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Happiness is a Place (Not a State of Mind)

8 Mar

Ever since I had visited Tibet in 2007, I knew what I wanted my next destination to be. This was going to be a trip to a small Himalayan Buddhist kingdom whose own history reflected the rich Mahayana Buddhist teachings and spirituality of Tibet. This was Bhutan — the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Given Bhutan’s geographic location tucked between the mountains of the Tibetan Autonomous Region [controlled by the People’s Republic of China (PRC)] and India’s snaky northeastern borders [portions of which are also claimed by the PRC], planning a trip to this isolated country would be tricky. First, any foreigner or non-Bhutanese citizen cannot independently fly into Bhutan and travel around the country unchaperoned. As a legacy of its fiercely insular past, Bhutan has a rigorous application process for all foreigners to complete in order to be granted a tourist visa. Each foreign visitor must register with a Bhutanese-based tourist agency which books all hotels and meals (which have different tiers depending on the visitor’s budget). The fees paid to the Bhutanese tourist agency include payment of a daily tourist tariff that is applied towards the hiring of a Bhutanese guide and driver who accompany all foreigners throughout the visit. Second, no non-Bhutanese airlines are permitted to fly to Bhutan, so instead, any visitor must use one of 2 Bhutanese airlines (Bhutan Airlines & Druk Air) in order to fly there. These 2 Bhutanese airlines each serve only a handful of other Asian countries. So, because of the careful coordination, financial cost, and chunk of time that was necessary to properly plan a trip to Bhutan, it took nearly a decade after my visit to Tibet until I was ready to head there. This long passage of time had allowed Bhutan to develop and open itself in new ways to the outside world. Bhutan also had a young king as the head of its constitutional monarchy and he had encouraged foreign investment, relaxed trade restrictions, and modernized Bhutan’s telecommunications infrastructure to allow for internet and WiFi services. The timing of my trip to Bhutan in 2016 took place then at a unique moment where technological innovation and foreign influence were impacting this remote spiritual haven to an unprecedented degree.

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Standing Buddha and Buddha Dordenma (Buddha Point) in distance – Thimpu, Bhutan (2016)

Buddhism was first introduced to Bhutan by Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava) in the 8th Century A.D. Guru Rinpoche was likely born in north India and he traveled to Tibet where he shared and taught the tenets of Mahayana Buddhism before venturing further east and crossing over the mountains into the lush valleys of Bhutan. Bhutan was a cluster of various fiefdoms controlled by regional warlords for many centuries after Buddhism took root. It was not until the 17th Century when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal led battle after battle that Bhutan became a unified nation with borders very much the same as it has today. Zhabdrung Namgyal is held in high esteem as the founder of the Kingdom of Bhutan and he zealously defended Bhutan from outside invading armies — his chief adversary being the 5th Dalai Lama who led Tibetan armies in several incursions into Bhutan in the attempt to seize the neighboring country.

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Paro Dzong constructed in 1644 A.D. & its watchtower (now the National Museum of Bhutan) – Paro, Bhutan (2016)

As part of his defense strategy, Zhabdrung Namgyal constructed important dzongs in strategic areas of Bhutan. These dzongs were fortress-temples with massive, thick walls that protected the administrative offices, monastic residences, and areas of worship inside. Each dzong was helmed by a governor and was like a small city-state that effectively secured key regions of the country. Perhaps the most important aspect of Zhabdrung’s rule was his creation of a government whose actions were not to be separate or disconnected from spirituality, but instead, emanated from the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and compassion for all living beings.

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Novice monks walking through Paro Dzong

This government ethos that Zhabdrung promulgated was the reverse of the separation of church and state that exists in the United States and other Western countries. Every Bhutanese king since Zhabdrung Namgyal has maintained this creed which had a reinvention in the 1970s when the-then King of Bhutan coined the term, “Gross National Happiness” (GNH). The King explained that this concept was far more important to the Bhutanese than the country’s Gross Domestic Product. GNH encompassed a deeper meaning beyond that of a holistic guiding principle. It was a concrete, trackable economic indicator like inflation, spending, and other cost of living metrics. Additionally, the Bhutanese constitution expressly mandated that it was the government’s responsibility to promote and optimize GNH for its citizens. The Bhutanese government uses a formula to compute the annual GNH that is based on data collected from its citizens through surveys and other feedback. This data reflects criteria such as living standards, health/welfare, education, environmental quality, community vitality, and work-life balance. Ultimately, the higher the calculation of annual GNH will correlate to how well the government has performed in meeting its responsibility to provide the Bhutanese people with a beneficial economic system that is in sync with the natural environment and all sentient beings.

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Off into the western horizon — Mt. Everest

As I finalized details for my trip to Bhutan, I had to also take into consideration the season and the availability of flights from those few Asian cities that the 2 Bhutanese airlines served.  I also had a good friend who was looking for a spiritual adventure of sorts, and so, once he learned about my trip, he was eager to join. I was able to have our seats booked on a Bhutan Airlines flight for late August 2016 that would fly from Bangkok, Thailand to Paro, Bhutan. Our flight from Bangkok left at 6:30 a.m. and was only about half-filled with people. The plane had a stop in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, and as we remained in our seats, a steady stream of Indians passed by us as they boarded and soon filled the plane to capacity. These were laborers who were flying to Bhutan to provide much needed manpower on the many construction projects taking place all over the country. Once the plane took off from Kolkata, I saw the Hooghly river and the green rice paddies below steadily recede as the Himalayas approached. I had my fingers crossed and hoped the cloud coverage would be minimal so perhaps Mt. Everest would be visible. Within about 10 minutes, off into the western horizon, the unmistakable outline of a massive snowcapped peak appeared. It was Everest. It pierced through the clouds like a welcoming beacon — one that I had not seen since my 2007 flight from Lhasa to Kathmandu. Excitement welled up inside me as the plane crossed over the Himalayas and Bhutan was at hand.

