Saturday, May 27, 2006

Viewer Mail

Fan mail from some flounder?
Laxman Jhula, Uttaranchal

Someone (okay, it's Vipin, the guy who runs
Red Chili Adventure rafting, trekking and cyber-joint) is playing a techno version of "House of the Rising Sun." Just when I thought the music couldn't get any worse, they switched to Simon & Garfunkel.

Ahem.

Last week, I got a lovely letter from a fellow Tennessean
(Go Big Orange!) (yes, I am from Tennessee. No, I do not have a moonshine connection) asking about travel in South India. I've tried to reply to her email twice, but it keeps bouncing back Returned. Not only is Melanie from Tennessee, she's actually from my hometown, Chattanooga (this is your cue to start singing "Chattanooga Choo Choo." It happens everywhere, from Finland to Delhi).

So, in hopes that Melanie will tune in again to the blog, and in hopes that it might help someone else, here's her letter and my reply.

My name is Melanie I'm a good Southern stay at home Buddhist mommy with 3 kids living in Chattanooga. Ok, so maybe my family is a lil odd.

Anyways I'm typin you because my Dh may be goin to Bangalore or Chennai, for work a 2 week trip. How far how difficult is it to get to Sera (Sera Jey Tibetan Monastery)? I see you have been. It would be great if he could also go, is Dreprung anywhere near? Thank You for your time.


Melanie is asking about visiting one of the many Tibetan monasteries that have sprung up since the 1959 exile of the Tibetans fleeing the Chinese invasion. (People often mistake this event as having been part of the Cultural Revolution, but that was years later - 1966. The Tibetan invasion was a good old fashioned rape and pillage invasion.) The major Tibetan monasteries were destroyed, and here in India the Tibetans recreated them, naming them after the originals. In Tibet there was a Sera Jey, a Sera Mey and a Drepung Monastery in Tibet - now their counterparts are in India.

The largest Tibetan population outside Tibetan borders exists not in Dharmsala, famed residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but in Bylakuppe, a small village in misty green foothills of Karnataka tea-growing country. When the Tibetans were relocated here in the early 1960s, it was completely undeveloped. Many Tibetans died from the heat, humidity and subcontinental diseases to which they had no resistance. Over the decades, it has become a corner of Tibet in southern India. Here you can escape the manic quality of Indian life, where you are surrounded by maroon-robed monks sipping steaming glasses of butter-tea and speaking very little English.

Dear Melanie:
Welcome to India!

While I'm not sure what a Dh is (to me, it stands for Desperate Housewives), I will be glad to assist you.

Yes, Sera Monastery, in Bylakuppe, southern Karnataka, is accessible from Bangalore - in about five hours; from Chennai, about fifteen (train from Chennai-Bangalore is 5 to 7 hours; or just go direct to Mysore and follow below).

"Sera" is actually two institutions - Sera Mey Monastery and Sera Jey University, where monks study for their Khenpo degrees. It's only 3 hours from Mysore, but you'll feel for all the world that you're in the Himalayan foothills.

From Bangs, one must first go through Mysore, where you can catch a bus to BYLAKUPPE or KUSHALNAGAR, the nearest towns to Sera Monastery. (You might be able to get a direct bus to Bylakuppe/Kushalnagar from Bangalore bus stand, but it will go through Mysore). I recommend combining Sera with a day trip to Mysore if possible. (Check out the Maharajah's palace, Chamundi Temple, Devaraj Market. Warning: the Palace is under siege - by some of the worst hawkers imagineable. They literally chase you down, carrying beads, trinkets, postcards and such. I had to tell one, "if you don't leave me alone, I will hit you.")

The bus from Bangalore to Mysore, which you catch from Majestic Bus Stand (name for the nearby movie theatre) is approximately 2 hours; you can get a private coach for this to avoid the bumpier, smellier and more crowded state and local buses. From Mysore to Kushalnagar on the local bus is another 3 hours or so. My bus ride was quite colourful, including wandering minstrels with small fiddles who got on board to sing for their supper, and of course, a sprinkling of monks and other Tibetans returning from their errands in Mysore (the nearest big city).

Not including transition times (finding the bus, waiting for the bus to fill up so it can leave, and so on. Buses, at least state and local buses here, rarely leave before they are full to overflowing).

From the Kushalnagar bus stop, you must take an autorickshaw ("three wheeler") up to the monastery. Three years ago it was about 80Rs which sounds high, but it is a long way and there is no other way up there. Petrol (gas) prices have increased several times since then so it might be more. You can often find some monks wandering round the bus stand, or hoofing it up the long road, who are also on their way up to the monasteries and need a ride. Sometimes they flag you down for a lift, or you can be pro-active and offer. It's much more fun to share! Huddling innocently in a crowded autorickshaw with giggling monks who are nervous about getting too close to a woman is an experience every girl should have. Of course, you must dress conservatively and respect the monastic lifestyle while in the area.

Up at Sera Jey/Sera Mey you can stay in one of several guest houses very cheaply (less than $3 a night, I think). You can go watch the morning pujas and the monks will bring you a cup of butter tea and Tibetan bread. It's worth 2 or 3 days or so in the area if you can swing it. There are several Buddhist establishments, in addition to the university, monastery, a Thangka painting concern and the refugee camp, but a real must-see is the Namdroling Golden Temple down the hill.

Technically, this is a restricted region since it is a refugee area and you are meant to have a permit, but I've never heard of this being enforced for a short stay. Anyone wanting to stay more than a few days could probably get the permit from the local police. They are well used to tourists and, mostly, don't mind photos at all, though you should always show restraint and respect.

I have lots of the Sera Jey photos at my other website, www.trekshare.com/members/sirensongs under "Sera Jey Tibetan Monastery."

The monks of Sera Mey/Jey are famous for their debating, which is done with very stylized, theatrical flourish accompanied by hand-clapping and stamping of feet (I'm making it sound like the Hokey Pokey, you just need to see it). Every day you can watch the student monks practicing debate, in their trademark animated style, in the university courtyard. There's a book by the first Western student to graduate from Sera May all about his experience - it's called The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: the Education of a Buddhist Monk.

As for Drepung, I have been looking at their homepage for 10 minutes now and still can't figure out where their Indian monastery is!

Hope this helps, stay in touch. Keep those cards and letters coming.

1 comment:

Aadil said...

Now isn't that a lovely picture of you at the monastery?!!! Hope to see more of the monastery pics on your page soon.

Cheers,
Aadil.