calm - the sound of drums, trumpets, conches and cymbals which reveled with the morning sun has faded in the emptiness of the cosmos. The chorus of chants which resonated in the halls of the monastery has been swallowed by a vacuum. While sitting on the cool floor and beholding a red hue bathing the golden statues of Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava and Buddha Amitayus time stands still and all worries disappear into nothingness. A child monk in ochre robes clutching prayer beads ambles gaily to the tranquil Buddha and gazes at the peaceful face; breaking from a trance he then prostrates himself and walks away humming. Here on the steps of the Golden Temple in Namdroling Monastery, under a canopy of a starlit sky, the magical silence is broken only by the hushed voices of a couple of young monks enjoying a coca-cola. As the monastic town of Bylakuppe in Karnataka prepares to fall asleep it compels me to contemplate this eventful day spent wandering its streets.
Arriving in the dull town of Kushalnagar, sitting on the highway from Mysore to the hill station of Kodagu, one is pleasantly surprised to come across Buddhist monks dawdling through the market. From here a lonely road threading green fields runs to the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe known for the sprawling monasteries, Namdroling being the most popular, and its jolly inhabitants. The Golden Temple, in the Namdroling Monastery, houses huge copper and gold statues of Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava and Buddha Amitayus which are filled with scriptures, relics, small clay mould stupas and statues which symbolize body, speech and mind of Buddha. The walls on third and second floors are colorfully painted to illustrate the life and teachings of Buddha, great teachers and disciples of Dzogchen (body of teachings and meditation practices of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism). On the first floor the walls are covered with male and female deities - some in wrathful forms attired in skins of living beings and bone armaments others in amicable silk and white. Behind the Golden Temple and to the right, silver prayer wheels, interspersed with giant red coloured ones, form a boundary which ultimately ends in a row of pagodas.
Heading further along the road, in the opposite direction of Kushalnagar, one comes across the civilian cluster called Camp One offering authentic Tibetan crafts, paintings and cuisine. Close by is the quaint Sakyapa Monastery with its golden and red heavy wooden doors, a neatly laid hall with bells, heavy drums and trumpets. Behind the monastery is a field where a thousand prayer flags flutter sending their message to the heavens. Retracing the steps, strolling past a decent pond and following the road across open country one comes to an intersection; taking a left here brings one to a mish-mash of massive monasteries and colourful compact houses with small courtyards and gardens. This settlement boasts of exquisite monasteries like Sera Jey, Sera Mey, Sera Lachi and Serpom. The artwork in the Sera Jey focuses on the life of Buddha – conception, birth, renunciation, enlightenment, teaching dharma and the deed of passing away – and houses paintings of all the Dalai Lamas. During prayer hours the halls, drowning in incense smoke, come alive with the crash of cymbals and gongs accompanied with guttural chants. Other interesting murals in these monasteries are of the Four Guardian Kings of north (Vaisravana), west (Virupaksha), east (Dhritrashtra) and south (Virudhaka) which grace the walls of the porches. The walls also depict the Three Roots and tantric practices of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
In the evening when the sun transforms itself into a big ball of orange hundreds of monks gather in the courtyards of these monasteries to indulge in the Tibetan tradition of debate. It usually involves a couple of people, one standing who asks a question and the other seated who answers them – the end of a question is often punctuated with a clap. Buddhist temples are inherently bastions of peace and sobriety where troubled minds can find solace and Bylakuppe is no different. Add to this the opportunity to experience the life in a monastery up close complimented with delicious Tibetan food makes Bylakuppe an ideal destination for travelers aiming to relish different cultures. And I can assure you that listening to the clamour of claps emanating from the monasteries in the backdrop of the setting sun will cleanse the trepidations of an urbane life and rekindle a naïve sense of joy – if only for a little while!
Overseas tourists are not allowed to stay in Bylakuppe without a Protected Area Permit. Visitors can stay in Kushalnagar and make a day trip to Bylakuppe. In Bylakuppe accommodation is available in Namdroling Monastery, Sera Monastery and Paljor Dargye Ling Hotel located near Namdroling Monastery. For information on getting a Protected Area Permit please visit http://www.palyul.org/eng_resources_visit.htm.