Tag Archives: Sri Lanka

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.

thatbinku

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.

To Be A Rock and Not to Roll [The Route Up Mt. Kyaiktiyo]

7 Aug

I was soaked to the bone, tired, dehydrated, and bogged by doubt. I had come to a fork somewhere in the middle of a road that was cloaked in a monsoon cloud. I flashed back to my climb up Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka which had occurred almost exactly a year to the day I now found myself [see previous post regarding the encounter with Adam’s Peak: https://startupkoan.com/2012/11/02/sri-pada-adams-peak-prologue/].  That had turned out to be an incredible experience — but this time I may have taken things too lightly. I was glib — not prepared, had no map, no food or water. There were 2 paths before me. I could see no more than 3m in any direction. The rain pounded down in a manner that I still cannot properly describe. This was invasive and insidious rain. I was carrying a pathetic excuse for an umbrella and wearing a thin poncho, windbreaker, t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. I had my camera and a small daypack tucked between my shirt and bare skin. Everything inside — the pristine U.S. dollars, my passport, hotel voucher, etc. — was in jeopardy of being ruined.  If I chose the wrong path, I probably would not have realized it for a long period of time, and then I would probably be too exhausted to walk back.  I stood there mutely, licking the rainwater pooling on the corners of my mouth — at an utter loss.  I was on a journey to get to the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo in eastern Burma. The elevation is only about 1100m (3400ft), but this is no ordinary mountaintop. It is where the holy Golden Rock sits. The Golden Rock consists of a large round boulder — perched at a ridiculously precarious angle atop a small cliff-face. The boulder is covered with layers and layers of flattened golden foil placed by the faithful over the centuries. A 7m (24ft) golden pagoda spire has been placed on the top of it. Inside this spire is a single strand of hair which belonged to the Buddha.  It is this hair which keeps the boulder from rolling over the precipice on which it rests — oblivious to the winds, rains, earthquakes, and other natural and manmade disasters that smack against it.  From the second I had seen an image of the Golden Rock, I knew I had to make the journey.  I had come during the monsoon season which was the “off” pilgrimage season, and so the route would be more arduous and the conditions unpredictable.

Betel Nut seller - Bago market

Betel Nut seller – Bago market

My trip had begun that morning from Rangoon where I had booked a driver to take me about 150km east through the old town of Bago, across the mouth of the Gulf of Mottama, and then up to the small village of Kinpun. Kinpun is more or less a mountain base camp where travelers and pilgrims can pick up supplies before venturing to Mt. Kyaiktiyo. The most common way to get to the top of mountain and see the Golden Rock is to hop on one of the specially outfitted trucks which come and go during the morning until the late afternoon. These trucks have flatbeds with rows of wooden slats/benches that people can sit on. The trucks zoom up the winding road until they reach the Yatetaung bus terminal. No vehicles are allowed to go any further than this terminal. From there, one has to walk up to the top of the mountain which should take about 45 minutes to an hour.  I had reserved a room at one of the 2 hotels on the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo which was close to the Golden Rock, so my plan had been to get to the hotel and check-in by 2pm and then spend the rest of day until sunset at the Golden Rock. I would come down the mountain the next day and my driver would meet me in Kinpun and take me back to Rangoon.  When I arrived at Kinpun on the day of my trip up the mountain, I found one of the trucks waiting for passengers.  I paid the truck driver around 1200 Kyat and climbed onto the truckbed and found an open slat to sit on.

