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The Cosmic Mandala

29 Jul
Kota (old Dutch colonial area of Batavia) - Jakarta, Indonesia (2008)

Kota (old Dutch colonial area of Batavia) – Jakarta, Indonesia (2008)

From KL, I took a MH flight to Jakarta. Upon arriving, I first found an ATM, withdrew some rupiah (Indonesian currency), and bought a snack in order to get some small denominations. I then walked out of Soekarno–Hatta International Airport to a bus stop located close to the main terminal. When the first bus pulled up, I hopped on and luckily had the right amount of small rupiah notes to pay the fare without causing a scene. But, I did not know if I was on the correct bus or not. Since it was a local bus, its destination sign was written in Bahasa and I had no idea what it said. I just had a hunch that this bus had to go somewhere near the city center because I saw others with their luggage also get on and they looked like they lived in the city. With my face pressed on the window, I could see the shadows of tall buildings emerge in the smoggy distance, so I let out a sigh of relief knowing that the bus was headed in the right direction. As we entered the city limits, it took at least 45 minutes for the bus to navigate the tangle of traffic and multiple lane changes in order to get near to Merdeka Square (which is easy to identify from afar because of the tall pillar that shoots out of it).

National Monument at Merdeka Square - Jakarta

National Monument at Merdeka Square – Jakarta

I got off at the Square which was within walking distance of Jalan Jaksa road — a hub of cheap budget hotels and eateries. JJ is nowhere near as raucous or fun as Bangkok’s Khaosan Rd, but it has that same kind of feel about it. I hadn’t booked a room, so my plan was to stroll along Jalan Jaksa and see what was available. I was only staying in Jakarta for 2 days and was not too concerned about the quality of my accommodations. The heat and dense air during my walk to JJ with my backpack soon had me encased in a net of my own sweat. I took a wrong turn or 2 and didn’t find Jalan Jaksa until I wasted nearly an hour. When I saw the first hotel, I made a beeline for it and asked for a room. The hotel had no occupancy. Not a problem. I saw 3 or 4 other hostels/guest houses in the area, so I went on to the next one — and the next one — and so on — ALL were completely booked.  I was exhausted and sat down on a bench in a leafy area that blocked the sun. For a moment I thought about heading back to the main road, hailing a taxi, and going toward the new area of Jakarta where the big luxe hotels were found. But, my stubbornness got the better of me and I was determined to find a place in Jalan Jaksa. Then — in a first for me — I actually closed my eyes and nodded off for a bit. When I woke up, I remember the sun was setting and with a renewed vigor I covered nearly every inch of the JJ area until I found the best of all possible flophouses. It was like a cement hole with a bed and no hot water — that pretty much sums it up — but I greedily took it. Jakarta is a fast-paced city of industry and is in the process of reinventing itself from regional to global economic powerhouse. One area that I had a chance to explore and which thankfully has avoided the relentlessness of modernity is the northern area of the city known as Kota (formerly called Batavia). Kota contains the remnants of a time when Java was the jewel of the Dutch East Indies. The old city plan for Batavia is still evidenced in the form of cobblestone and canals that the Dutch engineered — unfortunately, these canals also ultimately led to the abandonment of this area of the city because the stagnant water in the canals was like manna from heaven for mosquito breeding and this led to an epidemic of malaria that killed thousands of people.

Fishing Boats of Sunlap Harbor - Jakara

Schooners of Sunda Kelapa port – Jakarta

As I walked around the canals and learned about the malaria that wreaked so much havoc, my mind connected that calamity with the December 2004 tsunami which had taken place 4 1/2 years before my trip to Indonesia. The 2004 tsunami was triggered by a 9.2 earthquake in the Indian Ocean that destroyed Banda Aceh on Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island. In addition to that devastation, Indonesia had faced countless other earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the ensuing years — the most serious of which had occurred in 2006 when Mt. Merapi blew its top and spread fire and ash all near Yogykarta which was where I was headed next. My main reason in coming to Indonesia was to visit the magnificent Buddhist structure of Borobudur and the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan. Both of these sites were clustered in Central Java and only a day trip away from Yogykarta.

Sultan's

Sultan’s “Water Castle” (18th Century) – Yogyakarta

I left Jakarta via train from Gambir station and 8 hours later, I reached Yogykarta’s Tugu station. The 8 hours was long and the coach I was in was ice-cold (with songs from the American band, Chicago, playing on some kind of constant loop), but the journey was otherwise quiet and without any of the surprises, delays, or other unforeseen episodes that I have experienced with trains elsewhere in Asia. Immediately upon my exit from the train station, I felt at ease in Yogya. There was none of the worry of taking wrong turns or passing out on a bench like in Jakarta. Yogya was designed as a walled city within which there was a main palace area  — called the kraton — where the sultan lived. This palace complex is the heart of Yogya and is where the current sultan still resides. While it is Indonesia’s second largest city, Yogya has a laid back vibe — most men wear traditional batik button-up shirts, there is a large bird market, many arts & crafts stores, and lots of quiet neighborhoods. To the south of the kraton is an old square where 2 massive Banyan trees are located. There is a tradition that has been passed down through generations where a person is blindfolded, spun around, and then attempts to walk to the center of the 2 trees. If the person is able to do the walk, stops and takes the blindfold off, and finds herself standing in the middle of 2 trees, the person will receive a blessing of good fortune and health. I was able to sit off to the side of the square and watch people actually trying to do the blindfold walk — they all ended up way off course and when they took off the blindfold, they could only laugh at how far off base they were!  That scene captured the soul of Yogya for me.

Approach to Borobudur - Central Java, Indonesia

Approach to Borobudur – Central Java, Indonesia

On my second day in Yogya, I bought a ticket with a tour outfit that did a combined day trip to Borobudur and Prambanam. Borobudur is located about 40km northwest of Yogykarta, and from Borobudur to Prambanam is about 53km which goes back towards and east of Yogya. So, the day was going to be packed in tight, but I was glad that I would begin at Borobudur where most of our time would be spent before doubling back to Prambanam (along with a stop at a Mt. Merapi overlook). These 2 incredible monuments were built within 80 years of one another starting with Borobudur’s construction taking place in the 8th century AD. It is almost unheard of in the history of mankind to have 2 different religious kingdoms grow peaceably alongside one another for about 5 centuries, but that’s what took place with the Buddhist (Sailendra) and Hindu (Sanjaya) dynasties who founded them. The religious kingdoms of these sites and the power of their respective kingdoms ultimately declined when Islam took hold as the dominant religion in Java in the 13th century and spread throughout Indonesia (although Bali still maintains its own unique Hindu-Balinese blended religious practice). Today, Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world.

The world's largest Mandala

Borobudur – the world’s largest Mandala

An electrical charge coursed through me as the blackish stone pyramid of Borobudur began to peek through the lush green trees surrounding it. Unlike other ancient Buddhist sites such as Anuradhapura, Bagan, and Angkor, which were all either large centers for Buddhist learning consisting of several temples, shrines, and monasteries, or in the case of Angkor — a capital of a large Hindu-Buddhist empire — Borobudur is a standalone structure. It is solitary — yet undoubtedly interactive because one must enter it in order to experience its planes of escalating consciousness. While there is not much by way of historical record of the intent and precise meaning of Borobudur, it is generally agreed that it was built as a kind of “walk-through” Mandala in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition that depicts the Buddhist cosmos — peaking at a summit representing enlightenment.

