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Bylakuppe, Namdrolling Monastery

Young Monks studying at the Yeshe Woodsal Raldring School in Byllakuppe. The monks are trained in logic,philosophy,debate, and all of the traditional tibetab teachings.


The facade of Bylakuppe, brought three monumental chortens into view: symbols of the Nyingma Buddhist faith displaced from the trans-Himalayan highlands and planted here, among coconut groves and betelnut plantations. The settlement first took shape in 1959 when many tibetan refugees were given the opportunity to re-shape their lives and preserve their culture. This sleepy little town is deceptive for it is a home to twenty thousand tibetan and to eleven monasteries, making it undoubtedly the capital of Tibetan culture in exile.


The culture can be seen at the Namdroling Monastery, this monastery dedicated to the teachings of Palyul Lineage of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism was established by His Holiness Pema Norbu Rinpoche shortly after he came to India from Tibet. With only 300 rupees in his hand and with just a handful of monks, he laid the foundation stone of the three-storied main temple. In 2008 the monastery has grown into a sprawling complex of temples,palaces and gardens. It also includes a shedra (monastic college) where acolytes are trained in logic, philosophy, debate, and all of the traditional shedra teachings.


The dorms are home, not only to Tibetan acolytes, but also to young monks from Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh and Nepal. And not all of these children who run around the complex in their yellow and maroon robes conform to the solemn standards of conduct that ordinary people might expect of little Buddhas. Like children anywhere, they are liable to burst into laughter, fight and tear at each others robes, or play harmless pranks on each other and on the unsuspecting visitor.


Walking through a ceremonial gateway, which framed an imposing temple, its walls tapestried over with the elaborate, richly coloured paradises and hells of Vajrayana scenography. The sense that we had stepped into a sacred precinct was held in check by the uneasy feeling of having wandered onto a movie set. But this exotic Shangri La syndrome, in turn, was dispelled bythe homely sight of cattle and donkeys moving freely in the gardens.


No one could be found to open the temple doors for us. We wondered whether it was appropriate to disturb an ageing monk pursuing a walking meditation; he must have been very young when he first came here from the highlands. Mumbling prayers under his breath, he waved us on cheerfully but offered no material assistance. A younger monk, more concerned and practical, deputed a couple of boys to help us out these shy guides vanished into the dormitories at the first chance, and we found ourselves staring at an Arnold Schwarzenegger poster mounted on the door to one of the cells. Before we could spend any more time on this somewhat incongruous image of himsa in the lamasery, a lama arrived, waving the keys.


At last, the ornate red door was opened and folded back, panel by panel. In a gallery behind the darkened study hall sat a row of Bodhisattvas with gilt skins and eyes the colour of a summer sky, teachers and heroes, guardians and saviours: Manjushri, Kshitigarbha, Maitreya, Padmasambhava. From an upper storey, there came the deep booming of the ceremonial Tibetan horn; some of the monks were rehearsing for one of the grand Tantric poojas for which the Vajrayana system is famous. The moment detached itself from the glissade of time. But the visitor who thinks that the monastery is caught in a time-warp is in for a shock.


A brief lifting of the monastic curtain reveals that Reeboks are standard gear, and the strains of Pearl Jam not unknown, in these regions. And the tuck shop outside the monastery is a slice of Middle America, well stocked with chips, chewing gum and soft drinks, First World products available at First World prices. The lay personnel who run the shop demonstrate an easy familiarity with the icons and mannerisms of global youth culture.


Things changed at Byllakuppe yet things have stayed the same, and the custodians of the dharma are learning to cope with new challenges to their way of life. Change can grow from the barrel of a Chinese assault rifle, but it can also grow from the mouth of a Coke can and at the same time give an ancient culture its breathe from the snow.

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Taken on April 17, 2008