Saturday, November 27, 2010

Day Tripping at Bylekuppe

Saturday, 20 November

Beep, Beep!

In my motion-induced sleepiness, I imagine the translation, “Hi, Hello!”

Beep beep!

“Excuse me!”

Beep beeeeeep beep beeeeeep beep!

“I’m COMING up BEHIND you!”

Beep beep!

“Thank you!”

On an Indian road, there is going to be honking. Lots of it. It may seem rude, this sound assault. But in India, we’ve been told, that it is more of a means of communication, giving a pedestrian or fellow driver a…heads up. It is not a sign of offense as it would be in the west where a honk is equivalent to a middle finger. Large trucks even ask to be honked at. Many have politely painted on their rear end, “Please Honk.”

Today Claudia and I are on the road. Taking the path of least resistance, Deepak the driver and a hired car speeding at 100km an hour, with two really lovely students at the shala, Tom (from the UK) and Jen (from Canada).

With full moon on Sunday, the shala closes for a staggeringly long 2-day stretch. Time is like dog years around here. You live a lifetime in a short space of a moment.
Some students would use this extra time to soak at the pool or have a later than usual night out (dancing or maybe bowling). Other students would satisfy the itch to get away from Gokulam, planning trips to places like Coorg—at least one student made it all the way to Kerala.

We are en route to Bylekuppe.

Bylekuppe was the first Tibetan Settlement in India after the Chinese invasion. It was set up in the early 1960’s. Displaced Tibetans were given a parcel of forestland by the Indian government, and since then the Tibetan people have continued their cultural practices here in Southern India while waiting for the time that they can finally return home.

After two hours of dare-devil driving—I felt safe mind you with Deepak, such is the nature of two-lane Indian highways, in which fluid driving means overtaking other vehicles at lightning speed despite on-coming traffic—we reach the Tibetan settlement, apparent by the colorful Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind.

One sight that seemed uncharacteristic of our Tibetan expectations was a building with high walls and threatening barbed wire on top. As we sped by we see the words “NUNNERY.” Of course, high security for the nunnery! And past the nunnery went we to the Namrolding Temple compound.

At the juice bar (the, because there is only one) we are greeted by a friendly Tibetan, born and raised in Bylekuppe. He takes it on himself to be our welcome wagon. Shares with us some history, tells us about the current reforestation of the area. He says with total conviction that their goal is to return the land to India as they first received it. When they can go home.

In a world of cynicism, I am struck with his absolute faith , that they will return to Tibet and that it’s just a matter of time. There is no anger in his statement. Only hope.

After having smoothies and a quick turn at the shops outside the temple , which appeared to be promising, we walk towards the complex, which houses the monastery, the high school, several temples, the debating hall and other function rooms.

We are drawn by sound, which takes us to the temple’s music room. These first few moments are a delight to the senses: the bright splash of colors in the architecture and art, the strange haunting music. Class is in session. Young monks in their mustard shirts and maroon robes are in two rows, facing each other, instruments in hand. There is a random mixture of sound. There is the tinkling of bells, pounding of drums, and blowing of horns and conch shells. The sound is almost eerie.

We all stare into the room, through the doors, which are roped off but open to visitors.

Some monks stare back, quite benignly, they don’t appear bothered by the intrusion, a dozen pair of eyes taking them in as part of the scenery, this Tibetan montage in the totally wrong climate and landscape, cameras clicking.

It must be odd to be a tourist attraction—which turns out to be us at some point, particularly fair and bright-eyed Tom and Jen, who become highly sought after for photos with the Indian tourists, who insist on including them in their snapshots. Claudia too. I get thrown into the mix here and there by default.

The morning vibe is calm within the walls of Namrolding as our party shuffles casually among the other tourists also taking in Tibet’s culture, exiled yet safeguarded in India.

The pace is easy going between the four of us, we hardly plan or communicate the hours spent in our synchronized wandering. There are a few moments where we do speak up to make vital decisions. Right or left?

The buildings themselves are not particularly old, nor pretty, but the Tibetan traditions, which are intrinsically wrapped up in all the colorful wall murals, the statues of Buddha, the monks of all ages going about their daily routines, make the experience. You feel the culture continues to thrive outside its own country.

For lunch, we indulge in traditional momos, steamed vegetable dumplings, and noodle soup outside the compound, just right of the gate. The meal, unfortunately, is not stellar. And after a brief second turn at the shops, we re-converge at the entrance where Tom has found out the exact whereabouts of the prayer wheels along the perimeter of the temple walls. We set out, spinning them and repeating the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, while many monks and nuns overtake us with their speedy praying efficiency.

Before we head to the highway, we stop at the local market area. It’s a small and simple affair, a couple of Tibetan craft shops; the rest are convenient stores, general stores that sell electric goods, tailors, second-hand clothes stores and a handful of run down inns for overnight guests.

Drawing our attention is a food vendor with his propped up table. We see one local after another order bags of his tasty looking treats. Tom, a chef, is most interested. Though we cannot understand each other, the vendor doesn’t speak English, we feel it is safely vegetarian.

I order a dry one, while Tom orders the wet variety. My round of unidentified noodle wrapper is slathered with red chili paste, drizzled with sugar and what he calls salt. The shape of the crystals is more consistent with MSG (we’ll ignore that today). He finally sprinkles either tofu or gluten pieces on top. The entire thing is rolled then cut into inch-long pieces and served.

Tom’s is rolled first and cut into thin noodle-like strips. He sprinkles the same mix: sugar, “salt,” soya/gluten and the chili paste. Then he tops it with garlic water and soy, creating a cool soup.

The noodle-thing is slippery and cooling in the mouth. The flavors salty and fresh and very yummy. We like it so much, we order a second round. This time I have mine wet and Tom takes his dry. Claudia and Jen share a dry one as well. Each order is an unbelievable Rs10 each.

This little snack (name, anyone?) seems to cap the trip off nicely. With full bellies, we pile into the car, sleepily making our way back to Mysore, then to Gokulam, then to Anu’s where we are greet by Ganesh, who we happily pay for the hassle-free experience. Taking our dinners/smoothies at Anu’s we end the day satisfied with our adventure and happy that Sunday is a moon day, allowing us to lie in and dream a little extra of the peaceful Tibetan settlement, not up the Himalayas but only a couple of hours away from Mysore.

To hire a car for out of town trips, such as this, and for airport transport, call Ganesh: +9845279513. You can also book a car at Anu’s Café (3rd Stage).

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