Escalating planes of consciousness

Planes of escalating consciousness

The name “Borobudur” is possibly derived from an old Sanskrit phrase for “monastery on a hill”. Its first stone was likely laid down around 750 AD and its last was set 100 years later. It was abandoned by the 14th century and then disappeared under a layer of volcanic ash until 1815 when it was rediscovered. Borobudur is massive and densely packed with stone reliefs, carvings, statues of the Buddha in various mudras, and latticed stupas (within which are Buddhas).  From a ground view it is difficult to comprehend its perfectly designed geometry and form because of all the visually dizzying elements that pop up in front of you. But, from the sky, its Mandala design is clear. This design is virtually the same as those I’ve seen in Tibetan frescoes, but just happens to be 3-dimensional. There are 6 square terraces that lay on top of one another — the largest begins at the floor level and from there each terrace diminishes proportionally in its dimension as it ascends to the top. After the 6th square terrace, there are 3 circular terraces which mirrors the traditional Mandala design practice of fixing a circular design within a square perimeter (“Mandala” itself is the Sanskrit word for circle).

Gateway of southern staircase

Gateway of southern staircase with central stupa on the top of Borobudur

The entire structure is accessible through 4 main stairways that lead up from the base platform to the top. But, the purpose is not just to walk up one of these stairways all the way to the top. One has to complete the circuit of each terrace and then walk up on the stairs to the next terrace until one reaches the top. So, this takes some physical exertion, however, the purpose of this exercise is to allow for ample time to contemplate the life of the Buddha with the aid of the intricate storyboards carved into the sides each terrace. These carvings depict scenes from the Buddha’s life, as well as, vivid epic snapshots from the history of the people who built Borobudur. As I walked through the narrow corridors of each terrace and eyed all these visuals — it felt like being inside one of those old penny arcade-type machines where thousands of images flip by so fast that the images appear to move (and initially these carvings and images of Borobudur were painted and contained color).

Detail of terrace carving

Detail of terrace carving

When I finally I walked up the last set of stairs to the top terrace, the corridors fell away, and instead, I was surrounded by several bell-shaped stupas with diamond-shaped openings. Within these stupas, there are seated Buddhas and some tourists were sticking their hands inside the openings in the attempt to the touch them. In the middle of the platform was 1 central stupa that had no openings and stood above all the rest. This stupa is “empty” in that unlike other true stupas that were erected in the ancient Buddhist world, there is no relic of the Buddha enshrined within in it. At one time, this stupa had a pillar on top of it, but that pillar was most likely destroyed in an earthquake long ago. Other stupas that dot the top terrace had either been damaged or crumbled so that the Buddhas inside them popped up like gophers from a hole. From the top terrace, I could see the surrounding jungle, and like many riddles of the ancient world, the idea of how all the rock for this monument was quarried from the distant mountains and brought to this location baffled me. But, as I’ve understood from visits to other sacred places in Asia — one should not let the arrogance of the modern age cast generations from a millennia ago as primitives with only simple minds and crude tools. These people had hearts (and hands) driven by an almost otherworldly faith that literally could move mountains.

Stupas & Buddha scattered on top of Borobudur

Stupas & Buddhas scattered atop Borobudur

The other interesting aspect of Borobudur is that it represents the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in a region that has been (and still is) deeply rooted in Theravada.  It was the Sinhalese merchants from Sri Lanka who brought their Theravada Buddhist practice with them as they made contact with the people of Southeast Asia. The Mahayana school made its way out of the landlocked mountain passes of India, Nepal, and what is today northeast Pakistan, and from there continued to spread overland into Central Asia, China, and Tibet. But, somehow in the middle of Java, Borobudur had sprouted as a Mahayana-based Mandala (with some possible Tantric overtones as some scholars believe).IMG_0490.JPG There are still questions as to what group of people injected Mahayana Buddhism into Java. These people may have originally come from the Malay peninsula or were seafaring merchants from elsewhere who brought the Mahayana tradition with them. The only other structure that I have ever seen that can also be considered a 3-dimensional, walk-through Mandala is Gyantse Khumbum in Tibet [see post: “Gyantse Khumbum – The Last Grand Tibetan Stupa” at https://wordpress.com/post/38471034/800/]. But, while Gyantse Khumbum is itself an incredible structure — brightly painted with 100s of individual shrine rooms with statues and frescoes located on all its terraces — it was built as a component of a large monastery complex. Furthermore, the founding and construction of Gyantse Khumbum is chronicled and supported by the historical records of Tibetan monks. Borobudur sits all by itself — there are 2 smaller Buddhist structures located nearby — but there is no physical evidence of a larger complex within which Borobudur may have sat.  On the other hand, the Hindu complex of Prambanam which was built soon after Borobudur has many distinct temples and areas where people may have lived and worshipped — most of which can still be seen today. There is also evidence of interaction between the Sanjaya Hindu dynasty of Prambanam and the Sailendra Buddhist dynasty of Borobudur, yet nothing else of the Sailendra dynasty physically remains other than Borobudur.

The end of the Buddhist road?

The end of the Buddhist road?

As I finished my survey from the top of Borobudur and began to walk down, I realized that I had reached the southernmost point of the ancient Buddhist world. Beyond Indonesia — the South Pacific & Micronesia. Below — Australia. For a moment I thought – where now?  If only I could put on a blindfold and walk out of Borobudur towards the jungle without worrying about where I would end up. But, I didn’t like the idea of fumbling off course. There was a method to these wanderings of mine, and I had to get back to where I had first found that wonder.

Flesh & Devotion in KL

29 Mar
Singapore skyline with Merlion fountain righthand corner - (2008)

Singapore skyline with Merlion fountain lefthand corner – (2008)

The shared southern border between Myanmar and Thailand separates the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand and is a sliver of tropical paradise and sporadic guerilla fighting that ultimately ends in the bulbous Malay peninsula. The city-state of Singapore is an island at the tip of this peninsula where the Strait of Johore sets it apart from Malaysia. Although geographically it is part of Southeast Asia, Singapore is very different from the rest of the region. I arrived there in 2008 and my plan was to use the city as my jumping off point as I traveled by bus to the old colonial town of Melaka in Malaysia, then on to Kuala Lumpur (KL), and from KL I would fly to Jakarta — the goal being to travel to central Java and visit Borobudur. The pyramid-like, walk-through mandala structure of Borobudur is one of the most incredible creations of the Buddhist world, and interestingly, is found in Indonesia — the most populous Muslim country in the world. While most of the big cities of Southeast Asia are busy putting up skyscrapers, investing in public transportation, and leveraging their natural resources for economic gains, there is still a noticeable push-pull between the old and the new — and in most of these cities, the Theravada Buddhist tradition provides a (usually) progressive socio-cultural heartbeat. Remarkably, the tension between the old and the new is not present in Singapore. Given its small size and the vision of its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore is a gleaming testament to modernity without the baggage of the past.

