In the Land of Happiness

From the winding road atop a hill, the golden spires of Padmasambhava Mahavihara monastery shine in the sun amidst thick green canopy on a rain-washed morning. As I drive down a neatly laid narrow road to Jirang, a quaint village in the Southern Odisha district of Gajapati, the scenery changes dramatically transporting me to the ‘Land of Happiness’, as the local Tibetan refugees like to call it. It is in this part of Odisha that the Tibetans had taken refuge after the 1959 Chinese invasion.

At the end of the meandering road that is dotted with neatly arranged prayer flags on either side, stands the majestic monastery that has carved a niche for itself in the map of Buddhist tourism destinations in India. It is the biggest living monastery in Southeast Asia and currently, home to over 500 monks from India, Nepal and Bhutan. I head inside with Sunil Patnaik, a Buddhist scholar and Secretary of Odisha Institute of Maritime and South East Asian Studies; and Pema Thintel Khempu, who is in charge of the monastery that closely follows the Vajrayana (tantric) sect of Buddhism.

An ornate gate opens up to a sprawling courtyard where stands the towering 80-foot-high four-storey monastery that has been constructed over 10 acres of land as per the Odantapuri Buddhist architecture style. The monastery has been named after Acharya Padmasambhav, who was born in Kalinga (ancient Odisha) and travelled to Tibet where he spread Buddhism. He was also the founder of Vajrayana sect, says Khempu. Although there is no literature to provide details about this architecture style, Patnaik tells me that Odantapuri, now situated in Bihar, was a Vihara (an important learning centre) like Nalanada and Vikramashila where Indrabhuti, father of Acharya Padmasambhav, was a practising Buddhist. Followers of Acharya Padmasambhav believe that design of the monastery is similar to the Vihara in Odantapuri.

While both sides of the monastery house hostels for the monks amidst manicured lawns, the main structure is nothing less than a spectacle, literally. As we walk towards the monastery, I gawk at the intricate wooden carvings of flowers, leaves and other symbols of Nature that adorn the walls. Art and folk tales of Tibetan Buddhism whisper from every corner of the monument. Looking up at the ceiling I see colourful paintings of mountains, deer, lotus, clouds, streams and waterfalls – all motifs of Tibetan art – besides, different ‘mandalas’ that signify transformation of soul. There are paintings of the phoenix and dragon as well which symbolise the yin and yang forces in the universe. I am told that underlying these works of art is a complex set of beliefs that promise to guide a soul towards the path of enlightenment.

It took hundreds of skilled artists seven years to create the monastery at the cost of Rs 8 Crore. While its foundation stone was laid back in 2003, the Dalai Lama inaugurated it in 2010. The monastery was declared a tourism destination by the Tourism Department, Government of Odisha, in 2010.

After a quick tour, we step into the huge meditation hall whose entrance is decorated with paintings portraying Buddha’s life cycle – from a common man to being the enlightened. Artistic representations of the guardians of Heaven and Hell also find space on both the sides of the entrance. At the centre of the meditation hall, sits a 23-foot golden coloured statue of Buddha, flanked by 17-foot-high statues of Lord Avalokitesavara (Embodiment of Compassion) and Lord Padmasambhava on either side. The idols are set against beautifully done murals depicting Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions. I can barely take my eyes off the colourful murals on the walls that are punctuated with golden hue depicting Buddhas and Bodhisattavas, Dakinis and Dharmapalas, Sun and the Moon (regarded as symbols of God), deer, wheels and various mantras, which are ingrained in the Mahayana and Vajrayana systems of worship. “While in Mahayana sect, monks worshipped idols; they developed a complex set of mantras, mandals and symbols in Vajrayana sect. The paintings are not just mere paintings but a depiction of the process to put the viewer, the individual Buddhist, in touch with what the Tibetan tradition calls the ‘One Mind’ or absolute consciousness,” Patnaik explains. I enjoy a few minutes of silence in the hall as I watch young monks settle down for the afternoon prayers. It is easy to open conversation with the monks for whom, discipline is the way of life. The annual cultural calendar of Padmasambhava Mahavihara monastery hosts a series of events that are related to Lord Buddha. However, the most important among them is the month-long Saga Dawa festival that is celebrated in April. Jirang witnesses a mammoth gathering in April as Buddhist monks from across India and Nepal come here for prayers that continue throughout the day for all the 30 days in the month.

 A short walk away from the monastery, there are eight colourful stupas whose designs are similar to those found in Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. Arranged in a circular fashion and surrounded by colourful prayer flags that contain verses of Dharma, each of these stupas refers to major events in Lord Buddha’s life as explained in Tibetan Buddhism. In the centre stands the Stupa of Enlightenment, which is the tallest of them all, signifying Lord Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment when he conquered worldly temptations. The dusk is setting in and we join the villagers, who gather around the Stupa of Enlightenment, for prayers. Looking at the stunning monastery and the simple villagers, I feel happy to see the way the Tibetan refugees have preserved their religion, art and history in a distant land, which is now their home.

Jirang is one of the five villages that come under Phuntsokling (meaning land of happiness in local parlance) Tibetan settlement in Gajapati district. The four others are Chandragiri, Lobarsingi, Tankilipadar and Mahendragada. There are around 500 households in Jirang and each of them have maize stock huts in the backyard. In fact, the place is nicknamed as ‘Maize Bowl of Odisha’. Maize farming is the mainstay of the refugees as the land isn’t fertile enough for growing paddy or pulses. Irrigation sources are also minimal. Maize farming apart, the Tibetans eke out living through carpet making and weaving woolens.

Apart from the monastery, travellers can visit the beautiful Khasada waterfall that is on the outskirts of Jirang and the Tibetan Cooperative Society of Chandragiri, located four kms away, where the refugees prepare handicrafts. Two popular tourist destinations of Southern Odisha – Taptapani, a hot sulphur spring and Gopalpur sea beach – are 40 kms and 100 kms away from Jirang respectively. The monastery runs a canteen where visitors can have their food.

Getting There: Jirang is around 80 kms from Berhampur and four kms from Chandragiri, which is the largest settlement of refugee Tibetans in Odisha. While the monastery is open throughout the week, the visiting hours for tourists are 9 am to 2 pm and 2 pm to 5 pm daily.
Visitors are only allowed to go till the meditation hall of the monastery as the first and second floors are meant for practising monks. While the monastery is a one-day destination, those willing to stay back can book rooms in Pantha Nivas at Taptapani. Guided tours are offered by Odisha Tourism Development Corporation and bookings can be done at www.visitodisha.org and www.odishatourism.gov.in

Photographs by Biswanath Swain. A shorter version of the story appears in November issue of National Geographic Traveller.

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