Friday, December 11, 2009

Bylakuppe - A mini Tibet in South India!

A mini Tibet in South India, 2,000 kilometres from Tibet! To know the Tibetan way of life and to see the Golden Temple, the people in South India need not venture very far from their homes. A few kilometres from Madikeri in Karnataka is Bylakuppe where the Indian government had leased 3,000 acres of land to the fleeing Tibetans in 1961.

The’ Lugsum Samdupling’ settlement has grown to a veritable township with monasteries, nunneries and cafes and stalls that showcase the Tibetan way of life. Bylakuppe is the largest Tibetan community in exile with about 40,000 people in five settlements containing monasteries, kindergarten to higher level secondary schools, health care clinics, a hospital and a traditional Tibetan medical facility.

As you near the settlement you will find monks in robes zipping past on two wheelers. Makes one wonder – what’s the hurry for the monks?

Ah well, the monks here are well rooted in tradition and well connected with all modern technology too.

You will see monks chatting away on a mobile phone in one hand and rolling beads on his rosary in another!

All the monks exude a friendliness and warmth towards all visitors and are ready to answer any question that is put to them.

The most visited temple here is Namdroling (The Golden Temple) and the signage is loud and clear. And of course you can spot it from afar.

The monastery attached to this temple is considered to be one of the best places for higher learning. 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.

Three beautiful larger than life gold plated statues look down at visitors above the altar.

Buddha around 60 feet tall holds prominent place, flanked by

Guru Padmasambhava and

Amitayush (each around 58 feet tall).

The walls are adorned with colourful paintings depicting gods and demons from Tibetan Buddhist mythology.

The altar is decorated with flowers, candles and incense.

Dragons twirl up pillars on two sides of the platform.

The entrance has a curtain of beads which is the favourite of kids who love going in and out.

We stepped out and were generally looking around when we saw monks streaming into another temple nearby. We followed and were rewarded by a pleasing rendition of chants as they sat down,

opened the books on the bench in front of them and started praying.

Three of them sat at a bench where there were these long wind instruments which were blown at strategic intervals.

A senior (I think) monk played the cymbals while another

beat the drum rhythmically

After about five minutes of chanting, a couple of monks walked in with a kettle of water and offered it to a few of the monks who were chanting.

Outside on the lawns there was a group of monks relaxing from whatever they were doing and readily agreed to be photographed.

The exterior of the new Zangdokpalri temple looks majestic with a majestic rainbow arch.

We are so used to being told not to photograph the idols in temples, that the ready willingness of the monks to let the idols in their temples being photographed is such a pleasant and welcome surprise.

The nearest town for Bylakuppe is Kushal Nagar. Auto-rickshaw is the best mode for a trip to the Golden Temple from Kushalnagar town. There are frequent buses shuttling between Mysore and Madikeri. Get down at Kushalnagar.

If you are driving from Mysore towards Madikeri by SH 88, Bylakuppe appears a few kilometres ahead of Kushalnagar town. A sign board gives indication towards the left on the road to Madikeri. Kushalnagar is about 30 km (18 miles) from Madikeri town.

There's a large parking area near the Golden Temple. A shopping arcade next to it houses many curios shops and restaurants. There are not many hotels in Bylakuppe, though there is some guesthouse accommodation as part of the Monastery. Better options for stay are available at Kushalnagar and Madikeri, in that order.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Kanheri caves

