When I step into the room, 77-year-old Choejor Palden has a beatific smile on his face. His wrinkled face looks happy and at peace, as he listens to some old bollywood melodies I recognise instantly on a contraption that looks like a battered old radio – the kind we were accustomed to seeing 40 years ago and that usually said Philips or Murphy in a corner.
Palden is the store-in-charge at the Norbulingka institute – half an hour from Dharamsala in Kangra valley – a six-acre haven that is working to keep alive the Tibetan ancient arts, crafts and culture and doing a marvellous job of it.
Born in Lhasa, Palden was part of the delegation that came with the 14th Dalai Lama to India in 1959, at the time of the revolt when the Dalai Lama fled, fearing for his life. He has worked at the Norbulingka Institute since it was set up in 1988. His wife and four children all work at the institute. He’s been in India for 59 years and has come to love many things Indian, including the music as his radio betrays, but he says he still feels “Tibetan”. As the years have gone by, his desire to return to his own birth country has grown but he only wants to go back to a free Tibet.
Norbulingka is also dotted with studios where workshops are held on various art forms such as wood carving, wood painting, screen printing, applique, weaving and tailoring | Photo: iStockAlthough Palden seems keen to chat, I tear myself away and walk with my tour guide – Dachung – to another room. A group of youngish men are sitting on the floor all with a small white screen in front of them, deep in concentration. Even as we enter, their eyes don’t waver from the screen. I approach one to see what is keeping him so rapt. That’s when I notice the brush in his hand and his palate of organic paints including 24-carat gold paint in one corner. The thangka he’s working on is the most intricate he’s ever attempted and he expects it to take another two or three weeks to finish.
Vishal Negi is 23 years old. He’s done a three-year course in thangka painting and been working at Norbulingka for the last two years. Although he’s not Tibetan, Negi says he identifies with Buddhism and what it stands for. Moreover, he loves art. His parents, initially unable to understand his motivations, have now slowly come to terms with his chosen calling. He’s not sure of where the future will take him, but for now, he’s content to do what he’s doing. And that, for the time being, is working on his most complicated work so far.
In the next room, complication reaches a new level. One of the institute's three masters of thangka painting - Kunga – 43 years and with 22 years of experience in the art – is working on a 5 feet-by-3 feet thangka accompanied by a protégé’. The room is so silent I don’t feel like breaking it but curiosity gets the better of me. I ask how long it will take to finish. 8-9 months of dedicated work by two artists goes into the making of a thangka of this size and intricacy. No wonder they cost an arm and a leg, I think to myself as I head towards the temple.
It is here – at the Seat of Happiness temple - that one gets to witness two masterpieces of work, both made in-house. The four-meter gilded copper statue of the Buddha Sakyamuni that holds centre stage and the mother of all thangkas that dominates the room, a 36x15 feet stunning piece of applique woven by 20-25 artists in-house over a one-year period.
The Losei dolls’ museum next to the temple is also worth a stop. Miniature sized dolls and figures can give many Tibetans – several of whom have never visited their own country - a flavour of what life in Tibet is like. Well-constructed and detailed models of festivals, rituals, dances, traditions and tribes from different regions of the country give one a glimpse of the diversity of features, costumes, lifestyles, habits and past-times. As my guide says, for many Tibetan children it offers a peek into a world – their own in fact - they may never get to see.
Workshops are on in studios across the property. There’s a section that works on wood carving and wood painting. There is a metal workshop where the number of artists, I learn, is dwindling since its master died in 2011. There’s the screen printing, applique and tailoring studio, and another for weaving, the only sections where one finds women at work. By choice, my guide says. All the art forms are open to men and women, but the women tend to prefer weaving, tailoring and needlework. There are over 300 people working with the Norbulingka institute now; although not all at this institute. The Norling House offers rooms to stay within the complex for those learning the arts. Workshops run throughout the year and anyone who is interested can come and stay in the institute for attending daily classes.
But to reduce Norbulingka to only an institute that promotes the arts would be an insult. Green, leafy and calm, the institute is an oasis for any visitor in the otherwise ordinary Indian town of Sidhpur. You can easily forget you are not in a jungle – so thick is the foliage and fauna around you. Around the property, there are cunning uses of stones, rocks and water. That’s why I am not surprised when Dangchu confirms that the architect of the property was Japanese.
Housed within the complex, Norling Restaurant and a small outdoor café offer the most delicious Tibetan food (all vegetarian though) you can probably buy in the area. The thukpa was the best I have eaten.
Apart from the invaluable work Norbulingka does to preserve Tibetan arts, the institute is also an oasis of calm in the otherwise featureless town of Sidhpur | Photo: iStock
In one corner is a deceptively large shop, a consummation of all the efforts of artists in the different studios on display. From the smallest of coin purses to the most elaborate thangkas, the shop actually compares with anything one finds in Europe or even Japan. I feel like robbing a bank to buy up the shop! I leave, however, with a few humble but exquisite purchases.
Two or three things strike me about the Tibetans I encounter here. I meet several artists residing in the property and learn quickly that age is a nebulous concept for them. They only have a rough idea of how old they are. Palden thinks he’s around 77. Another wood carver I meet says he thinks he’s around 70. Even my guide thinks he’s around 32 or 34 but can’t say for certain.
Despite their struggles – Dangchu gives me an insight as we walk around into how many of them live in small and often cramped spaces together, earn very little but somehow manage to get by – there is an aura of calm and peace that envelopes them. I hear no raised voices, no shouting, no frayed tempers through the few hours I spend there. Everyone seems remarkably in harmony with the surroundings and nature.
Last but not least, they have an aesthetic sense that sets them apart. There is quality in anything on offer and that holds true not just for the product but also the packaging. John Keat’s words “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” rings aloud in every aspect here.
As I leave Norbulingka, I find myself quite angry at the Chinese for what they have done to Tibet. In bits and pieces, one is aware of the injustices done to Tibet over the years but how many of us have given it serious thought. After witnessing a tiny slice of what this peace-loving and talented people have given to India, I can only leave feeling grateful and a bit saddened.