My tryst with Tibetans
Natural choice of a vacation for a family living in a tropical country will be some affordable hill stations close by. My only son chinku who studies in a boarding school in Chennai uttered a firm NO to our suggestion of three hill stations. He wanted to visit his friends who scattered around Karnataka in 3 three major Tibetan settlements- Mundgod, Byla Kuppe and Kollegal. No amount of persuasion helped since he was adamant: otherwise preferred to sit at home throughout his vacation and of course nag. I was little taken back. Our knowledge about Tibetans shrunk into few facts. They came from China as refugees in the late 50s, they are Buddhist and few of them sell warm cloth in the market places.
Young monk playing with a sewing machine in Byla Koppe Market
Since my son joined Ellen Sharma School a year back, he updates us with certain information about his fellow boarding mates, mostly Tibetans. There were good football players among them was Sultrim, a sixth grade boy who told Chinku that he is practicing football regularly because one day he will be able to play for his independent country-Tibet. I got surprised that it is not friendship but they develop brotherhood among themselves where my son was accepted as their brother within 10 days of his entry to the boarding and he was happy about that. Slowly even without our knowledge he started giving us political orientation though he did not use politically right words like self- determination etc.
Young monks are playing at Byla Koppe
But that was not enough to take a decision to visit those areas. Deterring factors were many. It was peak summer and these places are not cold either, we have zero knowledge about the accommodation facilities and finally whether these strangers will be accepted as guests into their families in which my son did not have a clear answer. Anybody can call us crazy for taking a trip like this just listening to the words of a 13 year old. Like we did many crazy things before also, we have decided to go ahead with the trip.
We took off our journey in our comfortable Bolero Jeep from Bangalore to reach Hubly from there to the Doeguling Tibetan Settlement in Mundgod. An hour’s drive through two villages and after that, miles through a rough road flanked by scattered trees and bamboos bearing a weary look due to the heat. But while we approach Mundgod, landscape changes and we see this beautiful lake in the village Kumta and the small hillock. A sign board tell us we are just 4 KM away from Mundgod.
A distant view of a Tepmle in Mungod
As we enter the Tibetan settlements, a different world-culture milieu open before you. You no longer feel that you are inside India. The huge temple appears first with stupas and many steps to reach the main hall. Drive beyond that, you see acres of agricultural land and small houses, every house growing some fruit bearing trees and colourful prayer flags in the courtyard of every household. We see hospital, schools, post office, shops, and men in Tze (the attire of a Tibetan monk), young men and women in modern dresses and old ones in the traditional Tibetan dresses. Last 40 years they were trying to root themselves in an alien country fighting with extreme summer for livelihood while keeping their tradition and culture alive.
This camp started in 1970. The first generation began with cultivation and poultry in the forest land provided by the Karnataka government. And when family size grown and crops failed due to the unpredictable monsoon, depending totally up on agricultural income became impossible; the second generation began to look out for some work for additional income. Back at home grand parents took care of the children.
At Mundgod we met "Gela” (Master in Tibetan language), who is responsible for the Tibetan students studying in Ellen Sharma School. He took us to visit monasteries there. There were 9 camps at Mundgod and most of them have monasteries-big or small. These monasteries have some agriculture land where the monks work; needless to say this is inadequate in the context the number of refugees grows year after year but land remains the same.
A prayer session on in golden temple
Monasteries are colourful and marvel architecture pieces and inside every monastery it is almost the same you see big Buddha statues along with other important religious leaders and a photo of smiling Dalai Lama. On the altar you will see hundreds of small Buddha on the wall. In the huge prayer hall, there are many red cushions all put it rows where the monks sit and pray. It is so colourful-red, yellow, maroon and saffron but significantly and peacefully decorated.
Stupas in the tepmple premises
The main and the biggest temple was Gaden Jangtse Datsang. It was the day of exam for the monks when we visited the monastery. The monasteries teach Tibetan, Mathematics, English and religious lessons (Buddhist studies). Debates are very much part of the study. Though language is alien to us, it was very interesting to watch the debates. It seems to a test to measure the knowledge in the religious books: the person who conducts the debate clap in a particular way. You will hear huge laughter when the discussant stumble up on some points and not able to proceed.