At the northern tip of Mumbai, in Borivili, lies the magnificent Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
It is the breathing space for stressed out Mumbaikars who wish to go birding, or just a walk in the forest!
Nestled in the green environs are the glorious Kanheri caves. These caves date back to 11th century AD and beyond. As per the records work on these caves began in 1st century BC and carried on right through 11th century AD. It is 6 km from the National Park Main Gate. Kanheri comes from the Sanskrit word Krishnagiri generally meaning black in colour. They were chiseled out of a massive basaltic rock outcropping.There are 109 rock-cut cells, carved into the side of a hill. Each cave has a stone plinth for a bed. A congregation hall with huge stone pillars contains the stupa, a Buddhist shrine.
Farther up the hill are the remains of an ancient water system, canals and cisterns that collected and channeled the rainwater into huge tanks. Most of the caves are the Buddhist viharas meant for living, study, and meditation. The larger caves were chaityas, or halls for congregational worship, are lined with intricately carved Buddhist sculptures, reliefs and pillars, and contain rock-cut stupas for congregational worship.
The large number of viharas obviously prove a well-organized existence of Buddhist monks' establishment. Kanheri was a University center by the time the area was under the rule of the Maurayan and Kushan empires. It is credited with the largest number of cave excavations in a single hill and it thrived due to its proximity to ancient sea port towns like Sopara (Surparaka, the Supara of Greek; Subara of Arab writers; the ancient capital of northern Konkan), Kalyan a thriving port. It is generally believed that Buddhism first arrived in Aparantha (Western India) at Sopara which is very close to Kanheri. The caves were mentioned by early visitors like the Portuguese in the 16th century A.D. and other travellers and voyagers of Europe. Of the numerous donor inscriptions found here mention of ancient cities like Suparaka (Sopara); Nasika (Nasik); Chemuli (Chemula); Kalyana (Kalyan); Dhenukakata (Dhanyakataka, modern Amaravati in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh) are found. The donors were from all class of the society, from the members of the royal families to the commoners.
The most prominent among the excavations at Kanheri is the Cave 3, which is a chaityagriha which was excavated during the period of Yajna Satakarni (c. 172-201 A.D.) On plan it consists of a large rectangular hall with an apsidal back, a verandah and a spacious court in front, the dimensions of the hall being 26.36 X 13.66 X 12.9 m (l x b x h). A row of 34 pillars divide the hall into a central nave and flanking aisles. The roof of the nave is barrel vaulted while of the aisles are flat.
There are evidences of provision of wooden rafters to the vaulted ceiling of nave which are gone now.
The pillars of the hall are not uniform and of different styles and shapes and devoid of symmetry.
A stupa is provided at the apse of the hall which measures 4.9 m in diameter and 6.7 m in height.
The façade of the hall is pierced by three doors with two groups of two couples, each group
carved in the oblong recesses between the doors. A huge chaitya window bereft of any ornamentation was provided for the passage of light.
The side walls are sculpted extensively with two massive images of standing Buddha in varada
mudra and other Bodhisattva images. These sculptures are of later additions and are datable to around 5th – 6th centuries A.D. Cave 1 is an unfinished chaityagrha, originally planned to have a double-storeyed verandah and a porch, apart from the pillared hall. The cave is dated to 5th – 6th centuries A.D. as the pillars with compressed cushion or amalaka top appears generally during this period. Cave 11 which is also known as ‘Darbar Hall’ consists of a huge hall with a front verandah.
The hall has a shrine on its back wall and cells on two sides. The floor of the hall two low stone benches resembling Cave 5 of Ellora.
Buddha in dharmacakrapravardana mudra adorns the shrine.
The cave has four inscriptions of different periods, one dated in Saka 775 (A.D. 853) of the reign of Rashtrakuta King Amoghavarsha and his feudatory the Silahara prince, Kapardin. The inscription records the donation of various gifts and funds provided for the purchase of books and repairs to the damages.Even if you are not a history buff, it is worth the visit for the
wonderful views that you get on the way to the top and from the top. It is an invigorating trip that one would not mind, whether one has interests in history, culture or just plain adventure.
Nearest Railway Station: Borivili on the Western sector.
Entrance fee to the Park: Rs20/-per head and Rs.50/-per vehicle.
Entrance to Kanheri caves: Rs.5/-per head.
Timings: 0730hrs to 1730hrs.
Buses available from Main entrance to the caves at regular intervals at Rs.30/-per head.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Of Waterfalls, Fog and Royalty