A bit of a squeeze - but headed in right direction

A bit of a squeeze in the truckbed – but at least no rain

Sitting in the back of a truck - headed toward Mt. Kyaikhtiko

Securing bags while driving up

Within a few minutes afterwards, all the slats were occupied by other people — who seemed to be locals. There were no backs to the slats, but despite the cram and having elbows, knees, and arses in one’s face, it seemed cozy.  It was not raining at Kinpun and while the sky was cloudy there was the occasional glimmer of sun. The truck began driving up the mountain which transformed into a lusher landscape with each twist that took us higher. People were chatting and laughing along the way. One of the men who I assumed was an assistant of the driver was securing bags and luggage that had been stored in the front compartment of the truckbed while the truck was doing hairpin turns. I was cautiously optimistic that perhaps the monsoon would skirt around the mountain, but then — like we crossed some boundary — the heavens opened and the rain fell — HARD. Everyone in the truck put their heads between their knees and tried to shield themselves.  All voices abruptly quieted and only the swishy sounds of switching gears and the truck sliding along the wet road remained.  I remember clutching my camera and daypack tightly against my stomach and silently counting off the minutes — thinking that the 10 miles up to the bus terminal would not take more than 30 minutes.  But, as the rain kept hitting me, I dropped the counting and just steeled myself to stay warm and focused on the walk up to the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo that was waiting for me.

Truck at Yatetaung bus terminal

Truck at Yatetaung bus terminal

When the truck pulled into the bus terminal — which was nothing more that an iron shed help up by a few posts — I disentangled my legs and arms from the person next to me, shook off the rainwater, and walked down the step-ladder that was affixed to the truck dock. I looked out of the shed and hoped to find a storefront with a roof to run under before figuring things out. As I scanned the scene, I met the eyes of a very young female Buddhist monk in pink who was barefoot and standing with other female monks collecting alms from a few people in the area. She didn’t have an umbrella with her and her robes were drenched. She struck me as completely ambivalent.  When the alms collection finished, she trudged off in the mud and disappeared in the mist like an apparition.  I darted out of the shed to a small building across the way. The mist was getting heavier now and visibility was starting to get reduced.  It was around 1pm and I had to get moving.  I found a sign in Burmese with an arrow pointing up and to the left. I interpreted this to mean: “Golden Rock – This Way”.  After a few strides up, I was confident I was headed the right way. Then, something made me turn around and look behind me. I did not see a single person around — anywhere. What happened to all the people who had come up with me on the truck?  There was no trace of them. The mountain and the rain seemed to be waiting just for me.

Ecce Dens (Behold The Tooth)

11 Dec
Temple of the Sacred Tooth - Kandy, Sri Lanka (2010)

Temple of the Sacred Tooth – Kandy, Sri Lanka (2010)

After the Buddha’s death at Kushinagar, his disciples agreed to distribute the remnants of his cremated body between them. These relics — pieces of bone, clothing, hair, and teeth — were divided into eight parts and each ultimately became preserved within the walls of specialized shrines.  These shrines are called Stupas, Dagobas, or Pagodas depending on the country in which they were constructed. The stories passed on from generation to generation about the perilous and epic journeys some of these relics undertook play an extremely important role in the national pride and history in the countries where the relics are found today.  Most — if not all of these relics — were never moved or relocated after they were enshrined (except due to bombings, wars, or natural disasters).  However, one relic — arguably the most visible and celebrated of all the Buddha’s relics — had no true fixed abode until the late 16th century. This relic was a Tooth — a large upper canine tooth of the Buddha to be exact. This Tooth had also been first smuggled into Sri Lanka around 370 A.D.  Just like the journey of the sapling taken from the Bodhi Tree, the Tooth was also hidden in the hair of a woman who evaded the clutches of various groups as she ventured out of India.  After the Tooth arrived in Sri Lanka, it was not simply viewed as a sacred vestige of the Buddha, but it was also infused with power — for he who possessed the Tooth had divine sanction to rule the country. Sinhalese king after king jockeyed for control of the Tooth and it passed from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa to Kotte and other Sinhalese kingdoms.  Every time a special shrine was built for the Tooth, the shrine was either destroyed or ransacked and yet the Tooth escaped — hidden by monks who lobbied their weight behind the king best suited to serve as protector and regent of the Tooth. Then, the Portuguese took control over the important coastal zones of Sri Lanka and slowly began to work their way inland as they tightened their grip. Although the Portuguese viewed the Sri Lankan people’s veneration of the Tooth as heathenism, they understood the power of the Tooth. They knew that they would never wield any penetrating influence over the Sri Lankan people if they did not possess it. So, the Portuguese set their sights on attacking the kingdom of Kotte where the Tooth was held at the time. Once the Portuguese sacked Kotte, the guardians of the Tooth had no choice but to hand it over. The Portuguese then shipped the Tooth out of the country to the Portuguese Bishop of Goa who unceremoniously smashed it. But, it was a fake!  The monks at Kotte had given the Portuguese a ringer and the Portuguese did not know the difference. During a volatile period in Sri Lanka’s history when the 16th century Sinhalese king, Wimaladharmasuriya I, began to challenge Portuguese colonial rule only to have another colonial power, the Dutch arrive at the same time so as to complicate the control of the island even further, the Tooth resurfaced in Kandy.

