Offbeat Bylakuppe: A Slice of Tibet in Karnataka
January 1, 1970
by Smitha Murthy
Karnataka is that little jewel on the South Indian tour circuit, dwarfed by neighboring Kerala, yet brimming with both natural and historic wonders. Ancient temples jostle with wild forests and tigers, and tranquility is always a call away from beaches that can rival any in Goa. You could find India’s own Silicon Valley in the bustling, chaotic city of Bangalore and marvel at the country’s growing transformation into an economic powerhouse. You could do all this and more or you could just step into Tibet in Karnataka. Yes, Tibet, that ancient fierce land bordered by the world’s greatest mountains finds itself mirrored in a little corner in Karnataka.
Bylakuppe is not on the regular tourist itinerary. It’s a place that invites peace, a place that provokes solitude, and a place that merges culture with contemplation. Step into Little Tibet in Karnataka and watch the prayer flags gently rustle in the breeze. Find your own gem from the list below:
Golden Temple, Namdroling Monastery
Undoubtedly, THE tourist attraction of Bylakuppe. Most travelers usually end up running through the Golden Temple, before proceeding to the lush environs of Coorg. And that’s a mistake. The architecture of the Golden Temple or Namdroling Monastery is home to more than 5,000 monks who reside at the monastery, learning Buddhist teachings, philosophy, and way of life. Walk in here at 1PM or 3PM when they sit down to pray together and be prepared to enter another world. The chanting. The drums. The aura. It’s really another world.
Observing Thangka Artists at Work
Bylakuppe is the largest Tibetan settlement in India, and it’s not just a monastic center. The place is home to the heart of Tibetan art and culture as well, kept alive in hundreds of little ways. Hire a rickshaw from one of the many that stand guard at the entrance to the Golden Temple and ask the driver to take you to a Thangka artist’s house. When I visited, there were two students as well who were working with theThangka master. Intricate patterns were painstakingly etched. I speak to Pema, one of the students, who tells me that he has come from Darjeeling to study with the master. “Is it not hard to be an artist these days?” I ask. He shrugs. “Someone has to carry on the tradition,” he says, dipping his brush in a palette of blue, and tracing a beautiful flower on the easel in front of him. Thangkas are also available for sale and are a beautiful way to contribute to the local community.
Local Handicraft Center
My next stop is further down the road, as my rickshaw goes past hundreds of prayer flags. The air is serene, and the chortens seem to reflect that serenity. The TDL Handicraft Center is not really a center. The rather rundown-looking building smells divine. And it should, because inside the building is a Tibetan incense factory. The artists there are keen to show me the process of making Tibetan incense, most of it by hand. Bundles of prepared incense are ready for shipment. Tibetan incense is thicker than other incense and has a rich and earthy aroma because of the herbs used. Just across the factory is a small handloom weaving center, where two Tibetan women are engaged in making handmade Tibetan carpets. They don’t look up from their weaving as I enter but pause a while to show the long and laborious process it takes to create just one Tibetan carpet. “Who buys these?” I ask. “Mostly the monks,” they reply. The handiwork of each of these carpets is love, I realize. The love for one’s culture and tradition.
Sera Jey Monastery
Most visitors end up missing all the other quaint monasteries in Bylakuppe in their rush to see the Golden Temple. The Sera Jey Monastery is a secluded gem, away from the touristy throng. The Monastery also is a Center for Advanced Buddhist Studies and has the air of a university. If you are lucky, on some evenings you can witness the monks at a debate in the courtyard of the Monastery. You may not understand the language, but then, not everything needs a language.
Kagyudpa Nalanda Institute
A drive through verdant hills and greenery will take you to the beautiful campus of the Kagyudpa Nalanda Institute. A gold-plated Buddha greets you at the main temple, and the whole campus is based on eco-friendly principles. Green fields beckon you from the temple’s entrance, and you can easily while away a few hours with a book, lost in the quiet. Many of the students here are children, and from the rarefied academic environment of Sera Jey Monastery, you would feel you are back in school.
Bylakuppe is not just limited to these places, though. Much like Hampi, you can find your own monastery, that special place that evokes serenity and calm. Many monasteries may be closed but a helpful monk will always be around to open it for you. Although there are restaurants serving Indian food, try and have authentic Tibetan thukpa noodles at one of the many eateries in Camp 1 or Camp 2. Shop for local handicrafts, and the monks are always ready with a smile to answer any questions you may have.
Getting There: Bylakuppe is easily reached by bus from Bangalore or Mysore. Kushalnagar is the nearest big town and the lovely hills of Coorg just around the corner. You could also hire a car from Bangalore or Mysore. Rickshaws are plentiful in Bylakuppe and usually, charge a fixed fare to any places in the vicinity.
Stay: I highly recommend staying in one of the Monastery guesthouses. The Sera Jey Yiga Choeling Center promises rooms from Rs800 to Rs2,500 for air-conditioned comfort. Email [email protected] or call +91-8223-258435 for bookings. For more budget options, you could stay at the Paljor Dhargey Guest House near Namdroling Monastery. Rooms here are quite basic and often without hot water. But the location is perfect with easy access to the Golden Temple and shopping and restaurants close by.
Note: Foreigners need a PAP or Protected Area Permit for Bylakuppe. Apply well in advance, at least three or four months before your trip.