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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Hidden in plain sight

Home to the largest monk population in the world, Mundgod in Karnataka remains a relatively undiscovered world.

Written by Sunanda Mehta |
Updated: November 20, 2016 12:19:46 am
Far from the madding crowd: Monks at the Drepung Gomang Monastery. (Source: Express photo by Arul Horizon) Far from the madding crowd: Monks at the Drepung Gomang Monastery. (Source: Express photo by Arul Horizon)

It’s 6 am and the incandescent orange of the rising sun seems to be in silent competition with the sea of maroon shuffling its way through a winding road below. They both magically transform the otherwise dull and barren landscape around. Not far away, a gong sounds with rhythmic regularity, guiding the maroon-robed monks into the massive prayer hall of the monastery. Soon, soothing chants of the morning prayers rise in tandem with the sun outside.

A couple of kilometres away, a more pragmatic transaction with the sun is in progress. Yards and yards of what looks like long thin ropes are being carefully hung on strings that run across a large barn. As curtains of white strands fill the room, the monks smile with satisfaction at the bright sun, now fairly high up in the sky. It’s evident that the strands they have just hung across will dry within a day. In 24 hours, the monks would be back at The Noodle Factory to collect the fresh noodle strings. It would then make, perhaps, one meal for the 3,000 odd monks of Camp no. 2. Morning work well done, the group settles down to a hot mug of salty Tibetan tea and a piece of bread. It’s breakfast for the 8,000 monks across the Doeguling settlement of Mundgod’s Mini-Tibet in Karnataka.

Tucked away in the interiors of Karnataka, one hour from Hubli and 300 km from Goa, is Mundgod. It is a small, unassuming panchayat town which hosts the largest monk settlement in the world. With about 8,000 monks across two camps at the Doeguling Tibetan Settlement, the numbers are much higher than those at Bylakuppe, one of the four Tibetan settlements in Karnataka. “This is probably because Bylakuppe is in the vicinity of tourist places like Coorg and Mysore. When people come there, they also visit it. But, here, Mundgod is a fairly unknown town hidden in the interiors — there are no tourist attractions nearby and, so, it is lost in relative anonymity,” says Tenzin Khentse, 42, who came to Mundgod as a young lad of 14 from his hometown in Ladakh.

Foreigners, too, are not allowed into this “protected area” without a pass that often takes three to four months to be obtained. All of which dissuades rather than encourages tourists to explore the little Shangri la.

But anonymity is, perhaps, endemic to the purpose of Mundgod. Originally a refuge for those who fled Tibet after the Chinese took over, today, it has evolved as a seat of learning and education for the monks. There are seven monasteries with ornate prayer halls, artistically designed roofs and intricately sculpted mandalas. The four monastic universities here become home to monks, who usually come here by 10-12 years of age and stay on for at least 25 years to study the religious texts. Many opt to stay on as teachers and guides for the younger generation.

The Drepung Monastery is also where the seventh Ling Rinpoche, reincarnation of the Dalai Lama’s guru, has been pursuing his education for the last 20 years. Next year, he graduates at a grand ceremony. “I was one-and-a-half years old when the reincarnation was discovered. I don’t remember much, but I was told that in a series of tests, this was ascertained. For instance, among lots of rosaries, I would pick up that of my predecessor etc,” he says.

A study and debate session at one of the monasteries in Camp 2. (Source: Express photo by Arul Horizon) A study and debate session at one of the monasteries in Camp 2. (Source: Express photo by Arul Horizon)

The total population of Tibetans in Mundgod is around 15,000, out of which 70 per cent are monks and nuns. “The Tibetans came to Mundgod in 1966 when the government of Karnataka allotted them around 4,500 acres of land for settlement. Having fled from Tibet after the Chinese invasion, they formed 11 camps here — two are occupied by monks and the rest by common people. Now, however, about 170 acres of the land has been encroached upon by the forest department,” says Thinsey Gyaltso, secretary at the Office of the Representative Doeguling Tibetan Resettlement that was set up to address issues of the Tibetans with help from local and state governments. “Tibetans, even those born here, are not recognised as Indian nationals. They are given a Registration Certificate, which is their identity proof. In place of a passport, we have a yellow Identity Card issued to us. This very often throws up problems, especially when there is a need to travel abroad,” says Gyaltso, who was born and raised here.

A few miles down the road is the Loseling Buddhist School, devoted to Tibetan education. While students from Standard I to V are taught all subjects as decided by the CBSE, from Standard VI onwards, they study only Buddhism.

“The examination system for the monks is very stringent. They have three types of tests at every stage — written, oral, and an open debate to test the depth of their knowledge and understanding,” says Khentse, even as students engage in animated discussions on the premises of the Drepung Monastery.

Every year, 25-30 monks graduate, but Khentse admits that the number of monks coming into the monastery is falling every year. “Earlier, families had seven-eight children and sent one to the monastery both for economic reasons and as a sense of duty. Now, with smaller families, this is changing,” says Khentse, who himself was sent to Mundgod by his parents at the age of 14. He confesses that, initially, it took a lot to stop missing his home and family. “But, what helped was the fact that I had been sent specifically to be a companion to Ling Rinpoche, who was here as a young boy of 10. That was a big honour. I became his shadow and am with him 24×7 365 days. Now, I feel happy that this life was chosen for me,” says the man more popularly known as Tsetan in Mundgod.

There are many, though, who have chosen this life for themselves. Tenzin Dechen, 36, one of the 230 nuns at the Jangchub Cholling nunnery at Mundgod, came here in 2005 for Buddhist studies. “I was 19 years old when I decided to become a nun. I had no difficulty in accepting this life because it was my own decision. I wanted to get to the depths of Buddhism. I have never missed my life back home. There is complete peace of mind,” says Dechen.

Other than identity issues that comes from their refugee status, there is also occasional instances of discrimination. However, by and large, the Tibetans and the locals seem to co-exist fairly peacefully. In fact, much of Mungond’s economy has flourished due to the settlements — because of the presence of the monasteries, there is immense demand for local produce.

Inside a monastery kitchen in Mundgod. (Source: Express photo by Arul Horizon) Inside a monastery kitchen in Mundgod. (Source: Express photo by Arul Horizon)

The kitchen at each of the monasteries is a fascinating little story in itself. With thousands of monks to be fed, everything about it is of a grand scale — from the gigantic utensils used, to the quantity of ingredients and raw materials that go into the daily menu. “For the daily bread for breakfast, we use about 350 kg of flour, 50 kg of ghee or lard and 40 kg of sugar. At lunch again, it’s about 500 kg of flour and 50 litres of oil, while evening sees 200 kg of rice and 75 kg dal used everyday,” says Tenzin Thinlay, who heads the kitchen. The meals, a combination of Indian and Tibetan dishes, are frugal. The kitchen is vegetarian, but lamas who are non-vegetarian are free to go to restaurants down the road and indulge in their choice of momos and thupkas. Most non-monk Tibetans are into farming and agriculture.

It’s dusk and a group of monks is returning to the hostels while another group pushes a wheelbarrow they had been using for making the road. “There is a lot of labour done by the monks for public welfare. This road was a crying need of the area. Since we do not have voting rights, these requests often go ignored. Hence, in many cases, we do the work ourselves wherever we are able to,” says Tseten.

It’s far from the end of day for these monks though. For many hours now, they will peruse Buddhist texts in preparation of the big debate scheduled the next day. It’s pitch dark outside, but the search for light continues.

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