View of the Temple from Kandy Lake

View of the Temple from Kandy Lake

Kandy lays in the geographic and cultural heart of Sri Lanka, and so it was here that a permanent home for the Tooth was finally built — the Sri Dalada Maligawa (The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic). There are lush hills that surround Kandy and in front of Sri Dalada Maligawa is a lake that was created in 1807 under the supervision of the last Sinhalese king, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha.  The Tooth was placed within a golden casket that has since been lavished and studded with diamonds, emeralds, and other precious stones by pilgrims and rulers of other Buddhist nations who have come to pay homage to the Tooth. Kandy has also has served as the host of the most spectacular Buddhist procession in the world — the Esala Perahera — which lasts for 10 days each year starting on the first full moon day in August.  A replica of the Tooth is carried on the back of the most magnificent elephant (the Maligawa Tusker) through the streets of Kandy. This tusker is lit up with bright lights and is accompanied by other elephants, male and female dancing troupes, drummers, reed-players, monks, dignitaries, and lastly, a statue of a standing Buddha. The taxidermied body of the most famous and longest-serving Maligawa Tusker, Raja, is even housed on the grounds of the Temple. The poya in Sri Lanka is a day when a full moon appears and it is a public holiday that allows most Sri Lankans to go to temples to pray and perform rituals.  Only on poya days does the Temple of the Sacred Tooth open its upper chamber where the Tooth’s reliquary sits.  I was lucky enough to be in Kandy on the July 2010 poya and the anticipation of the chamber doors being open on that day was thick in the air.  I knew thousands of pilgrims were in town because I was not able to find a room anywhere. I finally found a flophouse on the other side of Kandy Lake where I had no choice but to bed down that night. After I changed in my room and donned the requisite long pants, I made the walk around the lake towards the Temple. The immediate area surrounding the Temple is heavily fortified and security is tight (the LTTE attempted to bomb the Temple at one point during the civil war). But, once I was inside the Temple its bunker-like exterior was quickly forgotten and I was swallowed by the elegant and intricate harmony of tilework, masonry, and paintings around me.

The tunnel leading into the lower chamber of the Temple

The tunnel leading into the lower chamber of the Temple

The lower floor of the main chamber building is called the pallemaluwa (pavillion of the low ground).  As I entered this room, there were 2 drummers stationed on the main pillars about 3 meters away from the inner chamber door which was closed. This door appeared to be made of iron or copper and bore ornate designs. There were 3 pairs of large elephant tusks framing it from each side.  I came to learn aftewards that this area is called hevisi mandapaya (drummers’ courtyard) and this is where the call to prayer booms on poya days through the drumming and playing of reed instruments by devotees.

Drummers' Courtyard - lower chamber

Drummers’ Courtyard – lower chamber

A broad teak staircase leads to the upper chamber of the Temple complex. When I began to walk up the stairs, I hit a sea of white. There were hundreds of people in a queue and they were nearly all clad head to toe in white linen clothes. These people were waiting anxiously for the doors of the vadahitina maligawa (Tooth Relic Shrine) to open.  I took my place in the line.  It was hot, sticky, and stuffy. People appeared to wilt around me, but no one was complaining.

