Rewalsar/Tso Pema (Tibetan: Tsopema where Tso means lake and Pema means lotus) is an amazing town built up around Lake Rewalsar in Himachal Pradesh.
Most people come for a day or two and are not sure what to do when they are here. But you may find that the atmosphere, energy, and holy sites entice you into staying a few days longer. It is a great place to let go of the tensions of traveling, connect with a sense quiet inside as well as outside, and discover something new about India, about yourself, about what’s really real in the world.
Three religions consider Rewalsar to be a special place – Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs. Each has staked out their territory around the lake. In Buddhist lore, the lake was created by the great guru Padmasambhava, an Indian siddha (accomplished master) from the 8th century, who came to the area to teach Buddhism to Mandarava, the King of Zahor’s daughter. Local gossip began about Princess Mandarava spending a lot of time with what looked like a vagabond , and when the rumors reached the King’s ears, he had Mandarava thrown in a pit of thorns and put Guru Padmasambhava into a fire. The fire created a lot of smoke but did not die down after a few days. When the King and ministers when to check on what had happened, they found an eight year old boy sitting on a lotus in the middle of a lake. Lake in Tibetan is tso, and pema means lotus, hence the name Tso Pema.
The king, understanding at this moment that he had made a grievous error, gave his entire kingdom, even the clothes he was wearing at that moment to Padmasambhava, and begged for forgiveness and to be taught the Dharma. Mandarava, initially refusing to come out of the pit of thorns, acceded to her mother’s pleading and then joined Padmasambhava in studying and practicing Buddhism in caves in the hills above Tso Pema. At present, the caves are a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from all over the world, and many disciples of Padmasambhava live in small huts and ancillary caves around the main caves, living and practicing there for their entire lives.
In Mandi, the closest city to Rewalsar, the King’s family now runs the King’s Palace as a hotel. There is also a museum commemorating Mandarava there.
Most people come to Rewalsar because they wound up in Mandi on their way to or from somewhere else. There are regular buses from the Mandi bus stand, or you can take a taxi, which should cost about Rs. 600. Travel to Rewalsar from Mandi should take about 1-1.5 hours.
From Dharamsala, there is also a bus; this takes 6-9 hours, depending on how many changes must be made. It is also possible to hire a car from Dharamsala - the cost is currently Rs. 2650.
Rewalsar is so small, there is no need for any transport. Nearly everything worth seeing is within walking distance. Padmasambhava's cave is a challenging 40 minute hike, or a Rs 500 taxi ride away. There are also buses which go up in the morning for Rs 15.
For such a small town there are four decent sized monasteries, each from a different tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
Inside the temple at the monastery is a large statue of Padmasambhava. All of the temples have statues of Padmasambhava – some schools of Buddhism make Padmasambhava the central figure, others will place him on the left or the right, typically with Shakyamuni Buddha as the central figure.
Pictured on the walls of the monastery are paintings of other important Nyingma masters, including Padmasambhava’s twenty-five disciples, the ones who helped bring Buddhism to Tibet by going to India, learning Sanskrit, practicing until they achieved high levels of attainment, then spreading what they learned by teaching others and writing and hiding texts to be found by masters in the future.
The Nyingma Gompa has rooms to rent, Rs 150 – Rs 500, and a small shop near the entrance that sells blessed protection strings, flags, kataks, and bags of juniper incense.
This incense is the monastery’s own formulation, and is made up largely of juniper. Juniper is a sacred tree for Tibetan Buddhists, use of juniper incense is mentioned in many ancient texts. In the mornings you may see and smell the incense coming from the monasteries and some of the Tibetan shops. It is used to clear the air and the environment of bad smells and energies. In Rewalsar, there is a man who goes around and clears spaces with a big incense burner that he swings back and forth. His other constant companion is a prayer wheel, which he rotates all day long as he circumambulates the lake. These two things are what he does all day.
Also visit the Nyingma monastery around 10am and 4pm to hear and see their daily pujas.
Ontul Rinpoche sees visitors most afternoons during the week; people come to pay respects, ask for blessings, and give donations to the monastery.
Pujas in the monastery temple are from 6-8am and 2.30-4pm. It is also possible to see the temple at other times – just ask in Emaho or catch one of the monks between their classes.
Below the statue is the monastery where about 50 monks live and study. They are connected to Zigar Kontrul Rinpoche, who comes every year in August for his birthday, during which there is a big celebration.
The monastery has two guest houses, one in town and one right behind the statue, accessible by going further up the road past the main monastery, then taking the ramp and steep stairs up.
When you get to the statue, be sure to climb the circular staircase to the level of the lotus base of the statue. Also, on the main level, there is a meditation hall that is open from 6am-6pm daily.
Temples There is a temple to Padmasambhava, with a big picture of the Dalai Lama right on the lake across from Kora Café. Turn the prayer wheels that line the ramp and encircle the building, beginning at the top of the ramp on the far side so that you circumambulate clockwise, and then, if Phuntok is there, the building is open and you can look closely at the statues, make a small donation, and do a prostration or three (the normal amount).
