Tag Archives: Sinhalese

Mystery and Man at Bagan

22 Oct
Bagan, Burma (2011)

Bagan, Burma (2011)

Bagan, Bagan, Bagan.

Dhammaget Temple (left)

Dhammayangyi Temple (left) – Built in 12th Century

DSCN2366Like a mantra those words cycled in my brain during my 2-hour flight on Air Bagan from Yangon.  When the small plane took off and went above the monsoon blanket above the city and into crystal blue sky, excitement slapped me in the face. Despite the awesomeness of the Schwedagon Pagoda and the Golden Rock, Bagan was going to be the highlight of my trip to Burma. There are places you remember — so massive in impact and experience — that they elude the grasp of words. I spent 3 days pedaling around on a bicycle and basically had the whole archaeological park to myself. That’s not an exaggeration. At the risk of minimizing this spellbinding and enchanting place, let me first provide a few facts about the old Kingdom of Bagan (formerly, Pagan). It was the first true “capital” city of Burma and is located smack in the center of the country. Its central geography and layout alongside the Irrawaddy River allowed for easy access and trade within the country as well as with foreign peoples. From the Gulf of Mottama in the south, Sinhalese sailors were able to steer their boats up the Irrawaddy to Bagan where they stopped  for trade, supplies, and rest. They also brought with them their Theravada faith which spread like wildfire amongst Bagan’s Mon inhabitants. From the west and north, Indian and Chinese merchants came to Bagan and brought with them the Mahayana and Tantric Buddhist schools along with Hindu and Vedic traditions.

Bagan Skyline

Bagan rooftops

Between the 9th and 13th centuries,  Bagan ultimately became the center of Buddhism in the world. Its plains swelled to over 10000 temples and pagodas at its zenith. There were over 3000 monasteries and all Buddhist traditions were represented and studied there alongside traditional Mon religious and folk teachings. No question though that Theravada Buddhism left the most enduring legacy here. Each King who came to rule Bagan during its 500 year reign sponsored the construction of his own set of temples and pagodas.  These temples all rose into the sky with pinprick accuracy in dimension and purpose and featured elaborately designed corridors, stairways, altars, and chambers.  During my drive from the airport, I was whisked through “new” Bagan which was a blur of grey cement buildings and dusty roads where Burmese citizens today live. I then passed through a tree-lined road that led to “old” Bagan — the archaeological park. I was lucky enough to be staying in a bungalow in old Bagan so I would have access to the park as soon as I left the hotel compound. It was 3 days of exploration absorbed through flared nostrils, chapped lips, and bleary eyes. It felt like a safari.  I would get up early, do a bike ride to a different area of the park, walk and climb into and atop temple after temple, and then head back to my hotel at sundown. There were large black scorpions squashed on pathways and huge colonies of bats in some temples. Some gates to temples were locked and others had dark tunnels and passageways that could only be passed through with a flashlight. But, these gave way to secretive frescoes, mosaics, and the most amazing statues of the Buddha “in situ”. That was the best part.

DSCN2241 DSCN2393Within most of the temples in Bagan are multiple statues of the Buddha — each unique in their image and effect and some powerfully set off with electric lights within the dark chambers where they stand or sit. Each face conveys a specific feeling. Somehow these statues had not been stolen away by imperialist or marauding powers and ended up in a faraway museum. They were still here — sitting or standing in the exact spots where they had first been placed. Some may have been falling apart — alabaster coverings gone, paint chipped away, pieces lopped off by earthquake or pillage — but most were largely intact.

Standing Buddha inside Ananda Temple

Standing Buddha inside Ananda Temple

Elephant fresco - Sulamani Temple

Elephant fresco – Sulamani Temple (12th century)

Fresco of nat (Burmese deity) inside Sulamani Temple

Fresco of nat (Burmese deity) inside Sulamani Temple

Only an incredibly devout people could have so carefully chiseled, molded, and gilded these Buddha statues through each passing century of Bagan’s heyday. But, then in the late 13th century, the Mongols swept down into Burma from China and the inhabitants of Bagan had to desert the city and no further temples or pagodas were built there afterwards. Over 2000 temples and pagodas have survived to the present day.

