BYLAKUPPE, India (Reuters) - It is the last prayer before lunch at the monastery and novice Buddhist monks are giggling and fidgeting with their bowls in a hall overflowing with maroon robes. Flatbread and vegetable soup are soon served, even to visitors, and the chatter dies down.
It’s a scene not set in Tibet, but in a southern Indian town about 2,500 km (1,550 miles) from Lhasa, capital of the remote Himalayan region ruled by China.
Bylakuppe is an unlikely Tibetan nook in a countryside brimming with coffee plantations and dense jungles, a region British colonialists nicknamed the “Scotland of India”.
The settlement came up on land set aside for refugees after Tibet’s Dalai Lama fled into exile in India in 1959. While the spiritual leader stays in the hill resort of Dharamsala in northern India, an estimated 20,000 Tibetans live in Bylakuppe.
Here are tips for getting the most out of a trip to Bylakuppe and nearby areas from Reuters, whose 2,600 journalists in all parts of the world offer visitors the best local insights.
Sightseers get to Bylakuppe by road, traveling on State Highway 88 in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. The closest city airport of Bengaluru is 214 km (133 miles) from Bylakuppe, while the nearest railway junction at Mysore is a little over 80 km (50 miles) away.
Lush fields of maize on both sides of the road shepherd visitors towards ornate arches that mark the town’s entrance. The settlement is strewn with monasteries and nunneries, with rows of fluttering prayer flags everywhere. Monks on bicycles ride past swathes of farmland.
The best time to visit Bylakuppe is during Losar - the Tibetan New Year - celebrated for two weeks in February or early March. The town takes on a carnivalesque charm as monks don lively masks and costumes for the Cham dance, swaying to music played on traditional instruments.
In a town dotted with monasteries, Namdroling is the most famous of the lot, home to a majestic gold-plated statue of the Buddha. Tourists can sit and meditate or admire the intricate wall paintings. Listen in during the early morning prayers; the synchronized chants give Namdroling an ethereal charm.
The monasteries of Sera Mey and Sera Jey, modeled on the original in Tibet, are the centers of Buddhist education. So is Tashi Lhunpo, a counterpart to the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama in Tibet.
Visitors with a penchant for holiday shopping can pick up Tibetan souvenirs such as rupas (statues), thangkas (paintings), and prayer wheels from handicraft shops. Keep in touch with the world at a tiny internet cafe, with monks typing furiously on adjacent computers.
Budget travelers can put up at guest rooms in monasteries, paying about 500 rupees ($8) for a clean room with a double bed. The Paljor Dargye Ling is the only hotel in the area, not counting the ones in Kushalanagar, a town 13 km (8 miles) from Bylakuppe. Or opt for a homestay with a family.
Several families in Bylakuppe operate backyard eateries, serving thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) and a plate of momos (steamed dumplings) for about a dollar each.
Foreigners need special permits to stay in Tibetan settlements in India. It can take up to three months to get the permit from the Indian home ministry, so plan accordingly.
The island of Nisargadhama is a 30-minute car ride from Bylakuppe. Tourists cross a rope bridge across the river Kaveri for a walk through bamboo groves, sandalwood and teak trees.
Madikeri, famous for its coffee plantations, is 40 km (25 miles) from Bylakuppe. Buy a 500-gram packet of coffee for about 300 rupees ($5). Try the local speciality - a chilli pork dish.
Editing by Tony Tharakan and Robert Birsel