Sidhpur in Himachal Pradesh is on the outskirts of Dharamshala and doesn’t appear on too many tourist trails. It’s a short-ish bus ride from McLeod Ganj, which is famous for momos, chocolate cake and the Tibetan government in exile (though not necessarily in that order). In contrast to the cheer and chatter of McLeod Ganj, Sidhpur is a quieter, humbler place. As far as tourists are concerned, there is only one draw: the Norbulingka Institute.
Founded in 1988 by the 14th Dalai Lama, the Norbulingka Institute is devoted to preserving Tibetan art and culture. It’s named after a palace in Lhasa that was traditionally the summer residence of Dalai Lamas. Surrounding the palace are gardens that are believed to be the largest man-made gardens in Lhasa. Norbulingka also holds special relevance to the 14th Dalai Lama. It was from this palace that he escaped to India — dressed in regular clothes rather than his religious robes, the Dalai Lama walked out, carrying a rifle, and the Chinese troops didn’t suspect that he might not be an ordinary Tibetan.
Norbulingka Institute in India is architecturally similar to its Tibetan counterpart. Against the backdrop of the Dhauladhar range of mountains, stands this picturesque compound. Within, you’ll find a temple, a guesthouse, a gift shop, a doll museum and workshops in which traditional Tibetan arts are taught and practiced. Here sculptures and thangka painting is taught and if you’re lucky, you can see apprentices at work. Despite the emphasis placed upon tradition, the gift shop is proof that Norbulingka’s talented artists and artisans are adept at adapting the old arts to modern items. Here, you’ll find prayer beads, authentic thangkas, woodwork as well as funky jewellery and handbags. That’s a matter-of-fact description of what’s in the institute but it doesn’t communicate anything of Norbulingka Institute’s breathtaking beauty.
When you step in and walk through the traditionally-embellished gateway, everything of the outside world falls away. The horns of buses, the yelps of street kids, the dung-spattered road — there’s no trace of this reality in Norbulingka. Exquisitely-landscaped and immaculate, it radiates serenity and harmony. The ground is paved with pebbles, their muted tones acting as the perfect contrast to the brightly-coloured buildings and brilliant bursts of flowery colour. Waterways wind around the compound and their gurgle is the soundtrack that accompanies you as you walk around. Prayer flags speckle colour around barks and branches of trees. Even though every detail — from tree to pebble to temple — is laid out according to a precise plan, the Institute seems to be comfortingly natural. Every element matches and fits the other. Not a leaf is out of place. Norbulingka Institute is like a Buddhist Eden, complete with a coffee shop that serves excellent food. And if heaven doesn’t serve up as good thukpa, momos and hot ginger-lemon-honey water, then it needs to take a leaf out of Norbulingka Institute’s book.