Raffles Hotel - (main building completed in 1899)

Raffles Hotel – (main building completed in 1899)

Singapore does contain remnants of the colonial era as evidenced in the hillside residential quarters, the Raffles Hotel, and in old government buildings. There are also certainly economic disparities between newly arrived immigrants and the established majority population which consists of Malay people who have mixed with the descendants of Chinese merchants and traders — many of whom decided to remain in the area after the Great Wall was built and sealed off their overland return to China. Singapore also has many distinct religio-ethnic quarters such as Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and even has its own Chinatown. I was able to walk to the Chinatown district from the city centre of Singapore and saw some interesting Tao-Buddhist temples. As I walked further into the Chinatown area, I came across a sparkling building. It was four-stories tall and perfect in its design and symmetry. This was the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple which had just opened one year earlier. The temple had been built by contributions and endowments from prominent Singaporeans and Chinese Buddhists and it contained a tooth relic said to have belonged to the Buddha which had originally been enshrined inside a pagoda in Burma. Similar to the sad fate of other pagodas in Burma [see post: Bones of Reverence at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-qv], this unfortunate pagoda was destroyed by a WWII bombing raid and found in its ruins was a small reliquary containing the tooth relic.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple - Singapore

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple – Singapore

The relic was thereafter kept in the care of the Burmese sangha for decades until it was brought to Singapore. In contrast to its arresting exterior, the inside of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple seems a bit too museum-like and artificial — not much mystery. On the 4th floor of the temple, one can see a gold 2-meter high stupa where the tooth is kept [no photos are allowed inside the temple].  I was happy to have found the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple while in Singapore, but it brought to mind no comparison at all to the history, majesty, and spiritual power of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka [see post: Ecce Dens (Behold the Tooth) at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-kB].

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya - Temple of 1,000 Lights

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya @ Temple of 1000 Lights – Singapore

Another Buddhist sight of a note in Singapore is the Thai-influenced Temple of 1000 Lights. This temple was built in 1932 and contains a large (15m high/300 tonnes) seated Buddha. As recounted in my previous post [see post: Remains of the Wat-age at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-F6], the features of this large Buddha are strikingly reminiscent of those of the Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan in Bangkok. The 2 faces are like mirrors of one another — although constructed out of different materials and built over 3 centuries apart.

Christ Church (built in 1753) - Melaka, Malaysia

Christ Church (built by Dutch in 1753) – Melaka, Malaysia

From Singapore, I hopped on a bus north to Melaka in Malaysia. Melaka — like Goa, Galle, and Macau — is a former Portuguese (later Dutch, then British) colonial enclave in Asia. The food and people there have a mixed ancestry and the old colonial center is bathed in roseate colors which pop out. The passageway of ocean that lays in front of the town is called the Strait of Malacca which is one of the busiest trade waterways in the world — and full of piracy. After a day’s worth of exploring the town, it was time for me to get to the capital. KL is a bustling, fun metropolis — not quite on par with all the efficiencies of Singapore, but gaining traction each day and also not as sterile. In contrast to the secular nature of Singapore, KL is the capital of Muslim-majority Malaysia. The skyline is dominated by the minaret-capped Petronas Towers and the KL Menara (Tower).  I began in the old city center — Merdeka Square — and strolled towards KL’s Chinatown district where I walked along a major street called Medan Pasar.  Along this road stands a small group of 5 or so weathered early 20th century buildings — out of place with the rest of the area given their coloring and Victorian-influenced design, but there is something organic about them — as if they could belong nowhere else.

Sri Maha Mariamman - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2008)

Sri Maha Mariamman – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2008)

After continuing south in this area for about 10 minutes, I stopped and looked across the street at the Sri Maha Mariamman. This is the oldest Hindu temple in KL and dates back to 1873. Its front entry has a 5-tiered tower that is 23m (75ft) high and filled with all sorts of colorful Hindu deities which look to be climbing all over one another and clamoring for attention. This temple is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Mariamman who is venerated as the protector of Hindus during their travels in foreign lands. But, the temple also serves as the launching off point for the annual “Thaipusam” festival and procession that began in KL in 1892. It originated with those Hindus — mostly from the Tamil state in India — who the British had brought to Malaysia as indentured servants to provide the workforce that built the roads, buildings, and homes throughout the British imperial realm.

Entry Gate to Batu Caves

Entry Gate to Batu Caves – 15km outside KL

“Thaipusam” comes from the combination of the Tamil word “Thai” which is the time of year that corresponds to January/early February (when the festival takes place) and “Pusam” which is the name of a star that is at its highest point in the sky during that time. The focus of the festival is Lord Murugan (a son of Lord Shiva) and it allows the faithful to both physically and spiritually re-enact and remember the moment when Murugan was given a special spear by his mother (Parvati), so he could defeat an evil demon.

Lord Muruga Statue and stairway into Batu Caves

Lord Murugan Statue and stairway up to Batu Caves

Inside Sri Maha Mariamman is a silver chariot which is used to carry statues of Lord Murugan and his 2 consorts through the streets of KL all the way to the Batu Caves — which are about 15km outside of the city. The devout follow the chariot and pierce their torsos with crescent-shaped metallic objects while carrying heavy containers of milk on their shoulders or by hand. This milk is then poured as offerings made at the shrines found inside the Batu Caves.

Step 211 - getting there...

Step 211 – getting there…

Thaipusam is a festival that smacks of pain above all else. It is extremely punishing and long (lasting up to 8-hours), and because it was designed for the specific purpose of worshipping the super-masculine traits of Lord Murugan, the displays of strength and endurance are integral and cannot be shirked. I had to take a local bus from the temple to the Batu Caves which appeared before me like an unnatural monolith soon after the urban sprawl of KL had faded. After passing through the entry gate, the first thing I saw was the giant statue of Lord Murugan and at 43m (140ft) high it is the world’s tallest statue of him. To the left of the statue is a wide staircase consisting of 272-steps — each step is numbered so the faithful know exactly where they are as they put one foot carefully in front of the other while nearing the end of their difficult march.

Inside main chamber - Batu Caves

Inside main chamber – Batu Caves

Needless to say, many people pass-out or collapse on these stairs during Thaipusam. So, there are many medics and ambulances ready to whisk away the afflicted or injured. The Batu Caves are like a limestone amphitheater with prowling monkeys and eye-catching statues sitting in crevices and outcrops of the Caves.

Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva, Muruga, Nandi

Hindu Holy Family: Ganesha, Shiva, Parvati & Murugan with Shiva’s Nandi (Bull)

The nerve-center and focal point of the Caves is the shrine containing the “murti” of Lord Murugan – which is  considered by Hindus as the literal embodiment of the divine spirit of Murugan himself. This small image — made of silver and adorned with garlands — was consecrated over a 100 years ago. Even though I visited the Caves when the Thaipusam festival was not taking place, I still had to maneuver through a ravenous pack of pushers and shovers  — each vying for a look at the murti.  I tunneled my way through the throng, got close, and raised my camera above the rest in order to take a photo.

Murti of Lord Muruga

Murti of Lord Murugan – Batu Caves

Jockeying for position amidst the crowd made for a not so steady hand when snapping the pic. Besides, my legs were still wobbly from the walk up all those stairs. I could not fathom the stamina and steely resolve necessary to complete the procession during Thaipusam. An uninterrupted, 8-hour march with one’s flesh flayed like a fish and bleeding — all the while having to carry heavy jugs of milk?!?! AND THEN, the pay-off for having made the 15km walk is facing 272-steps of vertiginous torture?! Even if I were to be ensnared by the pageantry of the festival and motivated by the fervor of the faithful around me, I don’t think I would be able to complete this rite. So, my only photo of the murti of Lord Murugan came out a bit shaky — O, me of little faith.