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The Golden Sikhara of Ananda Temple in background

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Bupaya (originally built in 9th century) on the banks of the Irrawaddy River

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Shwezigon Pagoda (11th century)

The lust to see every major temple and pagoda in the park drove me to push myself beyond exhaustion and common sense. I ran out of water at one point and was way out in the north-west reaches of the park where there was absolutely nothing but parched brush-land and remnants of brick structures.  There was no shade in order to ward off the pounding of the sun. There was no trail or path for my bike to take and I had no choice but to walk and carry my bike on my shoulders in some places.  To make matters worse, my bike’s rear tire was flat.  In the distance I saw what appeared to be a modern building — like some kind of watchtower. I thought it was a mirage because there was nothing else around it and it seemed ridiculously out-of-place. As I walked up to it, I looked up in bewilderment. It was indeed a watchtower — complete with an elevator that took you to the top in order to survey the plains of Bagan stretching out below.  I went inside and found a restaurant on the first floor, but there was not a soul there. I paced back and forth and made some noise until one person finally came out to greet me. I bought 3 bottles of water and hydrated myself. This person did not speak English, but I could tell he was amused by the sight of me chugging down the water in breathless gulps. I made it back to my hotel that night with my legs and back annihilated. Yet, I got up the next day and repeated the experience — this time to the far southern area of the park.  I dug deep into every corner of Bagan that I possibly could — spelunking through temple caves, inhaling the musty odors of untouched corridors, and sitting in chamber rooms in quiet contemplation. But, it was not enough.  You cannot condense a 500 year epoch into 3 days on a bike.

Dhammayangyi Temple

Dhammayangyi Temple

The Buddha and the Maitreya inside Dhammayangyi

The Buddha and the Maitreya inside Dhammayangyi

The highlights of my wanderings through the temples and pagodas of Bagan were: Bupaya (the oldest /and smallest pagoda first built in the 9th century – it sits right above the Irrawaddy River and was likely the first consecrated Buddhist site in Bagan);  the Shwezigon Pagoda (which is thought to have served as the template for the design of most other pagodas in Burma);  Dhammayangyi Temple (the largest temple in Bagan — almost Mayan in design and aura); Dhammayazika Pagoda (a compact, faded golden pagoda); Ananda Temple (likely the most glorious temple in Bagan with 4 incredible standing Buddhas inside 4 separate chamber rooms); Thatbyinnyu Temple (tallest structure in Bagan); Sulamani Temple (magical frescoes); and Shwesandaw Pagoda (thought to contain a hair relic of the Buddha).

Ananda Temple

Ananda Temple (12th century)

On the afternoon of the second day, as I was pedaling around and a bit lost, I saw a familiar pyramid-like spire in the distance. When I arrived at the structure, I was surprised to see a very accurate replica of the Mahabodhi Temple found in Bodh Gaya, India. The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya was built in the 5th or 6th centuries and was constructed at the site of the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha had attained Enlightenment. It is perhaps the most important temple in Buddhism. (See “Pilgrimage – Part I” http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-4f). King Htilominlo of Bagan had commissioned the construction of a temple based on the designs and specifications of the Mahabodhi Temple. It was finished in 1218 AD. It was a revelation for me to see that here in Bagan which is many thousands of miles away from Bodh Gaya, the King and his people were able to construct such an accurate replica of the Mahabodhi Temple — about 700 years after the Mahabodhi Temple itself had been built! They did not have the benefit of photographs or the ability to share information and images like we do today with such ease. The King had to have received handwritten sketches and designs of the Mahabodhi Temple which were most likely carried overland from India to Bagan. And then — one hard to actually build the temple based on those sketches and designs.

Mahabodhi Temple (13th century)

Mahabodhi Temple (13th century)

Although the Mahabodhi Temple of Bagan is smaller in size and doesn’t dominate the skyline like the original Mahabodhi, it contains the same intricate square patterns of Buddha engravings that run up the length of each side of the main temple structure in the same way as in the Mahabodhi. I was blown away by the way these people had exchanged ideas in such a progressive manner.