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The descent to Paro International Airport – Bhutan

As we began our descent, the mountains tightened around us and at times the plane’s wingtips seemed close enough to touch them (no wonder only Bhutanese airlines fly into the country). When we landed, I walked onto the tarmac and felt a warm glow caress my face. I looked around and was surrounded by the bluest of blue skies and greenest of green trees and hillsides. We had arrived in the town of Paro which is about 50km (31 miles) from Bhutan’s capital, Thimpu. After we cleared passport control, our guide and driver who were each wearing “ghos” (Bhutanese traditional male garb like a kimono) greeted us and placed white prayer scarves around our necks. It was as if we had arrived in the mythical land of Shangri-La.

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On the tarmac at Paro International Airport

We put our bags in the car and then drove towards our first stop to see the Paro Dzong and its watchtower which had been converted to the National Museum of Bhutan in 1960. The National Museum provided us with an overview of the history, culture, natural environment, and spirituality of Bhutan. Below Paro Dzong, we stopped off to enter a very old chorten called Dumtse Lhakhang that had been built in the early 15th Century by Thangtong Gyalpo who was known for constructing iron bridges that spanned key rivers in Bhutan. While Dumtse Lhakhang is unassuming from the outside (aside from its Tibetan design), it had incredible, complex murals of Buddhist legends inside its tight confines. We had to climb up small wooden ladders to get to the top floor of the chorten where legend had it that the spirit of a demoness was trapped. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside Dumtse Lhakhang, so its exquisite interior and any evidence of the demoness remain hidden to the rest of the world.

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Dumtse Lhakhang built in 1430s A.D. – Paro, Bhutan

We left Paro and drove towards to Thimpu where we were to spend our first few nights. There was a lot of excited chatter during the drive between our guide and us as he had many questions about our lives in the United States and we of course wanted to learn about his life in Bhutan. We discussed everything from Bhutanese dishes like emo datshi (chili peppers and melted cheese) and Red Panda beer (barley infused with juniper) to GNH and the Buddhist spiritualism that penetrated all facets of life in the country. Since we were staying in the country for 8 days, there would be many more conversations with our guide about these topics and much more. He was very knowledgeable and brought both a sense of humor and seriousness to the many Buddhist and historical sights we had lined up to visit.

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Directing “gridlock” in downtown Thimpu

After about 45 minutes of driving and passing troops of white langur monkeys along the way, I could see the hills of Thimpu drawing near. It had been a long day of travel given the early start that morning from Bangkok and I was looking forward to getting out of the car and decompressing. We exited from the main highway and pulled onto a road going to the city center where we came to a sudden stop at a traffic circle behind other cars. In the middle of the traffic circle, there was a uniformed Bhutanese man with an intense expression who was directing traffic with dramatic movements of his white-gloved hands. Our guide said that there were no traffic lights anywhere in Bhutan — including Thimpu, its most populous city with about 110,000 people. I watched the traffic guard methodically guiding, waving at, and stopping cars with a rhythmic choreography. It looked to me like he was breakdancing at times. I had to smile. GNH was starting to make sense.

The Calming Influence of A Giant

7 Feb

After I had journeyed through Tibet in 2007, I made a vow to myself to never set foot in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). My reasons for that are chronicled in my previous posts about my first-hand experience of the treatment of Tibetans and their vanishing culture under the oppressive policies of the PRC (click the “Tibet” heading under the “Categories” section to read those posts). Yet, even before I traveled to Dunhuang, China to see the Mogao Caves in 2016, I had already visited the PRC on 2 different occasions with the first taking place in November 2012. My 2012 trip was spurred by 2 things: first, China had embarked on a fascinating “re-branding” blitz that had begun during the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and second, my youngest brother was living in Shanghai and working on the design and construction of one of the massive new projects that was part of this “new China” — Disney Shanghai. I wrestled with the decision to go to China, but ultimately relented after convincing myself that the visit could provide me with insight into the attitudes and pulse of the upcoming generation there. In order to procure my Chinese visa, I had to have my brother write an “invitation letter” asking me to visit him in China and then I sent this letter along with an application fee and my flight arrival and departure information to the Chinese consulate in the U.S. While I was interested in seeing the soaring demand for consumerism and luxury Western brands in Shanghai, I had another destination in mind: Chengdu. So, after a couple of days getting acclimated to the frenzied pace of Shanghai, I was soon boarding a long domestic flight to what was once China’s western frontier.