Massage Road

29 Jul
Border crossing from Aryanthrapet, Thailand to Poitpet, Cambodia (2006)

Border crossing from Aranyaprathet, Thailand to Poipet, Cambodia (2006)

A sense of unease marked my approach to Cambodia. My pre-trip research had revealed that while crossing into the Cambodian border town of Poipet from the Thai entry point of Aranyaprathet was no sweat, the trick would be getting from Poipet to Siem Reap – gateway to the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor. There were only 3 choices for available transport: (1) hitching a ride on a pickup truck; (2) hailing a taxi-like Toyota Camry, or (3) finding a bus. But, there were no reliable timetables for any of these options, so I had no idea what I would find once I got to Poipet. My preference was to go with #2 — the Toyota taxi. This option would cost more, but at least I would have some control over where it was going. The contrast between exiting Thailand and entering Cambodia was immediate. Thailand has an efficient infrastructure of roads and rail with a wide network of public transport running on fixed timetables. Cambodia was horribly ravaged by the Khmer Rouge for decades and is still trying to piece itself together. As I crossed over the border and entered Poipet, paved roads vanished and were subsumed by clay and rubble. I was told Poipet had a certain rhyme-like quality to it that brought to mind “toilet” and within a few strides into this desperate and grimy border town that was evident. But, I didn’t get much time to absorb the delights of Poipet because the skies quickly darkened and I was soon pelted by a hard beating rain. The clay under my feet transformed into a churning sludge and I ran fast to the first place I saw in the distance which had a roof. While waiting for the rain to stop, I met some other backpackers who were also headed to Siem Reap. They told me that they had a guide who had arranged for a bus to pick them up at 1pm. I was skeptical, but because I saw no sign of any other transportation and I thought the rain may have scared off other drivers, I decided to hang with them. I walked with the group over to a bus depot, and to my surprise, a vehicle entered and parked alongside us within a few minutes. However, it wasn’t a bus — mini-mini bus is more apt. How we fit 20 backpackers and 2 guides into that bus still boggles my mind (although years later I would be crammed into another mini-mini bus with 16 others for a 12hr journey in Laos that rivaled the drive to Siem Reap; to be described in an upcoming post).

The approach to Angkor Wat temple complex - Angkor, Cambodia

The approach to Angkor Wat temple complex – Angkor, Cambodia

It was 2006 when I travelled to Siem Reap and at that time the “road” from Poipet to Siem Reap consisted only of packed red clay with some iron panels laid flat in certain areas. Maybe the road has since been paved, but I experienced it at a time when it was called by locals as the “massage road” — a euphemism for the deep tissue pounding wrought on any individual who had the privilege to drive over it.  The numbing effects of the massage road took on further visceral meaning for me since I was lucky enough to be sitting on this mini-mini bus, which was packed to the gills with people, bags, and basically dragged its chassis on the ground during the entire time. I had studied a map and estimated that the journey would, at most, take 4 hours. Siem Reap was only around 165km away from Poipet.  But, the guides on the mini-mini bus had other ideas. The bus maintained a top speed of 30km/hr, which I could understand was necessary in spots where the road was filled with holes, trenches, or boulders, but the fact that we kept getting passed time and time again by other trucks and cars made me skeptical of what was really going on. We also stopped twice — once for a food & bathroom break — the second was by force when the bus suddenly veered off the road and pulled into a small village. The guides told us that the bus had a flat tire and so we had to get off the bus and wait until it was fixed. Everyone filed off the bus and I looked on incredulously as the bus then drove away with everyone’s bags still on board! The other backpackers were shaking their heads in disbelief and were all questioning the mysterious flat tire. It had been around 5 hours of torture so far. After about an hour of waiting around, the bus returned and the guides happily explained the tire had been fixed. The remaining hours of the trip unfurled in uncomfortable silence broken only by the occasional “ooouch” and “aaargh” of moaning coming from passengers who hit their heads on the roof of the bus or crushed one another when the bus hit another rock or went over hole. Nightfall had also cast us in an eerie blackness and there were no lights whatsoever along the way. So, a nervousness and fear of accident filled the bus. I was miserably cramped in my seat, stinking in my own sweat (no a/c on the bus), and had no feeling in my legs since my backpack rested on my knees and had cut off circulation. I had images dart in and out of my feverish mind: I saw myself skimming along the road on one of those Toyota Camry taxis, settling into my room Siem Reap, taking a shower, having a cold glass of water… My headed bobbed every now and then as fatigue forced me to shut my eyes, but then I would be violently jerked to a full state of alertness when the bus inevitably lurched in some direction.

Macaque stalking the ruins of Angkor

Macaque stalking the ruins of Angkor

After one particularly nasty jerk of the bus, my eyelids flew open and I saw a faint glow in the distance. These had to be coming from Siem Reap!! I would soon be getting off this bus! We got closer and closer, and then, inexplicably, we continued past the town and sank back into darkness. Some of the people in the front of the bus loudly asked the guides where we were going. One of the guides said that the bus was taking us to the station which was outside of town. But, when the bus finally stopped it was clear what had happened. The guides had hijacked us to some out-of-the way guesthouse. They dropped us off there and in a humdrum manner declared that this guesthouse had the best rates. They obviously would get a cut of all the room bookings from the owner of the guesthouse. I told them that I had reserved a room back in town, but they insisted my guesthouse was closed. At this point, my patience with the guides had run out and I just turned my back on them and walked away. Luckily, I found a tuk-tuk driver sitting outside the guesthouse. Two Japanese backpackers who had been on the bus with me walked over to me and asked what I was doing. I explained that I had a place to stay in Siem Reap and was going there. They told me they also were staying in Siem Reap and asked whether they could ride into town with me. So, we struck an arrangement with the tuk-tuk driver to take the 3 of us to our respective lodgings in Siem Reap. When I arrived at my guesthouse (actually called Mom’s Guest House), the proprietor, Mrs. Kong, who was expecting me came out to greet me. The room I was staying in was $5 a night, but it was the best $5 I had ever spent by far in my life. It was 10pm, I had been on that bus for over 8 hours and was wiped out. My neck and shoulders were twisted up in knots and I was sore everywhere else. I had 3 days to immerse myself in Angkor, so I tried not to dwell on my maddening massage road ordeal. I thought only of the next day and the sights awaiting me.

Dancing Apsaras - Angkor

Dancing Apsaras

In the morning, I took a bike from Mrs. Kong and rode through the center of Siem Reap before I found my way to the entrance of Angkor — the last stretch of which passes by huge luxury hotels like Raffles and Le Meridien before the archaeological area begins. I purchased a 3-day pass (which requires a passport-sized photo for non-Cambodians) and spent the morning to dusk of each day exploring as much of the Khmer capital as I could. As described in a previous post (See “At The Dawn of Happiness” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Du), Angkor was founded as the capital of the Khmer Empire in the early 9th century and was the most populated city of its time. The first Khmer Kings were adherents of Hinduism and so stories from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, along with celestial beings like Apsaras were carved throughout the walls of the city. With each new Khmer King, new temples and structures were added to Angkor. In the early 12th century, the Khmer King Suryavarman II constructed the world’s largest temple complex known as Angkor Wat which was originally meant to capture a microcosm of the Hindu universe where the supreme-god Vishnu would be able to reside in quiet contemplation of all creation. Buddhism was not adopted as the dominant religion of the Khmer Empire until King Jayavarman VII ascended to the throne in the late 12th century. He ruled for 30 years (from 1181 to 1218AD) and is considered by most historians as the greatest Khmer King. He was a devotee of Mahayana Buddhism and one of his most important acts was to rededicate Angkor Wat as a Buddhist temple. He also actively expanded the city centre of the capital and constructed several new temples. Some of his most well-known additions to Angkor include Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Bayon (Jayavarman’s face is built into the sides of many portions of this pyramid-like temple since he sought to depict himself as a bodhisattva of compassion), and Angkor Thom. Interestingly, within a few decades after the death of King Jayavarman VII, the practice of Mayahana Buddhism within the Khmer Empire was largely replaced by Theravada Buddhism. One of the reasons for this shift to Theravada practice is that King Jayavaraman VII had a son who went to Sri Lanka to study Buddhism and became a monk in the Sinhalese Theravada tradition. When the son returned to Angkor, he espoused the Theravada teachings he had learned which quickly spread through the capital and throughout the Khmer Empire.

