Hit by Enlightenment (India Report #2)

23 11 2010
Mahabodhi Temple – day and night

Day and night at Mahabodhi Temple

I’m a little slow on my India follow-up. It’s been an exhausting week of finding out that the worsening “Kathmandu cough” I’ve had is actually bronchitis, probably brought on by the enormous amount of pollution in this city (since I’ve never had bronchitis in my life). In addition, I was working on a presentation on the influence of the “East” on American art for an upcoming international arts conference. Now that some of the more dramatic moments of my Nepal life have been temporarily settled, I can finally sit down to post about Bodhgaya, India.

Bodhgaya is where Buddha supposedly attained enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi (pipal) tree. The town is a major pilgrimage destination for Buddhists and others alike, and every nation with a healthy number of Buddhists has erected their own temple and/or monastery. First, we had to get to Bodhgaya from Varanasi, about 6 hours away, with our trusty driver Ram. We had tour guides within each town, city or at major tourist destinations but between each of those, we had Ram. He and my husband chattered away in Hindi and from Ram we learned probably more than we did from any of the guides. He told us about local customs, which industries were big in certain areas, and food. Did you know that Indian chapati bread tastes best when cooked over a fire fueled by dried cow dung patties? I know some are thinking, “Oh, that’s gross,” but somewhere in the world, someone probably thinks it’s weird that Americans enjoy hickory-smoked bar-b-que.

We did have a good guide in Bodhgaya, because he was actually interested in the topic of Buddhism on a personal level. When I have hired travel guides (not just in India, but in other parts of the world including the U.S.) I’ve found that 60% of the time you get someone who just rattles off a list of facts they’ve memorized from a book. (Being a professor on the lookout for plagiarized papers/presentations, I’m pretty good at spotting this trend). When someone isn’t invested in a topic and they don’t really know it in-depth, it makes it difficult to follow their delivery, and asking follow-up questions is nearly impossible because they’re unprepared. But our Bodhgaya guide had informally studied Buddhism with various monks and was excitedly planning to take part in a 10-day meditation retreat next year. So, his delivery of the material was passionate and based on both factual information and his own experiences. He was actually happy when we asked questions!

The major Enlightenment sites are clustered around the Mahabodhi Temple and document each stage of Buddha’s final quest for enlightenment. He didn’t just attain enlightenment and head immediately to Sarnath to preach about it, but stuck around for a while to meditate upon his spiritual journey. Surrounding the temple complex are wooden planks that people can rent in order to prostrate or meditate upon holy ground. It’s even possible to meditate all night within the complex so long as you purchase a ticket before they lock the gates, and local vendors were selling mosquito tents for those wishing to meditate more comfortably throughout the night and day.

Monks under shade of Buddha's bodhi tree

Monks under shade of Buddha's bodhi tree

The bodhi tree itself is huge. You can’t actually sit against it since a stone fence surrounds it, but the long branches extend far enough out that you can sit in their shade, as you see the saffron-robed monks doing in this photograph. This isn’t Buddha’s original tree. Emperor Ashoka’s wife, so the story goes, jealously killed that tree, because Ashoka devoted himself to Buddhism after converting in the 2nd century BCE. Before she killed it, a cutting from the original tree was planted in Sri Lanka and the Bodhgaya tree is a cutting from the Sri Lanka tree.

As I was photographing the tree, a small branch fell and hit me on the head. Maybe I was too “in the moment” to be anything but annoyed and should’ve realized that any branches or leaves from Buddha’s tree would be highly sought after, but within seconds, several people dove toward my feet (including a couple monks and my husband) to collect the leaves and now broken bits of branch that hit me. Does getting hit by a sacred tree branch mean I’m blessed? I sure hope so. At least, that’s how I’m interpreting it.

I was able to photograph some nice water images as part of my ongoing water series. During our Bodhgaya tour, we drove across the Falgu River, to the spot where Buddha, in one of his pre-Buddha moments of frustration, threw a metal bowl into the river and said something to the effect, “If I am to reach the highest spiritual plain, let this bowl float upriver against the current. If it floats downriver, I’ll give up my quest.” Well guess what? The bowl did the impossible and floated upriver, pointing the way to the bodhi tree. Hence, the story and symbolism of this place made it the perfect spot for me to be creating splashes, as I’m sure Buddha’s bowl would have done.

