TIBET in INDIA: First Camp—Golden Temple and White Temple

India has managed its Tibetan refugee challenge with greater grace than I can imagine from the USA. Rather than try to integrate those who escaped the Chinese invasion by coming to India, India provided what we might call “reservations” and resettled hundreds of thousands of Tibetans on these lands. It is not a perfect solution, but it does provide a way to preserve the Tibetan culture in exile.

Driving into the area on the road to Coorg it is immediately apparent that we have left India. For one thing, the roads are cleaner, the restaurants boast Tibetan names, many of the women wear traditional Tibetan clothing, and there are neat schools, cement factories, farms, and shops with Tibetan owners and many Tibetan products. Men and women walk by in maroon robes and sandals…..there are many monks and nuns here it seems.

Who knew? My goal was to visit the Golden Temple . I discover far more. There is a monastery that houses over 4000 monks and nuns from all over the world as well as practitioners from around the world. The complex includes a library, a several story main temple with three 40 foot plus gold statues, murals that are portraits of various “precious teachers” of the Nyingpa lineage, prayer wheels, and colorful columns encrusted with gold leaf with dragons twisting their way around them. No expense seems to have been spared to recreate here in India the shrines and temples that are remembered from Tibet.

This shiny, colorful temple is now on the tourist trail and the main hall was filled with photo snapping Indian school children and parents. A few determined folks sat in meditation on the floor, but their mindfulness must be far stronger than mine. As I walked around the building I enjoyed the garden, fountains, numerous prayer flags fluttering and discovered two smaller buildings where shrines are less visited and more peaceful. Hundreds of butterlamps glittered on shelves in separate buildings. Along the way I spoke with a nun from Canada who knows a Portland Lama, Clark Hansen and two visiting Tibetans from Portland OR. Talk about coincidences.

I learned from the nun, Damchie Wangone Namdraling, that another White Temple (Kaagu Gompa) was down the road….and since that would be an expression of the teaching lineage I follow I was eager to see it. How different. It sits on a slight rise shining in white splendor on a platform of imposing steps. It is approached by a dirt road and seems to rise from the arid red soil around it. There is something rather New Mexicoish about this terrain.

There is no wall surrounding it. No cars, no tourists. I climb the steps. I feel as if I am climbing one of the

Figure 1 Main Shrine Golden Temple

Mexican pyramids. Entering I am struck by beauty and simplicity. I really love the beautiful carved wood that surrounds the central golden Buddha and the ceremonial drums. I particularly appreciate

Figure 2Golden temple/ small shrine room

that the benches where practitioners will sit, the musical instruments that may accompany certain practices are in place and high on the walls hang many many traditional thankas (portraits painted on fabric and bordered by brocade). A young boy dressed in monks clothing shyly smiles. He and an old man attending the shrine are the only people to be seen. I put a small donation in the box provided and take a white prayer shawl…hoping that whatever merit is achieved will bless myself and others just a bit.

As we drive away, I note that the surrounding land is being worked. I notice a dyke planted with trees that seems to gird the perimeter. I will learn more about this place. But for now, time is passing and my driver has done me a favor to extend the tour in this direction. Before we leave First Camp, the founding community….we stop for a traditional meal of beef filled dumplings and noodles in beef broth.

Within a few kilometers, we return to India…..its crowds and traffic.

Figure 3 Prayer Flags Golden Temple

Figure 4 White Temple Buddha

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Rice—-

The ride to Somnathpur, Karnotaka, a World Heritage site, bumps along through rural villages where bullock carts, bicycles, motorscooters compete for road space with modern rice threshing machines. Along the roadsides women carry loads upon their heads, wagons are being loaded with just harvested sugar cane, and men and women toss rice straw in the air removing the chaff by hand to salvage whatever they can.

Figure 1Man and Woman scavenger rice from roadside

Yet just up the road crews of men and women feed the same straw into machines which spew out the grain which is scooped up by hand into sacks for transport. Small shrines and little temples, poor mosques dot the countryside.

Figure 2 Man places offering at Naga shrine covered with years of powders and pourings of ritual fluid

Figure 3: Theshing rice

The land is flat and terraces are filled with rice in various stages of growth. Interspersed are coconut palms, sugar cane fields, and banana. Under these trees grow vegetables such as cabbage and a local squash. The dirt is red and black….rich with years of wise cultivation. Irrigation ditches bring water from reservoirs that capture both rain and river water. Greens of every shade sweep the landscape.