Silk Tree at Teah Prohm - Angkor

Silk Cotton Tree at Ta Prohm – Angkor

The Khmer Empire ultimately came to an end when the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya invaded and conquered Angkor in the 15th century. Thereafter, the inhabitants of Angkor began to leave, the creeping jungle slowly swallowed it up, and it became lost for centuries. But, what was not lost was Theravada Buddhism which had taken root after King Jayavarman VII’s death and became further entrenched as a result of the conquering Thai. Today, Theravada Buddhism is still the dominant religion of Cambodia notwithstanding the fact that the Khmer Rouge did their utmost to eradicate its practice. At the end of my first day at Angkor, I climbed up a hill called Phnom Bakheng which is located to the north of Angkor Wat. Many tourists and villagers go up to the top of this hill to watch the sunset and see how the fading sunlight changes the color of Angkor Wat which one can see below. From the hilltop, I was able to comprehend how enormous Angkor was and saw the boundaries and moats which the Khmer had so methodically engineered in order to protect and sustain its large population (ironically, one prevailing theory today as to why people ultimately abandoned the capital was that problems with proper irrigation for farming led to its collapse). I took several photos which captured the light dancing off Angkor Wat in all sorts of different shades. It was mesmerizing and I was rabid in anticipation of many more incredible scenes and photo ops that I would certainly experience over the next few days. Then, a funny thing happened. As I was pedaling on my bike and turning to exit the archaeological park which was closing, a small car with an attached food cart trailer came up on my left side. I tried to be sure that the car had a wide berth so it could pass me cleanly, but somehow my front wheel bumped a wheel on the trailer and I went flying over my handle bars. I don’t remember the pain of my fall. I only remember looking up and blinking at the face of someone staring down at me with concern. It was the driver of the car. He spoke a little English and asked me if I was OK. I stood up with a shakiness and tried to get my bearings. I saw the bent front frame of my bike a few meters away from me. I then looked down and saw my dented camera near my feet. I think somehow the impact of my fall was absorbed by my camera which I had strapped around my torso. I slowly wrapped my mind as to what had just happened and then I realized I was not seriously hurt. I exhaled in relief and looked at the man. I could only smile. He smiled back. I started to laugh and shake my head. I told him I was OK and shook his hand goodbye.

Female Monk - Angkor Wat

Female Monk – Angkor Wat

I was touched that he had stopped his car and come over to see if I was OK. He could have easily driven off, especially if he thought he had hit a tourist who was seriously injured. I picked up my camera and inspected it. It was dented, but the roll of film inside seemed unharmed and the camera appeared to still function. Little did I know that my camera was basically useless. Something inside the lens or shutter had cracked, and although I took over 12 rolls of film over the next few days, only a handful of the pictures were able to be developed. There you have it then — I had arrived via a ridiculously long and nerve-wracking journey and then found myself busted flat on the road during my first day at Angkor. I’m not sure I learned any lessons. I just picked myself off the ground, fixed the bent frame of my bike, and hopped back on. When it was time for me to leave and get back to Thailand, I did make sure to take one of those Toyotas back to the border. So, I guess that was a lesson learned — there was no way was I going to repeat the massage road experience. And you know how long the drive back to Poipet from Siem Reap took? 65 minutes.

At the Dawn of Happiness

27 Feb
Detail of temple exterior - Sukhothai, Thailand (2006)

Detail of temple exterior – Sukhothai, Thailand (2006)

East of Burma, lays the core of Buddhist Southeast Asia – Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. South of Southeast Asia itself, frenetic socio-economic activity and religious contrast blurs by as Thailand cedes to Malaysia, then Singapore, and across the Strait of Malacca is Indonesia. I pick up then from Thailand. But, I must first lead with a basic overview of the Khmer Empire.  This was an empire that covered most of what is today Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and south Vietnam. The beginnings of the Khmer Empire can be traced to 802AD with the founding of the empire’s capital in Angkor which was the most populated city of its time. The first Khmer Kings were adherents of Hinduism and so stories from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, along with celestial beings like Apsaras were carved throughout the walls of the city. With each new Khmer King, new temples and structures were added to Angkor. In the early 12th century, the Khmer King Suryavarman II constructed the world’s largest temple complex known as Angkor Wat which today is one of the most visited sites in Southeast Asia. But, what most of the tourist package groups who fly into Siem Reap, Cambodia for day trips to the temple complex may not realize is that the lofty chambers of Angkor Wat were meant to capture a microcosm of the Hindu universe where the supreme-god Vishnu would be able to reside in quiet contemplation of all creation. It was not meant to be a Buddhist temple or shrine.

Wat Traphang Ngoen

Wat Traphang Ngoen

The Khmer people did not absorb Buddhism until a few centuries after Angkor Wat was built and the reason for their capitulation to Buddhism was in part due to the rise of the Thai people in the north and western frontiers of the Khmer Empire. The main Khmer outpost in Thailand up until the early 13th century was in Sukhothai which is about 450km (280 miles) north of Bangkok today.  A large group of Thai tribes and clans got together and drove out the Khmer forces from Sukhothai and established what was to be the first independent Thai kingdom in 1238AD.  One of the sons of the first king of Sukhothai became King Ramkhamhaeng and he ruled Sukhothai for over 40 years. His reign is referred to by Thai historians as a “golden age”. He created the forerunner of what is the modern Thai alphabet in 1283AD by adapting Khmer letters into a form that suited Thai speech, and extended Sukhothai north into Laos and south into the Malay peninsula. Religious art flourished under him in what is viewed now as classical Thai forms.

Wat Sa Si - Sukhothai

Wat Sa Si – Sukhothai

Wat Chana Songkhram

Wat Chana Songkhram

Prior to the advent of Buddhism, most Thais had a religious practice that consisted of a mix of animism and shamanism. Starting in the 11th century, Theravada Buddhism trickled into Thailand from Burma. Sukhothai’s first king, Indraditya (Ramkhamhaeng’s father), made it the state religion in an attempt to unify the Thai people. While it is acknowledged that the Buddha images and temples of Sukhothai were influenced by Burma’s Mon people, during Ramkhamhaeng’s rule the Thai did develop their own unique “chedi” (Thai word for stupa) design – a lotus bud spire. King Ramkhamhaeng also supported the growth of the Sangha — the monkhood in Sukhothai. He did this through inviting ordained monks from Sri Lanka (where Theravada Buddhism already had over a millenia’s worth of history) to Sukhothai so that they would conduct Buddhist teachings there and promote the monastic life. The first stupa constructed at Sukhothai was Wat Maha That (or the royal sanctuary). This stupa rose in a lotus-bud design and within it was enshrined a relic of the Buddha. It is the largest temple at Sukhothai. Most of the buildings in the Sukhothai were built with bricks and contained stucco exteriors. The interiors of many these buildings were painted with murals of the Buddha’s life and featured large bronze castings and stone carvings of the Buddha in various positions — seated,  standing, walking with elongated hands, and bearing a flame-like crown on his head.

