Walkabouts and wonders

"A life not examined is a life not lived" – Socrates

Category Archives: Wonders and mysteries

Pictures of dedication

My visit to the Nepalese city of Bhaktapur coincided with the country’s New Year celebrations (it is now 2070 in their calendar) and the nine day festival of Bisket Jatra. As a Northern European, used to private and quiet religious celebrations conducted oncwe a week, this was a bit of an eye-opener, on all three fronts.

The chariot of Bhairab at rest in the main square.

The chariot of Bhairab at rest in the main square.

We arrived in the city on New Years’ Eve (13 April’ this year) which is also day 4 of the Bisket Jatra celebrations. Initially, it seemed like nothing more than the usual might be going on – we strolled around, took a couple of pictures, exchanged pleasantries with the flute peddlers and generally relaxed. But then the crowds started growing and moving and we with them. I have no pictures of that evening, so I shall just have to do my best with words.

Bisket Jatra is a nine-day celebration around a romantic story involving a couple of gods, a king’s cursed princess, several dead suitors and a hero. Intertwined with this story is one another, mystery tale, of the principle God and Goddess of the city being the wrathful aspects of Shiva (the destroyer) and his consort. Okay, so far? During the festival, the Gods are placed in great big wooden chariots that are dragged through the streets by groups of young men, who win the privilege in a giant tug of war that is held at the start of the festival. Moving these things on the cobbled streets is no easy task, either to do or control. Our hotel manager told us that the day before we arrived, two people were crushed to death under the wheels of Bhairab on his way to the upper square. He seemed quite excited about it.

The erect "pole" - the crosspiece is supposed to represent an evil snake that has been speared before it could bite the hero, before he could rescue the princess. Um.

The erect “pole” – the crosspiece is supposed to represent an evil snake that has been speared before it could prevent him rescuing the princess. Um.

That evening, we went to see the fourth day of ceremonies in the lower square. Here, literally hundreds of young men, surrounded by a crowd of thousands, worked to erect a 20m (60′) tree trunk on a plinth in the main square. I am afraid my picture from the morning after gives only a slight impression of the size, but imagine, if you can – around 200 men, dragging on eight ropes that are tied to the cross-piece. Their efforts are timed to the beat of a separate tree trunk being lifted and then dropped on the plinth (it takes three men to do just that) amplified by the shouts of the crowd. “Urah! Urah! Urah!” X frames built from the branches of the same tree (and held together by hand-made rope) are pushed into place to provide support, between bouts of effort. But with no guide ropes the pole frequently swings sideways, threatening the mass of onlookers who run away, screaming and laughing, returning in a few minutes when the panic has passed. True; there are armed police attempting some crowd control but any health and safety officers have quietly crawled away to be sick in a corner.

All I can say is that the excitement generated by this event made it clear that our English Maypoles and Morris Dancers have a thing or two to learn about Spring fertility rites! Especially, given that none of these things seemed to be organised in any systematic way. This is a festival of and by the people – while Hindus have their priestly caste, the Brahmins, their Sadhus and temple attendants, the life of their religion is carried in the blood and the dedication of the people. As demonstrated by these other scenes from the day after.

The throng aroun the base of the pillar, doing puja.

The throng around the base of the pillar, doing puja.

A plate of oferings to the gods.

A plate of offerings to the gods.

Morning offerings - take on New Years' Day, but something you might see at any time.

Morning offerings – take on New Years’ Day, but something you might see at any time.

Boys doing their thing - what else.

Boys, meantime, do what they do.

A shrine in the middle of the main square.

A shrine in the middle of the main square.

And if you need a nap, well, take it - and where better, but in the lap of the God.

And if you need a nap, well, take it – and where better, but in the lap of the God.

In closing, this one 24 hours probably taught me more about the true nature of India (and Nepal) than I could ever have expected. What unites these places is not their national boundaries or their politics, or even the religion. There are two main features I keep returning to. There is this irrepressible quality of eagerness and an appetite for living that is quite capable of sweeping all and everything before it; it runs throughout their society – vibrant, wilful, open; unmoderated and therefore dangerous, but exciting and captivating. But there is also this deeper seam of quiet, insistent and persistent dedication which expresses itself in the daily rites of puja that I witnessed everywhere I went – a core of value that seems to speak of something truly ancient and universal in humanity.

Namaste Nation

Not my pic, unfortunately - its just very difficult to hold the camera and namaste at the same time

Not my pic, unfortunately – its just very difficult to hold the camera and namaste at the same time

Like many Europeans, I think I first encountered “Namaste” in a Thai restaurant; in my case, somewhere in North London.  Even then, without even knowing its meaning or history (it can be traced back more than 4,000 years) it made me pause; momentarily stilled in my quest for culinary sensation and satisfaction.