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Wenshu Pavillion, Wenshu Temple – Chengdu, China (2012)

Chengdu was the 5th largest city in China at the time of my visit. This sprawling city sits about 2,000km (1,200 miles) from Shanghai and is located in the southwestern corner of China in Sichuan province. It is the last major city in this region of China before the mountains and the Tibetan plateau begin to rise and dominate the landscape. Chengdu is perhaps best known today for 2 things: food and pandas. There’s no doubt that Chengdu is the culinary capital of China with its fiery cuisine which features the spicy Sichuan peppercorn. There are thousands of hot pot restaurants where diners boil their own meat, noodles, and vegetables in a broth saturated with Sichuan peppers and spices. Additionally, the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding is about 20km outside of downtown. The sole purpose of this conservation park is to breed, nurse, and in some cases, release Giant Pandas into the surrounding forests.

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Bottle feeding Giant Panda cub at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Pandas

Long before the gastronomy and panda craze, Chengdu was one of the “Three Kingdoms” that controlled China in the 3rd Century A.D.  Emperor Liu Bei had his palace in Chengdu and ruled what was called the Shu kingdom. His period of rule has been romanticized in important Chinese books and novels as a golden era of great learning, prosperity, and cultural exchange. Contemporary Chengdu is filled with construction cranes, huge buildings, and the city is connected by a  “flyover” highway where cars whiz above the city without the bother of traffic lights. A few key historical sights in Chengdu include the old district (called Jinli), the Tibetan quarter filled with raucous snooker halls, the Wuhou Shrine (Liu Bei’s burial mound), and Wenshu Monastery (originally called “Xin Xiang Temple”) — the oldest and best preserved Buddhist monastery in Chengdu.

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The Thousand Buddha Pagoda – Wenshu Temple

Wenshu Temple was built sometime in the 6th Century A.D. during the rule of Emperor Wendi of the Sui dynasty.  It is a large complex with multiple buildings and prayer halls. The most arresting feature of the temple is the Thousand Buddha Pagoda in the courtyard. In the 19th century, a well-known Chinese monk who had studied at Bodh Gaya in India brought back a fingerbone relic that is now thought to be enshrined inside the Pagoda.

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The Ten-Faced Puxian stupa at the Golden Summit – Mt. Emei, Sichuan province, China (2012)

Given Chengdu’s geographic location on the western frontier of China, it served as a natural corridor for the arrival of Buddhism into China. Buddhism is an alien religion in China. Confucianism and Taoism were long entrenched as the dominant philosophical and religious schools of thought before Buddhism began to spread from the Himalayas and deserts in the West to the populated Chinese regions in the East. About a 2-hour drive south of Chengdu is perhaps the exact location where Buddhism first took hold in China — Mt. Emei (Emeishan). This mountain is one of the “4 Sacred Mountains of Chinese Buddhism” and is where the Buddhist monk, Samantabhadra (called Puxian by the Chinese), first arrived on the back of a white elephant with 6 tusks. Puxian taught in the Mahayana Buddhist school and is viewed today as a Bodhisattva associated with meditation and spiritual practice.  The first Buddhist temple in China was built on the slopes of Emeishan in the 1st Century A.D. The entire Emeishan region is a UNESCO site and there is a lot to see. My goal was to reach the “Golden Summit” and visit the key temple complexes that dotted the mountain. From Mt. Emei, I wanted to travel about 35km east to see the largest pre-modern statue in the world which was an ancient Giant Buddha carved into a riverside cliff.  Because of the tricky overland travel and the non-existence of English in West China, I decided to hire an English-speaking guide and driver in Chengdu who would take care of the logistics for getting to all these sites.

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Walking up the icy steps towards the cable car station at Mt. Emei

It was late November and an early winter chill was in full effect at the base of Mt. Emei where we purchased admission tickets for a cable car that would take us up to the Golden Summit. The journey to the cable car station itself required a combination of riding a shuttle bus, walking up steep stairways, and being on the lookout for hyperactive Tibetan macaques. Going up these stairways was treacherous given the ice and people were buying special shoe covers from eager vendors in order to walk safely. There are over 30 Buddhist monasteries and temples spread around Mt. Emei from its base (Baoguo Monastery), mid-mountain (Wannian Monastery), and top (Golden Temple, Silver Temple). Of all of these, Wannian Monastery is one of the oldest and most eye-popping in its aesthetic and impact.

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The yellow Beamless Brick Hall of the Wannian Temple complex – Mt. Emei

In keeping with the traditional layout of Mahayana Buddhist monasteries, the Wannian Monastery consists of multiple buildings which include an entry gate, prayer halls dedicated to the Buddha and Maitreya (Future Buddha), drum & bell towers, assembly pavilions, library rooms, and monk dormitories. The most unique of these buildings is the “Beamless Brick Hall” which one cannot miss due to its yellow color and dome. There are no wooden supports or pillars inside this building which is constructed by brick and is likely based on stupa and dagoba designs found in India and Sri Lanka. Directly underneath the dome is an astounding bronze statue of Puxian that was cast in the 10 Century A.D.  Puxian is holding a teaching scepter and sits in a lotus flower that rests atop a 6-tusk white elephant. The statue is over 7 meters/24ft high and is the absolute focal point of all activity inside.

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Underneath the dome of the Beamless Brick Hall

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Bronze statue of Puxian from 10th Century A.D. – Wannian Monastery

When I tried to walk around the elephant in order to observe the statue from different vantage points, I noticed a group of Chinese individuals who were taking turns rubbing one of the back legs of the elephant. I could only interpret this as some kind of good luck tradition and noticed that the rubbed area of the elephant’s leg had eroded and was black. From Wannian Monastery, a shuttle took us further up the mountain to Jieyin Monastery which sits at an elevation of 2,540 meters. From there, we walked up another stairway to the cable car station. At this elevation, visibility was extremely limited due to thick clouds and fog. As the cable car started its way up, I braced myself for the probable disappointment that the Golden Summit itself would be completely encased in suffocating cloud cover.