Wat Maha That - Sukhothai

Wat Maha That – Sukhothai

Bicycling through the archaeological zone of Sukhothai, I started with Wat Maha That and continued to Wat Si Sawai (known for its Khmer-style tower), Wat Traphang Ngoen (contains faded, standing Buddhas in 4 niches), Wat Chana Songkram (has Sri Lankan-style dagoba design), Wat Phra Phai Luang (remnants of monastery), and Wat Saphan Tin (12.5m tall standing Buddha situated on 200m high hill that overlooks Sukhothai).

Wat Si Chum

Wat Si Chum

I found the most spectacular sight at Sukhothai to be Wat Si Chum —  a “mondop” containing a large sitting Buddha called “Phra Achana”.  The mondop itself is a 15m tall and 32m wide square structure and Phra Achana measures 11m in width from knee to knee. Devotees place gold foil on the right hand of this great Buddha who sits in the “vanquishing of Mara / the earth stands witness” pose (See post “Tempt” at http://wp.me/s2Bq4y-tempt). The words Phra Achana in Thai mean “one who is not frightened” and there are tunnels that run inside the walls of Wat Si Chum where these words are carved along with images and stories of the Buddha’s life. These tunnels are now closed to visitors. Wat Si Chum is a significant religious monument because its Thai builders consciously designed it to mark a break from the other “mandapas” which existed in India and elsewhere in the Khmer Empire at the time it was built.

File created with CoreGraphicsIn those other structures, the shrine or chamber room that was set aside for special ceremonial purposes was built within a larger temple or building. Wat Si Chum is not annexed to a larger religious structure, and instead, is an independent building that serves as its own stand-alone shrine. It allows for a very powerful, yet intimate experience within a uniform space that’s filled only with Phra Achana and the individual. When I entered, I felt boxed in as if in a confessional — as if I had come before Phra Achana to confess to my transgressions. One Thai legend even speaks of an invading Mon force who fled Sukhothai in fear when they peered inside Wat Si Chum and saw the disapproving, lowered eyes of Phra Achana staring back at them. Another interesting achievement of King Ramkhamhaeng was that he traveled to China’s Yunnan region on at least 2 separate occasions. He encouraged trade between his Thai people and the Chinese there, and through his efforts he sparked the Thai production of ceramic ware based on Chinese methods.

Phra Achana inside Wat Si Chum

Phra Achana inside Wat Si Chum

This savvy in being able to broker relations with larger countries is an important hallmark of Thai kings — one that paid off in a big way in the 19th and 20th century when Thailand ultimately emerged as the only nation in Southeast Asia not to fall under the imperial thumb of any of the Western powers that had occupied nearly everywhere else in the region. Through the wily maneuvering of the kings of the current Chakri dynasty, Thailand brokered its way through French, English, and American domination in Indochina.  Sukhothai would ultimately fall within 2 centuries after its founding and become a vassal state of its more powerful southern neighbor, Ayutthaya. The Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya sacked Angkor in 1431AD, which signaled the end of the Khmer Empire.  The creeping jungle swallowed up Angkor and Sukhothai and both were lost for centuries.

Wat Saphan Hin

Wat Saphan Hin

Near where the royal palace once stood in the center of Sukhothai, a stone marker bearing an inscription was found. This inscription was translated and states in part:

“This realm of Sukhothai is good. In the water there are fish; in the field there is rice. The ruler does not levy a tax on the people who travel along the road together, leading their oxen on the way to trade and riding their horses on the way to sell. Whoever wants to trade in elephants, so trades. Whoever wants to trade in horses, so trades. Whoever wants to trade in silver and gold, so trades.”

An enlightened message from the 13th century.

Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) – Prologue

2 Nov

What Adam’s Peak looks like on a non-monsoon day

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Those were the last words that Adam heard as he was cast out of Eden. And where did his first step fall outside of the Garden? That was where I was headed. It has many names. Names tied to the many religious traditions which have revered it for several centuries. A few of these names are Ratnagiri, Shiva Padam, Mount Rohana, Samanalakanda, Pico de Adão or Adam’s Peak.  In Sinhalese, the proper religious name is Sri Pada or the “Holy Footprint”. It’s not a very tall mountain at 2243m (7,359ft), but it goes vertical from the forest floor to the clouds.  Years of pounding rains and erosion have chiseled it into a cone that dwarfs everything else around it.  At the top of Sri Pada is an imprint of a large human-looking foot in a rock. Legend has it that the footprint was first uncovered over 2000 years ago, when an exiled Sri Lankan King had been forced into living in a remote forest and then one day while hunting a deer he found his way up the mountain and stumbled upon the large footprint. Word of the footprint’s existence spread from there and it was deemed by the Sri Lankan Sangha to have been made by the Buddha’s left foot during one of the 3 trips he had made to Sri Lanka.  Certain Christian and Muslim traditions which took root in Sri Lanka through colonization and trade believed that this footprint was made by Adam himself when he fell out from Eden. Hindus who saw the footprint concluded that it had to be that of Shiva. Regardless of the exact divinity of the footprint, it is an object of deep veneration and during December to April of each year tens of thousands of pilgrims flock en masse to climb the mountain and pray at the shrine that has been built around the footprint. This shrine has metal doors that remain open during the pilgrimage season so that the footprint can be seen. However, the footprint image that is made available to the public is a man-made footprint complete with engraved depictions of the Wheel of the Dharma and other Buddhist symbols. The actual rock containing the footprint (or petrosomatoglyph) is found several feet below the public-facing external image and from what I understand this rock is not able to be viewed by the public. Based on writings of people who have seen the actual petrosomatoglyph, the footprint is nearly 5 feet long and would have to belong to a giant. Some accounts of the Buddha said that he was incredibly tall, but to have 5ft-sized feet certainly could not be possible. The Buddha was just a man who found a path and practice, and then was awakened. He was a giant in mind and purpose, but not in physical size. He could not have flown as Sri Lankan tradition believes he did from the top of Adam’s Peak down to Kelaniya in Colombo. I would have to personally make the climb, get to the shrine, and reflect on all of this.

Train to Hatton, Sri Lanka

I took a train from Colombo to Hatton which is a town in the middle of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country.  The elevation and climate of the area combine to produce some of the best tea on earth. Many tea estates and plantations dot the hills and some of these are open for tea tastings. From Hatton, I had to hop on a bus and then switch to a minibus in order to make the last leg of the journey to the village of Dalhousie which is located at the entry to the northern route to Adam’s Peak. Scottish tea planters apparently liked to bestow names from their own country onto the areas in Sri Lanka where they planted. I was staying at a guest house called the Yellow House. When I entered, it was immediately clear that I was only the person staying there. I did a quick recon walk down to the main area of the village and found it was completely deserted. There was not a soul around. When I went back to my guest house, I talked to the owner who said that during the monsoon season everyone left Dalhousie except for just a handful of people who worked in the tea estates around the area and maintained properties in the village.  He told me that if I was going to climb the mountain that it would be unlikely that I would see the sunrise because the mountain was encased in a cloud. He also cautioned that the mountain was extremely windy and rainy and that large chunks of the trail had been completely washed away. I thanked him for the info and said I was doing the climb. I wasn’t here to see a sunrise. I wanted to experience the same walk that the Buddha had undertaken over a millennia ago. I wanted to have my lungs burn, my legs quake, and my back ache in the same way as the Buddha must have felt when he did the steep climb to the summit.  I would leave in the early morning and hopefully get to the summit by noon. Before I left, I would make sure to see the proprietor one last time — just so he could be alerted to my absence if something were to happen and I failed to make it back. It was a morbid thought, but I nevertheless had to cover my base on that.