Thatbinnyu Temple

Thatbyinnyu Temple (12th century)

On my last day, I climbed to the top rung of the Shwesandaw Pagoda with wobbly legs, found a flat stone, and sat down waiting for the sunset.  A light wind whistled through the plains and swirled around the pagoda. I looked out toward the north of Bagan and tried to envision how each of the temples that dotted the landscape before me had been built. For 500 years, this place had been the center of the center — a bustling crossroads between India and the Far East. Teeming with monks, buzzing with scholarly debate, and filled with streams of students from all the great Buddhist traditions of the time. Ruled over by Kings and served by a unified populace who must have reached deep with themselves and found the belief that caused them to literally move mountains in order to create temple after temple on these plains.

Shwesandaw Pagoda

Shwesandaw Pagoda (11th century)

Then, it all stopped. The monks and people vanished. The Kings moved south to rule. All that was left were the temples. I slowly scanned the scene before me starting from my far left and moving to my right. I noticed an almost supernatural symmetry in how the temples and pagodas before me were spaced between one another and within the framework of the mountains that bordered these plains.  We often look back at our ancestors of long ago with wonder — but it is sometimes the wonder of disbelief tinged with the presumption of our own superiority.  When we dismiss the accomplishments of our ancestors with questions or statements of “how could they do that” with their “primitive tools” and “lack of technical knowledge or science”, we ultimately shortchange ourselves.  Mankind has always wanted to fundamentally understand the following: Why Are We Here?  What Came Before? and What Comes After?  The quest for answers to these 3 questions has driven us to continue to strive further into the physical and metaphysical — into ourselves, the environment, and space. Yet, despite the modern age and its global connectivity which allows for the passing of knowledge across thousands of miles with a double-click, we are perhaps ultimately no closer today to answering these 3 questions than those Buddhists who had meditated on them through 5 centuries at Bagan. These were centuries similar to mankind’s more recent achievements in the industrial age, and likewise, witnessed the incredible exchange of ideas and concepts between different cultures and culminated in the construction of skyscraping monuments. I gripped the stone beneath me hard.  I wanted the mineral deposits from the stones seeped into my skin and underneath my fingernails. Human hands had built this place. Hands that belonged to a powerful and determined people — moved by something profound.  I wanted to be moved by that as well.

Rangoon Night

12 Mar

City centre neighborhood – Yangon, Myanmar (2011)

I arrived in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma) on a thick and misty summer night in June 2011. Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest and the military junta had not yet begun to relax its grip. On the day before my arrival, a plane carrying the actress, Michelle Yeoh, who was filming a movie (“The Lady”) in which she was starring as Suu Kyi had landed in Yangon. But, Yeoh was not allowed to enter the country and was forced to fly back to Bangkok. Yeoh had wanted to discuss the role and film with Suu Kyi, but the government decided to nix the visit.  It was extremely difficult for any foreign dignitaries or visitors to see Suu Kyi at her house which sat on Inya Lake.  In 2009, a wacked out American who had created makeshift paperboard fins swum the length of that lake to “rescue” Suu Kyi.  His “heroics” instead only succeeded in having Suu Kyi’s house arrest extended by the government. Before coming to Burma, I had screened a documentary called “Burma VJ” about the September 2007 uprisings led by the Buddhist monks and others which had been crushed by the government.  Most of these monks had either been arrested, beaten, and sent to Insein Prison where they were never seen again. Others managed to flee the country to Thailand and elsewhere.  I had heard that solo travelers who came to Burma could expect to get followed by government agents. Even more troubling was that due to all the economic sanctions on the country, one had to travel only with cash — pristine, unmarked U.S. bills to be exact. There was no way to wire money into the country or to use credit cards.  There were two currency exchange conversion rates — one was set by the Myanmar government and arbitrarily computed — and the other was set by the black market — which could only be found in the back alleys of street markets, or in the back rooms of hotels where foreigners stayed.  I read a few horror stories about travelers who came to Burma with U.S. bills which were not accepted because of small creases or the absence of a preferred circulation letter or number. These travelers ended up having their trips cut short since they could not fund things.  I had gone to my bank a week before I set off for Burma and asked for the newest printed U.S. bills they had and was able to receive newish bills in different denominations.  I then took extreme care to protect and keep these bills in the flattest state possible until I got to Burma. I knew that when I found a place in Yangon where I could change the U.S. bills into the local Kyat currency, I could expect to receive so many Kyat that they piled up like a literal brick.  So, I had visions of walking around with this brick of money in my backpack as I did my circuit through the country. In 2011, there were also rumors swirling that the military junta was planning to raze much of Yangon — including the magnificent Schwedagon Pagoda. The government had already moved the capital from Yangon to an obscure outpost in the middle of the country called Nay Pyi Daw and they were building duplicates of Burma’s iconic sights there.  Suffice it to say that this was a trip that would require strong presence of mind, thoughtful planning, and a little luck…