Men and women in the fields bend to the efforts of cutting, loading, sorting these rich crops. Village homes are red brick adobe and we pass places where the bricks are produced. Cows are tethered here and there. Most people are living in tiny one room spaces, their doorways filled with buckets of water brought by the women of the house from common sources. Village shops are tiny open air shacks at the roadsides….the singer sewing machine is busy for the tailor, the mechanics and the supplies for motorbike and bike repair are also along the street, small vendors sell fruit, sweets—-the basics.

Figure 4 moving rice from machine to bags

There are no shining saris here. And very few shoes. Men and children walk the roadsides barefoot. Men are often turbaned loosely and wear the sheet like dhoti, an ankle length cloth which wraps the lower body, but is most often gathered between the legs and tied at the front….sort of a men’s mini-skirt.

This rich land has changed hands many times over the centuries. Our visits today are evidence of great dynasties of the 1200’s through the mid 1700’s when the last sultan was killed during a ferocious battle with the British. The massive fort in Srirangapatnam protected his power but is now destroyed except for great walls, a tower or two,and the dungeons that held prisoners of war. But the summer palace of this Sultan stands as testimony to his wealth and power…its ceilings, walls, and floors resplendent with murals, Rajastani style portraits, carved teak, intricate tile work. There is not an inch of space that is not heavily decorated. (sorry no photos allowed) It testifies to the Arabic heritage as does the mosque built by the sultan. Nearby a bird sanctuary—-but we are traveling mid morning. No birds for us. But the crème de la crème is the Hoysala era temple at Somnathpur.

Figure 5Carving on exterior of temple

The style of this 1268 temple is lacelike, the detailing of its many sculptures delicate and detailed. Every inch of the exterior is covered with bands of intricate carvings….elephants marching trunk to tail, warriors fighting, floral motifs, and above these ribbons of scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata ad Bhagavad Gita…….including a few erotic ones from the Kama Sutra. Figure 6 Bands of carving- temple base

The place is mobbed with students. And every one is asking the same…..”What is your name” Where are you from?”

Unfortunately that is the end of their ability to speak English and certainly they understand it less. Although schoolchildren are learning English to read it, it is infrequently spoken and so to truly communicate with children or adults here is frustrating. They can’t understand, and I rarely understand them. But I appreciate (most of the time) their eagerness to connect with a foreigner—Me.

MALLALAPURAM AND SAFE HAVEN

Why begin my journey in Chennai—on the opposite side of the Indian subcontinent from the state of Kerala where I will spend the majority of my time in India? A dozen years ago I visited two amazing temple sites (one a World Heritage site) and wanted to return once more. South to Mallalapuram I drive with Daniel (whose English is somewhat stronger than Mr. Tuk Tuk’s) and who declares himself a Christian. (Methodist). The traffic thickens as we leave the city and finally emerge on the East Coast highway leaving Chennai’s traffic congestion and pollution behind.

Groves of coconut palms and banana trees appear along with wetlands and a few views of the long beach. Resort hotels are scattered here and there…..not fancy but frequent. We pass a huge amusement park. In the distance are huge towers of apartments and condos rising from the flatness of the coastal plain. Here and there are private homes…..too close to the road to be quiet.

 

 


A. Children in school uniforms wait for their buses, trucks plow along with motor bikes….the sounds of horns beeping their warnings never ceases. We weave through blockage of trucks, scooters, cars past the zillions of small road side businesses, cows resting in piles of garbage, small community temples and shrines, more churches, poor clay and palm frond shacks, women carrying water. This could be Mexico, Vietnam or any developing southern nation……except it seems more crowded.

Before reaching Mallalapuram we stop for breakfast at a modern restaurant. Our rice cakes with various dipping sauces are delivered as quickly as fast food. A plate of sweet pineapple and watermelon, strong sweet coffee with milk. I am rejuvenated. I pay for my food and that of the driver, Dan. We have eaten well for less than $5.

I can barely recognize this World Heritage Site……what improvements over these last years. With World Bank funds the site has been protected, cleaned, repaired, signed, fenced. Grass and trees make it seem park-like. Beggars are few. A government shop offers a full range of Indian crafts, a bazaar like street offers more. Stone workers chip away at marble to create thousands of traditional statues of every size…shipped worldwide…..for gardens, shrines, etc, This is the center of stone carving…..a craft that took root here thousands of years back.

