The first thing that struck me when I entered the Norbulingka Institute was the tangible calm that washed upon my senses. A closer inspection revealed the source of the serenity that had greeted me – the running water in various rivulets that almost chime in unison.
Photo credit: Wnorrix/wikimedia
I had taken a cab from my hotel in McLeodGanj one morning in May. I was not particularly keen on visiting an institute (I had imagined something like a 4-storey building housing dusty old books and a small temple alongside.) I decided to do a quick recce of the institute and told my cab driver to come pick me up in an hour. However, I ended up spending almost half a day there.
Norbulingka, in the village of Sidhpur, 8 kms from Dharamshala, was unlike any other ‘institute’ I had ever seen. It was more of an architectural marvel. The Tibetan-style buildings fit naturally in the Japanese-inspired artificial garden. Adding on to the charm were Buddhist prayer flags in resplendent colours at every turn, hanging on trees like branches.
My first stop was the Losel Doll Museum, which contains the world's largest collection of Losel Dolls. These collectors' items are hand-crafted by monks of the Drepung Loseling monastery. I paid an entry fee of 20 rupees. The inside of the museum was dark, which did the job it was supposed to do - highlight the exquisite dolls in glass cases.
No two dolls are alike and they all have a range of expressions from angry to happy to melancholy.
The dolls' bodies are made of wire and papier maché. Cast metal hands are then attached to the bodies. The heads are sculpted of fine clay, the faces painted, and hair attached. The mesmerizing dolls are dressed in tailored clothes of cotton, wool and silk.
These not-so-ordinary dolls are high in their fashion quotient – they wear exquisite jewellery and accessories.
It did not take me long to complete the tour of the museum. It was a small complex. I even managed to read the stories and legends behind most dolls.
After stepping out of the museum and into the beautiful garden once again, I saw signboards that directed me to several workshops. The institute is home to the Centre for Arts which has many sections including metal statue making, thangka painting,woodc arving, carpentry, metal craft, and silk-screen printing.
I did check out some Thangka paintings and was struck by their vibrant hues. Many of the paintings, made from earth and plant-based pigments, depicted images of Buddha. These paintings are used for visualisation practices during meditation, and adorn homes and temples. At Norbulingka, thangkas are only made in response to customers’ orders.
After my very artsy sojourn, I made my way towards the main temple – the 'Seat of Happiness Temple'. To reach the temple, I had to cross a footbridge over a pond. I stopped here for some pictures.
Upon reaching the footsteps of the main temple, I took off my shoes and kept them in one corner. I was happy to see that photography was not prohibited. The main temple housed a 14-foot-tall Buddha statue. Unlike in Hindu temples, no offerings are made here and there is no priest. I saw people sitting on the rug on the floor, meditating.
I joined the meditating group and after spending a few minutes in the silence that somehow connected all of us, took the stairs to the first floor to get a better view of the gilded copper statue.
The temple building also features the library of the Academy of Tibetan Culture but it was closed that day for repairs.
I exited the temple and spotted the Norling Guest House on my way back. I immediately regretted not booking my stay there. The quaint accommodations are open to any paying tourists and cost around rupees 1500 to 2000 per night for a double room. Modern conveniences are plentiful including full time running hot water and air conditioning in the summer.
I also made a quick stop at the arts shop to buy some souvenirs (photography not allowed). Books, cards and diaries were among the more pocket-friendly affordable items here. Traditional Tibetan clothing, shawls etc and household accessories are on the higher-end. But for those travelers who do take a fancy to the gorgeous lamps on display, the products can be shipped to you.
After all this time spent exploring Norbulingka, I was hungry and I had just the place in mind. When I had entered the complex I had spotted the Norling cafe. The cafe has beautiful outdoor sitting, but the chairs and tables could have been cleaner. I ordered a mango smoothie and a cheese and tomato grilled sandwich. Unfortunately, the smoothie was neither chilled nor tasted very good. It was perhaps made of yak milk as one of my friends suggested. The sandwich was also not particularly delectable.
I left the place, with my palate dissatisfied but my mind a little more enriched, and my soul rejuvenated.