Tag Archives: Mt. Meru

Pra Bang Man

16 Nov
Wat Phabang, Luang Prabang - Laos (20140

Wat Phabang, Luang Prabang – Laos (2014)

The origin of its name — Luang Prabang — is attributable to a small 1-meter high statue called the “Pra Bang”.  The Pra Bang is the most revered Buddha image in Laos and is thought to have been cast in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BC. The image shows the Buddha in the “double abhaya” mudra [see Laos Calling at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Ik%5D and was given as a wedding present to the Lane Xang King, Fa Ngum, by a Khmer King whose daughter King Ngum married in the mid-14th century AD. King Ngum was the first major king of what was to become the Lanna Kingdom and he reigned between 1353 to 1373 AD.  At that time, the Khmer Empire was at its height and Buddhism had been adopted as the new religion of the Khmer replacing Hinduism. King Ngum’s marriage to the Khmer princess was important not only for the purpose of cementing of royal blood lines, but ultimately it served as the ceremonial circumstance that allowed Buddhism to become the official state religion of Laos. The Pra Bang bestowed an immediate legitimacy to King Ngum that he was able to leverage as he further extended his sovereignty and helped push the boundaries of his kingdom.

Sneaky pic of the Pra Bang

Sneaky pic of the Pra Bang

The Pra Bang was kept in the royal palace at Luang Prabang through the centuries and taken out on a few important Buddhist holidays where it was paraded through the streets of the old capital. In 2013, a new temple called Wat Phabang was built solely to house the Pra Bang. The Wat Phabang is located on the grounds of the Royal Palace where the last Lao King, Sisavang Vatthana, resided starting in 1959 after the death of his father (King Sisavang Vong). As Laos became swept up in the socialist fervor and political change which blanketed most of Southeast Asia at the time, the idea of a “king” became untenable and King Vatthana was forced to abdicate and turn the country over to the Pathet Lao in the 1975. The King died a few years later and the Royal Palace was converted to a state museum.

The Royal Palace - Luang Prabang

The Royal Palace – Luang Prabang

When I went to see the Pra Bang at the Wat Phabang, I first walked into the Royal Palace and what I found most interesting was a salon area where various gifts were on display. These gift had been presented to King Vatthana by others leaders and heads of state from around the world as gestures of cultural exchange and goodwill. Most of the gifts represented some indigenous or artistic link to the country that was represented. I found it interesting that the gift from the United States was a couple of fragments of moonrock in small glass capsules along with a metal engraving containing a statement from President Nixon which said something to the effect of: “These pieces of the moon represent the continuing friendship of the U.S. with the Laotian people.”  I walked out of the Royal Palace and headed to Wat Phabang. The Wat Phabang is brand-spanking new and gleams brightly when the sun’s rays hit it. I bounded up the stairs to the opened door of the temple and found a rope blocking entry along with a security guard.  The public is not allowed inside the Wat Phabang and no photos of the Pra Bang are allowed. I craned my neck into the shadowed interior of the temple and could see the Pra Bang standing within an altar.  The familiar double abhaya mudra position of the image was clear. I also noticed that the Pra Bang had what appeared to be a crown on its head. I tried to snap a few photos surreptitiously of the Pra Bang, but it was difficult to capture a clear view of the image. Admittedly, the moment of my face to face with the Pra Bang felt a bit rushed given the fidgety security guard nearby and the other visitors awaiting their turn to stand in the doorway in order to peer at the image.