Here in India, and especially in this hill region, I see or receive this greeting very frequently, virtually everywhere I go, and have learnt to use it myself as an alternative to my more usual “hello, how are you?”

Make the comparison –

When we say “hello”, in English, we are using a word derived from an anglo-saxon term which roughly means, ”Oi, you there”. It is a straightforward demand for attention which, coincidentally, starts with the name of a place we’d all prefer not to go . Of course, like me, you may suspect that you are already there and are looking for a way out).

Whereas “Namaste” carries a delightful spectrum of meanings. It can be delivered with full formality, bowing, hands pressed together, below the chin, but eyes always up; as you might be welcomed into someone’s home – or one handed, with a nod to an old friend, as you walk across the road. At its most basic, the expression means,”I see you”, an acknowledgement rather than a demand. At its most profound, it translates as “I greet the inner spiritual intelligence that you are”. (Where you are in that spectrum is sometimes, but not always, indicated by the positioning of the hands and the depth of the bow – the higher, the deeper, so to speak.

Any direct transposition of tradition between cultures is a tricky thing. There are many features of  Indian culture that are very attractive, but you can discover quite a lot of connected features that aren’t; the same is true of Western culture, too. But I wonder what we could do to to try and bring a bit more conscious acknowledgement of other human beings into our western ways, and what it might be like if we succeeded.

Butterfly discoveries

Boys being boys

Boys being boys

My second Sunday; I had been 17 days in Kalimpong, but realised that I hadn’t yet really paused for breath, certainly not for my soul – hardly enough for my body. So, with only my camera and a rather odd map, I set off into the town. The first part of the journey was my familiar walk to the office in town, but at this slower pace, I had the time to see and appreciate things a little more.

A roadside house, that I had passed many times but never quite saw

A roadside house, that I had passed many times but never quite saw

Who's the man with the funny eyes, mom?

Who’s the man with the funny eyes, mom?

A place of a thousand shopkeepers

A place of a thousand shopkeepers

Having wandered around a while and discovered that my favourite coffee bar was closed – more on that, another time –  I decided to seek out the Indo-Tibet Cultural Institute – perhaps, I thought, there might be a museum, or some interesting people to talk to.

Convinced, after walking a full hour, that I had lost my way, I stopped to ask a shopkeeper. He pointed me further along the road, so off I went. I didn’t find any Indo-Tibetan Institute (and still haven’t). Instead, I found myself walking into the grounds of a Gompa – a religious centre for the 6th Lepcha Lama.

Prayer flags around a new stupa at the entrace to the Gompa

Prayer flags around a new stupa at the entrace to the Gompa

wheels of prayers

wheels of prayer

After wandering around for a bit and finding no one about, I began to think it was all shut up, so I settled into a little of my own quiet time, gentled by the gathering atmosphere. But then, I spied a rather striking, dark butterfly. It flew in front of me and then away. I followed and was shortly greeted by this twelve year old girl –

The Lepcha Lama's grandaughter - a pupil at the High School wh wants to be a doctor.

The Lepcha Lama’s grandaughter – a pupil at the High School wh wants to be a doctor.

And so was led to the Lama’s shrine and meditation centre.

Inside the tiny shrine and meditation room - the Buddha flanked by more ancient gods

Inside the tiny shrine and meditation room – the Buddha flanked by more ancient gods

Though neither old, nor richly endowed, there was an undeniable sense of abiding peace and settlement – a place of continuing devotion as evidened by the new stupa. I spent a further and very worthwhile hour there, taking in the atmosphere and feeling myself settle more deeply than I had before on this trip.

The central temple of the Gompa - a traditional block design.

The central temple of the Gompa – a traditional block design.

5 urns ..... 6th lama.... wonderful thing detection.. wonder if I am right

5 urns ….. 6th lama…. wonderful thing detection.. wonder if I am right

Later, I was told that the Lepcha are one of the three original tribes that inhabited the Kalimpong district. They are not generally Buddhists, and the existence of a Lepcha Buddhist gompa near the town has come as a surprise to a number of my Nepalese friends. But that seems to be the way of these parts – many small communities, clans and families living close by one another; peaceful, self-contained; interacting and mixing, but remaining distinct – content to be and allow to be, together.

A Sacred Space in the City of Birds

There is a place near the centre of New Delhi which defies the noise and heat of the modern city. It is known as the tomb of Humayun, but as well as a burial site, it is an inspired assay in sacred architecture and design.

Hamayun_23

And let me begin by telling you how I eventually went to this place, rather than the Taj Mahal.