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Above the “sea of clouds” with the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple in the distance – Mt. Emei

The cable car neared the summit within about 6 or 7 minutes and as it emerged out of the thick clouds, incredibly, my face was met by warm sunlight and I saw nothing but blue skies. The elevation of the “Jinding” (Golden Summit) of Mt. Emei is just above 3,000m (10,000ft) and in the distance way above the sea of clouds it is possible to see the tallest mountain in Sichuan, Mount Gongga (over 7,550 meters/nearly 25,000ft). As I began walking towards the main platform of the Golden Summit, I had to shield my eyes from the blinding golden temples and pavillions that were coming into view.  The summit platform itself was a fanatical sight of white elephants carrying the Dharma wheel on their backs, white trees, and in the center, a looming, frosted gold vision: the “Ten-Faced Puxian” stupa. 

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Walking towards the “Ten-Faced Puxian” stupa at the Golden Summit

The Ten-Faced Puxian stupa was built in 2006 and is 48 meters/127ft tall. Despite its recent vintage, there’s something magical about this statue. Perhaps the frost and passing mist that I saw around the statue added to its spectral quality, but I had never seen a stupa crowned with such a dynamic statue and was mesmerized. It was hard to pull my eyes away. At the base of the stupa, there was a doorway and when I walked inside I saw a statue of the Maitreya fronted by an altar area for prayer and offerings. The “Ten Faces” of Puxian represent the 10 virtues of truth that Puxian taught during his life.  Alongside the stupa are the Golden Temple and Silver Temple, and hanging on a cliff in the distance, is the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple.

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The Golden Temple & Ten-Faced Puxian stupa

After spending about an hour wandering the Golden Summit and marveling at the perfect blanket of clouds below, we made our way back to the cable car and descended down the mountain. My driver then drove us east for about an hour until we reached another UNESCO site — the Leshan Giant Buddha (called “Da Fo”).  While the Ten-Faced Puxian stupa is a masterwork of modern design, the Leshan Giant Buddha is probably the most stupefying single statue of the ancient world.

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Riverside view of the Leshan Giant Buddha – Sichuan province, China (2012)

This statue was built in 8th Century A.D. and is 71 meters/233ft high. I first viewed this colossus from a boat which takes visitors across an intersection of rivers to a waiting area directly in front of the Giant Buddha. Today, the rivers are tranquil, but 1,300 years ago, there were 3 mighty rivers that merged in the same spot and due to their whitewater rapids and rocks, boats were routinely tossed and thrashed like rag dolls. It was because of these concerns that a local Buddhist monk named Hai Tong began his quest to build a guardian statue that would be blessed and serve to calm the wild waters. He spent 20 years of his life trying to raise money for his project and was rebuffed at every turn until he finally gouged out one of his eyes in dramatic protest. Apparently, this desperate act did the trick and money for the project quickly poured in from regents and locals. Construction started in 723 A.D., and although Hai Tong died before the project was completed, his disciples faithfully carried out his wishes until the statue was finished in 803 A.D.

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Statue of Hai Tong and entrance to the spartan cave he lived in during construction of “Da Fo”

The entire Giant Buddha statue is made of stone except for the ears which are built from wood and clay was used to fuse the large head to the torso.  At one point, the statue had a roof over it to protect it from the weather and other elements, but this feature was destroyed long ago. The statue is thought to represent the Maitreya (the future Buddha), and alongside it are other smaller stone statues, tombs, the remains of an old temple, and a few pagodas perched on the surrounding hilltops.

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Eye-to-eye with the Leshan Giant Buddha

After our boat turned back to the dock, we drove across a bridge and arrived at the official entrance to the Leshan Giant Buddha where we purchased our tickets. The visit to the Leshan Giant Buddha starts from the top where the statue’s head rises just above the cliff plateau. From there, one must patiently and carefully walk down the “Nine-Turn Cliff” to get to the bottom of the statue. Signs in Chinese and English are posted warning visitors who suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, or “old-age” not to walk down the Nine-Turn Cliff.

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Carefully descending the Nine-Turn Cliff

On my way down the Nine-Turn Cliff, it became immediately clear why the need for the warning. The stairway is steep and the railing that separates you from a likely lethal fall is not very high. To complicate things, people are haphazardly stopping all along the way to snap photos, rest, or chit-chat, so you have to be on high-alert for human traffic jams and not bump into the person ahead of you.  It is also difficult to pass slow-pokes given the narrow stairway. If someone twists an ankle or gets a panic attack and needs to turn around and walk upstream against the slog of people coming down, this could trigger a nightmare scenario of being temporarily stuck.

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Offering a prayer at the foot of the Leshan Giant Buddha

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A colossus

When I reached the bottom, I walked behind a large incense urn and kneeling area and stared up. This statue was constructed in only 80 years over 1,300 years ago. That seemed inexplicably fast to me. I could see lush bushes and vines growing out of certain areas of the statue (I learned later that every few years Chinese officials undertake the painstaking effort of removing all this greenery which always grows back). This symbiotic relationship between the Giant Buddha and the vegetation that sprouts out of it reminded me of large whales that have barnacles attached to them. These bushes that had managed to take root in the statue made the statue appear alive and sentient. Then, I had a funny thought that the Leshan Giant Buddha was not just the world’s largest pre-modern statue, but also the world’s largest Chia Pet!

