It is not yet 8 p.m., but the alleys around the Sera Jey Monastic University are empty. Inside, it’s a different story. Novices chant rhythmically as Tenzin Dhargye, a young monk, guides me around the seminary. The courtyard is a sea of scarlet-clad, moon-faced monks who argue intensely as they strut and strike dramatic poses, clap their hands, and occasionally scream. Though these debates on Vajrayana Buddhist philosophy follow strict protocols, the sight can still leave visitors startled.
In the shadows, the Sera Jey Monastic University closely resembles the wood, stone, and clay counterpart that was built in Lhasa in the 15th century by a disciple of Lama Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Yellow Hat Gelukpa tradition of Buddhism. But Sera Jey’s prayer flags aren’t fluttering over mountainous Tibet: they are sending benedictions across the fields around Bylakuppe, a cluster of villages in Karnataka’s Mysore district.
The monastery was built in 1970, in a settlement close to the border of Coorg (Kodagu), on land granted by the Maharaja of Mysore. Tens of thousands of Tibetans had sought refuge in India after an uprising against the Chinese occupation of their region in 1959. They initially found themselves in North Bengal but then began to move to settlements across the country, which were painstakingly re-imagined to resemble their lost homeland. The town of Bylakuppe, the second largest Tibetan settlement in India after Dharamsala, was carved here by pioneering monks in the late 1960s.
Bylakuppe is divided into the Old Camp area of Lugsum Samdupling, and the New Camp of Dickyi Larsoe. Each camp contains clusters that are 3-5 kilometres apart with fresh air and ploughed fields in between. Bylakuppe’s monasteries are spread across the settlements and represent four Buddhist traditions—Gelukpa, Nyingma, Sakya, and Kagyudpa.
Desperate to recover from the fatigue caused by urban living I had sought a monastery, far removed from the madding crowd, and decided that this just might make for the perfect monsoon retreat. Bylakuppe is where an experiment in slow living now awaits me.
Some of the larger monasteries in Bylakuppe have a spartan guesthouse attached. Rooms are clean, hot water occasional, and basic meals are served. Dinner is at 6 p.m. and breakfast is often 12 hours earlier. Traditional butter tea (if you like it) can also be had. At the Sakya Guesthouse in Camp 1, I get a room with a view of undulating fields and the majestic Sakya Monastery rising up into the sky. There’s nobody in sight and definitely no television.
Outside Sakya Guesthouse, Camp Road (one of the town’s two tiny commercial areas) is bustling despite the heavy drizzle. Even though there isn’t a single yak or fur-clad shepherd in sight, the streetscape is distinctly Tibetan. Monks in the small cafés drink lemon tea, eat momos, and dig into steaming bowls of thukpa while Tibetan pop music and Buddhist chants float over our heads. Trendy young Tibetans on motorbikes whizz past traditionally dressed couples in chupas. Shops sell basic provisions, aluminium tea kettles, singing bowls, thangkas, handicrafts, and woollens. Nothing is “made in China”. The only signs that I’m not in Lhasa but in a village in south India are the Kannada-speaking autorickshaw drivers, the flat fields interspersed with misty hillocks, and the tri-lingual birthday banners honouring the Dalai Lama in English, Tibetan, and Kannada.
A wizened old woman in the café takes my order. “Wondu bisi chaya,” (one hot tea) she calls out to someone in Kannada. She is a Kannadiga local who walks barefoot and wears her divided sari the traditional way.
A day later, I am steeped in solitude. Thwarted by menacing rain clouds and the austere surroundings, I see raucous tourists stop in Bylakuppe only briefly before heading off to Coorg. The polite, naturally reclusive Tibetans open up gradually, but I find that all I really need here is a good book. To my delight, Bylakuppe shuts down at dusk. With dinner done by sunset and bedtime moved to 8.30 every night, I finally acquire that rare commodity—time. To read. To walk. To think.
But there is also time to succumb to materialism. I head to Madikeri one morning and buy spices, Coorg honey, coffee, and eucalyptus oil. Back in the camps, there are Thangka painters to visit.
Though autorickshaws are the only public transport, there are ample opportunities for quiet walks and long drives down village pathways through rain-drenched fields. One of these routes leads to the famous Golden Temple in Camp 4. Built in the Nyingma tradition, it is located in the Namdroling Monastery. At 3.30 p.m., the beautifully-decorated gold-roofed monastery reverberates with the sound of prayer. Cymbals clash, bells ring, and drums are beaten while the Chant Master growls out powerful mantras. I learn that during Losar, the Tibetan New Year, the monastery comes alive with colourful ceremonies, masked dances, and traditional performances.
Inside there are three enormous gold-plated statues of Buddha Shakyamuni (60 feet), Guru Padmasambhava (58 feet), and Buddha Amitayus (58 feet) set against intricate murals. The statues contain scriptures, relics of the masters, small statues, and clay stupas. I sit silently and re-examine my normally rather self-indulgent and sensory view of renunciation. Surprisingly, sitting still is not so easy for me.
Before visiting the smaller Padma Sang-Ngag Choekhorling and Tashi Lhunpo monasteries nearby, I stop for tea at the Malaya Restaurant outside Namdroling. Located in the little square among shops selling spiritual souvenirs, beads, and bowls, it is managed by a monk and also serves a monastery favourite, dal-bhaat. Though monastic protocols and spiritual rigour demand simple vegetarianism, the chaat stalls in Kushalnagar nearby are not proscribed and the idli-dosa carts have a substantial number of scarlet-clad customers too.
