Nearby Tibetan settlements

Trip Start Sep 28, 2005
Trip End Feb 21, 2006

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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Today I went to Bylakuppe, a Tibetan settlement about 60km west of Mysore. Six of us shared a car to take us there. The driver spoke English incredibly well and understood even better, enough to join into conversations and answer our questions. The journey was lovely, through rolling hills of short coconut trees and coffee, wheat and rice fields, eucalyptus and beetlenut trees, and mountains slowly revealing themselves as we neared Bylakuppe and the clouds burned off in late morning. Fortunately the car had great shocks for the mostly uneven road. We passed through several villages and plenty of cows, all very skinny. Different species seem delegated for different tasks. Some graze, and a longer-horned variety usually pull carts.

Bylakuppe is spread out in the hills, with about 20,000 Tibetans and others living there. There is a lot of infrastructure: schools, community centers, a justice office. I also saw some hand-painted signs of the Panchen Lama, with trilingual explanations. I wasn't able to read everything from the car, but my understanding is that he is the world's youngest political prisoner, in Chinese prison since the declaration that he's the next incarnation of the Panchen Lama. Nearly all that I know of that situation is from a great book, "The Search for the Panchen Lama," that my friend Donna lent me in Japan. Worth a read - it explains a lot of recent history and changes in Tibet and China.

Burgundy-robed monks are everywhere, from ages five to fifty at least. We first stopped at Sera Jhe and Sera Mey, two monasteries/universities. The six of us paired off, and Carla and I wandered into Sera Jhe. The buildings are all very colorful and look fairly new (maybe just clean?). We wandered around the central building and the debate area, a roofed, outdoor terrace with huge intricate paintings along the walls. In the yard we watched two young monks, probably six years old, playing around and doing cartwheels. Their robes fell everywhere and they tossed the fabric back into place once they stood up again.

Even though the doors were closed, Carla and I ventured up to the main hall. A monk in his twenties invited us inside. The main room inside had several long lines of cushions for kneeling, and a colorful altar area with photos of the Dalai Lama and what I assumed were yak butter lamps. We looked around, and before we left, we dropped money into the donation box. Then another monk who had been cleaning showed us a room off the altar. It looked like a storage area for some benches and desks, as well as huge statues. One shelf area had what must have been offerings - fake flowers, tea, candy, Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars, soda.

When we left that room, I showed Carla the photo over the doorway of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The young monk, in halting English, started telling us about it - that it was the residence of Dalai Lamas for 2500 years, and now China has removed much of its contents. Carla asked about the monk; he has lived there for ten years and is now 23. As we reached the door, he asked if we have ever traveled to China (no for both). "It's a nice place," he replied, which impressed me beyond measure.

After that we went to Namdroling Monastery, the site of the Golden Temple. I'm reluctant to take photos of people without explicit permission; I feel very intrusive. I also feel tacky taking photos inside of religious sites. But I have no qualms about the outside buildings, so there are several pictures of the first temple in the complex, which is not the one that houses the 60ft gold-plated Buddha statue.

The temple area is actually one huge temple with the statue and three smaller ones. We could hear chanting and drumbeats, so we followed where lots of shoes had been removed and placed on steps. The first temple we entered ultimately was a classroom - teenage and young adult monks chanting. A few played a constant rhythm on gongs or cymbals, and two others sat with huge horns played at intervals. Everyone knelt and read off of cards propped up on the low tables. Some were engrossed. Others looked bored or distracted or halfhearted. Some stared at the small group of westerners lined up watching them. (Indian tourists stared at us too.)

We ventured to another temple, bigger inside with a much smaller group doing the same thing. In this case, many Indian tourists were taking photos and wandering around. Carla's and my shoes were nearly stolen while we peeked inside. For some reason, someone moved them across the yard. As we exited the second temple, we were nearly in the middle of the complex. All the drumming, chanting, and horns reminded me of listening to the marching band and the orchestra warming up at the same time (I was a music geek in high school). Maybe slightly more organized than that.

Carla and I decided to look in the smallest temple. Inside seemed less like a class, although the monks were still reading the cards. Some sage (maybe?) burned in a corner, and a man prayed fervently in the back. As everyone chanted, one monk piled sweet rolls from the altar onto a copper holder. Then he poured Pepsi over everything and carried it outside, dumping into a half-full bucket outside very popular with the flies. Then he returned and started the process again. An Indian man wandered in with his daughter. They both walked over the yellow cord on the floor where the monks were sitting. He stood in the middle of the group and took photos on his camera. Carla and I exited just after the monk had carried another Pepsi-drenched load outside. We asked him why he used Pepsi, but he couldn't explain. I'm sure Tibetan ceremonies were not an application that Pepsico could have imagined.

Finally we entered the huge temple, four stories high, housing the main Buddha statue and two others, one on each side. Again the colors struck me - a turquoise tiled floor, colorful drums and paintings hanging everywhere. Two columns in front of the statues had dragons carved into the wood, snaking upwards.

Signs explained that the three statues hold relics, scriptures, and miniature stupas. Another sign informed that "ferocious" people will interpret the Buddhas in the paintings as fierce. And I always think of myself as a nonviolent vegetarian. Actually that idea made me think about the paintings as depicting a moment as someone's face changes into passion or intensity, rather than a static, angry expression.

The biggest surprise of the afternoon was the behavior of tourists in the Golden Temple. People jabbered into cell phones, dodging all the kids running around and screaming. I think I might have enjoyed the temple more with earplugs to block the small scale madness. The lack of decorum surprised me.

Just as Carla and I exited the Golden Temple, a cloudburst opened up. We waited on the steps for a while, but eventually linked arms and huddled under my tiny red umbrella like two old ladies. By the time we left town, the rain had stopped. We watched students, monks and non-monks, walking home and jumping into puddles. School uniforms were western-style, ties and collared shirts.

Upon arrival in Gokalam, Carla and I went to a popular dinner place. Yoga students tend to splurge on Friday night because of no practice on Saturday. An empty stomach is not as necessary. I convinced Natalie, a Canadian who also went to Bylakuppe, to try the chocolate pie.
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