In the Queue - upper floor

In the Queue – upper floor

As the drumming below continued, we stood in the line and patiently waited for the monks to open the chamber door.  It happened at 6:15pm. For at least 30 minutes or so, a steady stream of bodies whisked ahead towards the chamber. I felt like I was in a line waiting to ride a rollercoaster. The line had right angle turns that doubled-back on itself and then twisted ahead. The last part of the line veered around and in front of a wooden-barred, squared area that faced the chamber. In this area, there were monks and VIP individuals sitting on the ground.  These people chanted and prayed as they basked in a beaming glow that I could see emanate from the open doors. As I got closer to the chamber, the frenzy reached a fever pitch.  Bodies were draped on bodies, bare feet atop bare feet as we drew ever close. The combination of drumbeats, sweat, frangipani perfume, and chanting had me blitzed. My body moved ahead, but my mind was somewhere else — on another plane of consciousness. I tried to focus because I did not want to pass by the Tooth without having any ability to remember the experience.

Last turn toward the Tooth

Last turn towards the Tooth

I could see an orange-robed monk standing behind the chamber door. He would allow each person to stand for about 5 seconds and look at the golden casket that encased the Tooth and then would motion the person aside.

The Golden Casket encasing the Tooth

The Golden Casket encasing the Tooth

When my turn came, I strained with all my being to absorb the sight. The golden casket was set back about 2 meters from the open door and there were guards near it. It was bigger than I had expected and bejeweled beyond belief. Emeralds, pearls, diamonds, and other gems jumped out at me. What I was seeing was the outer golden casket for the reliquary that holds the Tooth. The reliquary itself is like a Russian matroyshka doll. There are actually 7 golden caskets — each of decreasing size and each placed inside the other. It is the smallest one which contains the Tooth. Pilgrims and the public only see the largest outer casket and it is electrifying. I tried to hold my gaze on its gleaming presence for as long as possible, but the swarm behind me pushed me away and I was thrown back into the line which moved away from the chamber and out towards the exit staircase.  I turned back though and was able to weave my way behind the VIP floor area where I could see the golden casket from afar, but then the chamber doors closed. A hush fell on those pilgrims who were still in the queue.  These people had travelled from afar and some held babies in their hands and others carried lotus blossoms. Each was here to lay eyes on this golden casket and seek a blessing from the Tooth.

Golden Casket - detail

Golden Casket – detail

As I waited again for the doors to open, I thought about the dramatic contrast I was experiencing. Just a few days earlier, I had walked up Adam’s Peak with nothing around me but the resolute fierceness of the monsoon winds and rain. Now, here I was completely enveloped by the flesh and pull of humanity. It was a dichotomy of extremes — one reflecting an ascetic rawness and the other smacked of the bacchanalian. Yet, the visceral spirituality of each was the same.  When the chamber doors opened again, I caught another glimpse of the casket and was then gripped by something. My legs wobbled and my face flushed.  Things had finally caught up with me and the adrenaline which had buoyed me through the heights of the last few days succumbed to exhaustion. I steadied myself, but I knew at some point I would have to wheel around and summon my last bit of energy to walk all the way back to the flophouse. For a moment, I had no idea where that was. For a moment, I had forgotten my self.

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.

The Ascension – Adam’s Peak

6 Nov

Gateway to start of ascent

I felt good when I woke up that next day. I had some eggs and toast and a full pot of Sri Lankan premium black tea. Nothing — not wind, rain, cold — would hold me back from trekking up to Adam’s Peak. I set off with a brisk pace and at first couldn’t believe my good luck — the conditions were cloudy, but there was no rain. I actually thought the clouds may break-up and the sun would come out. The first leg of the trail took me through a base camp area for pilgrims. There were rows of concrete pit toilets, basic sleeping bunkers, and a large standing statue of the Buddha. I walked past these and then came to a grove where there was a statue of the Buddha in his lion pose (the reclining posture he took at Kushinagar before he died) and there was an ornately carved stoned gateway that marked the official entry to the path that would take me for the next 5km or so up to Adam’s Peak. The initial 1km was more or less a comfortable, steady incline where I walked on a muddy clay.  The next marker of note was a Japan-Sri Lanka Friendship Dagoba that was built a few decades ago, and there were some stone benches for pilgrims to rest on here. Waterfalls streamed from the cliffsides above this pagoda, and as I looked beyond the ravine ahead that’s where I saw the heavy sitting mist ahead.