Act like a local
There is a path within the fence, though it has collapsed due to erosion from the rains, so at times you have to find a path through the high grasses on the side. Around the lake are also several pavilions where groups often have teachings, and people sit and talk, picnic, or pray.
Often they are in groups of 9, 27, or 108. They are always spun in a clockwise direction. Spinning prayer wheels accumulates merit (the Buddhist terminology for doing good things that will benefit you in your next life), and you can, if you’re feeling generous, dedicate the merit you accumulate to all sentient beings, which multiplies the merit even more.
Sometimes there is space along the sides so that you can sit to listen and watch the puja as well. On ceremony days – the 10th, 15th, 25th, and 30th of the lunar calendar, there is often tsok – offerings to deities and enlightened masters of the lineage. They will often give tsok to visitors or have a bin where you may help yourself. Tsok is to be treated with respect – it is thought of as food that was offered to deities, so should be eaten mindfully, and never thrown away if it can be helped. If you cannot eat it for some reason, you can give it to a beggar or feed it to the fish.
There are not many things that you can buy in Rewalsar that are impossible to find elsewhere, but if you have been looking for certain things and they sell them at the monastery stores, it is nice to support the monasteries and buy here. They generally have good quality items at reasonable prices, so there is no need to bargain, as everything is at a fixed price. Emaho cafe a nice selection of incense, oils, soaps, and notebooks, as well as some traditional Tibetan clothing that is well-made of good quality cotton.
The Nyingma Gompa sells blessed colored strings, a nice gift for a group of friends or colleagues, and the juniper incense that is used in the big smoky incense burners that they use to “cleanse” the temples and other buildings. It is a very traditional formulation, and while it may be available in other places, it is only Rs 30 for a small bag if you wanted to try it yourself.
The shops in the Tibetan side of town – just past Mandarava's cave, sell a selection of decent quality Tibetan items - anything from bells and dorjes, singing bowls, clothing, kataks and other Tibetan trinkets.
The food in Rewalsar is decent, with a modest selection of restaurants, many places serving both Indian and Tibetan food, and a smattering of Chinese dishes as well.
The restaurant at the Lotus Lake Hotel has good food as well – go up the driveway to the main building to get faster service.
Near the Zigar Drugpa Kagyud Monastery is a Tibetan Restaurant – a fine selection of Indian and Tibetan dishes, the prices are similar to that of Kora Community Café, and the portions are a bit bigger.
Cafés There are the usual outdoor stands selling things from corn to puffed sweets filled with cream, cucumber and tomato sandwiches, and the ubiquitous chai and bread. It is nice to try some of them, as it gives the locals some business.
If you’re hankering for coffee, Emaho! Café is the place to go. With the only espresso machine in town, Westerners flock here to get their caffeine fix, and, if you’re lucky, there are pastries and homemade cakes and muffins to go with it – just like Starbucks and Peete’s Coffee back home, only better. Ask Tendzin Dawa about the 21 ingredients that go into his lovingly prepared cakes, baked fresh every day.
Kora Community Café serves filtered coffee, the early-morning favorite before Emaho café opens its doors at 9am.
And of course, there’s always chai from the stands and dhabas.
Indian food Dhabas on the market road near the bus stand offer basic indian fare for very cheap prices. Check out the ones on the lakeside of the road for hearty aloo (potato) parantas in the morning, and a hearty serving of rice, dal, and cucumber in the afternoon and evening.
Monastery Guest Houses
Most of the monasteries have guest houses, which are a significant source of income, and often very comfortable places to stay. It can be difficult to arrange in advance, but if you hop off of a bus at a reasonable hour (between 9am – 7pm), you can inquire at all of them about availability of rooms. Except for peak season (Oct-Nov), there will be no problem finding a room at the last minute. If you are going to arrive late or very early, it is best to book ahead so they are expecting you.
Drikung Kagyu Monastery The bus will let you off in the marketplace. If you walk back on the road the bus pulled in on toward the arch that leads to the inner ring road of Rewalsar, go through the arch, on the right you will see Drikung Kagyu Monastery. On the road is the monastery’s café, called Emaho! Inquire inside about available rooms. Rooms range from Rs 150 (shared bath, no hot water) – Rs 750 (attached bathroom, hot water shower). Drikung Kagyu has the best views of the big statue of Padmasambhava from the rooms and the café. There are rooms with views of the statue at every price level.
Zigar Drugpa Kagyud Monastery Continuing up the hill past the Nyingma monastery, the road goes down to the right to continue around the lake. Go up to the left, and at the next juncture you will find the Zigar Drukpa Kagyud Monastery. You can inquire about rooms next to the Tibet shop on the right. They have two guest houses. One is in town, where rooms range from Rs 100-Rs300 per night, and the other is behind the big statue of Padmasambhava, which is a little bit of a hike, but has great views of the rest of Tso Pema. Rooms at the Statue are Rs 500/night with attached bathroom and hot water.
Buses to Mandi leave at least every hour, starting around 6am.