February 14th was Chinese/Tibetan New Year and since the largest Tibetan colony in India was only a couple of hours away, a group of us went to Bylakuppe to see the New Year festivities. Unfortunately, we arrived the afternoon of the 14th and all of the festivities had happened that morning. Most of the businesses and restaurants were also closed for the holiday. The ceremonies were over but the temples were open. These temples are far larger and more elaborate than the temple at McCloudGanj (where the Dalhi Lama resides). I sat in the Golden Temple for a long time taking in the intricate beauty of every small detail of the temple. The three golden statues are impressive, but every single surface of the temple is painted and carved with exquisite detail.
We stayed outside of the town in one of the Tibetan colonies at a guesthouse that was full of Tibetan monks that had come to the colony for a holiday. As much as everyone enjoyed touring the temples, it was being in the company of the monks that made the experience truly special. Sometimes it was not always easy to communicate, but the lobby had a couple of ping pong tables which is a fairly universal language. Steve played with the monks for three hours. Only one monk beat him at one match, but not for lack of trying. I was especially amused by one monk wearing Chuck Taylor’s who must have played twenty times but never won. It did seem that everyone had a lot of fun losing, maybe because they spend a lot of time meditating about non-attachment each day. I played with one of the monks the next morning and can tell you that even Tibetan Monks swear in English – but with a smile.
After Tibetan New Year we took a day to tour three famous temples in the area, Halebid, Belur, and Sravanabelagola. Halebid and Belur were built during the 12th century, a time when the rulers celebrated their artisans. The Halebid temple is covered in layers of tiny carvings. Many of the carvings are slightly different than the other. For example no two elephants are the same out of the 644 elephant carvings that surround the temple. Apart from the sheer intricate beauty of the temple it is amazing that it has been preserved so well for so long. Ceril, a friend from the clinic, observed that this temple had been built nearly a thousand years ago, so it was possible for Indians to build good houses. So many houses built in the past one hundred years resemble ruins more than many of the temples.
Belur Temple was built in a similar style to Halebid, but the spectacular carvings were inside this temple. It is a Shiva Temple and next to the temple are two impressive Nandi bull statues.
Toward evening we made our way to Sravanabengola, a Jain temple, built on the top of a hill in 980 A.D. Behind the main temple is a 71 foot high statue of a Jain leader that is carved out of a single rock. I had seen this temple on The Story of India a documentary on PBS and was looking forward to seeing this amazing work of art.
To reach the temple you have to climb up nearly 700 steps (barefoot). Even though I hike often, this was still a lung burner. We convinced our driver to join us. He had driven people to the temple an estimated 60 times, but he had never been to see the statue at the top. He seemed genuinely happy he made the climb even though his legs were shaking by the time we got back to the car. The statue is truly beautiful. The face of the statue is very serene. Four thousand years after the statue was carved it is still in perfect condition. I had high expectations before visiting this temple and the actual experience far exceeded them.
At this temple several of the Indian tourists asked me to either shake their hand or take their photo.
Spending some days touring temples, I had a lot of time to reflect on the central role that religion plays in everyone’s life here. Every shop keeper has a shrine in their store. Every taxi driver has at least one sticker on their car to pay homage to the gods. More often they have a small shrine on their dash board. Even the bus drivers put up images of gods in the public busses and it is common for there to be a shrine sitting in the middle of the road, even in a busy city. This is all a reminder that each life is determined partly by chance and to be grateful for whatever blessings are bestowed to us in this life. Touring the temples made me think about the time and attention people here spend on their spiritual lives. This is another ponderous thing about India. There are endless shrines, temples, and holy people walking around in robes, but India is also a land of superstition, illusion, and cut throat competition. The man who has had his forehead marked with a blessing from his priest will still rob you blind when he tries to sell you a bottle of water.