The procession of the Pra Bang - April 2014 (courtesy of Jason Kittisak)

The procession of the Pra Bang – April 2014 (courtesy of Jason Kittisak)

The next day when I was visiting Wat That Luang (the “Royal Monastery”), I met a young monk named Somchit Kittisak. He had selected “Jason” as his name in English and we struck up a conversation almost from the very moment I parked my bike in the shade of a tree and strolled into Wat That Luang’s grounds. As Jason showed me the inside of Wat That Luang and we walked around the two Thai-styles which flank the temple — one of which is a golden funerary stupa that holds the cremated remains of King Sisavong Vang — I asked him about when the Pra Bang is taken out of its temple and paraded through Luang Prabang. He told me that this ceremony took place in the spring which usually fell on the 18th of April.  On that the day, the Pra Bang is removed from its temple and placed on a carriage which is then pushed through the streets of Luang Prabang to another temple. When it arrives at the designated temple, select monks from around Luang Prabang are vested with the right to pour water on the image and perform other rites. After the ceremony is finished, the Pra Bang is taken back to Wat Phabang. I have stayed in touch with Jason and he emailed me some photos of the Pra Bang during its last procession. I was excited to see the pics and have a clearer look at the Pra Bang.

Golden funerary stupa at Wat That Luang

Golden funerary stupa at Wat That Luang

Interestingly, as Jason and I discussed the Pra Bang ceremony, he brought up the “Burning Man” festival in the United States and asked me about it.  I never in my wildest dreams would have thought about the parallels between the Pra Bang parade and the Burning Man spectacle that takes place every August in the northern Nevada desert. I first laughed when Jason brought it up. But, then I thought about it some and said that at the very first Burning Man there may have been the same kind of spiritual force or energy that was similar to the effect the Pra Bang has in Laos when it is carried through the streets accompanied by pageantry and the public comes out en masse to see it.

Stenciled door panel at Wat That Luang

Stenciled door panel at Wat That Luang

But, I wasn’t sure what Burning Man represented now since all I had heard was that with each passing year it had  become more extravagant and “VIP”-oriented and it was no longer something that interested me. So, I had tuned it out. But, it was fascinating to see that in far off Luang Prabang a young monk like Jason had heard about Burning Man and wondered how it might represent the same kind of spiritual energy that he understood.

Wat Xieng Thong

Wat Xieng Thong

Aside from the Pra Bang, the most important site in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong (Temple of the Golden City). This temple was built by King Setthathirath in 1560 and there are many small chapels and other buildings — including a funerary temple and a temple that houses a golden carriage that was once used to carry the Lao Kings — found on its grounds. Everything about Wat Xieng Thong — its broad wooden flanks, bright green naga-style roof points, pillars, glass mosaics, red, gold & black coloring, and interior hall (or sim) — are wondrous.  But, perhaps, the most beautiful aspect of Wat Xieng Thong are the well-preserved Laotian stencil designs that are found all along its pillars, panels, exteriors, and interiors.

Stencils and design of Wat Xieng Thong

Stencils and design of Wat Xieng Thong

This stencil design process — called “mak mak” in Lao shorthand — is unique to Laotian arts and not something I’ve seen elsewhere in Buddhist religious imagery. There are a few shops in Luang Prabang which offer classes to foreigners who want to learn the Lao stencil process.  The stencilwork around Wat Xieng is over 400 years old — some patterns are infinitely intricate while others are straight representations of Buddhist iconography.

Main altar inside Wat Xieng Thong

Main altar inside Wat Xieng Thong

Inside the main hall of Wat Xieng Thong is a seated Buddha flanked by 4 standing Buddhas with 6 smaller seated Buddhas placed in front of it. There are red circular wooden pillars which frame the central Buddha. Each pillar is detailed with intricate gold stencil designs, patterns, and images of the Buddha. One cannot walk behind the main seated Buddha because it sits up against the far wall of the temple. There is some space to the 2 sides of the altar area where one can walk through in order to see the Buddha from a side view. Off to the left-hand side of the Buddha, there is a replica of the Pra Bang that stands within its own altar.

Mak Mak

Exterior stencilwork – Wat Xieng Thong

The back of Wat Xieng Thong has a lush mosaic piece referred to as “Tree of Life” which was created in 1964 — as part of commemorations in Luang Prabang of the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s attainment of Enlightenment.

