Not coming from a religious tradition, I’m always a bit uncomfortable when visiting places of worship. What are the rules? How should I dress? Where should I sit? Can I take photos? Such is my feeling as I enter the Golden Temple in Bylakuppe, not far from the South Indian town of Mysore. Everywhere I look are brightly-colored prayer flags, painted murals of gods and demigods and expressive, glittering statues. Strangely enough, no one really greets me at the front gate so I just wander around on my own, gawking at the gawdy decorations and wondering, “Am I really allowed to be here?” As it turns out, tourists are welcome here and photography IS allowed (if you don’t mind being discreet). It’s a beautiful, beautiful place, and of course, somewhat bittersweet, as the Temple and its complex are home to one of the larger communities of Tibetans in exile. Established in the 60s, Bylakuppe hosts about 10,000 Tibetans Buddhists. Walking around the area is like being transported to far-off Tibet, with its rice fields, its coconut trees, and its restaurants serving Tibetan delicacies like momos.

Tibetan festivals are common in Bylakuppe, as are religious ceremonies, and I’m lucky enough to stumble into one later that day – with hundreds and hundreds of red/orange/yellow-clad monks sitting in neat rows on the polished floor of the main hall – chanting, praying and working their prayer beads. Towering over the altar are three Buddha statues, golden and resplendent, representing Amitayus and Padmasambhava. Two thrones accompany the statues, leading me to wonder, “If the Dalai Lama were to visit here, would he sit in one of the thrones?” Something tells a modest fellow like him would probably prefer a simpler seat, perhaps off to the side.

As I sit there, surrounded by colorful paintings of demons and gods from mythology, breathing in the scent of incense, candles and flowers and listening to the lulling sound of brass gongs, I can’t help pinching myself and counting my blessings. How did I come to be in this super-exotic place, half way around the world? How am I allowed to do this? I meet eyes with a nearby monk who smiles and tosses me a quick head nod, as if to say, “For you, this is exotic, but for me, this is normal. This is my home. Now California, THAT would be exotic.”

(Tourist protocols at churches and temples can be tricky to master, especially as they vary from place to place. A general rule is – ASK – even if you have to do it in gesture and pantomime. And most of all, be curious. I’ve heard it said that the point of conversation is simply to understand the viewpoint of your partner. The same holds true for religious sites and monuments. Put aside your presumptions (and your selfie sticks) and be inquisitive. Try to understand what’s going on and embrace the differences.)