Charming little Kagyudpa Nalanda Institute comes highly recommended for its panoramic view of Bylakuppe. On the way there the next day, it starts to rain. In the silvery monsoon light, an old Tibetan man mutters ancient prayers and slowly circles three white chortens (monuments housing sacred relics) set amidst pea-green corn fields. Nearby, young monks dribble a football and chatter with locals in fluent Kannada. The old and new co-exist here, peacefully.
Back at Sera Jey, I meet Geshe Thupten Chodak, who holds a Geshe Lharampa degree. It is a Tibetan Buddhist academic qualification for monks and nuns, the highest in Buddhist philosophy, acquired with 20-plus years of difficult study. Only Geshes are allowed to become Buddhist abbots. We discuss the pull of the world and its impact on monastic life. He tells me that scientific knowledge is now being introduced to monks, adding that “science only confirms what philosophy has always known, but the world only believes that which can be proven”. We examine other dilemmas—the sustainability of high-altitude cuisine, clothing, and a Tibetan lifestyle deep in the heart of South India. “I often wonder how it will be when we return to Tibet,” says the Geshe, who has lived in India all his life. “It is another world.” Bylakuppe too, is quite another world.
One morning, I walk to the Sakya Monastery minutes after the Dalai Lama has finished praying. Butter lamps flicker. Tea bowls dot the low tables in the silent, incense-filled room. I sit still for a while. It isn’t difficult anymore. Bylakuppe’s serenity has quietly slipped into my soul.
Bylakuppe is located in Mysore district in southern Karnataka, 230 km southwest of Bengaluru, near the town of Kushalnagar.
From June-March, the weather is a pleasant 20-22°C. Summer (Apr-May) is hot and crowded with tourists. Losar or Tibetan New Year, Buddha Jayanti, and the Dalai Lama’s birthday on 6 July are also good, if crowded, times to visit.
Bylakuppe is 230 km/4.5 hours southwest of Bengaluru and 85 km/1.5 hours west of Mysore, which is also the nearest railway station. KSRTC and private buses to Kushalnagar are available at Mysore Road Satellite Bus Stand in Bengaluru. From Kushalnagar, you can take autorickshaws for the 8 km/15 minute trip to Bylakuppe.
If driving, take SH17, the Bengaluru-Mysore highway, and turn right at Columbia Asia Hospital junction after Srirangapatna, before Mysore. At Hinkal Circle signal, turn right onto BM Road. At the Hunsur Bypass Road, take the right fork to Kushalnagar on SH88. Just after Kundanahalli village, turn left at the archway into Bylakuppe.
Autorickshaws are the only form of local transport between the camps, but half or full day rates can be negotiated.
Restaurants in Bylakuppe are largely vegetarian and monastery guesthouses have simple canteens attached. Confirm meal times at your guesthouse and enquire at Sera Jey Monastery about rung ghang, the free community meals. Most camps have small Tibetan and multi-cuisine cafés. Café Tibet (Camp Road) sells juice, cakes, and tea, while Tibetan and Indian food is available at the Olive Restaurant and Malaya Restaurant near Namdroling. South Indian and non-vegetarian options are available in Kushalnagar (10 min away) and Madikeri (30 min away).
• Most monasteries are open from 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
• Restaurants shut around 7 p.m. so get there early.
• Pack a torch and a basic medical kit.
• Body contact with monks (such as shaking hands) is not allowed.
• Wear modest clothing in keeping with the monastic environment.
• Leave shoes and ringing mobiles outside the main halls.
• Turn prayer wheels and circle shrines in a clockwise direction only with your right hand.
• If you don’t eat beef, check before ordering that the “mutton” on the menu isn’t actually beef.
• Drinking alcohol and smoking are frowned upon and best avoided.
To stay overnight, foreign visitors need a special Protected Area Permit from the Indian Home Ministry. Valid for 12 months, it takes two to three months to clear and must be obtained in advance. PAP Enquiry: Bureau Office of His Holiness, Dalai Lama; 011-26474798/ 26218548; Settlement Office, Camp 1, Bylakuppe; 08223-253476/ 253633. Indians do not need permission.
MONASTERY GUEST HOUSES
Sera Jey Yiga Choeling Center is conveniently located right next to the Sera Jey Monastery (08223-258723/258820; doubles ₹1,000).
Paljor Dhargey Guesthouse is in the popular Camp 4 and offers easy access to the Namdroling Monastery and local restaurants (08223-254039, 08223-258686; www.palyul.org; doubles ₹500).
The Last Resort is a homestay in Hosapatna Village, 13 km away, and a quiet, homely getaway (98807 42726; lastresort.co.in; doubles ₹5,000).
Mist Flower Residency is a small, clean, and functional hotel in Kushalnagar, 10 km/10 mins away (08276-273195/87623 49597; www.coorgmistflower.com; doubles ₹1,000).
President Hotel Coorg is a modest and comfortable basic hotel, in Kushalnagar (94484 33346; doubles from ₹1,870).
Amanvana Spa is picturesquely located and has spacious rooms (08276-279353/54/55,94806 96070/71; www.amanvanaspa.com; doubles from ₹12,160).
The Windflower Resort Spa in Kedakal village is a sprawling resort located amidst coffee estates (08276-262500; thewindflower.com; from ₹12,600).
Dubare Elephant Camp is a nature camp located on the banks of the Kaveri River, 25km/1 hr from Bylakuppe (080-40554055; www.junglelodges.com; doubles ₹4,150).
Appeared in the October 2013 issue as “Dal Bhaat & Thukpa”. Updated in March 2016.