Wednesday, March 18, 2009

At the feet of the Buddha

Gal Vihara, Sri Lanka
Visited 1992 and 2005

2,400 years after the Buddha achieved nirvana, I sat facing his reclining figure, drinking in the sense of peace and serenity I felt. Ahhh.

Throughout this, my third trip to Sri Lanka, I had been waiting for this moment. I had visited Gal Vihara once before, on my first trip 13 years before this, and had never forgotten the sense of wonder, of awe, of peace and pure joy I felt simply by looking upon the beautiful, larger-than-life statues of the Buddha.

The 4 Buddha statues, each carved out of a single piece of granite, were part of a monastery built in the 12th century during the reign of the great King Parakramabahu.

These statues are all that remain of the vihara (monastery) at one end of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. They are enough. Between them, they depict the Buddha seated, standing and reclining; meditative, sorrowful and serene.

As I approached the site (with my husband), we first came to a large seated Buddha in meditative pose. Beyond words. When we were finally able to tear ourselves away, we moved on to a smaller meditative Buddha, also seated, in an enclosure, a cave-like space in the rocks. Somehow this statue does not seem to belong to the rest of the group. Nevertheless, the carving is very fine. Because the enclosure is glassed in, it is harder to actually “sit with the Buddha” here.

Next, we came to a huge standing statue with a beautifully carved but sorrowful expression. With the hands crossed across the chest, the whole image expresses sorrow felt deeply but expressed quietly. Some believe this is a statue of Buddha’s disciple Ananda (ironically the name means bliss), grieving over the passing of the Buddha, who reclines next to it in the nirvana pose. Most modern historians, however, discount this theory. They believe the standing figure, like the other 3, is of the Buddha himself.

The standing figure towers above one at 7 metres (23 feet). The reclining Buddha next to it measures 14 metres (46 feet). This, to me, is the most beautiful of the carvings. Perhaps it helps that the prone figure is all at eye level – you can walk the length of the carving, seeing all of the Buddha up close. The face is gentle, calm, serene… beautiful… And more -- once again, beyond words.

The attention to detail in this carving is truly amazing. Every fold in the Buddha’s robes is lovingly carved. So is the design in the pillow under his head, including a wheel symbol on the visible side. And the pillow is shows a slight depression, made by the weight of the Buddha’s head.

My husband and I spent hours at Gal Vihara, in particular before the first (large) meditative Buddha and the reclinging figure. I marvelled at the love and devotion of those who carved these figures out of the rock. I communed with the Buddha – or so I thought anyway – and meditated under his guidance.

As we sat before the reclining figure, a group of novice monks came laughing over the rock behind. At another time, I was joined by a few monkeys, who watched the Buddha from the edge of that same rock.

I wondered if we all enjoyed the same sense of serenity emanating from the Buddha, or from his statue.

See related older post from one of my other blogs: In the shadow of the Buddha.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sisterhood Award

Wow! Blogging has never been so much fun! :) I have received my second Sisterhood Award in a week (one for each of two blogs). I’m thrilled to bits. Blogging can be a great way to express yourself, but it gets really interesting when you start to get some feedback in the shape of comments. And an award is not just feedback, but positive validation. So yay!

My thanks to Frankie Anon at Object Wisdom for this award. Frankie writes a fascinating blog about objects. I was hooked when I read these 3 short lines in her description of her blog: “We all know the unexamined life is not worth living. But what about the unexamined toaster oven? Is it worth living with?” A thought-provoking blog, with lovely stories about various “objects.” Do check it out.

According to the rules of the award, I now get to nominate 5 fabulous women and their blogs. These lovely ladies are requested to keep the cycle of support going by nominating 5 (or more) other women bloggers.

And the rest of you are urged to visit these great blogs:

I’d Like To Say A truly inspiring blog. Judy writes with beauty and grace about the loss of her son, her love for her family, life’s continuing joys and sorrows. Her poetry is all the more powerful for its lack of self-pity. I love you Judy, you are a fabulous woman!

Follow Your Heart Another inspiring blog, this one by Sally Forrest. There is much spiritual wisdom here and a beautiful, calming spirit.

The Womens Blogger Directory I presented Alana Roberts with this award sometime ago for 2 of her other blogs. But this blog deserves an award of its own. The Directory is a great place for women bloggers to network, discover new blogs and new ideas, learn from one another and support one another. Sisters, check it out!

Vintage Postcards - Cpaphil Marie Reed makes wonderful use of her amazing collection of vintage postcards – mostly from France - to create this blog. She weaves in interesting nuggets of French history. You can join her Postcard Friendship Fridays with cards or pictures of your own – or just enjoy this fun blog.

Suzanne Casamento – The Question of the Day An interesting and thought-provoking question every day, plus a great way to get the readers involved. In short, a thoroughly interactive blog that makes you think too!