A licensed guide greets us and I agree to pay for his services. He is about 70 and has guided this area for 30 years.
His favorite phrase is “Slowly-slowly”, his caution as we climb over uneven paths and steps. He tells me exactly where to stand at each of twenty locations so that I can take the perfect photograph and will not be happy unless I record every scene. He communicates fairly well telling the ancient stories of the gods and pointing out the differences in architectural styles from one area to the next. This place was the ego child of three sets of rulers beginning with the Palava Dynasty in the 7th century. Amazing that they would sponsor its creation and never visit themselves?

Let the photos tell the story.. It is a marvel and its setting next to the sea is lovely. Unfortunately sea air has eaten away some of the work at the monuments closest to the shoreline. Tsunami damage has been minimal thanks to seawalls and other barriers constructed by the government. India and the World Heritage project must be commended for preserving this extraordinary place.

Blogging technique means that I have not learned to insert captions or rotate photos once they are on the blog. From top to bottom you are looking at a bas relief that tells the story of a god who meditated and did not eat for many years….there are cobras representing the river Ganges and a cat who dances pretending to have meditated and been without food, but his fat tummy exposes his lie.

The large stone is called Kristna’s Butterball and is balanced by gravity….not disturbed by storms or time.

The carved from solid rock temple honors three gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva

The Shore Temple honors Vishnu andis surrounded by 60 bulls ( Nandi) the “mount” of that particular god.This temple is made of a type of concrete block composed of lime and sea shell.

Last I visit the five wheelless chariots one for each brother of the dynasty. These are carved from standing stones on the site.

Next onward to my safe haven—a homestay with an amazing couple within a non profit serving the very poor. More on that to follow.

 

Museums in Mysore

Mysore, Karnataka is a city of deep history and culture, lovely trees, majestic buildings (many a bit grubby and needing repairs). It boasts 10 palaces, a zoo, a lake where birders can enjoy walking, several of India’s top universities, a high schools for women only. And surprise! It has a new, very modern Natural History Museum with displays that they proudly say are like the Smithsonian. It is so clean and modern that I felt I’d left India when I visited. Nice to see the birds, mammals, herbs, etc. and to see so many children learning about saving their environment.

Silk, sandalwood products drive the luxury goods market. Coconut products, sugar, rice, and other commodities are the backbone of the agricultural region that surrounds the city. This area has been fought over for centuries as different dynasties came into and out of power. Here a majaraja’s palace that would compare in many ways to Versailles dominates the city center. It is open to the public, but the current majaraja maintains a home somewhere it its huge space.

The Majaraja’s Palace is the chief draw for hordes of tourists. The grounds are filled on evenings when the great structure is lit by 100,000 bulbs….and it glows every evening with great floodlights that give it a magical glow. Surrounded by a moat, high walls and cupola topped towers it epitomizes exotic India.

Other palaces have been turned into museums or university space. Here one can wonder at the intricately carved rosewood columns and doorways, at the intricately designed tiled floors ( very Islamic), at the remnants of art collections and furniture of previous occupants, and at rooms filled with hunting trophies, armaments, and six foot tall portraits of the previous occupants….robed in brocades and turbaned and jeweled. But these places are shabby.

My favorite is a museum housed in a grand mansions boasting folk art now a part of Mysore University (Jayalakshmi Vilas Complex) I am amazed by huge wooden sculptures with movable legs and arms, huge carved animals, great parade sized dolls carried in festivals, delicately painted parchment flat puppets carried through their performances on sticks……as in Indonesia, mother of pearl and jewel encrusted puppet stages, wooden doll puppets in costumes to represent characters from India’s ancient Hindu stories, musical instruments and cooking tools…..I am zipped through 100 rooms of such richness in less than 30 minutes by the guard, who doesn’t want to miss a minute of his lunch hour. He opens doors, turns on lights, I look. We exit as he turns off lights, locking doors behind and we scurry forward. Breathless and more than satisfied. Too bad these precious items are not in humidity controlled circumstances and there are no photos allowed and there are no books containing photos for purchase. A treasure decaying in the middle of Mysore.