Tree of Life mosaic - Wat Xieng Thong

Tree of Life mosaic – Wat Xieng Thong

The “Tree of Life” mosaic is seamless in the way that it integrates with the centuries old stencil designs which predated it. The mosaic elements of the Tree are so close in their look and feel to the stencil design elements of Wat Xieng Thong it is as if the 2 had been crafted by the same artisans at the same time. There are other glass mosaics found on the smaller chapels which sit on the grounds of Wat Xieng Thong. These mosaics depict scenes from the life of the Buddha, elephants, animals, and scenes of everyday life during Luang Prabang’s heyday as capital of the country. One of the chapels surrounding Wat Xieng Thong is called the “Red Chapel” or “Sanctuary of the Reclining Buddha”. Inside this chapel is a bronze Buddha statue in the reclining pose the Buddha assumed before his death. Only 1 or 2 people can enter this chapel at a time because it is very small and there is little standing room inside.

The "Red Chapel" / "Sanctuary of the Recliningg Buddha" on the left

The “Red Chapel” / “Sanctuary of the Reclining Buddha” on the left

Everyone must remove their shoes before entering and once inside the chapel it is better to sit down and absorb the windowless interior which is bright red and filled with hundreds of small gold Buddha statues. At the back of the temple is where the reclining Buddha image lies. Its central position in such a cramped space effectively commands one’s attention. There is no escaping the flowing beauty and almost haughty vibe of this image. The Buddha appears languid and bored through his facial expression and the manner in which his hand props up his head. The image also has an obsidian-like dark coloring and smoothness that enhances this “ice prince” effect.

The reclining Buddha in the Red Chapel at Wat Xieng Thong

The reclining Buddha in the Red Chapel at Wat Xieng Thong

There is an inscription on the statue’s base which states it was created under the instruction of King Setthatirath in what would have been 1569 AD. This image was at one point whisked away by the French who had on it display in Paris in the 1930s and then it was transferred to Ha Phreow in Vientiane for some time before being returned to Luang Prabang. The chapel of the reclining Buddha has red and gold coloring and mosaic work on its outside, and it stands out from the other chapels that dot the grounds of Wat Xieng Thong.

"Do Sa Fan" roof centerpiece - Wat Xieng Thong

“Dok So Fa” roof centerpiece – Wat Xieng Thong

When viewed from afar, the 7-tiered roof of Wat Xieng Thong is easy to see. The first tier is slung so low that it appears at first glance to nearly touch the ground. As your eyes follow each tier up above ibe another until you get to the final tier a final artistic flourish awaits. Located right in the center of Wat Xieng Thong’s last roof beam is the “dok so fa” — which can be translated from Lao to English as “jutting outward to the sky”. This decorative piece is meant to represent the Buddhist universe. At Wat Xieng Thong, there are multiple individual spires that cascade upward from the left and right side up to a center spire that stands above all the rest. This central spire represents the sacred mountain of Mt. Meru and the other spires below it show the rest of the universe as they come into and go out of existence through infinity.

