Travel Tales: Buddhist paintings in Namdroling Monastery
Updated: Apr 1
It was early July and the Indian Monsoons were erratic and irritatingly sparse in Coorg, and upon that the weather was fairly warm. My partner and I, two intrepid travellers, were going to ride 34 km of mountain roads from Madikeri, Coorg to visit a Buddhist monastery in the western ghats of Karnataka, The Namdroling Monastery.
Panoramic view of Madikeri fort
We set off from Madikeri Fort after gobbling a fat American-style pizza at the restaurant aptly named ‘Pizza Hut’. We crossed the city and, soon enough, we were on mountain ‘ghat’ roads which were winding, sharp and a wee bit treacherous because of all the trucks, but after about 10 km of riding, the terrain flattened out and the ride became considerably cheery.
Forests enroute to Namdroling Monastery
The roads cut through some beautiful forest landscape
The thick tropical forests which covered the mountains gave way to endless plantations and rubber estates and as we rode along further, small indiscriminate villages and towns started to appear. Tractors, buses, cars and bikes vied for a premium spot on the road, honking at an inconsiderate decibel level. We navigated the roads tactfully at a good pace and raced towards our destination.
After what seemed like an endless ride, we were greeted by a giant blue board on the main road which said ‘Take Right – Golden Temple’. We followed the directions and, soon enough, we were at the entrance of the Namdroling Nyingmapa Monastery/ The Golden Temple.
The Namdroling monastery is the largest teaching centre of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism in the world and hosts over 5000 lamas, a junior high school, a hospital and a religious college. Source – Wikipedia
Namdroling Monastery (Golden Temple) – main entrance
We parked our scooter and stepped into the monastery compound leading to a large quadrangle dotted with souvenir shops selling all sorts of Buddhist paraphernalia. Almost immediately we noticed the drastic change in architecture and ambience. Children wearing a red Tibetan robe, The Kasaya, ran past us as groups of monks and nuns sat at the lone coffee shop discussing theology and it almost felt like we were on the high Tibetan plateau.
We walked across the courtyard and as we turned on a corner pathway lined by tall trees, suddenly and surprisingly, the main temple came into view, a large gold-covered palace surrounded by manicured and well kept gardens. We walked across to the temple and entered the main hall before depositing our shoes at a counter beside the temple.
Main hall of the temple.
A golden Buddha sitting in a state of enlightenment and watching over all of us.
As we entered the pavilion we were greeted by the main attraction – three golden Buddhas, sitting at the end of the hall under painted skies, eyes closed, calm faced and with a blissful smile in their supreme state of enlightenment. They sat there watching scores of monks and nuns, some talking, some praying and some continuously prostrating in reverence with all but one goal, to find the secret to that all-encompassing smile of the Buddha, to find the secret to true and genuine contentment and to find the secret to rising above the human condition.
Rope dividing Buddhism and Tourism
Beyond the statues, beyond the monks, beyond the prayer mats, far beyond, stood an airport-style rope that created a hard division between Buddhism and tourism, between them and us. On this side of the rope, the tourists, all of them, stood clamouring obsessively taking pictures and selfies of themselves, so mesmerised and lost in their world of wants, desires and selfies that no one really looked at the multitude of colourful, vivid and thought-provoking Buddhist paintings on the walls all around them.
Mara the demon standing on top of a woman
Mara the demon standing on top of a man
On the right side, at the back of the hall, in a graphic painting stands Mara the demon. It stands there in a Natraja like dance posture, one leg raised waving out its red tongue, with the heads of all its victims around its neck, drinking blood from a human skull and standing on top of a naked human. It stands with such great force and immensity that the human, unable to bear the load, cowers down and is squashed into the ground, with an expression of abject acquiescence and vanquish.
The demon is a representation of our wants, desires and our need for material comforts, fame and power, things which cause us pain and suffering, things which keep us endlessly stuck in the cycle of birth and rebirth, in Samsara. What one doesn’t understand is that the demon is not a superstition but it is quite real and it is self-created. The heads of the victims around Mara’s neck are not that of others but of our own. They are his trophies from our past lives, every time when we tried and failed to conquer him.
Buddha achieving victory over Mara and getting enlightened
Buddha in his various forms and avatars
On the left side, the theme of the paintings takes a drastic change. There are no more demons, no more crushed humans and no more severed heads but an enlightened Buddha sitting on a lotus frond, looking over everyone with calm and blissful eyes. Multicoloured clouds, flowers, lakes and playful elephants replace the gruesomeness on the other side and a Buddha sits in the middle of what seems to be a congregation of countless other Buddhas. He shows us the way to escape the inescapable human condition and to achieve something far greater, something so unique and contrasting that it is said that language itself is incapable of explaining it.
After looking at these beautiful works of art we realised that through these paintings the Buddhist thought and ideology are communicated in a charming and uncomplicated manner and somehow every person who visits the monastery will surely take something back consciously or subconsciously, something far more valuable than a mere selfie.
A while later, we moved to Tara temple where the Tara mantra was being chanted in a soulful Tibetan way. So mesmerised, we sat there until sunset meditating, taking a moment out of our lives to be ‘in the moment’.
After shopping at the souvenir shop where we bought some books, flags and incense sticks, we got back on our same old rickety scooter and scooted back to our hotel in Madikeri and thus ended our beautiful and spiritual day!
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