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The climb back up

After viewing the Giant Buddha from below, I had to go back up through another stairway on the opposite cliffside. The walk up was very slow and claustrophobic in certain places given the tight tunnel-like switch-backs dug into the cliffside. As I climbed higher and looked down at the river below, I could see it was shallow with sediment piled up in certain places. Interestingly, this sediment was all the result of the construction of the Giant Buddha. All of the silt, rocks, and other sludge which had been removed from the cliff in order to carve the statue were not carted away or transported elsewhere for other uses. Instead, all of this excavated cliffside debris simply fell into the wild rivers below, and gradually, the rivers were reshaped and the once raging rapids ceased. So, the Giant ultimately accomplished what Hai Tong had sought long ago — it had calmed the rivers.

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A final look on the way out

The Hammer & Chisel

17 Jan
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Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra state, India (2014)

Legend has it that in the early-19th century an English hunting party (chasing tigers, of course) was treading through the thick brush above the Waghura river in central India, and when peering at the gorge in front of them, saw what appeared to be openings in the cliff face. The group then maneuvered its way down and was met by a local boy who guided them into one of the openings in the cliff face where magnificent Buddhist rock carvings and wall paintings emerged. We know this story actually took place because Captain John Smith who was part of the hunting party carved his name and date in one of the colorful murals in the large temple cave now known as “Cave No. 10”.  Smith’s name is still visible today with a piece of clear plastic protecting it from people who may want to scrawl their initials or names over it.

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Cave No. 10 (200 B.C.) – Ajanta

It is hard to provide appropriate context for the immense size and head-scratching impact of Ajanta. There are about 30 caves of Buddhist worship tunneled into sheer rock. The rock itself is a type of basalt that has volcanic origins. It is near black in color and hard to the touch. Beginning in 200 B.C. and continuing through the 7th Century A.D., the Buddhist monks and their followers in the area took on the herculean task of patiently hammering, chiseling, and removing debris, and then repeating this manual process for what must have felt like an eternity. Their tools may have evolved slightly between each generation who took over the work, but the human hands powering these tools did not change. Just hands, no machines. That was it. But, the power of their beliefs and focus on creating ever-lasting temples in stone must have allowed for a divine hand to propel their backbreaking daily toil. These stone crafters not only created open spaces that would fill with outside light and serve as large prayer or assembly rooms, but also strategically left other portions of the interior rocks intact for specific sculptural, decorative, or structural purposes. In addition to all of this, highly skilled artisans painted murals on the sides of the cave walls depicting scenes of the Buddha’s life and filled the roofs with geometric patterns, floral motifs, and other symbols. Each cave was designed like its own Sistine Chapel.

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Interior ceiling – Ajanta Cave No. 2

I ducked in and out of all the caves of Ajanta and each one had its own unique elements. While many of the murals and ceilings have decayed and vanished, most of the rock sculptures are in fairly good condition.

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Interior ceiling with floral motif

In one of the smaller caves, I was pondering a particularly beautiful stone Buddha in the teaching mudra pose (dharmachakra) and I noticed something. At first I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. I was in a dark area near the back of the cave and there were a few electrical lights on the floor which illuminated the Buddha. These lights appeared to cast shadows around certain features of the statue. I gazed intently at what the totality of the shadows created which was a perfect outline of a bell-shaped Buddhist stupa. I was dumbstruck and did a double-take. The outline of the stupa was unmistakable. I couldn’t believe it. Was this just a coincidence? Or did the monks who sculpted this Buddha statue (and others like it in the other caves) know that when the sun sat in the right spot in the horizon and its light poured through a specific cave window, the Buddha would reveal a secret — the hidden stupa?

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The shadow outline of a bell-shaped stupa is revealed

The stupa’s bell-shaped design is thought to have been based on the shape of ancient burial mounds, and similar to a burial mound, the stupa’s purpose was to serve as a ceremonial monument that was to enshrine a sacred relic (usually connected to the Buddha himself). I remember reading something about precise dimensions always being used to build stupas in India and Sri Lanka and those dimensions had some correlation with the design of Buddha images. But, I had never heard of this interplay between a Buddha image being engineered in a way that would allow a hidden stupa to be formed by the shadows cast off from its design.  I wanted to ask someone about this, but I’ve kept the moment to myself until now. I‘m sure what I saw was no random accident. I’ve seen and read enough at this point in my life where I no longer underestimate the ingenuity of earlier generations who understood the natural world and knew how to work in concert with it.

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Cave No. 4 – Ajanta

Ajanta represents perhaps the zenith of Buddhism’s artistic and cultural influence in India which was sparked from the time of India’s first Buddhist king, Ashoka, who ruled over most of the subcontinent in the 2nd Century B.C.  Within a few centuries afterwards, Buddhism’s hold in India began to precipitously decline and its teachings transmigrated and diverged as they spread east across the rest of Asia. Interestingly, while no more caves were dug into the gorge at Ajanta after 650 A.D., about 100km away in Ellora, massive new rock temples were being sculpted out of the same kind of basalt rock.  Were these craftsman the last generation of monks and artisans from Ajanta who simply hit the “wall” (so to speak) and decided to pick up and apply their skills to the Ellora site? Having a strong king to sponsor such a move would definitely have helped. And that seems to be the prevailing theory — pointing to King Krishna I, who ruled in the 7th Century A.D. and oversaw the spectacular cutout of massive temples from the hillside rock at Ellora.