The first of ten thousand steps – “5km to Adam’s Peak”

So, that was my plan — to climb Adam’s Peak that next morning — come Hell or High Water.  While the High Water came in Biblical proportions, there was no Hell (despite my horribly mangled knees). Instead, there was something altogether different. A communion.

Part II (Cont’d) – Fire

18 Aug

It is said that for any Hindu the most auspicious place to die is at Varanasi. If the person dies in the Ganges river itself or water from the river is splashed on the person as he dies, then this results in the attainment of supreme salvation. The person escapes the perpetual cycle of reincarnation and is transported to Mt. Meru which is the center of the universe and is similar to the Western concept of heaven. I could see the smoke billowing and smearing into the hazy bend of the Ganges before me. Manikarnika was the last major ghat at Varansi and was located at the far end of the city from where I was. I began the long walk towards the smoke. This would not be the first time I had observed the ancient rite of the Hindu funeral pyre.

Cremations at Pashupatinath – Kathmandu, Nepal (2007)

I had seen my first cremation in 2007 in Pashupatinath, which is a large Nepalese Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva in Kathmandu. Pashupatinath has its own cremation ghats which have been constructed on the banks of the Bagmati river and cremations take place 24 hours a day. Observers can walk over a bridge to the other side of the river and can watch the cremations talking place from that vantage point. Some of these ghats have roofs and raised platforms and these were where the wealthy had their funeral pyres. Those of less means were cremated right on the concrete slab of open air ghats that were nearest the river bank. What do we know of funeral pyres in the West? Certainly, we have cremations, but those are done in the back room of a crematorium with such technological gadgetry and speed that you get an incineration. So, as with many aspects of the way we live life in the West, we can choose to have instant gratification in death. The Hindu cremation is almost artistic in its ritual and choreography. The fact it can be viewed out in the open by non-family and strangers gives it the added element of the public theatre. It may take up to 6 hours for the pyre to burn itself out in some cases. How to describe the first cremation I watched at Pashupatinath? The first thing I can say was that I had to accept the decision I made to watch. I felt I would be invading the privacy of the family who was conducting the ceremony and I did not want to just gawk. At the same time, it would be ridiculous to sit on the other side of the river and pretend that you were not there to observe the cremation. When the body appeared, it brought everything into focus real quick.

Anointment – Pashupatinath

My eyes locked onto the scene, and in fact, I think it would have been disrespectful if I hadn’t held my gaze. It would have been disrespectful if I had looked elsewhere while this most shared actuality of the human existence was taking place. The body was carried by 3 men who shuffled down the steps and laid the man down on the pyre that had been prepared close to the river bank. He was wrapped in deep orange-colored robes. His head, hands, and feet could be seen. Then, other individuals – who appeared to be family members of the man — applied ointment to the man’s face, hands and feet. This ointment was a kind of cow butter and then other offerings like camphor, mango leaves, tumeric powder, and juniper or sandalwood were placed on or near the man’s body. The actual wood used for the funeral pyre was corkwood I think. After the anointing was finished, another man ambled out of the temple doorway above the ghat and approached the body with a torch that had been lit from a flame inside the temple. There were dried fronds of some kind placed on top of and around the sides of the body, and then the man carrying the torch began to light these fronds one by one in a clockwise manner. These fronds produced a dense smoke and triggered the wood below to begin to burn. As the smoke rose and blew across the river, I caught a faint scent of what seemed to me to be like candle wax. I could detect nothing more. The family members chanted a few refrains as they walked around the body clockwise. Some of them turned and sat down on the stone benches above the pyre.  I then noticed that another pyre that had already been burning for some time before I had arrived was about finished. A man showed up with a broom and began to sweep the ashes and remnants of the corpse directly into the Bagmati river. After a few strokes, nothing remained of the existence of that person. He had been swept into the everlasting right before my eyes and the river had taken it from there. I watched the river flow away from that spot and could see far downriver without obstruction. There was a man who appeared to be standing in the river and brushing his teeth. A couple of semi-clothed kids were swimming and playing just a little further downriver from the man. “How the swift current of life continued – uninterrupted,” I thought as I got closer to Manikarnika. But, the river I was walking alongside now was the Ganges whose source was the Himalayas and here at Varanasi it was starving without the rains of the monsoon. There were only a few rowboats that were crossing between the sandbars and carrying people across from one side to the other.

Boats waiting for the Monsoon – Varanasi (2009)

Most boats were drydocked or stranded on the land waiting for the rains to come. But, as I neared Manikarnika there was suddenly a crush of boats and people were just sitting in the boats looking at the activities going on in the ghat. The buildings of Manikarnika Ghat were charred by thousands of years of smoke. They stood like blackened sentinels from another time and were strikingly absent of the color and light that characterized the other ghats. This part of the Ganges was like the River Styx. It was the underworld and like any underworld there were guardians. The guardians of Manikarnika I learned were called Doms — a caste of untouchables. I almost got run over by 3 of them when I was craning my neck to look at one Manikarnika’s buildings and unknowingly walked across the main throughway of the temple when the Doms blasted out carrying a body on two long bamboo rods. The Doms of Manikarnika Ghat earn their living by conducting the funeral pyres for those Hindus fortunate enough to make it to Varanasi. The Doms charge fees for burning bodies that scale from a base price to an “all the frills” package depending on what the family wants to do. Paradoxically, as untouchables, the Doms are the only Hindus expected to touch the corpses, and so they complete the ceremony by sweeping the ashes and throwing any remaining bones of the body into the Ganges. Unlike Pashupatinath, where I observed the cremations from across the river, I was right in the middle of the cremation ghats at Manikarnika. I was only a few meters away from where the pyre burned. I watched for about 30-minutes before I felt soot falling on my shoulders and face and then realized I was breathing in the ashes of human flesh. This didn’t unsettle me. I understood the shared mortality between myself and these ashes that were being carried up in smoke. I understood the meaning of what the Buddha had said to those who surrounded him as he succumbed to his own death that day in Kushinagar. Nothing is permanent – everything transitions into something else and you have to work out your salvation yourself. What I was observing (and inhaling) was one Hindu’s last step toward a salvation that he had journeyed to during his mortal days on earth. This person had lived, loved, been angry, sad, forgiven, grown, apologized, and died. Now, he was breaking free and ascending to Meru, or heaven, or nirvana. And I breathed it in. I became lost in this realization and watched the fire burn.