Monks in the rain - Yangon

Monks in the rain – Yangon

It was trade which had brought Theravada Buddhism to Burma over a millennia ago. When Sinhalese merchant sailors had left Sri Lanka and crossed the Bay of Bengal, they hit land in the mouth of the Irrawaddy River basin. This great river shoots up and curves through the heart of Burma — and that’s how the Dharma first spread. Within a few centuries, the teachings of Buddha had spread from Burma through all of Southeast Asia.  I had mapped out an intense itinerary through the core Buddhist sights of Burma and this meant that I would have to fly to some of the places on Burmese airlines — some of which had dubious safety records. I was to meet a travel agent in Yangon on my second day in order to pay for my plane tickets in cash since there was no other way to purchase tickets in advance. So, I was a bit anxious about getting this taken care of in addition to remaining within my tight daily budget. On that night of my arrival in Rangoon, I hopped into the first cab I found outside the airport. As we drove to my hotel, I saw and smelled the dilapidated state of everything around me — the unpaved roads, lack of street lights, muddy markets spilling out their wares in the street, and crumbling storefronts. The cab I was in had no windshield wipers. My driver had to stick his right hand out of his window and use a closed umbrella to wipe away the rain as he drove with his left hand! I was sitting in the back seat and the open window had me sucking in rain drop after rain drop. I could only laugh nervously to myself — and for a flash — I wondered if this trip would end up as a disaster.

Schwedagon Pagoda - perched above Yangon

Schwedagon Pagoda – perched above Yangon

This was a pariah nation and if things went bad for me, I would have little recourse and limited money to buy my way out. But, these doubts quickly vanished when something astonishing came into focus on the hill to my left. It was almost extraterrestrial in design and luminescence. I knew then that I was in for the epic. It burst.

The Dagoba System – Anuradhapura

23 Feb
Entrance to Sri Jaya Maha - Anuradhapura (2010)

Entrance to Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi – Anuradhapura (2010)

Imagine a flat plain stretched out before you for miles with giant white and red mounds popping up like bubbles. That’s Anuradhapura — the fabled Buddhist kingdom and seat of Sinhalese power in Sri Lanka for more than a millenia. It was where Mahindu first met King Davanampiyatissa (Tissa) and quickly converted him to Buddhism and where Sanghamitta had replanted a sapling of the Bodhi tree which she had smuggled to Sri Lanka from India. This sapling then took root as the now over 2,000 year old Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi [See August 8, 2012 post: “Part I (Cont’d) – Tree” https://startupkoan.com/2012/08/08/part-i-contd-tree/]. Standing sentinel around Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi are the Dagobas — the huge mounds of brick and stone corralled meticulously into bulbous heaps of worship. I had come to Anuradhapura from Sigiriya and was dropped off in the modern section of the city.  My plan was to get a room at the Tissawewa Resthouse which was located in the far eastern part of the archaeological park and I decided to walk there. I thought I could use the huge Dagobas that rose before me in the distance as markers to guide me to the hotel — big mistake.  The area was much larger than represented on my guidebook map and since it was the late afternoon, there were not many people around. The heat cooked me thoroughly during my 1 hour of non-stop walking until I finally caught sight of something that looked like a hotel and I zeroed in on it.  It turned out to be a small monastery, but I found a guard there who pointed to where my hotel was. When I entered, the proprietor looked up at me with surprise. I had not reserved a room, but apparently there was no one else staying at the hotel. So, I must have been the first lodger she had seen in some time. I shuffled off to my room and as soon as I got inside I thew off my backpack, pried apart the mosquito netting, and collapsed on the bed. I had to get off my feet which felt like they were on fire. I was staying for 3 nights and with the bike I was able to rent from the hotel, I would have easy access to all the wondrous sights of Anuradhapura — a place where at one time in history the world’s largest Buddhist kingdom had existed. It seemed like I had it all to myself.