Now for the rules governing the Sisterhood Award:
1. Put the logo on your blog or post.
2. Nominate at least 5 blogs which show great ATTITUDE and/or GRATITUDE.
3. Be sure to link to your nominees within your post.
4. Let them know that they have received this award by commenting on their blog.
5. Share the love and link this post to the person from whom you received your award.

Before I end this post, a big thanks once again to Frankie Anon over at Object Wisdom!

Pamposh Dhar
Terataii Reiki and Counselling
Pamposh Dhar
Wandering Pam

Friday, March 13, 2009

Orient Express Stop - Vienna

I'm taking a break from my usual travel writing to join the Orient Express which I recently boarded in Paris on the blog Muse Swings. Do join the journey at Muse Swings's Orient Express post. And when you get to Vienna, get off the train to take in the sites of the city on this blog!

Welcome to Vienna! We have arrived at the Westbahnhof (west railway station) in the beautiful city of Wien, in the heart of Europe.

I invite you to take a few hours off from the journey to come with me and see the sights of this ancient city. Vienna’s history dates back to a military camp set up in the city centre under the Roman empire in the first century. Roman remains can be seen in old city just outside the Hofburg palace.

However, most of what you see in Vienna today dates back to the much later Habsburg dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian empire. During this time, Vienna became the cultural hub of Europe. Since those times, Austria has become inexticably linked with the music of Mozart and Strauss. It has also been the home of artists such as Klimt and Hundertwasser.

First, let us visit Stefansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral) in the centre of the old cobbled city. The cathedral dominates central Vienna and it’s spire offers a wonderful view of the old city. The oldest remaining parts of the cathedral date back to the 13th century.

For a complete change of scene – and period – let’s move now to die Sezession (the Secession). This was the centre of Vienna’s Jugendstil, the Austrian counterpart of the art nouveau movement in France. The movement was founded in fin de siecle (late 19th and early 20th century) Vienna by the likes of Gustav Klimt and Otto Wagner in rebellion against the prevailing conservatism in art and architecture. The basement has wall paintings by Klimt. Klimt’s other paintings – most famously The Kiss – can be seen at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna.

Now we go the Ring, the circular road that encompasses the old city, for a visit to the world-famous Staatsoper (State Opera). This 19th century building is the venue for some of Europe’s best-loved opera, producing 50-60 operas a year in some 200 performances. It counts Gustav Mahler and Herbert von Karajan among its most illustrious conductors.

Our next stop is the Schönbrunn, the summer palace of Hapsburg rulers. It was built by Emperor Leopold I in the 17th century as a hunting lodge, with over 1,400 rooms! Austria’s much-loved Empress Maria Theresia had it expanded and redecorated in French Rococo style in the 18th century. The palace’s prominent visitors included Napoleon, who married Maria Theresia’s grand-daughter Marie Louise (as his second wife).

This concludes the official tour. You might want to relax over a melange (coffee with cream) and a slice of the famous Sacher torte before heading back to the station...

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Garden Immortalized in Monet's Paintings

Monet’s Garden, Giverny, France
Visited late 1990s

Sometime in the late 1990s (1997?), I spent a week or so in Paris with my sister. Paris was warm and sunny, full of music and trees and paintings. The MusĂ©e de l’Orangerie had the most beautiful exhibition of impressionist masterpieces by Claude Monet, one of my favourite painters.

At the end of the Paris trip, my sister went back home to the US while I went off to spend a few days in the village of Giverny, where Claude Monet lived and painted for the last 43 years of his life. Many of his most beautiful paintings are of the gardens at his house in Giverny.

I had booked a bed and breakfast for myself before leaving my home in Jakarta, Indonesia. I called the owner from Paris and he confirmed that I would have a room waiting for me when I arrived in Giverny.

So I hopped on a train moving towards Rouen – of Rouen Cathedral fame, painted by Monet in his inimitable style – and got off at the small and picturesque town of Vernon. A short bus-ride along the Seine brought me to Giverny.

When I checked into the B&B, the owner mumbled something about being double-booked. He had a room in his own house for me that night, but would show me to an even bigger room in his friend’s house the next morning, he said. Impatient to get to Monet’s garden before it closed for the day, I dumped my overnight case in a small but beautiful converted loft and agreed to sort out the rest next morning.

The gardens were amazing. I entered and a burst of colour hit me. Different kinds of flowers everywhere, vines making arches over the paths. And an elegant house forming a backdrop to the gardens. I was more or less prepared for the colours, but I hadn’t counted on the fabulous scents of the flowers. Ahhh.

There was more to come, of course, because the garden is in fact 2 gardens. You access the second garden through an underground passage. Across the passage, a Japanese-style garden bursts upon you in all its glory. This is the part of the garden with the famous lily pond and Japanese bridge, immortalized in many of Monet’s paintings.