I try to imagine the final exhibit a three hundred year old temple cart as it might have moved on wooden wheels as tall as I am, pulled by elephants. It is a tower of intricately carved scenes from Hindi stories…..and its role in festival processions must have been important. Dussehra is the Mysore festival (also called Dasara) of October. Brass bands, painted elephants, fireworks. This great chariot once rode in that parade.

Now its faded splendor is cracking and may be lost….That is indeed sad.

Then I visit the Versailles of India….the Palace…….and see luxury in spades. No photo allows of stained glass ceilings, of frescos, or of the enormous and colorful column that fill the royal halls. Here are murals showing the Dasara festival parades of 1930 or so…..and one see the golden thrones, the elephant tusk painting frames, the teak carved ceilings and doorways and finally silver doors, gold gates, and ivory and mother of pearl inlaid doors. Such luxury and such power ended with the independence. A descendant of the Majarajah lives somewhere in this enormous place. Crowds crowds crowds shuffle through with me as I listen to an excellent audio explanation. It is easy to believe that this place attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahaj in Agra.

On a clear day

You can see forever from the lighthouse across the lake from Cernobbio. It is cold, but we enjoy the ride on the boat to Como and walk briskly to the funicular that rises from the lakeside to the small town Brunate. Up we walk along the cobbled path that leads to the lighthouse, past lovely villas and more humble “huts” for those who hike along the hills here. It is steep, but the views along the way are magnificent. Christine and I are delighted to warm up as we walk. From the lighthouse we try to guess which of the alps before us is the Matterhorn. We photograph Cernnobio to show the children exactly where their condo is. Tiny boats move across the lake and a seaplane the size of a fly takes off before us. I locate the route to school and the tennis club. We enjoy the bright sunshine and descend to enjoy coffee and sweets at a bakery specializing in Sicilian pasteries….think rich and almondy. Home for errands and school pickups. The next day—-snow.

The Greenway del Lago di Como

Walk the “greenway” along cobbled streets and steps up and down the hills and through the villages that border Lake Como. On a December day snow-capped Alps shimmer in the distance as church spires, towers, and castle walls are visible through the bare trees. After parking near the beginning of the greenway, we walk up a village street and almost immediately see a sign that invites us to view many manger scenes. Inside the gate we are greeted by the craftsman whose hobby is creating these scenes both large for outdoors and churches and small for collectors. We enjoy seeing those that are music boxes, some inside bottles, others small enough to fit on a spoon. Such joy and pride our host exhibits and then we are off again, huffing uphill along open meadows and past more houses, then down through another village and then along the lake. Villas with huge gardens, cottage sized boat houses, docks with lovely statues creating a pretentious greeting for those arriving at the villas, swans and ducks accompanying our walk. We decide to walk farther and return to the car by bus. We stop at a small eatery and enjoy a pasta lunch, jump aboard a bus just as the snowflakes begin to fall. Perfect timing. Naturally the winter finds the many eateries, shops and hotels along the way are closed for the season….but I am happy to avoid the tourists that enjoy the warmer seasons.

 

 

 

Snow Day Cernobbio Italy

Remember “snow days”? those lovely, unexpected vacations from schools and jobs that Mother Nature bestows.  Ours was Friday when we woke to a winter wonderland of snow covered tile roofs, lacey white trees and a garden covered in velvety white stuff.  It took no time to declare a holiday.  No snow tires, Noah announced.  You shouldn’t drive us to school.  And so we located boots, snow gear and were outdoors quickly to play.  Noah created the first snow man and began pounding down a snow trail for a sled.  Sasha rolled snow into large balls and created Emily, adorned in pink scarf and hat and wearing sunglasses……Soon we collected snow if Ice cream and rushed upstairs to hot chocolate and vanilla snow cream.   Back again to create mounds of snow balls for target practice and “personal best” throwing.  (note the clever snow ball fight avoidance techniques).    Between snow play we created a fun box:  Noah filled his with notes that gave him options for playing with his new Ipod games and Sasha came up with puzzles, beading, dancing, reading and lots of other things to do, There were long periods of Monopoly in which I learned that there are potential real estate tycoons in my family and I went bankrupt several times,  Sasha was the billion queen.  Chris and Robb returned from their two day “mini vacation” and we traded stories of good times.  Tennis tournaments for Robb and Noah have sent them off and Sasha and I are beginning to make dough for sugar cookies. May great snow days be in your life too!