Thuparama Dagoba - Anuradhapura

Thuparama Dagoba

The oldest of the Dagobas in Anuradhapura is also one of the smallest. It is called Thuparama. King Tissa built Thuparama in the 3rd century BC soon after his conversion by Mahindu. Inside Thuparama, Tissa encased a relic of the Buddha which he had received from the Emperor Ashoka as a gift.  This relic is thought to be a piece of the Buddha’s collarbone. Thuparama sits like a bell and there are stone pillars which still stand around it. These pillars most likely supported a wooden roof around Thuparama. The bell-shape design of Thuparama has served as the archetype for countless dagobas, shrines, and pagodas throughout the Buddhist world.

Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba

Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba

After King Tissa’s, the next king, Dutugamanu, began the next phase of expansion at Anuradhapura. In 140BC, he built Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba which was 100m (33oft) tall and enclosed within its chamber were other relics of the Buddha, gems, gold, and statues. Some schools of Sri Lankan Buddhism believe that when the Maitreya (Future Buddha) returns, this chamber  inside Ruwanwelisaya will be opened and the new age of enlightenment will be ushered and the ignorance and suffering of today will be swiftly washed away. In the centuries after its construction, parts of the Dagoba were destroyed and burned at the hands of marauding armies from the north. But, the core base of the Dagoba has always remained intact and each time it was attacked, the Dagoba rose gain.

Mirisavatiya Dagoba

Mirisavatiya Dagoba

The last great Dagoba which King Dutugamanu built at Anuradhapura was Mirisavatiya Dagoba. The story goes that Dutugamanu carried a sceptre with him which had a bone of the Buddha encased in an orb at the top.  One day when Dutugamanu was scouting a location for construction of his new Dagoba, he accidentally fell and his sceptre flew out of his hands and landed in a pond. Dutugamanu took this as a sign that Mirisavatiya had to be built atop this pond and so the pond was dredged and diverted into a water tank. Mirisavatiya was then constructed over the site of where the sceptre had come to lay. The 2 most enormous Dagobas at Anuradhapura are also the ones most in need of repair. These are Abhyagiri Dagoba which was built in 88BC and has a height of 110m (370 ft), and Jetavanaram which was built in 275AD and was originally over 12om (400ft) tall.

Abhyagiri Dagoba

Abhyagiri Dagoba

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Jetavanaram Dagoba

Abhhyagiri’s brick interior is now exposed and crumbling and somehow bushes and other vegetation have started to grow near the top of the Dagoba. Similarly, the sikhara/spire at the top of Jetavanaram is broken, but at the time Jetavanaram was first built it was the world’s 3rd largest manmade structure behind 2 of the pyramids of Giza. The scars these 2 giant Dagobas bear fade into the background because of the magnitude of ingenuity and painstaking awe of their physical construction. Millions of bricks and other stones had to be quarried, stomped into shape by elephants, and then layered and fused into concentric bands which rose higher than anything else around the land. They are mountains made by human hands and dwarf everything else around them.

"A Man & His Horse" rock carving at Isurumuniya Rock Temple - Anuradhapura

“A Man & His Horse” rock carving at Isurumuniya Rock Temple – Anuradhapura

On my last day at Anuradhapura, I went back to Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi and sat under a quiet corner where one of the great Tree’s branches covered me in the shade. I’ve previously recounted this moment in my prior post “Part I (Cont’d) – Tree“. What I would like to add is that as I gazed up at the Tree, I was also struck by this — as amazing as the Dagobas of Anuradhapura are — their immense size, symbol of spiritual loftiness, and engineering brilliance — they are ultimately each dormant teets. They have no milk — meaning they do not themselves provide sustenance to the community of monks and people who now live in Anuradhapura. It is the Tree which gives meaning to what Anuradhapura once was and continues to be today. It gives meaning to what these Dagobas represent. The Tree connects the past to the present and the present to the future. Its leafy branches billowed over my head as they were nudged by a passing wind. I turned my head so it went along with the wind and I was intensely aware that I was facing east. Sinhalese sailors used the same winds for their trade routes long ago. I had an idea of where I was headed next.