Buddha in Golden Temple
We have visited few of Chinku's friends there in Mudgod and the representative of Tibetan Government in exile. People were very hospitable and warm and butter tea, a specialty of Tibetans, was plenty with some dry fruits in a basket. Houses were small and interior of every house almost looks the same 3 or 4 cots according to the size of the room and a thick and colorfully woven carpet on the cot. That is a Tibetan art still some people do this.
In every settlement there are hospitals which will have facility for Tibetan medicine also.
There are small shops which sells typical Tibetan needs and eateries. We were take to a place for lunch by Gela which was started a part of their new vegetarian movement and he thought it was an appropriate place to introduce us the topic. Tibetans are non ?vegetarians and even monks eat meat. This really strikes me. Hindu sanyasies are vegetarians . Buddhism, a belief based on ahimsa (non-violence) how can they eat meet? At kollegal, my host explained this to me. In Tibet, the hostile climate is not suitable for growing vegetables, so for the nutritional point of view, they have to compensate it with meat which was plenty and cheap. However, he said, in Indian it is easy for us to follow vegetarianism due to availability of all vegetable, but it will take some more time to our people to think of potato and greens mommas in the place of beef mo mos.
Tenzin Kunga Luding, a Tibetan youth began the vegetarian movement and along with like minded people and they are a registered society as Dalai Lama as its Patron-In-Chief.
They bring out magazines and show video films to propagate the idea of vegetarianism. Gela says it will take time to change the mind of the people and youth is showing some enthusiasm is a breaking point. This small eating began as a part of this movement and you will get all Tibetan delicacies like Thuppa and mo moss, but vegetarian. The Kalachakra-2006, the kumba Mela of Tibetans, for the first time, only
vegetarian food was served.
The Tibetan Family who hosted us
Our next point was Byla Kuppe, Lugsung Samduping oldest and biggest Tibetan settlement. Here we have got accommodation at Sera je, at reasonable rate with a vegetarian restaurant. This is meant for people who come there to visit and learn their culture. We could see some foreigners there who were talking the monks. Chinku's friends Jumpa and Bada Dava(bada means big in Hindi as he got two Davas (one big and small as friends) came on a bike to take us to visit the monasteries and other friends houses. We went to the Golden Temple which is quiet famous in Karnataka and people from other beliefs also visit this temple. When visited the temple, it was the concluding day of one weeks? prayer (they call it Amrit Dev Pooja) for world peace and long life. You will be dragged into a mystic world with recitals of Holy Scriptures accompanied by Nga (huge drum) and Thongchae (long pipe). This chanting was going on for last one week Normaly every pournami day (Full moon day), they will have special poojas in the Temple.
Monks getting down from a tractor near Sera je
Main market place was again is good place to pick up Tibetan things especially wall hangers. There are around 5000 monks in Byla Kuppe. These are run by agricultural activities in the monasteries and local and outside (from countries like USA, Germany etc) contribution.
.Life is not easy for the Tibetan people in exile. Though they are provided with land, since it is a rain fed area, they can for only one crop. Size of the family increased but land remained the same. Though they live as community in their settlements (Our host say that it was on the insistence of Dalai Lama, since he feels that if they scatter around, they will lose their culture including language: once they have to get back to their ?promised land?, they have identify as a ?people?), many of them, go to cities and sell warm clothes there. Children and elders are left at home. Our host at Kollegal and his wife buy warm clothes from Punjab and sell it in Bihar. They stay there for six months while grand parents take care of their children back at home. So it is not difficult to find people who can speak one of the Indian languages here. We would meet Tibetans who speak Tamil Kanada etc Hindi is very common.
Some children are luck to get sponsorships to study and they live in barding schools mostly in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Interior of a temple
Our last point was Dbondenling Tibetan Settlement in Kollegal Taluk where we could stay and experience. They were so hospital and were very happy to accommodate an Indian families and was apologetic about the inconveniences including the toilet which was well outside the house. But we could get the best food and best treatment ever we experienced. Prayer is a part of Tibetan life. They have small altar in every household a small replica of a temple altar. They keep water in front of this every morning and change it before the sunset. When people shrink into themselves so much, Tibetans community feelong is incredible. They live as joint family; visit each other often carrying butter and eggs and gifts. Sometimes tea in big flasks.
In the moon light near the store Leg se and his father shared a lots with us even their vision while toiling for a day today existence. Life is not easy in an alien land though Indians are standing for the cause of Tibet. We are back after a 10 days trip and I have to thank my son Chinku to give me such a wonderful opportunity to learn a culture.
A worship place in a household