Dok Sa Fa of Wat Maha That

Dok So Fa of Wat Maha That

I saw another interesting dok so fa at Wat Si Mahatat or Wat Maha That (the “Monastery of the Stupa”) which is located to the east of Luang Prabang. Wat Maha That was founded by King Setthathirath in 1548 and its dok so fa consists of 15 spires. Each spire is in the shape of a small pagoda similar in style to that of Wat Xieng Thong. This kind of ornamentation in the central roof beams of Lao temples is radically different than the simple roof ornamentation found in Thai temples [see photo of the dok so fa of Wat Si Saket in Vientiane in Laos Calling – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Ik]. When I had met Jason at Wat That Luang, I also asked him about the meaning of the dok so fa. When I pointed to the dok so fa sitting on top of Wat That Luang and asked him about Mt. Meru, he explained that the representation of the Buddhist universe was just one layer of the dok so fa and that it had a dual meaning. He explained that the moving upwards from each lower spire to the one above it and then ultimately reaching the central and highest spire was also meant to remind the Buddhist practitioner of the path towards attaining Enlightenment. At its core, the Buddha’s teaching to his followers was that the cessation of suffering could occur through maintaining a “Middle Way” and actively using 8 principles in their spiritual practice — one had to invoke the right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. In looking up at the dok so fa at Wat That Luang and counting each spire — whether from the left or right side – each set of spires led upwards to the central spire in 8 steps. The dok so fa was then a reminder to Jason and his fellow monks to follow the principles of spiritual practice that the Buddha taught in order to attain the ultimate goal — Enlightenment. It was incredible to see the convergence between art and spiritual practice through such an ornamentation.  I had only Jason to thank for providing me with that insight.

Post-script: Some months later, Jason sent me a video which provides a snapshot into the monastic life of young monks studying at Pasaviet Temple in Luang Prabang. Please take a look — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8RvVORSvEY&feature=share.  Jason himself appears at the beginning and strikes the call to prayer bell. The chanting is rich and billows out in waves of purity…

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Laos Calling

8 Sep
Young Laotian Monks looking over the Mekong - Vientiane, Laos (2014)

Young Monks looking over the Mekong – Vientiane, Laos (2014)

Laos is a landlocked country sandwiched between China and Vietnam on one side, and Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia on the other. The center of the country is mountainous with huge karst stone formations shooting out of the earth. There are various rivers intersecting the country from the north to the south and east to the west — the most important of which is the Mekong. In addition to its role in moving people and goods around the country and beyond, the Mekong holds an important position in the Lao national identity because it separates the Laotian capital of Vientiane (or Vieng Chang – translated as the “City of Sandalwood”) from the north-central border of Thailand. So, this river is like a moat and has insulated and defined the borders of those city-state kingdoms which have vied for power in the region throughout the centuries. The Lanna Kingdom was the largest of these regional powers and it dominated a good chunk of north-central Southeast Asia for over 200 years. At its zenith, this kingdom stretched from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai (which are part of Thailand today) north up to Luang Prabang (the oldest and first capital of Laos). Luang Prabang is today one of the best preserved and temple rich cities in all of Asia. During its time as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Buddhism flourished and a unique Laotian style of artwork employing stencil and mosaic designs was created. But, the same geographic features of Luang Prabang which allowed it to be insulated and free from destruction at the hands of foreign invaders were ultimately the reasons that led to its unseating as capital. The city is like an island that is cut off by the confluence of both the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers from the rest of mountainous terrain around it. Thus, any foreign army that wanted to imprison the Lanna King simply had to surround the city by stationing troops on the 2 main sides of the rivers’ embankments and then block the one overland escape route out of the city. It was because of this vulnerability that King Chaiyasetthathirat (or King Setthatirath) decided in the 1560s to move his capital from Luang Prabang to the southern city of Vientiane.

Ha Phreow - Front facade

Ha Phreow – Front facade

One of King Setthatirath’s first acts at his new capital was to build a temple specifically for the purpose of enshrining the Emerald Buddha. This temple was called Ha Phreow and the Emerald Buddha resided there for the next 215 years until 1778 when a Thai general by the name of Chao Phra Chakri (who would become King Rama I of Thailand) stormed across the Mekong River with his army and captured Vientiane. The Emerald Buddha was carried out of Ha Phreow and taken to where it is now housed in a temple in Bangkok [See previous post for history of the Emerald Buddha: “The Jewel of the Chao Phraya” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-DJ%5D. Ha Phreow was later burned down by another Thai ransacking of Vientiane in the 1820s and was then rebuilt by the French in the 1920s. Today, the inside of Ha Phreow rings a bit hollow because the Emerald Buddha is not there, however, there are a some finely detailed Buddha bronze and stone images located in the front of the temple entrance and other images are placed along the temple’s sides.