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Ellora Cave No. 32 – Maharashtra state, India (2014)

The Ellora caves are not – in key areas – actual tunnels dug into rock face like at Ajanta. Instead, Ellora features a long, sloping embankment of basalt rock where huge temples have been carved out and lay in the open.  The most famous Ellora sights are its Hindu rock temples. Kailash Temple (Ellora Cave No. 16) is the largest single rock temple in the world. Dedicated to the Hindu deity, Shiva, it is a masterpiece of human achievement and throngs of tourists and pilgrims walk around it, climb up its ancient stairs, and lay offerings inside the temple.  There are elephants, bulls, and other Hindu sculptures clustered around an elaborate gateway that leads to the temple which has an antechamber, assembly hall, inner sanctum, and towers.  There are multiple floors and you can walk up the cliff above Kailash Temple and enjoy a viewpoint that shows the temple’s intricate roof with its lion-like statues and mandala-like central piece.

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Kailash Temple (Ellora Cave No. 16) – view from cliff above it

Although Kailash Temple is Ellora’s most commanding sight and must have absorbed most of the time and skill of the craftsmen, the other cave temples are not all similarly Hindu in design and spiritual purpose.  Ellora consists of more than 30 caves or rock temples and there are several Buddhist and Jain caves built alongside one another around the same time as the Hindu temples were created. Ellora is a rockside smorgasbord of these 3 faiths — each born in India with its own distinct thematic artistic flourish and iconography, but all having a shared sense of how to create a sacred place of worship that was both contemplative and functional.

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Kailash Temple

The grandest of the Buddhist caves at Ellora is Cave No. 10 or the “Carpenter’s Cave”. It has at least 2 floors and served as a monastery. The monks’ rooms were carved into the second floor above the prayer hall. The stone “ribs” that make up the roof of the temple are very similar to those in Cave No. 4 at Ajanta, so there must have been shared engineering knowledge between these craftsmen. The large Buddha image in the back center of the main hall is seated in the teaching mudra position and is flanked by two disciples. Rising behind and above this Buddha is a bulbous stupa with some decorative ornamentation encircling it.

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Ellora Cave No. 10 (known as “Carpenter’s Cave”)

When I first walked out of the sunlight and into this cave, my eyes needed a few seconds to adjust to the darkness. When I was able to see inside, I locked eyes with what was clearly a supreme being seated before me. The sense of its power is immediate and concrete.  This may be because of the solid rock that surrounds you which is devoid of any “give”.  In the hard, dank cave one is stripped bare and vulnerable. There is a stark absence of distraction and I don’t recall there being any kind of echo.  The Buddha is not there to judge, but to provide a spiritual focal point. The stupa behind the Buddha represented to me the sacred that is to be unlocked within oneself.  That’s what I felt in the room. I then thought of the heightened spiritual vortex that must have gripped this cave when it was alive with all those monks who had lived there. I imagined them sitting on the cave floor, chanting, meditating, and perhaps even being transported to other spiritual dimensions or worlds.  Maybe that show, “Ancient Aliens”, wasn’t too far off with its theories about who (or what) built these things?

To the Wonder (again)

9 Jul
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Scenes of the Buddha’s life: the teaching of the Dharma at Sarnath & attaining Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya [from the panel behind the Buddha at Jing’an Temple in Shanghai, China] – (2012)

So, I had to get back. And in the week of Christmas 2014, I returned to India, the egg. This time I was arriving in Mumbai.  It had been 5 years since my first trip to the country when I gritted through the drought of parched north India and took a slow train from Delhi to Kolkata. Along the way, I was able to make my first pilgrimage to the sites of Bodh Gaya (where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and awakened as the Buddha) and Sarnath (where the Buddha first turned the wheel of dharma before his disciples in a small deer park near the holy Hindu city of Varanasi). [see posts: “Pilgrimage – Part I” and “Pilgrimage – Part II” at https://startupkoan.com/2012/08/04/pilgrimage-part-i and https://startupkoan.com/2012/08/14/pilgrimage-part-ii%5D.  When I walked outside of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport and made my way to the taxi area — ohhh, that smell. It just took one whiff. Something opened in my mind and transported me to another plane of consciousness.  A mix of ash, dash of incense (like sandalwood), and the warm stench of urine. The smell wafts into your core and the rings of Mumbai’s smog circulate that smell into an orbit around the sprawling cityscape.  Yet, the smell is not repulsive. It is strangely welcoming and familiar– albeit a familiarity that is connected to something  deep and buried in us. Like some primordial chord that gets struck once the odor gets recognized by some vestigial sense receptor in us.  After a 15-hour non-stop flight from the United States, I was suddenly alive with wonder. The plan was this: 2 weeks to take a train from Mumbai to Aurangabad to see the 1500 year old rock caves carved in the gorge of Ajanta and hills of Ellora during Buddhism’s zenith in India. From Aurangabad, I would fly back to Mumbai and hop on a connecting flight to Goa.  I wasn’t interested in the beaches or hanging out with Russian tourists there– Christmas in Goa would be something special, but I had no idea I would come to face to face with the 550 year old body of St. Francis Xavier while I was there.