The water in the pond was still, reflecting the surrounding trees so perfectly that you might think they were growing under the water as well as hanging over it from the land, with the clusters of water lilies suspended in the centre of this mirror image. Fantastic.

The Japanese bridge was full of people. In fact, there were busloads of tourists all along the paths in both parts of the gardens. Many had come across from England, via Paris, for the day. About half an hour before the garden was to close, the crowds started moving out. Suddenly, I had the garden to myself – just me and the lilies and the trees and the breeze passing gently over the water and through the trees… Immediately I twigged that I had to get there early every morning, as soon as the gardens open and leave just before they closed! The day tourists took a while to get in and had to leave a bit early to make sure they didn’t miss their buses back to Paris.

Early next morning the owner of the B&B moved me to his “friend’s” house. I had a whole big double-storeyed house to myself! It had a beautiful garden, modelled – well, poorly – on Monet’s gardens, complete with water lily pond and all. Beautiful in itself but a pale imitation of the original.

After some probing, I discovered that my pal from the B&B was looking after the house while the owners were on holiday. He insisted he had cleared my stay in their house with them. I sure hoped so.

I spent 2 of the next three days in Monet’s house and garden while it was open, enjoying especially the half-hours immediately after opening and before closing when I was queen of the gardens. The sights, scents, the breeze… Oh, so lovely. And the changing light, which Monet has captured so beautifully in his “series” of paintings of the same scene at different times.

The house is beautiful too and deserves a visit for the old furniture and photographs and, most of all, for Monet’s collection of Japanese prints. This includes the famous one of the tsunami – looking at the majestic beauty of the waves it’s hard to focus on the destruction they inevitably leave in their wake. I have thought about this particular print often since the Asian tsunami of 2004.

But at the time the print that fascinated me most was of a young Japanese woman doing her toilette. She’s fixing her hair before a mirror while a baby feeds at her breast. The woman seems so cool about the feeding – no big deal, she might feel, after all I do this several times a day! The baby seems to be taking care of itself while the mother focuses firmly on her own toilette.

On my last full day in Giverny, I took a half-day off to go explore the nearby town of Vernon, which has a lovely church and an old and very pretty mill over the river. Giverny itself has a small and old church, where Monet is buried.

My last afternoon in Giverny absolutely had to be spent in the gardens, of course. In the evening light, I silently bid farewell to my friends the water lilies, the beautiful trees, the clusters of flowers in the “first garden” (in front of the house). I promised myself I’d be back… One day…

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon
Visited 1988, 1992, 1995

My first visit to Bhutan happened partly by design and partly by accident. I had taken 2 weeks off from work to travel in first in Sikkim and then in Bhutan. From Delhi, I flew into the small town of Bagdogra, in northeastern India. The Sikkim tourism office in Delhi had assured me I could take a helicopter from Bagdogra airport to the state capital of Gangtok.

When I reached Bagdogra, however, I discovered that the helicopter tours had been cancelled 6 months ago! There was a road link, but a large part of the road had been swept away in the monsoon rains. I would have to wait “a few days” for the road to be repaired. Further inquiry revealed that the few days could well stretch to a week.

I decided instead to take a bus to Phuntsholing, across the border into Bhutan. I would turn my holiday around, travelling by road to Bhutan for the first week and then finding my way to Sikkim from somewhere in Bhutan.

I never did make it to Sikkim. It remains on my travel list. But I found an unbelievably beautiful Shangri La-like mountain country in Bhutan and couldn’t tear myself away until I absolutely had to. I returned to Delhi with 50 rupees on me (and no credit card) on the day my leave ended.

I missed the last bus to Phuntsholing, but managed to hitch a ride (for a small fee) in a Royal Bhutan Police jeep. I immediately fell in love with the charming little border town – not knowing what splendours awaited me in the rest of Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

I went on to Thimphu, Paro and Punakha. I marvelled at high mountains and low, low valleys; admired the unique architecture of the zhongs, Buddhist temples and stupas; was driven through treacherous passes and along partially swept away roads; made friends with the environment minister, whom I ran into in 2 of the 4 towns I visited, and restaurant staff in the gorgeous hilltop hotel in Paro. Everywhere I went, people befriended me and showed me immense courtesy as a fellow human being, a guest in their country and a foreign woman travelling alone. This last was quite obviously a novelty in what was then an extremely remote Himalayan kingdom.

Each town I visited was different. Phuntsholing was quite definitely a “border town.” I doubt it would even have existed as a town if it hadn’t been for the border. Thimphu was (and is) the capital, the seat of government, the residence at the time of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk and the 4 sisters he had married. It has a magnificent zhong. Every town in Bhutan has a zhong, which includes both administrative offices and the largest Buddhist temple in the town. Although Bhutan at the time was run by a monarchy, the lamas exercised a good deal of power and influence.

