Bylakuppe Karnataka: a travel guide to little Tibet
This post is a travel guide about Bylakuppe in Karnataka India. Bylakuppe is often referred to as little Tibet in India, but is very little known among travellers. While it is Dharamsala that gets all the attention when people want to experience Tibetan culture in India, it is Karnataka that actually has the largest Tibetan refugee population.
A history of Bylakuppe Karnataka
Bylakuppe in Karnataka is about 80 kilometers west of Mysore. In 1960, Karnataka was the first state in India to offer land to Tibetan refugees. About 3000 refugees got 3000 acres of land in Bylakuppe. It became the oldest and largest Tibetan community outside of Tibet.
Even after the Dalai lama established his government in exile in Dharamsala, Bylakuppe kept growing. Up till this day, refugees that cross the mountains from Tibet to India find their way to Bylakuppe.
Their new home in Bylakuppe couldn’t be more different. Karnataka with its dense jungles and green rice paddies is far removed from the snow capped mountain peaks of the Himalayas.
The first Tibetans came on empty land where they had to watch out for elephants and other wildlife. They suffered from the heat and tropical diseases they never experienced before. Nevertheless, they managed to build a self sustaining community while staying true to their own culture.
Nowadays there are about 70,000 Tibetans living in Bylakuppe in Karnataka. Keeping within the Tibetan way of life, Bylakuppe has buddhist monasteries, nunneries, schools and universities.
Bylakuppe is a world on its own. Coming from the nearby Indian town of Kushalnagar, it feels like a different country. A little Tibet indeed? Maybe, but over the years the Tibetan community has also changed a lot as they evolved and adapted to their life in their new home.
Why visit Bylakuppe Karnataka?
When you want to learn more about the life of Tibetan refugees in India, Bylakuppe in Karnataka is certainly an interesting place to visit.
For many, their first idea will be to visit Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama runs his government in exile. However, with the growing popularity of Buddhism in the West, Dharamsala is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. Dharamsala has more hostels, banana pancake restaurants and souvenir shops than buddhist buildings.
Bylakuppe tries to prevent the same faith. Foreigners can visit Bylakuppe during the day, but if they want to sleep overnight they need a special permit. Foreign tourists are still rare in Bylakuppe.
Things to do in Bylakuppe Karnataka
Bylakuppe is actually a group of different settlements. They are located around the main monasteries representing the four schools within Tibetan Buddhism. Although it is possible to walk, the distances are rather big. It is best to take a tuk tuk to visit the different monasteries.
The most important monastery in Bylakuppe is the Namdroling monastery. It was also the first monastery that was built once the Tibetan refugees received the land in Bylakuppe. At that time there was nothing but dense jungle.
The Namdroling monastery is now the largest teaching center within the Nyingma school of Tibbetan buddhism. This is considered the oldest school as it is based on the first translations of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Tibetan.
The Namdroling monastery is home to the famous Golden temple that is open to visitors. Other buildings in the monastery complex include schools, colleges and a hospital. There are around 5000 monks and nuns staying at the Namdroling monastery.
Visitor tips: Namdroling is the main tourist attraction in Bylakuppe. The monks are used to see tourists and might even want to talk to you to practise their english. If you ask any tuk tuk driver or taxi in Kushalnagar to bring you to Bylakuppe, they will drop you off here.
Tashi Lunpo monastery
The Tashi Lunpo monastery is a relatively new monastery in Bylakuppe. It’s name refers to the 15th century Tashi Lunpo monastery in Shigatse in Tibet. This monastery was built by the first Dalai lama and was the seat of the panchen lama’s. After the Chinese invasion in 1959 many monks fled to India. In 1972 the monastery was reestablished in Bylakuppe.
Visitor tips: Tashi Lunpo is 3 kilometers from the Namdroling monastery. You can either walk or take a tuk tuk here.
The Sera monastery was a famous monastic university in Lhasa. During the revolts in Lhasa in 1959 the monastery was damaged. Many monks were killed and those that survived, fled to India. They settled in Bylakuppe and established a new Sera monastery.
Sera monastery was one of the great universities of Tibet. In Bylakuppe it is also home to the Sera Mey and Sera Jey universities. This monastery is within the Gyelug school. The newest school also known as the yellow hat school and famous for its teaching in debating skills.