Stone Buddha image in double abhaya mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “double abhaya” mudra – Ha Phreow

Most of these Buddha images are about 3/4 the average human size and I found three of them particularly interesting because of their unique mudras. All three images showed the Buddha standing with a cape-like robe and were dark in appearance. The first depicted the Buddha with his hands pointed outward with palms out.  This mudra is known as the “No Fear” or “Don’t Fight” mudra (or the double abhaya mudra). One story credits this gesture to a pose the Buddha used when an elephant charged at him. When the elephant saw the Buddha’s hands push out towards it, the elephant stopped in its tracks and sat down before the Buddha. Other traditions maintain that the Buddha used this gesture in interceding between a conflict between two warring tribes. This mudra has a vaunted position in Laotian Buddhism and one specific image depicting a small standing gold Buddha in the double abhaya mudra is revered above all others in Laos. This image is called the “Pra (or Pha) Bang” Buddha and is thought to have been cast in Sri Lanka in the 1st century AD. It was given as a wedding gift by a Cambodian king to the Lanna king who married his daughter in the 14th century. The Pra Bang Buddha can still be seen in a special temple in the Laotian city that was named after it — Luang Prabang.

Buddha "Calling Rain" mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “Calling Rain” mudra – Ha Phreow

The other statue that caught my eye was one where the Buddha had his two arms stretched at his sides with his hands flexed downwards. This mudra is known as the “Calling Rain” posture, and, as its name suggests, its origin is tied to a story where the Buddha summoned the skies to rain during a time of draught. The third image I gravitated towards was of the Buddha with his hands crossed — not at his chest — but at his abdomen. When I saw this statue, I immediately thought back to the standing Buddha image I had seen a few years before at Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. [See post “The Colossi of Gal Vihara” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-kR%5D.

Buddha "Sorrow of Others" mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “Sorrow of Others” mudra – Ha Phreow

In that particular Gal Vihara image, the Buddha is standing with his hands crossed at his chest, and the prevailing explanation for this mudra is that it is meant to capture the “Sorrow of Others”. But, at Ha Phreow, the statue I saw had the hands crossed at the Buddha’s stomach area. This had a peculiar effect because upon first glance it looks like the Buddha’s hands are cuffed or in chains. But, there are no chains or bindings of any type on this image. Instead, the image gives a feeling of “resignation” — meaning there is an acknowledgment that suffering in the world exists. Because of that feeling, there is thought by many scholars that this gesture of the Buddha’s hands crossed at his lower body is still a type of “contemplative mudra” similar to that of the statue at Gal Vihara. Both images reflect “sympathizing” with the suffering that is in the world and the plight of those afflicted by such suffering.

Aside from building Ha Phreow, King Setthathirath oversaw the construction of many other important temples in Vientiane — one of which was Wat Si Muang (1563). Wat Si Muang has 2 very intriguing aspects to it. First, unlike any other Buddhist temple that I have ever seen, there is a foundation pillar that sits in the main altar of the temple in an elevated position that is usually reserved for a central Buddha image or other Buddhist iconography.

Foundation Pillar - Wat Si Muang, Vientiane

Foundation Pillar – Wat Si Muang, Vientiane

The main altar room of Wat Si Muang is in the rear hall of the temple. A replica of the Emerald Buddha stands before the wall that separates the rear hall from a larger meeting area which is the front room of Wat Si Muang. As I passed  through the front room and my eyes locked on the Emerald Buddha in front of me, the importance of this image to the Laotian faithful became apparent. Although close to 250 years have passed since the Thai forcibly took the image out of Vientiane, the Lao people have not forgotten its importance. I saw photos and other renderings of the Emerald Buddha tacked in other temples and in stores around Vientiane — as if anticipating the return of the Emerald Buddha one day. I walked by the replica and passed through a doorway that led me to the rear hall of Wat Si Muang. This hall was much smaller and jam-packed with images. In front of the main altar was a black wooden stela image of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. This Buddha image was splattered with pieces of gold foil that had been pressed on it by pilgrims and those seeking blessings. Directly above this image on an elevated platform were other Buddha statues and in the middle of these statues was a gold-painted stone pillar which was draped in ceremonial cloth. This pillar is thought to date back to the initial founding of Vientiane itself and legend has it that at the time this pillar was lowered into the ground a pregnant Lao woman by the name of “Nang Si” was compelled to throw herself into the pit where she died.  After the temple was finished, a tradition began where pregnant Lao women came to the temple to ask for special blessings.

