Sri Lanka: Land of Water Lilies and Lotuses

January 17, 2010

I got into Anuradhapura around 4pm and went straight to the guesthouse. My camera battery had died down and I needed to recharge it before doing any more touring. The guesthouse was beautifully designed and situated right on the edge of a huge lake. It was run by a Sri Lankan woman who has lived in Canada for several years. After a long time I met someone on my travels who spoke like I did and thought like I did and felt like I did – a woman who looked South Asian but thought North American - a refreshing touch of home in the middle of rural Sri Lanka. We chatted over a cup of tea and she shared with me the book she was currently reading - Ekhart’s The Power of Now - and I shared with her the book I had been carrying with me - Hawkins’ Transcending Levels of Consciousness…

It’s 6am. I’m sitting in bed and writing. Daylight is just beginning to appear and through the french doors in my room the lake becomes visible in the pale light of dawn. My balcony overlooks this beautiful and peaceful sight – the large lake surrounded by trees, the morning call of birds that I cannot yet see, the grey slightly overcast sky whose color exactly matches that of the lake waters blurring the boundaries between earth and ether, the absence of any sounds that are the result of human inventions. I can clearly visualize the meditative auras of a thousand Buddhist monks who might have sat in these gentle forests and along this peaceful lake a thousand years ago in pensive silence. I am in Anuradhapura, one of the most sacred sites for all Buddhists, one of the ancient capitals of the Buddhist world in Sri Lanka.

Anuradhapura – flat lush land covered with ancient lake-like reservoirs and emerald green paddy fields, lake after lake teeming with water lilies and lotuses, and countryside dotted with hundreds of white-domed stupas. Huge buddhas rise up suddenly and unexpectedly from behind clumps of  bo trees and atop rocky mounds, towering above the mostly flat landscape, appearing to be levitating high above the human world, occupying that in-between space between heaven and earth which always seems so serene, so spiritual, so peaceful.

Sri Lanka: The Tsunami and its Aftermath

January 10, 2010

Bordering Galle on either side are the seaside villages of Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna which were both largely destroyed by the tsunami.The fortified city of old Galle remained untouched by the tsunami– the old fort walls protected it from the waters.  Although Unawatuna has been re-built due to the large foreign donations by tourists who frequented it, there are, all along the coastline, the relics of homes and buildings that were destroyed in the tragedy and never rebuilt – foundations of buildings, broken walls, the stone ruins of small homes, upturned fishing boats much further inland as they must have been carried in by the wave, and even some graves and tombstones. The inhabitants of these areas either died in the tragedy or were too traumatized and heartbroken at the loss of family to ever want to return and rebuild their homes. Even five years later the signs are still there of the thousands who were lost and the structures that crumbled under the force of the ocean water. The amazing thing was that every so often you could see the crumbled foundations of a house and right next to it there would be a home that was left intact. Apparently it all depended upon the nature, the structure and the energy of the wave as it came rolling in – at what point it crushed and at what point it bypassed and left untouched was completely unpredictable and inexplicable. Between Hikkaduwa and Galle is a towering statue of Buddha rising from the middle of a small placid lake – a monument erected as a tribute in memory of those who were lost along this coastline. And speaking of which, the numerous Buddhist shrines that one sees along the roads is a clear reminder of being in a Buddhist country. Just as in India temples spring up everywhere, so do Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka- under trees, along the roadside, in people’s residential compounds, in rural countryside and on busy intersections in the heart of urban development.

Sri Lanka: The Charm of Galle

January 10, 2010

The drive from Colombo to Galle took about three hours and we drove all along the coastline through small towns and villages. I really got to see the heart of southern Sri Lanka. It’s such beautiful countryside with turquoise and aquamarine seas and white sandy beaches fringed with coconut palms, all just a hundred yards from the narrow highway – with no commercial developments, buildings, boardwalks, etc. to serve as barriers between you and the sea. You can stop the car anywhere and walk over onto the beach. The vegetation is lush and green with plenty of banana palms with the taller coconut palms towering over them. There are also hundreds of country almond trees and jak trees with large jakfruit hanging down from the branches. And then there are the flowers – bright, brilliant and exotic – the profusely growing frangipani in not only white but also in pink, red and yellow; the mogra, the chameli, even gulmohar, lots of kaner and bougainvillea (I'm using the Indian names since I don't know what these flowers are caled in Sinhala). A lot of the flora is similar to that found in central and coastal India.