Summit (or Fellowship Found)

13 Nov

Getting close to the top? – Adam’s Peak

My sense of time got lost. I can only guess that I had been doing the ascent for over 3 hours and the lightness I had felt in my stride was now gone.  I was cramping in parts of my legs that I did not know existed and the bottom of my feet felt like they had collapsed. The angles of the stairs were extremely steep and each step up for me at that point was like accomplishing a small miracle.  My breathing was labored and I could only do about 4 to 5 steps before having to stop. I looked back behind me and couldn’t see much. I had entered into the whiteness above only to see that I had come out of the whiteness below. It was as if I was in purgatory.

Looking back into the mist

The journey for me at that point resembled a carefully designed torture exercise. It was meant to wean out those who could not mentally step up and steel themselves through the punishing ordeal. The stone steps had no give and they actually felt like they pushed back on my feet with each step I took. The air temperature had also noticeably dropped, but my body was so flushed that I felt hot. The rain still fell in an annoying barrage of pinpricks.  I pressed and pressed — my instincts told me I was close and that just around the next bend I would see the top. And then something appeared out of the mist and darted towards me.  I was startled. I had seen no signs of life — no birds, squirrels, or people ever since I had begun the journey. But, before me now was something on 4-legs bounding down to me in a blur. It was a fox-sized dog and it was treating me like I was the first thing on 2-legs it had seen in a very long time.   There was something strange about this dog. It gave a little squawk when it first saw me, but then looked at me as if it had been expecting me. I gave the dog a piece of an energy bar and it eagerly took it. I asked the dog, “Am I there yet?” It wagged its tail so I began walking up and it charged ahead of me.

Dog & entry gate to summit of Adam’s Peak

I saw the last flight of stairs that led up to an entry gate. I felt an adrenaline boost and I nearly levitated up the remaining stairs. On both sides of me were small, squatty shelters which appeared to be abandoned. They had a few windows and doors, but I saw no lights in them and heard no human voices. I came to the top of the stairs and steadied myself on the gate as I reached down to remove my shoes. My bare feet came out of their encasements swollen and grateful to be freed. I placed my shoes outside of the gate and entered. Interestingly, the dog who guided me to the summit did not follow me. He sat outside and I went in alone. I felt a chill run through my body as my feet touched the cold slabs of the stone floor.  The summit of Adam’s Peak comes to a head in the form of a square.  In the middle of the square is a raised shrine with one more staircase that must be climbed. I wasn’t ready to climb up to the shrine yet. I wanted to walk around it in a clockwise fashion first. I slowly began the small circuit around the shrine and as I did I saw how fast the monsoon clouds swirled around the summit. They relentlessly jetted across and through the mountain top. I had heard that on clear days one can look out from Adam’s Peak and see the city of Colombo in the distance. I was barely able to see 10 feet below me when I stood over the railing of the summit. After I finished the circuit, I walked towards the shrine in the center and it came into a foggy focus.  As I looked up, I saw 3 shapes tucked away along the wall. I couldn’t believe it — these were people standing silently in prayer. They must have come up before me or via another route. I was careful not to disturb them as I walked up the steps and I positioned myself on the same wall where the men stood. They were facing the footprint, but as I had heard, the footprint was behind steel doors that were locked. So, all I saw were the locked doors. But, the 3 men were so composed and their presence filled me with such reverence that I closed my eyes and as I listened to their whispered chants, I could see through the doors. It wasn’t a stone image of a human footprint that I saw. Instead, I saw the shared heritage of the human spirit and its quest for understanding its connection to the universe.

