Last weekend, while on way to the peach valley of Rajgarh, I visited the Menri Monastery (1195m), situated at village Dolanji in Solan district of Himachal Pradesh. Located within a comfortable reach of Chandigarh, the region has always been a preferred weekend hideaway since the university days. A leisure drive from the City Beautiful takes about a couple of hours to reach the monastic complex of Dolanji; positioned at a distance of three kilometre from the diversion at Ochhghat on the Solan – Rajgarh road.
Set in a calm and green bowl of Solan hills, the monastery discourses and resuscitates the teachings and rituals of the most ancient, pre-Buddhist, spiritual tradition and native religion of Tibet – the Bon faith. Built from a scratch in 1967 after the local Bonpo settlement got recognition from the Government of India, today the monastery, the seat of the abbot of Bon faith, has become the chief centre of spiritual learning and ritual activity of Bonpos from across the globe.
The monastery has an intriguing history. After the Lhasa uprising in 1959, a large number of Tibetans including the Buddhists and the Bonpos fled Tibet; along with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Much before that the count of Bon followers in Tibet had been reduced to minority as a majority of them now professed Buddhism. It is estimated that nearly one per cent of the total Tibetan refuge-seekers in India were Bonpos who initially gathered in the Manali region where they sought food and shelter. Subsequently, most of them got rehabilitated at village Dolanji while some of them settled at Mandowala near Dehradun in Uttarakhand.
With the help of the Government of India and a few independent organisations, the Bon followers began to re-establish their chief religious and spiritual centre at Dolanji and named it after the Menri Monastery, the foremost but destroyed Bon monastery of that name in Tibet. Similarly, the new settlement at Dolanji has been referred to as Thobgyel Sarpa after the village Thobgyel which was near the ancient monastery of Menri in the Tsang province of Tibet. In fact, most of the residents in the settlement originally hailed from the Kailash Mansarovar and Tsang regions. In 1969, under the guidance of the abbot of Yungdrung Ling, the second most important Bon monastery of Tibet, the followers of Bon at Dolanji elected their Abbot – Menri Trizin thirty third Lungtok Tenpai Nyima – through a lottery draw system. Later on he assumed the spiritual leadership of all the Bon monasteries and institutions worldwide.
The bright yellow canopies of the monastery were aglow with the evening sun when I reached Menri. The monks were about to begin their routine evening recreational activities. With the younger ones occupying a large part of the playground, the elder ones were either chatting up in small groups in the compound or taking a walk on the village roads. A few of them were dutifully preparing the main assembly hall for evening rituals. A European couple was inquisitively circumambulating the main assembly hall du-khang in the prescribed anticlockwise direction. The lady had prayer beads in her hand.
In-between, the energetic calls of blue-red robed monks echoed forth in the calm open courtyards. The inmates were extremely cultured and disciplined. I greeted a young monk with a Namaste who nodded back even though he understood little Hindi. Out of respect, a few of the younger ones I came across nodded from a distance. And without exception, the compound was very well kept. The façade of the monastery is bedecked with the religious emblems and the typical Tibetan colourful prayer flags.
As of now, the whole monastic complex is embraced under the name of “The Yungdrung Bon Monastic Centre” and forms a part of the Tibetan Bonpo Foundation. From just a temple, the centre today has expanded to include a nunnery, a school with hostel, guesthouses, meditation halls and an infirmary, etc. This modern complex is an all-in-one compound with independent temple buildings, monastic cells, playground, etc. built within their own microenvironment. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), in constructing the du-khang, abbot’s residence and the meditation hall or Drup-khang, the management has devotedly stick to the original Tibetan architecture while the other important buildings like the hostel, cells and guesthouses, etc. are built in a typical contemporary concrete style. As of now, the centre is home to more than 400 resident lamas along with over 200 novices.
The main courtyard of the monastery is shaded by a large Bodhi tree. A blue-topped chorten beneath it intrigues the uninitiated visitors. The wide courtyard also serves as go-tha or vestibule. I headed inside the main assembly hall while my friend, founder of Chandigarh Bycycle, who accompanied me on this trip video-documented the ambience of the compound. The walls of the main hall of the monastery are painted in red, yellow, white and blue synthetic colours and beautified with ornate floral designs symbolic of the Tibetan style. The veranda walls are painted with the images of the Bon guardian deities of the four quarters, Chhok kyong-zi or the Lokpalas. Although, the monk-artists who executed these paintings took all possible care to preserve the thematic sanctity of the Tibetan art yet the glossy outcome of the enamel paints is at variance from the traditional Tibetan murals. The second important temple of the complex, the drup-khang or the meditation hall, situated adjacent to the du-khang, can only be visited by accomplished monks.
The arrangement inside du-khang is principally traditional; plain walls, rows of monastic chogtse with scriptures placed on them, a central large space with wide aisles on both sides for movement. Against the back wall, miniature metallic images of the Bon deities are placed in the glassy shelves. The images included Tara and the mystic mandala among others. An imposing image of Senrab Mibo, the primordial Deity of the Bon religion, occupies the central space. Attired in ceremonial costumes, Senrab Mibo is shown meditating in the Bhumiparsha mudra of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Tibetan-coloured banners, painted and embroidered thangkas along with silken wall-hangings decorate up the interiors. Prepared in recent times, most of these thangkas depict Senrab Mibo in various manifestations. No particular activity was taking place inside the du-khang at that time of the evening. A few young monks were cleaning and rearranging the offerings, at the altar, that comprised fruits and biscuits.
The Bonpos have taken great care in reviving the religious and spiritual essence of their faith; doing their best to keep the nostalgic fervour and traditional character of their Tibetan homeland alive in this modern form. Leave aside the Tibetan architecture, rebuilding a society in an entirely different geo-climatic, socio-religious, cultural and political setting is a no mean feat. The Bon religion preaches a high regard for nature and advocates the conservation of environment. It was my ideal weekend dose of travel and I’d recommend it to the curious travellers who seek to visit offbeat destinations and usually have less time at their disposal.