Galle is a quaint seaside village on a peninsular projection with the ramparts of the fort surrounding it on three sides, and the small houses and buildings within the old city reflecting Dutch architecture. The Dutch Reformed Church was built in the 1600’s and its floor is covered with gravestones inscribed with people’s names, ages and causes of death. Galle is known for its gemstones and cotton lace making which was an art introduced here by the Portuguese who came here even before the Dutch. Women walk around the fort peddling their wares and selling beautiful white cotton dresses and pillow covers trimmed with the most exquisite lace. Moonstones are mined in this area and having wanted some moonstone jewelry for the longest time I went in search of some and finally bought some moonstone earrings. I don’t know why – I think it may be because I read somewhere that moonstone was one of my birthstones!

I was lucky to be on the ramparts of Galle as the sun went down into the Indian Ocean. I sat on a bench watching the evening tide come in, with the waters of the ocean just a few yards from me; and the wonderfully panoramic view of the horizon in the west as the large red round sun sank lower into the sky and ultimately disappeared into the sea. The turquoise waters changed to a rapidly darkening blue until, long after dusk, the inky blue stood in stark contrast to the silvery white of the surf that continued to frolic in. Right next to where I sat was the lighthouse, and way up on the top its guiding light shone for all who would heed it. Far away, the twinkling lights of ships began to appear on the surface of the sea as stars fallen from the skies above, grateful I’m sure for the presence of the lighthouse to keep them safe from the beautiful yet treacherous coral. It felt so calm sitting there– without my laptop, without an MP3 or an iPod or a blackberry; with only a camera whose battery had run out and a phone that was too expensive to use. With no distraction I soaked it all in for the longest time  – the dusky evening, the sight and sound of the gentle surf on the waves rolling in, and the heavy salt air that I could taste and smell with every breath I took. What a perfect way to end any day...

Sri Lanka: Braving Sigiriya

January 16, 2010

At Sigiriya I not only feasted my eyes on spectacular ancient beauty but also stretched my own emotional and physical boundaries. Despite my deep fear of heights I scaled a sheer rock – no, I did not swing from ledge to foothold with a rope tied around my waist but I did climb about 1200 steps until I was near the top of a towering volcanic rock formation. This rock was so formidable and inaccessible that a king thought it to be the safest place to build an impenetrable palace 2500 years ago, a fortress surrounded by a low lying jungle where even today wild elephants, leopards, bears and cobras can cross your path.

I guess, to be very honest, I did not realize what I was getting into and like other challenges in my life I stretched the limits of my comfort zone inadvertently and discovered new levels of potential. The climb was steep, the centuries-old limestone steps (which were supposed to glow in the dark) worn out, broken, narrow, and slippery with the morning’s rainfall that had moistened the lichen and algae growing on these ancient surfaces, the vertical heights dizzying and terrifying, and me completely alone with no other for support when the steps became too narrow or too slippery. And of course there were no guard rails in the ancient past so I was left to make my way with palms flat against the wall, supporting myself in the only way I could. It was hot, humid, sunny, and I was carrying a bag that weighed ten pounds, or at least it felt that way…But I managed the climb and I’m still alive to tell the tale and write the blog!