Periphery of Marnikarnika Ghat

When I finally snapped out of it, I noticed the sun was getting lower in the sky and I had to make my way back to another ghat where a ceremony was to be performed. This ceremony was a blessing to the Ganges that Hindus conducted at sunset of each day of the year. It was called the Ganga Aarti and it took place at Dashashwamedh Ghat.  When I arrived at this ghat, there were throngs of people already claiming spots on the steps and they crowded near 5 raised concrete platforms that faced the Ganges. There were lights in the shape of parasols above each of these platforms and bells hung from iron bars connected to these lights.  As the sun set, the ghat was packed and 5 priests — who looked very young — took their position on each of the platforms. A man who sat behind them with a couple of musicians began chanting and singing through a microphone. Then, each of the priests began performing the ritual of the blessing in unison. Each priest carried with him 5 elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space (in the form of ether) that were symbolized by a flower, a water spray with a handkerchief, a brass lamp, a peacock fan, and a yak-tail fan. As each element was introduced and offered to the Ganges, the priests waved the materials clockwise and given the dust that was still in the air  and the twilight conditions, each item created a kind of vapor trail that clearly hung in the air around the priest before dispersing.  Each element took on an ethereal form and I guess that was the idea of the blessing — to have the faithful experience a tangible divine connection with the Maa (Goddess) Ganges who begat and sustained life. The ceremony lasted for an hour and at the end the priests walked down from their platforms towards the Ganges. They each kneeled down and placed a circular candle with flowers (called a diya) in the river which was slowly carried off by the current. There was a congruence between what I had experienced at Marnikarnika Ghat and the Ganga Aarti blessing. Each day Hindus gave thanks to the Ganges through a spiritual and symbolic offering at Dashashwamedh, and then just a few hundred meters away, they sought salvation through the physical offering of their bodies at Marnikarnika. That was the supreme personification of balance. That is Varanasi.

Pilgrimage – Part II

14 Aug

The name, “Sarnath”, had a kind of sinister inflection in my mind. It reminded me of Golgotha. But, as I traveled there, I learned that Sarnath is actually shorthand for a longer word that means “Lord of the Deer.” It was now the name for the area surrounding the deer park where the Buddha had given his first teaching of the Dharma to his 5 companions. Sarnath is located about 13km to the northeast of the ancient city of Benares (Varanasi) and I would stay there for a few nights and take a day trip to Sarnath.

The Ghats of Varanasi, India (2009)

The funny thing was that I wasn’t too far off by thinking of Golgotha on my way there because Varanasi had a skull-like form and netherworld glow to it. Its vertiginous old buildings vomited out steps that led down to the banks of the Ganges below. And there was the dark plume of smoke that seemed to continually float above one of the ghats in particular. I would soon learn that this was Manikarnika Ghat — the pre-eminent cremation ground in all of Hinduism. I could faintly see this ghat in the distance and wasn’t ready to experience its power on that first day. As it so happened, I was only able to spend just an hour or so around the ghats that were near my Varanasi hotel on that first day. The water level of the Ganges was so low that large sand bars were exposed. These weren’t small banks of sand, but instead were large mounds that rose several feet above the ground. The clouds overhead started moving fast as a wild wind picked up and then the exposed sand bars took flight — meaning twisters picked up the sand and blew them with a ferocity toward the ghats. I was swiftly caught in a severe sandstorm and wasn’t able to breathe or open my eyes. I put on my sunglasses, pulled my shirt over my mouth, and ducked behind a wall. Incredibly, the sand whipped around the wall and swarmed over me. I could feel my ears get plugged up and things got muffled. For a few moments, all my senses were snuffed out in some way and I was in the black. I had no idea if anyone else was around, but the streets had to be deserted. It then dawned on me that the locals must have known about these sandstorms. The monsoon was late and it was the end of June of 2009. These early afternoon winds must have hit the Ganges with some regularity, so the shopkeepers, faithful, and cricketers alike knew when it was time to take cover. I had no choice but to make my way back to the hotel until the sandstorm subsided. When I got to my room, I was hoping to cool down and clean off. Unfortunately, there were constant rolling blackouts that kept knocking out the A/C and the lights. I washed myself in the dark and laid down on my bed to recover. I silently hoped that when I visited Sarnath, the deer park would live up to its reputation as being a place of serenity and calm.

Dhamekha Stupa – Sarnath, India

The next day I flagged down a Bajaj rickshaw and told the driver to take me to Sarnath. Cruising on these 3-wheelers – whether a tuk-tuk in Thailand or elsewhere – is always the same. You suck in alot of exhaust and hot thick air while dodging motorcycles, bikes, pedestrians, trucks, and cars. Once in a while, you get a driver that is drunk, whacked out, or just too eager to take you to some brothel. It’s usually fun in any situation though. The tricky part is having enough cash on you to pay the driver after you (hopefully) barter out the price in advance. The road to Sarnath was long and winding and we did have a bump with a motorcycle, but that was resolved with an apology and some pulling back of the bent parts into place. I was dropped off at the entrance to the archaeological site. I paid the entrance fee and walked into a green park which contained the ruins of an old monastery, a flattened stupa, and some old broken pillars erected by Ashoka and destroyed many, many centuries later by Turkish invaders. Looming above it all was the only monument that was still largely intact. This was the Dhamekha Stupa. It had been built at the location where the Buddha had given his first sermon to his companions. It was where the wheel of the Dharma had first rotated into the world. The Stupa conveyed a majesty and simplicity to it. It looked like a giant brick thimble from afar. It had a sense of utility. As I got closer, the intricate detail and patterns that still remained on the lower half of the Stupa jumped out at me: floral wreaths, swirling patterns, and overlapping shakti symbols (perverted into what was known as the swastika in 20th century). I walked around the Stupa 3 times clockwise and imagined myself becoming part of the wheel. That was the utility of this structure – its design roped you in and you want to glom on to its side and become part of its pattern work. Sarnath did still contain an actual deer park, but this had been moved to a newer area and outside of the archaeological zone where the Dhamekha Stupa sat. Just a little further up the road, a modern version of the Mahabodhi temple had been built during the early 20th century, and behind this temple was the deer park– although from what I remember the deer were penned up in a corral which was part of a zoo where a donation or fee had to be paid. But, given the crush of humanity that India teemed with, it was still a relief to have some kind of haven for these deer which were ultimately descendants of those deer that had lived in the park during the Buddha’s time.

Detail – Dhamekha Stupa

The Dhamekha Stupa itself dates back to about 500 AD and was built over an earlier stupa that Ashoka had built upon his visit to Sarnath in the mid-3rd century. Ashoka had also erected an exquisite 4-headed lion capital that crowned a tall pillar he had placed in Sarnath to commemorate his visit. This lion capital was struck by lighting and had fallen to the ground intact. It was now housed in the Sarnath Museum which was around the corner from the park. The capital was epic in scope and purpose. 4 lions placed back-to-back-to-back-to-back and other animals like an elephant, bull, and horse spaced below them. A large wheel of the Dharma was thought to have been built over the head of the lions, but that wheel has been lost. Below the paws of each lion appeared to be another wheel design of some sort. It looked like a wheel of a chariot, but I thought it could have been a rendering of the wheel of the Dharma. This lion capital is now the emblem that is set smack dab in the center of the national flag of India. So, the Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, had left a legacy that went beyond just making his own pilgrimages to the key places of the Buddhist’s life. In his quest to memorialize these visits, he created a symbol for a new country which more than 2000 years later would seek to gain independence and forge its own identity and nationhood. One could see the hand of the Sangha behind this legacy. Because again, the lion capital would never have made it through the marauding and colonial plundering that depleted much of the old Mauryan dynasty of Ashoka without the watchful eyes of the Sangha. Like Sanghamitta’s act to salvage the Bodhi Tree, I was able to see the Lion Capital at the Sarnath Museum because of the Sangha’s dogged preservation of this important relic. As I returned back to Varanasi, I mentally prepared for the next day where I was determined to make the walk to Manikarnika Ghat and into the beyond.

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