View of the Japan-Sri Lanka Friendship Dagoba

It was hard for me to judge where the summit was from here. I just couldn’t see anything above the mist. The mountain face was complete hidden. I wasn’t concerned by the situation. There was something completely exhilarating by just letting go and having nature dictate things. I would have to take one step at a time and rise further and deeper into the mist.  There was also no one else on the path! I had yet to see anyone coming down or passing me. During the pilgrimage season, I had heard people crammed on the narrow trails and when you got close to the top, there was only enough space for people to file by one at a time and so there could be hours of waiting while pilgrims carefully passed one another. I  did not have to worry about any human traffic jams. I was going to enjoy every step up. I had packed some food and water, and I would shoot some video along the way. The only traces of pilgrims that I saw were the many lost sandals strewn about here and there.

Self-explanatory signpost

About an hour and a half into the ascent, I noticed a steady rain was falling. Not big drops — only pinpricks and they felt sharp upon impact. I was inside the outer layer of the mist and every now and then I was blasted by a gust of wind. When I got to a rest area, I sat down and took about a 10 minute break. I could imagine that during the pilgrimage season this rest area had to be packed by tired pilgrims who would pass out some tea to drink and share conversation about how much longer it would take to get to the top. It was a bit eerie to sit there all alone thinking about how many souls typically filled the area as they sought the merit that would come from accomplishing the climb. I assumed that I was about halfway up to the summit at that point. As I got up and began to hike again, the wind grew stronger and buffeted against me. I would take a step up and get hit by a blast, and then take 3 or more steps, and get hit again. I put my head down and went through it the best I could, but my thighs and knees began to slowly ache. After about another 30 minutes, I came across a sign that said the Buddha had torn his robe in this spot and he had stopped his climb until he was able to mend the loose strands of his robe so they would not get caught on the brushes and rocks along the way.  In order to commemorate that moment, pilgrims take a long white string from this spot and carry it along the railing until the entire string has been unwound and released.  I could see all these strings placed along the path up from where the Buddha had torn his robe.  They hung like a tangle of wet spider webs and it energized me to be connected to the Buddha in such a concrete way. I was actually walking in his steps now and the strings before me were reminders of his own journey.

Stringed remembrances of the Buddha’s torn robe

Then, as the strings dropped away, I found myself in the mouth of a cloud. Visibility was limited to only about 20 feet or so and the rain was colder now. I told myself I must be about an hour away from the summit, but there was no way to know for sure. I couldn’t see the top. I couldn’t really see anything except endless steps that cascaded into whiteness. I was literally on a stairway to heaven, but had no idea how long it would take to get there. I powered through the next 30 minutes and then another 30 minutes, but whenever I thought – aha – this must be the last stretch – I was wrong! And that happened over and over again, but I noticed the trees dropping away and getting smaller and more rock face appearing. I kept on going driven by a spiritual hunger I had never known before. I rose higher and the steps became steeper and thinner. I was squarely in the center of the monsoonal cloud now. The rain continued to fall in sharp incessant beats. The wind was not only wild, but it howled and howled. So much so that I thought of the song “Wild Is The Wind” and began to sing it to myself. The stones were slippery and I had to sidestep dozens of tree branches, rock debris, and rivulets of mud. Each time I looked up I still only saw the thick cottony blanket of a cloud which enveloped the peak. I pushed myself upwards and into the cone — into what appeared to be the dividing line between cloud and sky, earth and heaven. It had to be at hand.

Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) – Prologue

2 Nov

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

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

Train to Hatton, Sri Lanka

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

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

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

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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