Exterior Wat Si Muang / Khmer ruins to the right

Exterior Wat Si Muang / Khmer ruins to the right

The second interesting aspect of Wat Si Muang is that it sits on a site that was formerly part of a Khmer temple or complex. Directly outside of Wat Si Muang’s rear hall are the remnants of crumbling black bricks which at one time may have been shaped in the form of a temple platform. This area has now been turned into a shrine and has various Buddha statues placed around it and the central portion of the ruins has a white cloth wrapped around it. Since the Khmer Empire at its height did stretch into Laos, it is not surprising that the Khmer likely did build temples around Vientiane. (In the lower half of Laos, there is “Wat Pho” which is a large Khmer ruin consisting of scattered buildings and other structures designed in a very similar style as those of the Khmer capital of Angkor.) So, Wat Si Muang may ultimately sit on the site of what was originally a 12th or 13th century Khmer temple and outpost. I am not sure how much archaeological study has taken place at the grounds of Wat Si Muang, but given the “monolith” like foundation pillar and the Khmer brick mound sitting in plain sight, it likely has lots of secrets under the surface which will probably never be unearthed.

Phra Ong Teu Buddha

Phra Ong Teu Buddha

Another temple of interest in Vientiane is the Ong Teu Mahawihan (Temple of the Heavy Buddha). This temple has the distinction of containing the largest Buddha image in all of Vientiane. This image is made of bronze and some other lesser metals and is called the “Phra Ong Teu” Buddha. King Setthathirath built the temple housing the Phra Ong Teu image, and although the temple was destroyed by the Thai in the 1820s, the Buddha image itself survived. Phra Ong Teu sits on top of a high platform and is flanked by 2 standing Buddha images. I was lucky enough to see this Buddha image soon after the temple had been restored. The inside of the temple is incredibly colorful and the lighting used has a magical effect. I wish the same could be said of That Luang which at one time may have been the most impressive Stupa in all the Lanna Kingdom. That Luang was built by King Setthathirath in 1566 for the purpose of enshrining a bone relic of the Buddha. It has a round base that is very reminiscent of other Stupas in the Buddhist world– such as Sanchi in India, Bodhnath in Kathmandu, and certain Dagobas in Sri Lanka. But, its core rises up into a tight spire similar to Burmese-style Pagodas. Unfortunately, That Luang was completely demolished by the Thai. The French began their first attempt to rebuild it starting in the early 20th century, but this reconstruction stalled and limped along until it was finally finished some time in the 1950s. The French for some reason relied on sketches of That Luang made by a Frenchman in the 1860s– which was after That Luang had already been destroyed by the Thai. I have no idea why they would do that. I can only assume that in their colonial haste, the French just wanted to erect something in order to show their good intentions and didn’t want to fuss with the notion that a “Stupa” could be anything more than a physical monument.

That Luang with King Setthathirath statue in front

That Luang with King Setthathirath statue in front

When I first approached That Luang from its southern entrance, it appeared dazzling. It had a similar beacon-like quality as the Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. However, as I got closer the stupa quickly lost its mystery. I could only see large chunks of cement coated in cheap yellow paint. It looked like an armory or missile depository. The outer walls of the stupa had more character than the Stupa itself.  I walked around the Stupa a few times — and absorbed its being from every angle and vantage point. It just did not create the feeling of reverence like other Stupas I had experienced. There was a feeling of stillborn glory and it seemed “forced”.  There were no streams of pilgrims or people circumambulating, praying, or leaving offerings within the shrine areas of the Stupa.