My photography assistants on Falgu River near Bodhgaya

My photography assistants on Falgu River near Bodhgaya

During the photographic process, we attracted some attention from the local village children. They became my helpers and you can see them in this image. The oldest, whom you see in the front, was very interested from a scientific perspective and told us about his studies into nature and the human body. He’s very hopeful of one day becoming a doctor and asked if we could send him books about brains (the mind) and lungs and the diseases that affect them. So, any of you Mount Mercy nursing and biology students reading this blog: if you have entry-level science materials that we could send in a care package, please pass them along to Jane Gilmor and my husband will FedEx them to our curious young friend in order to encourage him toward achieving his dream. My husband was once a small boy in a village home with dirt floor and no electricity or running water. With the help of family, friends and complete strangers who extended their kindnesses (like the Catholic nun who gave him some money for the last little bit of money he needed for his plane ticket to America, or the volunteers from English-speaking countries who helped him improve his English) he made it to the United States. Now, he’s one of those immigrant success stories you read about all the time. When we met this studious boy who clearly could succeed if given the chance, I thought of my husband and all the other people like him who just need a break.

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India bound

20 10 2010


1922 photograph of Varanasi


Suresh and I are heading to India for the next week for a part art research, part vacation, part religious pilgrimage trip. I’ll try to post along the way but that might be unlikely to happen. We’ll spend a few days in the sacred city of Varanasi, also known as Kashi or Benares and situated on the Ganges River. As many of you know, my art focuses on water and images of water, making Varanasi a must-see. It’s one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites for Hindus, and according to many sources, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world.

While we’re in Varanasi, we’ll visit nearby Sarnath, where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Deer Park. Sarnath has an archeological museum containing the Lion Capital of Emperor Ashok (the national symbol of India and one of the images MMU Intro to Art students learn about in class). Next, we’ll spend a couple days in Bodhgaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment sitting under a Bodhi tree. Supposedly, the Bodhi tree there is a sapling from the original tree under which Buddha sat. Bodhgaya, as well as Sarnath, are major pilgrimage sites for Buddhists as you can imagine. Another major site is Lumbini in Nepal, where Buddha was born. Hopefully we’ll get to Lumbini next month because it’s very near my husband’s ancestral village.

Then it’s on to Allahabad for more watery art research. Sangam at Allahabad is the confluence of two visible sacred rivers and one invisible sacred river, thought to run underneath the other two. Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s right-hand-man, was originally from Allahabad and there’s a Nehru Museum there as well.

Lastly, before flying back to Varanasi, we’ll visit Khajuraho, known for it’s medieval Hindu and Jain temples covered with erotic sculpture. I’m sure you’ll be eagerly awaiting the photo uploads from Khajuraho. The eroticism depicts the sacred union of the gods and goddesses as a metaphor for the spiritual love and union believers should have with their god(s), so keep your pants on!

Stay tuned for trip updates.

Talk about Nothing (and Everything)

20 09 2010

I’ve been busy these days so I’ll lump a few posts into one instead of breaking posts down topically.

Shiva Bhairava sculpture

Shiva Bhairava (The Terrible One); Nepal; ca. 16th century; Gilt copper alloy; Rubin Museum of Art; C2005.16.14 (HAR 65436)

An American colleague at Kathmandu University Centre for Art and Design, Adam Swart, gave a talk on Himalayan art earlier this week. Adam was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal a while back and after returning to the States, began working at the Rubin Museum of (Himalayan) Art in New York City. Now he’s back in Nepal teaching art and working on museum projects. The Rubin was built after I moved away from NYC to Iowa, but it looks spectacular and I’ll have to visit next time I’m in NYC. I checked out their website and I love their current lecture series, a nod to Buddhism, entitled Talk about Nothing. The description states that:

  • “How we perceive and conceive of what is and what isn’t is a universal question. It may, in fact, be the biggest question. It is at the heart of Buddhism’s Diamond Sutra, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. And here at the Rubin Museum of Art–itself, a museum of ideas–we have brought together some of the world’s most active minds to talk about…nothing. There will be a lot to say.”  -Tim McHenry, Producer

Adam discussed the Rubin’s collection scope of Himalayan countries, including Mongolia, which isn’t really that close to the Himalayas but whose work is stylistically similar because, historically, Mongolians employed Himalayan (specifically Newar) artists. He showed representations of objects and images from various Himalayan cultures through time and the ways in which influences traveled from place to place through travel and trade (e.g. Silk Road).