Over the years, the separation of power between state and “church” (or, in this case, temple) became clearer and Bhutan is currently in the process of changing to a full parliamentary democracy. Two rounds of parliamentary elections have already been held, although a king remains in power.

But, to get back to 1988… Thimphu was a town of one a half streets. Really. Rather surprisingly, there were two good hotels in town. I would rate them as very high class 3-star hotels. No swimming pools etc, but beautiful clean rooms. The favoured breakfast place of the few foreigners living in Thimphu was the Swiss Bakery, which was quite a landmark.

Paro was a slightly larger town – the only one with an airport. (I didn’t get to use the airport until my second trip, which merits a short story of its own.) The planes seemed to be flown mainly by Indian or Swedish pilots. The Nordics loved Bhutan. Of all the foreigners based there, they were the most at home in the high mountains, green, wooded valleys and cold climate. During my second visit to the country in 1992, I met a woman from Iceland who had just installed the first sauna in the country – in her own home.

But, once again, back to the first trip. The main town of Paro is in a green valley surrounded by mountains, some above the (permanent) snow line. The valleys seem low in Bhutan because the surrounding mountains are so high, but in fact the valleys are at fairly high altitudes themselves. Once you get into mountainous country, every where is high – it’s just a question of how much. There is invariably a river at the bottom of these gorgeous valleys, named after the town they run through. The word for river is cchu. The river in Thimphu is called Thimphuchhu, in Paro Parochhu, and so on.

On my second trip to Bhutan, I visited a town called Ha, near the border with Tibet (and, in October, bitterly cold). The river here is called – yes, it is – Hachhu. Gesundheit.
So, Paro. Beautiful white peaks, green hills, an eighth century temple in the valley, rice fields along the hillsides, and not one but two zhongs. The old zhong has, unusually, a prominent circular tower and is situated on the top of a rock half-way up a mountain. The less old zhong, still in use (and also pretty old by the looks of it) is in the valley. Up in the mountains near Paro is a fantastic monastery literally clinging to a rock – the Taktshang Monastery, or "Tiger's Nest." My driver/guide offered to walk me up there in 8 hours. I thought if it takes him 8 hours, it’ll probably take me 3 days, and passed! (Climbing at those altitudes is especially hard for a girl from the plains.) Now, I believe, there is a motorable road most of the way up to the monastery.
Closer to the road, we came upon what I can only describe as an old, partially ruined castle. I say partially ruined because there appeared to be people living in parts of it. While I was wandering around, a young boy suddenly peeped out of a window in one of the walls. That wall, too, was well maintained, obviously painted quite recently.
I had travelled from Phuntsholing to Thimphu by a “luxury” mini-bus, with only a few adventurous moments when we went over a bridge that looked like it could fall into the ravine below any second. It had obviously been damaged in the rains. The driver asked all the passengers to get off, but insisted that I, the honoured guest in his country, not sully my feet by actually walking across the bridge. He was so polite, I couldn’t bring myself to say I’d really rather not risk going down with him… Needless to say, the bridge held and we survived.

In Thimphu, I had dropped in on a colleague at the United Nations. Just a courtesy call. But when he learnt that I was planning to go to Paro by bus, he insisted I go in a UN vehicle, which was going to Paro the same day. This meant leaving sooner than I had planned, but he was so insistent I agreed.

On my way back to Thimphu from Paro, there was no convenient UN vehicle to hitch a ride from. So I took a local bus. Wow, what a ride! There were novice monks – as there are everywhere in Bhutan – a peasant with a basket full of (live) hens and chickens and, generally, an incredible number of people. By the time I boarded the bus, there was standing room only. Which was OK until I found myself pushed more than half onto someone’s lap! I apologized but really couldn’t do anything about it. He was polite and did not seem too bothered – perhaps he was used to it, with people being thrown into one another’s laps all the time. Luckily for him, I was a good 20 kilos lighter than I am today!

In Thimphu, I hired a car to take me to Punakha. My colleague’s shocked face now made perfect sense to me. This was a wise decision, especially since Punakha is much lower and was quite hot the day I went. It has a fabulous zhong, situated between two rivers. The zhong has a beautiful temple. High, as the zhong temples tend to be. A lot of steps to climb. But well worth the effort. Part of the zhong burnt down soon after my visit and was rebuilt exactly as it had been. It still looked different, though, on my second visit because the wood looked so much more "new" - as, of course, it was.

In subsequent trips, I visited the beautiful Bhumtang valley and Ha, where I learnt to appreciate the warming qualities of the local rice brew in zero degrees centigrade with no heating. The yak meat was good too, when it was finally cooked around 10 p.m. It’s possible the chhang-drinking before dinner made it taste even better. Ha itself was fabulous and the surrounding snow-covered mountains – ahhh.