Perhaps this fear is of my own making - a subconscious way to draw attention. When there’s no one watching, no one to complain to, no one to fuss over me then the fear seemed to almost naturally subside. I had only two choices facing me – choose to act or choose to back off. And in that moment of uncertainty, with one foot perched on the very first of the 1200 steps I decided to move forward because I felt compelled to make the most of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of being there - in that moment, in South Asia, in Sri Lanka, in Sigiriya, right there on the threshold of an ancient palace on a rock. Having come so far how could I not climb up and briefly go back in time and hope to relive a part of human history? Isn’t who we are today in so many ways shaped by human lives and minds and souls that have come before us?
Almost on top of the dizzyingly high rock the wind was so strong that it was already making me sway. I didn’t stay long and turned around and made my way back down the hundreds of steps and down to the car park. Going down the steps was even harder than the climb up. The clouds had begun to gather again in a darkening sky and the wind had begun to blow, and as soon as I sat in the car the heavens opened up and the rain came down in torrents.  Just in time I thought. I’d like to believe that my journey this year was all about overcoming fears, hesitations and living out of my comfort zone, and the universe was making that possible for me.

The rain soon stopped and the sun appeared again making the green in nature glitter in the late afternoon light…

India: An Afternoon in Pondicherry

November 26, 2009

Pondicherry (or Puducherry as it is now called) is on the east coast of southern India, about three hours from Chennai. Not far from it is the coastline where the tsunami struck India. Puducherry is best known for Sri Aurobindo's Ashram. Sri Aurobindo was another of India's great spiritual philosophers. It’s amazing how much spirituality is present wherever I go in India. Every city or town has some spiritual significance. In Goa it was the centuries-old Church of St. Frances Xavier who lived about 500 years ago, and his embalmed body is still taken out for frequent viewing. In Allahabad it was the Sangam in the holy river Ganga. In Pondicherry it’s Auroville, the city that was created on the basis of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy.

On the last day of the conference, exhausted after hours of presentations and power-points, I spent an afternoon just walking through parts of Pondicherry. Pondicherry, by the way, has the same jewel-toned houses that I saw in Goa – the same bright blues and pinks and purples and greens and yellows. Could be a coastal thing… Along with a couple of colleagues I visited the Aurobindo Ashram. It was serene and peaceful. In the Ashram bookstore I bought some books on Aurobindo’s philosophy of integral education. Then we walked through the French Quarter which uncannily resembled its namesake in New Orleans with intricately carved wrought-iron balconies, staircases and gates on the outside of most of the houses that stood along tree-lined cobbled streets. We visited the hand-made paper factory and saw the most beautiful paper being made, textured and colored. I bought some exquisite paper products, bookmarks and calendars. We then walked along the beach under the hot noonday sun, stopped by Gandhi’s statue on the promenade right off the waters of the Bay of Bengal, drank refreshing coconut water beside the old lighthouse, and ended up at a charming bistro for lunch where the three of us had cold beer, some fabulous shrimp and lobster, and a wonderful conversation. We sat there for three hours, and intoxicated by the beer, the seafood, the hot afternoon and the relaxed atmosphere of Pondicherry we pledged we would all meet again for lobster in Maine when we were back in the US. Exhausted we returned to the hotel to get ready for the special Thanksgiving dinner that night...

India: Reflections on the Sangam

The banks of the river at Allahabad's Sangam were lined with boats that ferried people across the water to the point where the Ganga and the Jamuna rivers meet. There were dozens of such boats, each boat filled with 8-20 people. Several people were standing by the water’s edge, dipping into the river waters to cleanse themselves. This confluence of the two rivers was an intriguing phenomenon as it brought together diverse elements: the Jamuna with bluish water and the Ganga with muddy brown water; the Jamuna almost 40 feet deep and the Ganga only 4 feet deep; the Jamuna with the boats afloat on top of the water and the Ganga with people wading in knee deep waters as though there was an invisible line marking the boundary between the two bodies of water. It was a strange sight but so much in keeping with the strange juxtapositions that you find everywhere in India, and so reflective of the large and varied universe of which we all are a part – the deep and the shallow; the clean and the muddy; the old and the young and all those in-between; people from different parts of India looking different and speaking in different languages; a collage of boats that were carrying myriad human beings; the birds that were being fed by the people; the waters that were touching all and washing away the sins from the breathing bodies of those still alive and from the ashes of those who had just died... 