The Shrine housing the holy footprint

When the 3 men finished their praying, they looked at me — intrigued by my presence.  I said hello and one of them spoke a little English. He told me he was a reporter for a newspaper in Colombo and had come to climb Adam’s Peak for the first time and write about the experience. He had come up that morning with 2 individuals who had served as his guides and said their route had been very difficult because of the wind, rain, and other monsoonal conditions. I told him that I had climbed up myself that morning from the Dalhousie route. He wanted me to talk about my experience and my understanding of Buddhism, and so we chatted for a bit. He snapped a photo of me and then invited me to have a coffee and snack break in one of the shelters just below the shrine. He said there was one security person who lives at the summit during the non-pilgrimage season in order to watch over the shrine. I told him I would join them in a few minutes. The 3 men then walked away and I was left in the shrine by myself. The wind whistled straight through the shrine with such force that it almost carried me aloft a few times. After some time alone, another figure emerged out of the cloud sitting on the summit. It was a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk wearing a wet, chocolate-colored robe. He seemed very young and he nodded at me as he entered the shrine. I was able to figure out that he was there for noontime prayers and he began to prostrate himself before the footprint.

Noon prayers at the footprint

I was moved by his dedication — he was shivering and soaking wet — but there he was on his knees on the cold unforgiving ground doing his recitations in front of the hidden footprint. When the monk finished, he smiled at me and we tried to speak broken Sinhalese and English to one another. It didn’t matter what we were trying to say — and nothing really needed to be said. I followed him out of the shrine and saw 2 bells hung off a cable above one of the railings. The tradition is that each pilgrim rings these bells based on the number of ascents the pilgrim makes up to Adam’s Peak. I rang each bell 1 time.

Quiet contemplation

I found my way back to the entry gate and found my shoes. My feet felt like they had shriveled during the time I had spent at the shrine and they sank into my shoes. I walked toward the shelter on my left and saw a door slightly ajar. I entered it and found my 3 companions from the shrine sitting on bunks and the security guard was talking to them.  The individual who spoke English welcomed me inside and asked the security guard to get me a coffee and biscuit.  I was told there was no electricity or running water up here, so the security guard and monk that live at the summit had to get supplies brought up from people every other week or so during the monsoon season.  I took my coffee greedily since I needed something to warm my blood.  It was thick and dark with a chunk of sugar thrown in. A godsend. The security guard gave me a biscuit to eat along with my coffee and I thanked him. Here I was then: On top of Adam’s Peak with 4 Sri Lankan chaps sitting in the dark exchanging smiles and having coffee. I told them about a few of my travels to other Buddhist sites and each time my stories were translated into Sinhalese by the English speaker, I could see the others react with wonder. I learned that none of these individuals had ever been outside of Sri Lanka, so I was providing them with firsthand glimpses into these other lands.  I tried to speak in a non-boastful manner and told them that the trek up Adam’s Peak during the monsoon through such difficult conditions was the most incredible experience — although I didn’t even see the footprint!  It was the journey that was important and that journey had allowed me to meet them and the monk. We were now breaking biscuits with one another and connecting our separate worlds through a shared experience. That was the imprint we had come for — not a stony image but something of reflective resonance.  That’s what a pilgrimage was all about.

Out of India [South – The Doctrine of the Elders]

27 Oct

Gangaramaya Temple – Colombo, Sri Lanka (2010)

In May 2009, the 30-year-old civil war that had been waged in Sri Lanka effectively ended with the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran – the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Tamils are a largely Hindu minority in Sri Lanka who live in the north and northeast of the country, and in the early 1980s, a militant, separatist group led by Prabhakaran. The LTTE or Tamil Tigers employed various terrorist-like tactics (including the use of vest-wearing female suicide bombers) in an effort to gain independence from the Buddhist Sinhalese majority. I visited the country in June/July 2010 and was intrigued by how such a bloody armed conflict could have gone on as long as it had within a predominantly Buddhist nation. It seemed like the last vestige of the Dharma must have been cast out because otherwise how could any devout Buddhist sanction the killing of another person? I grappled with this question from the moment I landed in Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo. I had taken an overnight flight to Colombo from Dubai and the contrast between the dry, desert landscape and sultry, tropical blanket that covered me when I first stepped outside could not have been more extreme.  I flagged down a taxi and began the long drive to Colombo. There was no highway or expressway at that time which linked Colombo to Bandaranaike Airport, and instead, we were just on a sinewy, congested 2-lane road.  But, this drive gave me my first insight into the omnipresent nature of the Buddhist faith in Sri Lanka.  I saw may small shrines, temples, and monuments along the way. At one point, my cab driver stopped at a light that was near a road-side Buddhist shrine and did a quick, respectful prayer before the light turned green and we drove away. There were only small windows into the tangible pulse of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heart.