Chandra Chawk_1You see, originally, I had set aside my first day in Delhi for some local sightseeing, before heading south to the Taj Mahal, as you do. It was only after an hour’s walk into the centre of Old Delhi and the market district, that I discovered all of the monuments and museums were closed, this being a Monday. Yes, I know that now.  So, Monday left me with sore feet and this one picture of rickshaw cyclists on the Chandi Chowk, and a curio – why does this city have so many birds?  Look around you in Delhi, and you will see the birds everywhere – true; many are the usual scavengers you find in any city, but not this many – no.

Anyway, come the Tuesday, my last full day in Delhi, I no longer felt like taking the two hour journey south to see the Taj Mahal. Following advice I got on the plane, I braved the Delhi traffic on an auto rickshaw and headed out to Humayun’s tomb.

The tomb is actually a complex of buildings that include some of the earliest surviving monuments of the Moghul period in India. The building at its centre, Humayun’s tomb is actually the resting place of around 140 of his family and descendants. It stands in the centre of a 15 acre formal garden, divided by narrow channels of water that feed a series of fountains.

Hamayun_17

Hamayun_16

As you might suspect from these pictures, the tomb is an early precursor to the Taj Mahal which lies 80 miles south at Agra. Like its more famous neighbour, it is a monument to love, but this time built by the wife, to honour her husband. All of this, of course, you may read in any decent guide-book or online. But what the guidebooks only vaguely refer to, if at all, is the basis of the building in ancient beliefs about life and its purposes.

Hamayun_22

The clues lie partly in the shape – the perfect surrounding squares and partly in the colours of the main building and its domes. And, of course, the numbers – 17 and 4; 72 and 5; 16, 4 and 1, amongst others.

Hamayun_20

But it wasn’t until I was trying to photograph this fountain that I put together the first of two things –

The surrounding wall, the central platform and the gardens are all set out in regular squares, north/south. But the crowning domes are set at an angle, thus

Hamuyun shape

This pattern represents a simple and ancient perception about life. Roughly translated, it says that body and soul are held together, not by food, but by the grace of the spirit of humanity that resides in our innermost being.

And then, I understood about the birds and how there had come to be so many in the city. The surrounding walls of the sanctuary are pierced by small openings – they were put there on purpose, as nesting sites for pigeons and green parrots so that they would always be in attendance. They are a constant reminder of another ancient idea that Islam holds very dear; unlike our bodies and histories, beautiful and arresting as they may be (and here represented by the gardens and the water courses), our minds are free to leave the earth and fly up into the realms of heaven and inspiration.

Hamayun_15

Soul knows

You are more than the you I remember,

Brains only recall the highs and the lows,

Sometimes, the little moments in between.

But soul knows.

And though years may pass in dreams or difference

Elsewhere, elsewhy.

Soul knows soul;

Await only our embrace,

To know again.

Beautiful night

Just found this via the BBC. Well worth contemplating from any number of view points – as science, as art, to see how crowded some places in the world are, and how some still aren’t. Currently, I am looking out my office window at the surrounding winter fields and woods – so big and rich with life to me, yet so small as to be invisible in this image.

Contagious inspirations

Bear with me on this posting – it does get to be inspiring….. promise.

You know how it can sometimes happen that it all seems too much effort to get anything done? Even the stuff you were quite looking forward to, yesterday, can turn up to you with all the attraction of a bowl of soup that’s gone cold and congealed and, “yeuch”.  (I remember at school, that sometimes they would serve this tomato soup – that was always too rich anyway, but half the time they left it in the pot for too long and it got really thick – like that, but cold and heavy).  Anyway, this is more or less how I felt as I dragged myself to the computer earlier this evening  – “Walkabouts and wonders, huh? Well, not much chance of that!” said I. So, abandoning a story I have tried to write three times already this week, I turned to “Freshly Pressed” with the vague idea that I might find something amusing to make it worth spending the effort of pushing the on button – get the idea.

But behold – what dd I see, but a blog title – “I’m tired”. So, I clicked on that and found myself in the slightly odd, funny, querulous and questioning blog-space of a rap admiring young black comedian by the name of Ola. And I found his posting so well observed and to the point, that first, I re-blogged it (you can see it below) and then I found myself writing this –

“So Ola,

What do you do and where do you go, to catch the moment and relight the glow?

Do you go out in search of new sensation, or inward towards your soul dedication?

Do you think your virtue is only in succeeding, or is it in the charge of the making and believing?

See you – see me – cry if you must, but keep on trying. See you – see me – my body is slow, but the spirit loves flying.”

Now, that got written in 10 minutes flat –  that’s the power of inspiration – it really is contagious, even to a guy who was dead on his feet 10 minutes before, and who last wrote in rhyme about 20 years ago, but listened to a little rap on Ola’s site a few minutes before.  There is more to art than just cleverness – training helps, of course, but there is a mystic something extra that anyone may touch.

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