In the southern range of Sahyadri hills, there is a quaint hill station at an altitude of 690m., called Amboli. Being on record as the wettest place in Maharashtra, with an average of nearly 750 centimetres (269 inches) of rainfall a year, mainly falling between June and October, it is shrouded in thick fog most of the time. This monsoon seemed an ideal time to explore this hazy heaven. While going from Mumbai we drove down the 519kms to Amboli via Kolhapur, Sankeshwar, Gadhinglaj and Ajra. The drive upto Sankeshwar on the Golden Quadrilateral was smooth but beyond that right upto Amboli it was a slightly bumpy ride on a two laned pockmarked road. The weather right through was beautiful, cloudy and cool. The last 5kms we drove through clouds – heavenly! We checked in at the MTDC resort ‘Green Valley’ which, like all MTDC resorts, is located at a lovely spot. It is about 500m from the main road, at the tip of a forested area. Had tea and went exploring around the resort. We discovered a deserted Botanical garden cum research centre. The empty playing grounds in the foggy deserted area looked eerie and straight out of a horror movie! Had an early dinner at MTDC which is managed by the famed Vithal Kamaths. The food was reasonably good and the service excellent. Next morning, we had an idli/dosa breakfast at Vithal Kamath’s restaurant which is just next door to the MTDC resort and moved on to Hiranyakeshi Temple, 6kms away, which is the point where the Hiranyakeshi river originates. An idyllic spot, with a small pond in front of the Hiranyakeshi temple that houses a Shivling, Ganapati idol and of course the Hiranyakeshi Devi idol. Next to this temple, there is an entrance to a cave which we did not dare explore as we were told it is not safe to do so in the monsoons when it becomes a safe harbour for a lot of creepy crawlies. On the way back to the main road, there is a Ragheshwar Ashram. There is a Swayambhu Ganesha temple, a Naag Devata temple, in addition to the ashram where Swami Ragheshwar meditated and attained Samadhi. This location is heavenly on the banks of the Hiranyakeshi river. After a spiritual awakened morning we headed to the most popular waterfall in Amboli, about 3kms on the way to Sawantwadi. There are steps carved alongside the waterfall to enable people go halfway up the waterfall. During monsoon, these steps are also under flowing water. Huge crowds are there enjoying their hydraulic massage under this waterfall all through the day. We went ahead on to Sawantwadi which is just about 30kms from Amboli. The road was beautiful right through. Headed straight to ‘Shilpgram’, managed by the Sawantwadi Municipal Council, which was advertised widely as the place to go to see the wonderful crafts of Sawantwadi. However, to our disappointment, we were told that only the restaurant was open and the crafts/craftsmen were there only during scheduled stops of the luxury train ‘Deccan Odyssey’ to cater to the tourists therein. But the watchman there gave us directions to ‘Kanekar Toys’ in ‘Chitra Alli’, just a couple of kms away, where we would find the best examples of wooden crafts for which Sawantwadi is famous. And indeed, the Woodcraft was amazing. There were vintage cars, touring motorcycles and vintage aircrafts all finely crafted from wood! All the shopping had made us hungry so we made our way back to ‘Shilpgram’ and had some delicious Malwani lunch in excellent ambience and served like royalty at a very humble price. Now it was time to visit the royals at the Sawantwadi Palace. You get a guided tour of the palace for a fee of Rs.25/- per head. You are taken to the Queen’s Durbar where the Royal Throne made of silver, and a couple of wild animals shot by the Queen are on display along with some sword and shield decorations. It is here that you can see and admire the craftsmanship of the artists who are busy making ‘Ganjifa’ cards – It had originated in Persia but this art is now practiced only in Sawantwadi. A set of these handmade cards numbering 120 cost Rs.3000/-. They also have a lot of other items like the palanquin and other vintage artefacts that were found in the erstwhile state of Sawantwadi. To wind up the Royal tour you will be taken to their ‘Crafts Sales’ Durbar where you can check out all the different handmade papier-mâché items and some items that were crafted by the Queen herself. The Queen still resides with her family in the adjoining palatial grounds. We exited the Palace and returned to Amboli. There were still hordes of people dancing in the rain at the waterfalls. Our next destination was Kavaleshet point which is about 6kms from Amboli. This is a place from where one can get spectacular views but unfortunately for us it was fogged out totally. Having reached there after driving about 2kms on a terrible road, we did not want to return before getting a glimpse of the heavenly views. We waited for about 30mins but were not favoured by the rain gods as the clouds just refused to clear out. Next on the list was the Nangartaas falls which is about 15kms on the road to Belgaum. The roar of the falls and the viewing facility reminds one of the great Jog falls. Not much of a crowd here as you can only view the falls and not frolic around. Having had our fill of waterfalls and living in the clouds we set back to Mumbai after a hearty breakfast at Vithal Kamath’s, not very early but around 1030am next morning. Our return trip was via Sawantwadi on NH17. Had a great lunch in ‘Alankar’ in Hathkhamba and reached Mumbai, back to earth, after a couple of days in the clouds. The route was scenic with lot of ups and downs on good roads, a distance of 545kms.
  • Getting there:
  • By Rail: Nearest Railway station - Sawantwadi (30kms) on Konkan Railway.
  • By Road: Mumbai –Kolhapur-Sankeshwar-Gadhinglaj-Ajra-Amboli – 519kms or
  • Mumbai-Panvel-Chiplun-Hathkhamba-Sawantwadi-Amboli – 545kms
  • Accomodation: MTDC’s Green Valley and other private hotels.