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Sunset over Haji Ali Darga Mosque – Mumbai, India (2014)

Mumbai itself does not have much by way of historical Buddhist temples or structures. It is dominated by Hindu religious fervor, but there is a sizable community of Muslims, as well as Parsis (Zoroastrians), in the city. A good chunk of today’s Mumbai consists of reclaimed land where former islands were brought together to form one landmass by the Portuguese during the 16th century.  One of the most memorable sights is the Haji Ali Darga Mosque that sits out in the Arabian Sea near the Worli neighborhood of Mumbai. Like Mont St. Michel in medieval France, this religious shrine becomes an island when the water rises at high tide and covers the stone walkway that leads to it.  The shrine was built to house the coffin of Haji Ali who died as he was returning from Mecca — his coffin somehow fell off the ship transporting his body to India and was found floating in the sea. The shrine was then built at the location where the coffin was recovered.

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Vipassana Pagoda – Gorai (Mumbai) (2014)

The one interesting Buddhist structure in Mumbai that I visited was the Global Vipassana Pagoda way out in the north of Mumbai.  The construction of this pagoda and its meditation hall began in 2009 and there was still some work remaining in order to finish the project when I saw it. The pagoda itself is a copy of the Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). [see post: “Enter the Pagoda” at https://startupkoan.com/2013/06/21/enter-the-pagoda%5D. Inside the pagoda there is a huge empty space — a space that is framed by one of the largest interior domes in the world.

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Interior dome – Vipassana Pagoda

What caught my eye as I walked around a plexiglass area for visitors to peer inside the dome was a photograph showing what appeared to be pearls, but what were actually relics of the Buddha — pieces of bone that had transformed into shiny small balls.  These relics had been placed into a ceremonial vessel that was then interred inside the Vipassana Pagoda.

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Photo inside Pagoda showing relics of Buddha

The English messaging on the photo had me scratching my head: “most of the bone relics turn into this shape“. I had seen bone relics before such as at the Botataung Pagoda in Burma [see post: “Bones of Reverence” at https://startupkoan.com/2013/04/11/bones-of-reverance%5D, and these relics had not taken the shape of pearl-like shiny balls. I had also witnessed cremations in India and Nepal and it was hard to believe that human bones would form such shapes after being burned.  But, even if the messaging on the photo was simply an inaccurate English translation, India is more magic than logic. It is a land where ancient custom and ritual butt up against Bollywood and technology, so one must try to make sense of it all.  When I found myself in an old Goan cathedral a week later, I would see the 550 year old body of St. Francis Xavier at rest in a glass coffin. I saw little decay.  Instead of a human skeleton, I saw a fleshy black corpse with hair on its head, fingernails, toenails, eyeballs, and teeth all intact.  So, if without any mummification, the Saint’s body had been miraculously preserved — why couldn’t some of the bones of the Buddha turn into pearl-like balls after his cremation?

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Train to Aurangabad

While I was a bit hesitant to travel by train (2nd class coach) again in India after my last experience years earlier, I went ahead and bought a train ticket from Mumbai to Aurangabad.  The train left in the early afternoon and took about 7 hours. I ended up sitting next to a professor who entertained me with various YouTube videos that discussed conspiracy theories of terrorists plotting to attack India and the West. Of course, I was well aware of the siege of Mumbai that had taken place in 2008 by an Islamic fundamentalist group from Pakistan who entered the city by boat and attacked Mumbai’s landmark Taj Mahal palace and other buildings. So, I did not feel it was my place to point out some of the preposterous statements in the videos he showed me. I was rewarded for this because when our train arrived in Aurangabad the professor told me he was being picked up in a car and could drop me off at my hotel.  I took one look at the dusty torn up state of the Aurangabad train station and the void I had entered. There were no signs, lights, or any viable exit from the chaos of vendors, tuk-tuks, and tangle of bodies and bags around me. I eagerly said yes and jumped into the backseat of his car.

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Dreams of Ajanta – (Maharashtra state, India)

Excitement gripped me that first night in Aurangabad as I knew I would be seeing the legendary Ajanta caves the next day.  I had once seen an “Ancient Aliens” episode on the History 2 channel in the States — where the theory of “ancient astronauts” with advanced tools had dug and carved these otherworldly shrine caves into the black stone of Ajanta. I was hooked and had to see these for myself. So, here I was.

Dynasty Lost (and Found again)

25 Jan

On my last day in Yangon, I went back to the Schwedagon Pagoda and sat in contemplation of all the history it has stood witness to one last time. I then gathered myself and wheeled around exiting from its South Entrance. I headed down the hill and followed some general directions I had found on the internet that would lead me to the site I was looking for: the tomb of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II.