Sangam - a merging, a coming together, a meeting, a mingling, a confluence - of diverse energies, life forms, sins and virtues, the pure and the impure, life and death, the material and the spiritual, god and man…

India: Allahabad: Ancient, Sacred and Gracious

November 8, 2009

Allahabad is the city of Sangam – the meeting, mingling, or confluence - of three significant Indian rivers: the Ganga, Jamuna and the mythical and hidden Saraswati; a spot so sacred because it is here that a drop of the eternal nectar carried by the gods at the beginning of time fell into the river and Hindus believe that a dip in the waters of the Sangam can wash away all one's sins and purify the soul.

It is the city where much of the history of India’s independence was planned and written. It is the home of Anand Bhavan, Nehru’s ancestral home where the Indian National Congress was born and developed, where the leaders of India’s freedom movement congregated and charted the course toward independence, where the room in which Mahatma Gandhi stayed whenever he visited Allahabad has been preserved as is with his bed, desk and pen.

Allahabad is where the Kumbh Mela (started centuries ago by Harsh Vardhana as a meeting of learned minds) is held at this meeting point of the three great rivers. Each year is held the Kumbh Mela, every six years the Ardh Kumbh Mela, every twelve years the Purna Kumbh Mela, and the Maha Kumbh Mela which is held only once every 144 years. The last one was held in 2001 where 60 million people visited Sangam – the largest gathering of people in the world ever.

The city is a mix of some of the most amazingly grandiose churches, intricately designed and colorful temples to Hindu gods and goddesses, and the most beautiful colonial architecture as seen in the old buildings of the High Court, the city offices, the universities, some schools and private bungalows.

Allahabad has its own nuanced culture – that of extreme politeness, graciousness, hospitality, welcoming, taking care of, putting the other before the self, putting relationships before the product, taking the time to recognize the human in the other before the ego in the self. I went to Allahabad University to visit the Education Department for some information and brochures. The campus of this very old university appeared dilapidated, worn out, even falling apart in some places. The Department of Education was a small single-storied run-down building with a broken metal signboard outside. Asking for the office I was shown a room and inside it were a couple of gentlemen conversing around a desk. The one behind the desk looked up and asked me to come in. Apparently he was none other than the head of the Education Department. After I introduced myself he welcomed me and said that I was a real Atithi (guest). He explained to everyone present in the office that those who visit unexpectedly and unannounced are Atithi in the true sense and were to be welcomed and honored. Funny how the concept of Atithi has come up twice in two very different contexts but within the same week  – once in a seafood restaurant in the very Catholic environment of Goa, and now in a room deep within an academic institution in the Hindu holy city of Allahabad. 

India: Goa in a nutshell

November 2, 2009:

Goa - tropical beaches, coconut palms, bright flowers, narrow winding lanes, characteristic architecture with modern buildings interspersed with colonial cottages with their shingled tiles, the spicy aromas of Goan cooking as in the prawn curry and rice, the rava-fried kingfish, the papad rolls stuffed with a spicy prawn mixture, the spicy Goan sausage sauteed in spicier oil; the brightly colored jewel-toned houses of the like that I’ve never seen before – bright magenta, shocking pink, emerald green, saffron, bright purple, turquoise, sapphire blue, ruby red, sunset yellow, and even a deep crimson; the numerous, mostly white, churches with beautiful architecture dating back to colonial and Portuguese influences; the numerous Hindu temples. The colors of the flowers are equally brilliant: Hibiscus in reds, pinks and yellows; the Sandwich Island Creeper with its bunches of small delicate pink blossoms spreading so wildly that it creates a thick canopy completely covering fences, hedges, trees and bushes; the Frangipani shrubs with their lightly fragrant white and yellow flowers as well as those with red flowers; the Morning Glory with its pale purple/mauve bell-like flowers creeping along stone walls and wooden fences; the trees with the bright orange flowers whose names I do not know, or the plants with long red blooms that look like cats tails; the Helicopia with its large flowers in a remarkable orange and yellow and white inflorescence; the dozens of varieties of palms, the drumstick trees, the cashew trees, the mango trees, and the hundreds of thousands of coconut palms that grow like wild grass. The vegetation is amazing and the colors are brilliantly blinding.

