Elephants and Buddhas

Friday morning started quite early. Jai wanted to pack in quite a bit, and as with our previous day’s adventure, a number of sites were several kilometers outside of Madikeri. Padmini got up early to make us chapatti with our sambar and chutney, and a healthy serving of butter fruit (avocado). And of course, the meal was only complete after a serving a coffee from her family’s estate. We only had three sites to visit, but it was worth the early morning so we could take our time at them all and still get home before dark.

We wound through narrow roads between coffee estates and small communities, much like winding through farm roads in the Willamette Valley, finally arriving at the village of Dubare. There we took a small boat across the Cauvery River to an island housing an elephant camp. When we arrived several elephants waded in the shallow waters with one of the park staff who was scrubbing them with a brush. The public part of the camp was essentially a tourist trap and the main attraction, just a few meters inland from the bank, was a platform for assembling to ride the elephants through the camp. Visitors could also pay to feed or bath the elephants. We elected just for park admission. It was feeding time when we arrived and the elephant trainers handed large, sticky-looking balls to the elephants who were lined up eagerly waiting for their treat. Many opened their mouths while the handlers put the millet mixture directly onto their massive tongue. One tiny elephant could not be seen behind the low wall separating the visitors from the regular camp residents. The young elephant was well aware food was being distributed and its tiny trunk searched the air, often finding reward as a handler broke off part of a ball for it.

Most of the camp was closed to visitors, though it appeared the encampment shared the island with a local village. The elephants kept at the camp are enlisted to help calm wild elephants when one comes into a town and becomes distressed. Those elephants may then become residents of the camp at Dubare as well. Much like the mountain lions that come into urban areas looking for food, because of deforestation the bamboo elephants usually eat has become increasingly scarce and they come into the villages and towns in the hopes of finding food. Unfortunately, in such cases the elephant is usually distressed and/or confused and causes a great deal of trouble for the local residents.

A young park worker, who identified himself as a naturalist, told us the elephants in captivity live about 100 years, much longer than their 60-year life expectancy in the wild. Elephants have six sets of molars similar to human wisdom teeth, but when the last set is gone they are simply gone and it is difficult for elephants to find adequate nutrition they can actually eat. At the park the handlers can prepare meals that are adequate nutritionally, but do not require teeth to eat, such as the bowling ball, sized millet mixtures we had seen during feeding time.

Our young naturalist was full of facts about elephants. He, and most of the other naturalists at the park, worked their way into the position from other jobs in the park. Their knowledge base come from on-the-job training and working with the elephants directly, not from scientific study of biology or zoology. Traditionally, elephant training is a family business, much like taking over a family farm one learned to work as a child. When a parent, usually a father, works with elephant, his children learn to work with elephants along side him from the time they are very small.

Our second stop of the day was at the Nisargadhama Park, outside the town of Kushalnagar. Nisargadhama had the feel of a state park, with a little hint of zoo. A hanging foot bridge over the Cauvery River creates a memorable entrance, if a bit scary.

A short distance past the entrance of the island park we found a structure housing an interpretive center. The message of the center was about achieving balance in the relationship between humans and the natural world. In other words, as humans we will leave an impact on the natural world, but it can be a productive, mutually beneficial relationship. The message of management might raise curiosity for some western activists who have worked so hard to improve forest practices in the U.S. But in the context of India’s population needs and rampant deforestation, management seems to mean something different, more like “managed growth” in the urban metropolitan areas. There is a network of over 100 no-harvest forests already in place through Southern India, for the preservation of medicinal plants.

There were a number of walking trails throughout the park. As we started down one we came to a fenced area where a spotted deer waited for us. The young buck was apparently accustomed to humans nearby as he strolled with us along the fence, and we finally succumbed to his request to get a good sniff. He got away with a good lick of both us us. We found the trail around the circumference of the island park. We were far enough away from the entrance and attractions we did not see another person for at least 45 minutes. It was a welcome relief in a densely populated place, where at most of the sites we visited we were the main attraction. We strolled past the elephant enclosure, but did not see a single elephant. Several times a heave shower broke out, but the canopy of the trees was so thick we were able to find shelter just a few steps off the path and wait it out. During one shower we stood and watched a family of monkeys play and eat the fruit on the trees. They were the first monkeys we had seen since arriving in Coorg.

After lunch in Kushalnagar, Jay took us to the Namrodoling Monestary in nearby Bylakuppe. Following the Lhasa uprising in Tibet in 1959, much of the Tibetan community fled to India. Though many settled in Daramshala in the north, a substantial part continued south until reaching Karnataka, nearly at the southern most tip of India. The government of Karnataka granted the Tibetan community their own land on which to settle as refugees in 1961, where they have since developed into a thriving community and built one of the major monasteries of Buddhism.

We arrived at the yellow monastery gates to a plaza paved with red tiles. It was raining when we arrived so were glad to be able to keep our shoes for the walk through the plaza to the main monastery gates inside, up along the painted, concrete path leading to the first temple. The site of the first temple literally stopped us in our tracks. We had to pause just to take in the enormous height of the colorful, elaborately decorated roof, brightly painted story-like images on the portico, and the giant red doors, complete with serving platter sized, gold door knockers tied with white silk. The gardens to the left and to the right of the path had small flocks of birds, including a variant on turkeys, geese, and ducks.

As we followed the path we could see the awe-inspiring site in front of us was not the main temple, but that it was down a shorter path to the left. Again, we had to pause to take in all the color, all the detail of the images, and again the red doors with gold knockers that were covered with beaded curtains. This was the infamous Golden Temple, home to a 60-foot tall, gold-plated, copper statue of Buddha. We deposited our shoes and humbly walked up the polished, granite steps of the portico. We tried to interpret the story told by the giant, colorful murals outside before entering the temple.

The larger than life, golden Buddha sat at the very center of what might be called an alter at the front of the room. It was shielded from direct view by a colorful flag hanging from the ceiling in front of it. Two, 58-foot tall, gold-plated copper statues flanked the Buddha, both in plain view. The room was set with dozens of rows of prayer mats sitting perpendicular to the row of giant, golden statues, reaching from the foyer at the back room all the way to the front. An aisle at the center of the rows of prayer mats was lined with several giant drums, two at least five feet in diameter, hanging from wooden frames, decorated with gold.

We stood in awe in the foyer at the back of the temple. Other guests simply sat down on the floor. The many colors and brilliance of the entire setting were simply overwhelming. We noticed several monks at the front of the room. It appeared they were preparing for services, so we excused ourselves to visit the rest of the grounds. A beautiful garden surrounded the main temple, along with several buildings that appeared to be dormitories for the pupils. There were two more temples we visited before finishing our visit, each outstanding in their own way.

Satisfied with a full day of environmental awareness, a full lunch, and a time for quiet meditation we were both quite content and full mentally, physically, and spiritually. On the way back to Padmini’s home overlooking Madikeri we both fell sound asleep!

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