Norbulingka Institute, Kangra Valley, Himachal Pradesh
For those tourists running the monastery circuit of Himachal Pradesh, far in the northern reaches of India, Norbulingka Institute might be something to consider. This crafts training and cultural institute are open to foreigners interested in learning more about Tibetan history and culture. Although not a working monastery, the property is fashioned with similar architecture and does house a temple on site.
I briefly stopped out of curiosity after a stay in Mcleodganj, north up the road via a long taxi or bus ride. Visitors are required to stop at the front desk and sign in. Here the attendants working on the day I arrived were both soft-spoken and extremely friendly. I simply stated my interest was to poke around, snap some photos, and relax my mind. Without any hesitation, a free guide was offered as well as a welcome gesture to roam at my leisure. I declined the guide to assuage any time constraints and set off on the unbelievably manicured pathways through the gardens.
As if I had walked into a different time and place, the grounds at Norbulingka were brimming in green foliage, the sound of the water laughing around every turn. Along the route toward the temple, far in the back of the property, Norling Guest House passed on my left side. These accommodations are open to any paying tourists. And who wouldn’t want to stay here? Modern conveniences are plentiful including full-time running hot water and even A/C in the summer.
Buddhist prayer flags cling to trees and poles as if they were naturally occurring. Brightly painted rocks seen at any monastery were on display near makeshift shrines. And of course, the ubiquitously painted buildings in the Buddhist fashion dotted the pathways on either side. Eventually, I came upon what must be a nerve center for the Institute. A perfectly symmetrical building with rooms on two levels sat before me on a slightly higher elevation. A pond built-in front required a footbridge to cross. Large flowering plants enjoyed the space between the pond and building with ample sunlight to feed them from above. At the end of the bridge is a two-sided prayer wheel with directions for entering and exiting.
Before reaching the temple, know visible in the distance, guests walk past the doll museum and gift shop. I passed on the museum thanks to the exorbitant entry fee but it would prove interesting to those intrigued by Tibetan arts and crafts. The Losel Doll Museum houses a unique collection of 150 costumed dolls depicting the regional, official, and monastic costumes of Tibet. The gift shop, on the other hand, is a must-see education on how to properly execute a retail shop. Photography was prohibited past the front door and for good reason. Simple, elegant, and well merchandised, the gift shop was stocked with truly unique items I haven’t seen in other Tibetan shops. Immediately it was clear this was high-end shopping.
Finally, the temple was begging to be seen. Brightly painted walls, rich in detail and color, stood high before myself and a few other foreign tourists who had found their way. Inside, the interior was cool and quiet. I was alone, uninterrupted by voices or any sounds which I took advantage of by quickly making my way around the building; Camera snapping, feet bustling, ten minutes was enough time.
It dawned on me as I made my way back to the entrance that Norbulingka is using luxury to attract its visitors. The concept of promising a crash course on Tibetan thinking, history, and culture brings in guests, and like Disneyland, you keep them occupied in their downtime with shopping and eating. Things were looking pretty good around here. Modern guest house facilities, high ticket prices in the gift shop, and a high entrance fee to the doll museum clashed a bit with my impression of Tibetans, a group done wrong by the Chinese government. A multi-cuisine eatery sits near the entrance offering Italian, Tibetan, Chinese & Indian dishes. Where else can you seek enlightenment at 6:00 A.M. in the temple and eat cake and sip espresso by 11:00 A.M. in the cafe just steps from your A/C cooled room?
Norbulingka is fascinating for many reasons. Should you choose to stay in the guest house or just drop by as I did, your efforts to get here are generously rewarded.
Plan for a minimum of one hour to walk the grounds, longer if dining or requiring prayer time in the temple. The entrance is free. Visiting hours from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M. Daily.