Himalayan South

Feel the air cool, the light soften

The forest greener and the vines longer

Raptors circle higher above the growing hills

Fruits, nuts and spices replace marine gills

You are in Kodagu, the Coorg, Karnataka

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Good morning from the regal city of Mysore,

From Goa I travelled through 13 hours of buses to the dusty and charming coastal city of Mangalore. There, I finally purchased some much needed antibiotics to combat my diluvial stool and after half a day I jumped on a bus to catch some higher altitude air in Karnataka's fertile southern section of the Western Ghats, the Coorg Region. My base there was the hub-town of Madikeri (1525m), but I spent most of my time in Bylakuppe nearby.

The trip is going well and despite my typical post-arrival ailments (a cold and now controlled, diarrhea) I have adapted to the pace of travel I need to keep up with plans. Ten days ago, my company e-mail account stopped receiving messages just after I was cc'ed on a reply to a colleague that I was no longer working there, and rather than think of it as a technical problem preventing me from receiving correspondence, I began to think that perhaps I had infuriated someone in my chaotic departure from Canada and was actually cut off. I planned a very elaborate route of travel to fill in the two weeks I was originally going to spend working here and now, even though I have since spoken with my boss and found out about all the messages I was not receiving, I cannot ignore the burning coals of myriad landscapes that compel me to keep marching!

I am developing a bond with my camera and technical fumbles have become rare. There is no period of adaptation in the morning. But, I have become embarrassingly aware that my intuitive compositional skills still have a lot of catching up to do to match the richness of the environments which I am encountering. Practice.

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My story this week is one from the North. Following China's invasion of Tibet in 1959, India set up refugee camps for those who fled south. Bylakuppe in Karnataka was one of the first of such camps and today comprises five historic camp areas amidst its rolling plains, where well-kept, large houses and apartment blocks now mix with elaborate Tibetan buddhist temples, monasteries and schools. The contrast of apparent income with neighbouring Indian farms and the Western Union placards are strong indications that remittances and funding drives have gone a long way to helping this community flourish.

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I got off the bus from Madikeri and then Kushalnagar just off the main road, then walked most of the way to Bylakuppe's famous Golden Temple,  enjoying the agrarian setting and its nature (I spotted a Kingfisher). I was also offered free motorcycle rides.

I made my way around the temple complex after sampling some fresh but warm jackfruit for the first time (tastes a bit like starfruit and banana combined), then walked/rode to Sera Monastery. In the last building I intended to visit before auto-rickshawing back to Kushalnagar, two young men, Krishna from Darjeeling and Shiva from Kathmandu, Nepal, stopped me to ask me where I was from. As we talked and stared, alone in the temple, at another set of beautiful golden Buddha statues, they explained to me that they were actually living there to build the temples. Did I want to see how this was done? they asked me.

Pray, you must, Buddha is a very good, very nice God!

Shiva urged with wide smile as we were leaving.

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Our slow walk to the workshop coincided with the end of the school day for the monks and the beginning of evening activities. One of the most awe-striking sites was arriving into a square filled with monks who in pairs, appeared to be testing each others' knowledge and poise. I will carry my voice recorder from now on: of all the gongs, rumbling horns, and deep-voiced chanting I heard that day, this was the most impressive soundscape. We arrived at the workshop along with night and I was beginning to understand that Krishna and Shiva were not building temples but actually the golden copper statues and engravings inside!

At the workshop I met with about ten young men who had traveled five days and five nights by land from Nepal and Darjeeling for these jobs and a wage of 4,000-5,000 rupees a month (about $95 to $110) with room and board. They had learnt the craft of sculpting metal long ago and had been contacted for their skills. They now worked and slept out of a pretty rudimentary concrete workshop with their cots on one side and work benches on the other of a central partition. Guiding all the work was young but older Roshan, a Tibetan buddhist copper art master from Darjeeling who was on his seventh year there, his wife and two sons still living back home. Their work day starts at 7am and goes till 9pm, with one day a month of rest. Shiva had been off because of a forearm injury and Krishna was feeling sick.

The design process of these metal wares starts with a life-scale drawing on thick paper through which the copper can be marked for cutting, bending and chiseling. The drawing comes to shape in pieces and each one is separately hardened under fire. The entire design is finally assembled by carefully soldering each piece to the whole. I did not completely understand the final step of turning the pieces golden but it involves mixing gold powder with copper and special polishing.

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How fortunate I was! They were all very welcoming, interested and let me take as many photographs as I wanted. We spoke of Canada, Nepal, women, music (they asked if I had any Akon) and I was taught some popular songs. They then fed me, delicious mutton, rice and dal (and taught me how to properly eat with my hands, the right hand that is) and since it was late, allowed me to sleep there too.

We don't know if we meet again. Today we are together, we must have the best time and enjoy as much as possible!

I embraced every second with privilege.

Usually skipped, a delicious breakfast of chai and ghee-smothered naan bread was served the next day, probably because I was there. I could tell the pressure was on to get to work again so I did not stay long, but I thanked them all very sincerely, which Shiva, who spoke the best English of the group then translated.

My soul joyful, I took to the long walk back to Kushalnagar, and was yet again offered a ride. Tanjin's bike ran out of petrol about half way and I went to purchase a litre for him at the closest pump. Once back on our way he offered that I could stay at his house that night if I wanted to. With gratitude, I turned his offer down, the road called.

Fields everywhere are ploughed, seeds sown, rice paddies lie colourless, mangoes are turning yellow-green and should be ready to drop within the next three weeks. The rains are coming. How south will we be when they hit the subcontinent?

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