Buddha statues – Gangaramaya Temple

Sri Lanka is an island that hangs like a teardrop in close proximity to India’s southernmost point. Yet, despite this proximity, the visual and cultural impact of Sri Lanka more closely brings to mind the look and feel of Southeast Asia and not the Indian subcontinent. Part of the reason for this is that the dominant Buddhist school that took hold in most of Southeast Asia was the Theravada tradition — the “Doctrine of the Elders”.  Sri Lanka was the petri dish in which Theravada was cultivated, groomed, and then exported abroad. In Bodh Gaya (India), I had learned the story of Princess Sanghamitta who had saved a cutting of the sacred Bodhi Tree which she then brought to her brother, Mahindu, who was a Buddhist monk already spreading the Dharma in Sri Lanka. I thought I would be seeing old sites tied to a Buddhist tradition that was likely no longer relevant or integrated into the everyday life of Sri Lankans. I thought the sangha or community of monks and laity had been weakened or marginalized by years of strife, war, and thirst for material possessions, the internet, and etc.  I could not be more wrong. What I found instead was an incredibly vibrant, active brand of Buddhism that provided a social infrastructure for lay people, monks, families, and other individuals of all walks of life to have a role in sustaining the Dharma — whether through giving alms, performing rituals, conducting parades and ceremonies, or undertaking pilgrimages to holy sites on the island.

Relief on outside wall of Gangaramaya showing Mara tempting the Buddha

The great surprise of Sri Lanka is that in the midst of its core Buddhist culture and tradition are various colorful odds and ends– remnants of Portuguese colonization such as striking Catholic churches and surnames, tea estates formerly owned by the British who supplanted the Portuguese with their own Anglican Tudor-designed churches and the Tamils they brought to Sri Lanka to work the tea plantations, and sprinkled here and there are mosques and calls to prayer in Arabic. The island took me on an immensely satisfying journey — both physically and spiritually — where I worked my way down to the south and then circled back up through the Hill Country, on to Sri Lanka’s cultural center, and finally up to its northern plains and ancient past. There is such radical contrast in the terrain and atmosphere in this small country. In the southern point of the island lays the colonial town of Galle and there stands an old Portuguese fortress with large sea-walls which held back the waves of the 2004 tsunami — although many people died around Galle and in the other low-lying areas of the southern Sri Lankan coast. But, things began for me first in Colombo where I had come to see the Gangaramaya Temple and the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara Dagoba (“Dagoba” being the Sinhalese word for Stupa) which marks the spot where the Buddha spoke during a visit he had made to the island. Both sites were remarkably active with streams of people and pilgrims pouring in and out, praying, sitting in contemplation, and performing rites. On the outside of the Gangaramaya Temple, there are very detailed reliefs which vividly depict stories from the life of the Buddha. These reliefs are all found on one large exterior wall of Gangaramaya and this wall itself looks like 2 large, gilded doors which reminded me of Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” (the Renaissance-era doors created on the eastern side of the Baptistry of St. John in Florence). Ghiberti’s doors contain reliefs showing the story of Adam and Eve and other stories from the Old Testament, and that same kind of snapshot storytelling was impeccably conveyed in the reliefs found on Gangaramaya’s outside wall. From Colombo, I set off for the Hill Country. I hopped a train at Colombo Fort railway station and soon rose from the coast to the hills where I was surrounded by rolling greenery and tea bushes. When the sunlight hit these bushes and a wind rustled them slightly, they would flicker like gold. It was the monsoon season and I was headed to a sacred mountain. A mountain that I was intending to scale despite being told that no one — not even the most devout pilgrims — climbed the mountain during the time of the monsoon. I was unmoved. I would do the climb — not because it was there — but because I had to. It was a calling.

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