That Luang

That Luang

While perhaps the lack of religious practice at That Luang may be attributable to the Marxist leanings of Lao politics over the last few decades, I also think that it is difficult to breathe the mystical into modern concrete. Sadly, That Luang, Wat Si Muang, and virtually all other temples in Vientiane that King Setthathirath had constructed during his reign (the “golden age” of Laotian history) were destroyed by the Thai in the early 19th century.

Wat Si Saket (1818)

Wat Si Saket (1818)

The oldest surviving temple in Vientiane today is Wat Si Saket which was built in 1818 — over 250 years after King Setthathirath. It is not clear why the Thai spared this temple when they attacked Vientiane in the 1820s. Some historians think that because Wat Si Saket has elements of Thai design, it may have reminded the Thai of their own Wat Saket (the Golden Mount) in Bangkok [See post “Remains of the Wat-age” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-F6%5D. The Thai actually used the grounds of Wat Si Saket as their military compound and their soldiers slept and ate there while waging their siege on Vientiane.

Restored area of wall - Wat Si Saket

Restored area of wall – Wat Si Saket

Wat Si Saket is surrounded by a large square wall with a covered walkway. All along the inside of the wall are triangular alcoves which are filled with thousands of small seated Buddhas. This wall originally was painted with pastel colors of blue and pink and some small sections of the wall have been recently restored showing this vibrant coloring. The inside of Wat Si Saket is actually much smaller than what may think from viewing the exterior of the temple. No photographs are allowed inside the temple because of its delicate state. There are faded murals on its walls and a small altar sits at the back with an old wooden seated Buddha image. I was able to snap a photo of a small portion of one of the temple’s murals through a window while standing outside of the temple, but could not manage a photo of the old Buddha image which was shrouded in darkness from my standing point outside the temple.

Mural inside Wat Si Saket

Mural inside Wat Si Saket

The roof of Wat Si Saket has 5-tiers — each staggered broadly above the other.  Based on what I would see after traveling north to Luang Prabang, I was later able to understand the difference of the roof and overall design of Wat Si Saket as compared to the style of temples that King Setthathirath constructed in the 1500s. In those other temples, the roof is pancaked tight and soars nearly vertically into the sky. The middle sections of the roofs of those temples also have what look like large candelabras on them. These roof elements serve as symbolic representations of sacred Mt. Meru and contain 7 distinct spires — each symbolizing different stages towards enlightenment. The center section of the highest roof of Wat Si Saket only has a reliquary (or small vessel to carry a Buddhist relic or scripture) with 2 phoenix-like birds standing on either side. The reliquary design is very similar to classical Thai design and is almost basic when compared to the elaborate roof elements found on the temples of Luang Prabang.

Roof element - Wat Si Saket

Roof element – Wat Si Saket

My next stop was then Luang Prabang.  I was not planning on flying there from Vientiane. I wanted to take a bus, so that I could see the Laotian landscape. I had heard the drive to Luang Prabang would be slow and consist of grueling mountain stretches, but I was game. It couldn’t be worse than my “massage road” experience in Cambodia… I remember that exact thought as I took a swig from my bottle of Beerlao during my last night in Vientiane. I was watching the sun lower itself behind a bend of the Mekong River. A couple of fishermen were out on their long wooden boats and casting their nets. There was a live band in the restaurant that was singing John Lennon’s version of “Stand By Me”.  Tears trickled down the bridge of my nose — not because of the sights or the song — but because I had ordered some insanely spicy Laotian beef dish. As I felt my lips blister, I took some strange enjoyment out of it. Little did I know how apt that feeling would be in describing my trip the next day.

 

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.

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