Visitor tips: Sera is 4 kilometers from the Namdroling monastery. You can either walk or take a tuk tuk here. If you want to witness a debate session there is normally one in the morning at 09:30 AM. The temple has beautiful mural paintings.
The original Sakya monastery in Tibet was famous for its library with ancient buddhist scriptures. Here too, the monks fled the monastery in 1959. The new Sakya monastery was reestablished in Dehra Dun. A small sister monastery also opened in Bylakuppe.
Visitor tips: Sakya monastery is 5 kilometers from the Namdroling monastery. You can either walk or take a tuk tuk here. Few people visit this monastery. If the doors are locked you can ask the monks to open them for you.
Kagyudpa Nalanda Institute
The Kagyudpa Nalanda institute represents the Kagyu school within Tibetan buddhism. It is a serene place with a nice panorama view over Bylakuppe.
Visitor tips: Kagyu monastery is 6 kilometers from the Namdroling monastery. You can either walk or take a tuk tuk here. Few people visit this monastery. If the doors are locked you can ask the monks to open them for you.
Taste Tibetan food
Bylakuppe is the perfect place to try Tibetan food. There are a number of restaurants serving Tibetan cuisine. One of my favourite dishes, that I know all too well from Nepal, are momo’s. Another filling lunch is thukpa. A noodle soup full of veggies.
Bylakuppe Karnataka travel tips
Where to eat in Bylakuppe Karnataka
Bylakuppe is strictly vegetarian and the restaurants all close at 7 PM. Some of the bigger monasteries have a canteen that serves simple and cheap meals.
Near the Namdroling monastery you can find the Malaya restaurant that is popular among local tourists. Besides Tibetan food you can also get North Indian and South Indian food. A little bit further along on the main road is the Tibet kitchen where I had a delicious lunch with Thukpa and momo’s.
If you really prefer to eat meat, you can go to the town of Kushal nagar. On the main road of Kushalnagar is plenty of choice
Where to sleep in Bylakuppe Karnataka
Some of the bigger monasteries also have cheap and basic guesthouses. However, as a foreigner you will need a permit to stay there. You can either visit Bylakuppe as a day trip from Mysore like I did, or sleep in Kushalnagar.
In Mysore I can recommend Mansion 1907. Most of all because of its great location in walking distance from the bus station, Mysore palace and Devaraja market. This hostel has friendly owners, a great breakfast menu and female only dorms. During the tourist season they have free yoga classes in the morning and you can rent bicycles to explore Mysore and its surroundings.
When to visit Bylakuppe Karnataka
The best time to visit Bylakuppe is from September till March when the climate is pleasant. In April and May it starts to get very hot in Karnataka and in June it is the start of the monsoon season when rain becomes more frequent.
You can also visit during one of the Tibetan festivals such as Lhosar, the Tibetan new year. The exact dates change every year, but it will be somewhere around February/March.
Sustainable travel in Bylakuppe Karnataka
Bylakuppe is a religious center for the monks that live here and therefore treat the place with respect.
Wear modest clothing and leave your shoes outside when entering a temple.
Turn prayer wheels in a clock wise direction with your right hand.
Bylakuppe is an alcohol and meat free environment.
Ask permission before taking pictures of people and respect their wishes if they prefer not to.
It is not allowed to have body contact with the monks, that includes shaking hands
How to get to Bylakuppe Karnataka
Bylakuppe is about two hours away from Mysore and therefore possible as a day trip. From Mysore you can take one of the frequent KSRTC buses to Kushalnagar.
Kushalnagar is about 6 kilometers from the Bylakuppe settlement. The bus will drop you off at the main road in Kushalnagar. It is very easy to find a (shared) tuk tuk to Bylakuppe, also called Lama Camp.
Bangalore is about 4 to 5 hours away from Bylakuppe and therefore possible as a weekend get away. From Bangalore you can take one of the frequent KSRTC buses to Kushalnagar
Getting around in Bylakuppe is only possible with a tuk tuk. You can arrange one in Kushalnagar or at the Namdroling monastery. At other monasteries, tuk tuks will be hard to find.
Therefore you need to decide whether you want to walk in between the monasteries or take a tuk tuk. If you really want to visit all the monasteries in a single day I can recommend hiring a tuk tuk for the day.
If you only want to visit a few you can consider walking, but don’t underestimate the distances. From the Namdroling monastery it is about 4 kilometer to the Sera monastery and 3 kilometer to Tashilhunpo monastery.
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