The Buddha’s Eyes Always Watch Over You

Buddha

I sit against a Tibetan prayer flag. Its red and yellow embroidery runs the length of the wall. I’m surrounded by vibrant Tibetan mythology – there are dragons, demons, flowers, and so much more that I don’t follow. From across the room, the Buddha smiles; his face is serene; those beautiful hand-painted eyes are a universe of calm.

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Kushalnagar is an interesting mix of typical south Indian town and strong Tibetan influences. The golden pagoda of the monastery meets the heady aroma of Indian tea and the bright orange of the Buddhist robes blends in with the potpourri of local colours. Stuck in traffic, on the way to the monastery, I watch local traders interact with Buddhist monks on errands. There is an easy familiarity between the two, a relationship that has seeped into the social fabric, blurring the visible differences between them.

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The Bylakuppe Tibetan settlement, a set of camps, was established in 1960 in Southern Karnataka. It comprises of monasteries, nunneries, schools, and a number of Tibetan businesses. At the centre of the settlement is the Namdroling Monastery established by Pema Norbu Rinpoche. There are over 16000 Tibetan refugees living here. Many spend their lives dedicated to the study of Buddhism; others take to retail and hospitality, recreating a piece of their homeland, a home that most have never seen.

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The Namdroling Monastery is an extensive property. It includes gardens, dormitories, a bookstore, offices, classrooms, and a number of temples. Walking around the complex, taking in the main temple, the manicured lawns, the young monks going about their daily routines, the Buddhist chants and prayer bells in the background, is in itself an experience.

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Stepping into the main temple, past a beaded curtain, is like walking into a silent explosion of colour. The artistry, the designs, the grandeur, all make the room come to life. Dragons soar from my side and flowers burst into bloom. On the ceiling demons are slain and all around evil is beaten out by good. At the centre of the temple, on an elevated platform, three large gold plated statues rise above us all. The Buddha, his eyes serene, holds court with Guru Padmasambhava and Amitayush at his side. Soft prayers float through the room. You can’t help but close your eyes and meditate.

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The Namdroling Monastery follows the Nyingma tradition of Buddhism, and is considered to be one of the most prestigious centres of Buddhist learning. Young monks, the youngest seem to be around eight, receive a solid education here – they cover both traditional scripture as well as the modern syllabus.

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The monks display the duality of the world they live in – their traditional orange robes are matched by Puma sneakers. Their shaved heads are bent over shiny black cell phones. They inhabit the old world and the new, missing out on neither.

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In the souvenir shop outside the temple complex, a Bollywood hit plays on the radio. The girl behind the counter, a Tibetan born in the settlement, says she doesn’t speak much Hindi, but she loves the music. She hums along with the song, her warm brown eyes bright, and the blue stone of her earring sways to its beat. She pulls out a pendent I’ve been looking at – it’s a little larger than a Rs.1 coin, cobalt blue with a smooth gold/bronzed edge. It has soft, serene eyes etched on in black. “The Buddha’s eyes,” she says, her voice wrapped in devotion, “they always watch over you.”

The Boatman on the Backwaters

Boatman

The brown banana boat wobbled like a village drunk, swaying this way and that, as I tried to step in. The boatman, standing at the helm, one hand on his waist, the other on a long wooden pole, assured me there was nothing to worry about. His accent was thick, his English was broken. Unlike the resort staff, he was dressed informally, in a once-white tee shirt and a yellow-blue folded-up lungi.

Once we’d settled down -the wooden seat was covered with a soft red cushioned, he swung into action. He had one foot on the quay and the other in the boat as he untied the rope tethering us to land. And then like an Olympic athlete, he swung the elongated wooden oar, lifting it across and above his body, and into the water, pushing the boat through an uncontrolled sprawl of water hyacinths, and into Kerala’s backwaters.

Soon enough the lavish resort properties gave way to local villages. We sailed past temples and churches, shacks and villas, abandoned toys and drying laundry. Kids playing along the water waved at us and we waved back. Everything was dense and green and humid and muddy. The silence magnified every tiny sound. The water parting under the force of the oar; insect and bird sounds; the occasional clanging pots; a lone scooter puffing along the little road beyond the water.

The boatman kept up a steady stream of commentary. That was where a famous actor was born. This was the village Arundhati Roy came from. That was a highly recommended local restaurant. This one was not.

When we sailed past an under construction houseboat, he even explained the complex art of houseboat building.

“It will take at least four more months before the boat will be used. Minimum.”

He also mentioned that the owner of said houseboat could well afford the costs involved (“He lives in the Gulf. Very, very rich man”), so there was no need for alarm.

The boatman twisted the oar once again and willed the boat into a tiny stream. The muscles along his arm were well defined and belied his age. The glistening sweat spoke of the effort that was otherwise invisible.

“This is my village,” he said as we passed another settlement, a mass of small homes hidden under thick green foliage, protecting the village from prying eyes. By the bank, not a few feet away from us, a middle aged woman, in a purple housecoat, crouched by the water. She was cleaning a pair of traditional Indian brass lamps in a forceful 1-2-3 scrubbing action. She looked up but for a second, giving the boatman a small nod. He returned her greeting and powered on.