Goan music has a catchy beat, and the whole atmosphere of Goa is colorful yet slow, laid-back and calm, even more so than Bali I thought – a slower pace, a deeper breath, a calmer life. The Catholic texture of Goa is very much evident in the names of people and shops and streets and in the churches; the native fishing community of Goa is concentrated on the coastal areas where you can spot numerous fishing wharfs harboring fishing boats with colorful fishing nets. The people are friendly and welcoming.

The Goan shacks, or roadside eateries are simple restaurants with thatched roofs covered with dried fronds from the coconut palms, an outdoor feel to the patio-like lay out of the eating space – open sides but with a covered top. Right above the front entrance of one of the shacks, below the large blue sign displaying the varieties of available sea food, was a bold yellow placard with large red lettering in English that read : Atithi Devo Bhavah (a guest is none other but a form of god).

That's Goa in a nutshell...

India: Scooters aka Autos

October 28, 2009:

A scooter ride in Delhi- what an experience! It's as exhilarating as a roller coaster ride except that you’re on your way to work. Scooters are three-wheeled motorized vehicles also called autos (short for autorickshaws). They are convenient to use as they can be easily maneuvered through the heavy traffic and small spaces characteristic of streets in urban India. There’s a driver’s seat in front and a slightly larger seat for two passengers at the back. The sides are completely open but the top is covered with a thick plastic canopy. Some drivers know their way around and others pretend that they do. Only a fraction will honestly admit that they don’t know where you want to go and ask you to guide them. So sometimes you get to your destination directly and sometimes you go around in circles within the city limits before you finally reach where you’re supposed to be. And all this time you’re sitting in an atmosphere of dust, smoke and oil fumes, sunglasses covering eyes and a scarf covering hair, being bumped and jostled, shaken and stirred in this motorized vehicle that has no shock absorbers whatsoever. Every time the scooter runs over a pothole it is thrown into the air and you’re flung around within the interior, up and down, left to right, holding on to your laptop and bag with one hand lest they get thrown out of the vehicle from the open side, and holding onto a metal bar with your other hand lest you get thrown out onto the street and under incoming traffic. I actually know someone who did fall out and broke her leg. She's fine now. I guess all of this sounds like a slapstick comedy, or more like a driving nightmare, but I love it – it’s exciting, exhilarating, and so Indian. I grew up on this and riding autos is second nature to me. One has to develop the physical and mental skills, balance and coordination, and sheer guts to negotiate these amazing rides in real time traffic which follows no rules and that no amusement park can match.

India: Of parks, peacocks and people

October 20, 2010:

I went for a walk this morning in a nearby park. Parks in India are crowded, like every other public space. One can't escape the sheer numbers of people here. But, much to my delight, along with the morning joggers and walkers were bold and beautiful peacocks strutting their colors on the lawns! They're supposed to stay within an enclosure in the park. But they're birds and of course they're going to fly over the wire fencing! I also saw dozens of beautiful spotted deer - such a treat. They, unlike the peacocks, naturally stayed within the enclosed sections of the park. In addition to the fauna and flora, were small informally-gathered groups of people practicing yoga on the lawns here and there. And there was one large group of about 35-40 people who were engaged in laughter therapy where you get together and just laugh out loud for an hour. That's supposed to release the euphoria-producing endorphins in one's body. But the best image for me was that of an early morning motley group of peacocks, parrots and pigeons pecking away at seeds that someone had scattered for them along the long-abandoned ruins of a mid-fifteenth century monument that stood right in the center of the park. India never ceases to amaze me; life here reminds me of a complex jigsaw puzzle in which diverse people, different life forms and myriad activities are harmoniously juxtaposed, co-existing in close proximity, heterogeneous and yet part of a homogeneous whole.