Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Butter Tea and Conversation

It must be a cunning curse from Hermes, the Greek god of travel. I always seem to leave something unfinished on my holiday itinerary. At one level, it irks my Type A personality to have anything left unticked on a list. At another level, I am told by well meaning travel partners, that this gives me reason to return.  

The last time we visited the Bylakuppe Tibetan Settlement in the early 2000s, it was a journey spurred by the whimsical idea of getting a glimpse of Tibetan life a short drive away from Mysore, Karnataka. The idea was so whimsical that we forgot to carry a camera. 

Bylakuppe was supposedly halfway to Madikeri, Coorg. We estimated it to be an easy afternoon drive, with a couple of hours for sauntering around at the Settlement and back home for an early dinner. However, the distance to Bylakuppe proved to be about at least twenty kilometres more than we had estimated and the additional distance meant that we had less time to saunter before sundown. 

I remember tall trees flanking the highway, resplendent with Tibetan prayer flags, leading up to the turn-off to Bylakuppe Tibetan Settlement, the Golden Temple at the Namdroling Monastery. But back then, all we had time for was the Golden Temple, where we gazed in awe at the giant statues and resplendent paintings on the walls. I regretted not having enough time for a proper exploration of the place and to indulge in my fantasy of perhaps nursing a cup of hot butter tea as the Tibetan who runs the eatery narrates inspiring tales about how the early settlers converted this arid expanse to arable land.

It’s been nearly fifteen years and Bylakuppe is firmly on the agenda this time, albeit en route to Madikeri. We have Google Maps, we have web resources to guide us and we pass signages until Hunsur. We even have a camera. More importantly, we have a plan to spend a couple of hours on focussed sauntering, drinking in culture and hot butter tea in equal measure.

Before we know it, we’ve missed the turn-off. However, the highway seems bereft of tall trees and I search for the Tibetan prayer flags that heralded the way the previous time. We backtrack and choose a road that looks unfamiliar but promising, thanks to the profusion of Tibetans in the vicinity. I cross my fingers and hope this is indeed the right road.

I remember the sense of incongruity from my previous trip. We pass Tibetan Buddhist monks riding bikes, spilling out of share-autos and buying supplies at small shops whose names are written not in the angular flourish of the Tibetan script, but in curving Kannada lettering!

The road winds through small clusters of houses and intermittently, open land where there is little shade, when we suddenly spot bursts of bright colours, fluttering happily in the breeze. Belated, but welcome confirmation all the same. The prayer flags transform the surrounding landscape into a sacred kaleidoscope of colour. We even spot a unit en route that prints them, and make a mental note to check it out on the way back.            

We follow the signs, some printed, some handwritten and finally arrive at our destination, the Golden Temple. While India is home to several Tibetan settlements, the first to be set up was the Lugsung Samdupling Settlement at Bylakuppe, Karnataka in 1960. According to the Central Tibetan Relief Committee, it is also one of the largest settlements in India, spread across 3210 acres. A second settlement in Bylakuppe came up in 1969, called Dickyi Larsoe and it is spread across 2000 acres.

The Logsum Samdupling settlement itself has five monasteries, and we make our way towards the Namdroling Nyingmapa Monastery that houses the Golden Temple. Walking into the precincts of the Namdroling Monastery through its ornate archway, we cross the neatly maintained yard and buildings with multicolour trims and then take the path to the prayer halls, passing through the courtyard garden with the occasional turkey scurrying about on the grass. The monks’ quarters are clustered around this garden and every doorway is decorated with auspicious festoons and doorway curtains in bright fabric. The monks, draped in maroon and ochre robes, hurry towards the prayer halls, where they are seated in neat rows, their droning voices dipping and rising, with the steady beat of an accompanying drum. It is rousing and calming at once. It sounds as though a thousand bees have congregated under one roof, droning in unison.

The Golden Temple is less gold and more colour. It looks taller than the last time I was here and I realise it has acquired an ornate wheel-like frame that forms a backdrop. The exterior has handpainted frescoes on the outer walls and statues on each storey of the vihara and on the wheel backdrop. Khatas or auspicious white scarfs, symbolising offerings of goodwill are tied on the large red doors to the temple.