The Red Fort - Delhi, India (2009)

The Red Fort – Delhi, India (2009)

I had learned about Bahadur Shah a few years earlier during a trip to India. It was a story that gripped me– this was the 17th Emperor of the Mughal Dynasty. The end of the line of 3 centuries of a Dynasty that had begun with Babur the Great who was a descendant of Tamerlane and claimed ancestry with Genghis Khan. The dynastic lineage he spawned would include Humayon, Akbar the Great, and Shah Jahan — who built the Taj Mahal. Babur was laid to rest in what today is Kabul in Afghanistan. Nearly all the other Mughal kings were buried in magnificent mausoleums sprinkled around Delhi, Agra, Fatehpour Sikri, and other areas of North India. Yet, the last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, had died in 1862 in Rangoon and was virtually forgotten until 1991. The British had removed him from his palace in the Red Fort in Delhi because of his part in the Indian rebellion or “mutiny” of 1857. At the time, the British East India Company had already begun what was to be their long-term occupation of India which initially began as a trading outpost and then morphed into a military colonizing force stretching from Calcutta down to Madras, across to Bombay, and up to Delhi. A band of Indians who could see the handwriting on the wall if these British forces continued their entrenchment in the region attempted to overthrow the British provisional government and troops who were in Delhi. The leaders of this group approached and enlisted the help of Bahadur Shah and although he had extremely diminished power and extended little influence outside of the walls of the Red Fort, he still wielded a symbolic appeal that could be used to rally the people under the banner of getting rid of a foreign occupier. The results of the uprising were catastrophic. The British crushed the rebellion and killed two of Bahadur Shah’s sons who had participated in the skirmishes. The British general presented Bahadur Shah with each of his son’s heads afterwards. After a 40-day trial in which the British “proved” Bahadur Shah’s role in the mutiny, he was convicted of various conspiratorial charges and treason and sentenced to exile in Rangoon where the British had set up another outpost. In 1858, Bahadur Shah and his wife marched with what was left of the royal court east from Delhi to Rangoon.

Stone Marker found near Bahadur Shah's tomb

Stone Marker found near Bahadur Shah’s tomb

He died in Rangoon 4 years later at the age of 87. He was buried on the same day of his death by the British. His grave was lost until 1991 when during excavation of a road just below the Schwedagon, Burmese construction workers hit a brick-lined structure that upon further investigation turned out to hold Bahadur Shah’s coffin. They also found a stone marker written in English, Urdu, and Burmese that made reference to the “Ex-King of Delhi” being buried near this spot. In his years of exile, Bahadur Shah wrote poetry, created beautiful calligraphy, translated Sufi texts, and reflected on his long life. He was acutely aware of what it would mean to die in exile as the last Mughal Emperor. In one of his final poems, he wrote the following (as has been translated into English), “Poor Zafar! Not even two yards of land were to be had, in the land of his beloved”.

Mausoleum of Humayon - Delhi, India

Mausoleum of Humayon – Delhi, India (2009)

While his ancestors such as Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan, and others are still remembered and their mortal remains lay in some of the most incredible monuments ever built, Bahadur Shah was hastily buried in a shallow grave in a foreign land. The pages of history quickly swept by him. His descendants would fade into obscurity [a news article some years ago wrote of the existence of some of his descendants who are now apparently paupers in Kolkata – begging for money in train stations]. Yet, something interesting happened after Bahadur Shah’s grave was rediscovered in Yangon.

Taj Mahal (Shah Jahan's Mausoleum) - Agra, India

Taj Mahal (Shah Jahan’s Mausoleum) – Agra, India (2009)

The Indian government assisted the Burmese in creating a shrine for the king, and this compound also includes the tombs of his wife and daughter whose graves were found nearby. As renewed interest in Bahadur Shah and his life caught on, people began to pay attention to his writings and commentaries were published about his poems, his translations of important Sufi texts, and other works.

Mausoleum of Akbar - Fatehpour Sikri, India

Mausoleum of Akbar – Fatehpour Sikri, India (2009)

Shrine of Bahadur Shah II

Shrine of Bahadur Shah II – Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) (2011)

When I arrived at his shrine, I was amazed by how many people were there. I thought maybe there would be just a few caretakers and I would be the only visitor. But, there were many people of all ages streaming in and out of the shrine. Some were having picnic lunches in the prayer hall, and others were sitting around the tombs of Bahadur Shah and his wife praying and socializing. These people were all also Muslims. I saw an immediate parallel between their devoutness at Bahadur Shah’s shrine and the Buddhist centrifugal pull of the Schwedagon Pagoda just up the road.

Tomb of Bahadur Shah

Tomb of Bahadur Shah

In watching the people at his shrine, it struck me that these people did not come here to pay tribute to Bahadur Shah because he happened to simply be the titular “last Mughal”, but rather because they held a saint-like esteem for him and his accomplishments as a poet and dervish.DSCN3102 His shrine emanated its own sacred energy within the shadow of the Schwedagon Pagoda.

Two and half a years after my trip to Myanmar, the country has definitely changed. Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, and instead, is a member of the Burmese parliament. The country has begun to open itself the world community, all political prisoners have allegedly been set free, and the tourist sector in the country is experiencing a boom. This could all be for the best as long as the government and people balance this growth with their traditions and preserve the incredibly legacy and monuments of their country. However, there are concerns about what appear on the surface to be ethnic or religious intolerance and violence — especially in Rakhine state where the Rohingya people  (an ethnic group originally from what is now Bangladesh and who are Muslims) are being persecuted by the Buddhist majority there.  But, what I saw at the shrine of Bahadur Shah shows that the Burmese people can certainly embrace different religious practice in the face of coming socio-economic change.  While his small shrine has none of the grandeur or awe-inspiring design of the mausoleums of his ancestors, it also lacks the museum-like austerity of those shrines.  Instead, Bahadur Shah’s shrine is alive and provides a peaceful site of contemplation and community for a Burmese religious minority. It is a refuge — and that’s perhaps more of an enduring legacy than that of any other Mughal Emperor.

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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