Inside, three large statues dominate one end of the hall – the 60 ft Buddha Shakyamuni and the slightly smaller statues of Guru Padmasambhava and Buddha Amitayus. The structures hold holy relics and are made of copper, plated with gold. The walls behind the statues and all around the hall bear testimony to the painting traditions of Tantric Buddhism, replete with paintings of teachers, scholars and disciples of the Buddhas and numerous gods and goddesses, some smiling benevolently while others wrathfully bare their fangs.

At the canteen, the absence of butter tea doesn’t augur well. The canteen does, however, have momos (steamed dumplings) and thukpa (noodle broth) and we try to get the lady behind the counter to talk. She looks to be about thirty five and wears a pangden apron over her chuba (robe), that traditionally suggests that she is a married woman. She says that she was born here, which explains her effortless instructions in the Kannada language to the young boy working in the canteen. But she doesn’t talk much, only stopping to point out the portrait of Penor Rinpoche, who established the monastery in 1963. We valiantly try to finish the bowl of bland Thukpa without dribbling it over our chins and struggle through steamed momos stuffed with what I’m convinced is surely a local adaptation with the Kannadiga penchant for soppu (greens) and alugadde (potato).

We must be on our way, onward to Madikeri, but I have a vague sense of dissatisfaction as though I haven’t seen enough. Just as we’re winding our way towards the highway, we remember the Tibetan flags. I finally get my chance to learn more about the Tibetans in Bylakuppe when I meet Jampagelek who runs the Bhodjong Prayer Flag Printing Centre. 

“Tibetans regard prayer flags as sacred.”, he says “It is believed that the prayers they hold are carried by the wind to benefit all humanity. Prayer flags are hung auspiciously on the first 14 days of the lunar cycle, when the moon is on the ascent. The flags have sacred mantras printed on them, and this is why they should not be allowed to fall on the ground or come underfoot. When the flags become old and begin to come apart, they can be discarded by burning and a new set can be put up.” 

In 1959, Jampagelek’s parents and elder brother fled from Tibet and arrived in Sikkim through the Nathu La Pass. They led a difficult life as coolies and construction workers and this was where Jampagelek was born. When he was six years old, the family moved to Bylakuppe where the settlement had been established. After completing his primary education, Jampagelek studied Buddhist Philosophy at Sarnath and returned to Bylakuppe to begin the prayer flag unit. He says, “In the old days, these flags were made using wooden blocks which made the lettering illegible. I have type-set all the mantras and use the computer to lay out the content and then screen print it on to the fabric.”

We leave Bylakuppe after purchasing a packet full of flags that Jampagelek has kindly picked out specially for me. He gives me flags with the Wind Horse, a symbol of good fortune, health and happiness. The flag with the Wind Horse in the centre also has four other animals in the corners- Garuda, Dragon, Snow Lion and the Tiger. Collectively, the five symbols hope to evoke the dynamism of these five animals in the spirit. It is said to be specifically beneficial for people who are writing exams, travelling to faraway lands and to energise a lazy family member. I’m going to assume that the travel part is the only one that’s relevant to me.

Back home, when the next new moon cycle begins, we fasten these colourful flags on the railings of the verandah and wait for the possibilities to unfold. It has been an unfinished journey yet again. Maybe Wind Horse will hasten my return to Bylakuppe, to visit the unit that makes Thangkas, and talk to the owner who, I hope is old enough to have actually lived in Tibet before 1959 and has intriguing tales to narrate over a long pending cup of hot butter tea. 

Jampagelek shows us both the Dharchen which is a pole flag and the Mugthak Lung Thar - a composition of five flags, in the symbolic colours, Blue (Sky), White(Wind), Red(Fire), Green(Water) and Yellow(Earth), fastened with a rope between poles.

There is a central spiritual figure in each flag - usually the Wind Horse, Tara, Padma Sambhava and Avalokeswara - surrounded by the relevant Sanskrit mantra written in Tibetan calligraphic script. Each flag has spiritual relevance to the deity being invoked and personal relevance to the household it is hung over.

There are also small festoons for the entrance to homes with the same five colours, but with the sacred mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum printed across them. 

Bylakuppe is about 240 kms from Bengaluru and 87 kms from Mysore on the Mysore-Madikeri Road.

NOTE: Foreign nationals are advised to get in touch with www.tibetbureau.in, the official bureau of His Holiness The Dalai Lama, about applying for a Protected Area Permit (PAP) that is required to visit or stay at the Tibetan settlements in India. It is advisable to contact the office by telephone first.     
Pics by author.

An edited version of this article was published in the April 2014 issue of Culturama.

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