I’ve  been teaching much more lately and my schedule is really filled these days between classes, workshops, my own research, and day-to-day life in Kathmandu. Because Kathmandu is the capital city, there’s a lot happening. I also attended a gallery reception and lecture for an exhibit of Nepali and Indian photographers entitled Rivers of Pilgrimage. Since I’m photographing sacred water sites in Nepal, the exhibit timing couldn’t have been more perfect. There are so many festivals and rituals involving water here (and in India) that I feel like I need another grant to even begin tackling the vastness of this topic! Speaking of water, I attended a fundraiser for Pakistani flood victims the other night. In Cedar Rapids, we were all affected by the 2008 floods somehow, which maybe makes the devastating images from Pakistan hit home for Iowans. The area impacted by the Pakistan floods is larger than the entire country of Nepal. I’ll just let that fact stand on its own.

Kumari on IndraJatra

Kathmandu's Kumari on the eve of the 2007 Indra Jatra (Photo credit: Manjari Shrestha)

There’s a little interruption in life this week because guess what? Another holiday is here! This Wednesday is Indra Jatra to celebrate the symbolic end of the monsoon when, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Kumari (living child goddess) makes her yearly appearance in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. You can read more about Kumaris here but briefly, the Kumari is revered and worshipped by Nepali Hindus and some Nepali Buddhists. Kumaris are chosen when they are quite young and their goddess role ends when they reach puberty. The autobiography From Goddess to Mortal, written by former Kumari Rashmila Shakya (in conjunction with author Scott Berry) attempts to dispel Kumari myths such as that it’s bad luck to marry a former Kumari (they do marry, but have to deal with this stigma). Fascinating reading if you have the time and interest. Traditionally, Kumaris bless Nepal’s ruler on Indra Jatra but since Nepal’s monarchy was abolished a few years ago and there is currently no prime minister due to political in-fighting, I’m wondering who the Kumari will bless? I’ll let you know when I find out.

Quick geography lesson

22 08 2010

It’s dangerous to make assumptions about what people know or don’t know so for that reason (and because I haven’t provided this information before) I should probably provide some maps and basic info to help you understand where I am. I remember talking with someone once who said, “Oh Nepal! Isn’t that in Italy?” I was taken aback until I realize the poor soul was confusing Nepal with Naples. Sigh.

Nepal's location within Asia

The green sliver is Nepal (in South Asia)

The country of Nepal is like a carrot wedged between two boulders. The boulders, as you can see, are India and China. China has less of an impact on Nepal because the Himalayas separate the two countries. India and Nepal share many cultural values just like the United States and Canada. Like the U.S. and Canada, there is a love-hate relationship between Nepal and India. For example, Buddha was born in what is now called Nepal. Back in Buddha’s time, there was no Nepal or India, only small kingdoms controlled by powerful families. However, both Nepal and India claim Buddha’s birthplace within their borders. It is diplomatically correct to say that Buddha was born in what is now considered Nepal. At least, I’d like to think that’s the way Buddha would state it, since arguing either way goes against his teachings.

Nepal map

Major urban areas and geographic formations of Nepal

You can link to the CIA World Factbook for more info, but here are some highlights on Nepal:

  • Nepal’s population numbers around 29 million people, and 85% of the population is rural though many have moved (and are continuing to move) into Kathmandu and other urban areas.
  • The country is slightly larger than the state of Arkansas.
  • The largest portion of the population speaks Nepali but there are up to 30+ ethnic groups with their own languages.
  • The religious makeup of the people is  80.6% Hindu,  10.7% Buddhist,  4.2% Muslim and a small number of other religions.
  • Many people confuse Nepal with Tibet (located within China), which really irritates the Nepalese.
  • Nepal contains some of the highest mountains in the world, including Mount Everest, which the Nepalese called Sagarmatha.
  • Nepal isn’t just mountains. There are middle hills and lowland regions, including fertile plains that supply much of Nepal’s food. And Kathmandu lies within a valley.
  • Kathmandu Valley has the world’s densest collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
  • Their biggest industry is tourism (start planning your visit!)
  • Sadly, Nepal is among the poorest and least developed countries in the world, with almost one-quarter of its population living below the poverty line.
  • The literacy rate is only 48.6%.
  • Nepal’s Gurkha soldiers have served in the British Army since the 1800’s when the British were unable to defeat them or colonize Nepal. Gurkhas are known for their courage and strength.
  • Nepal is the only country in the world whose flag is not rectangular or square.

    Nepal flag

    Nepal's flag

There are so many more tidbits about Nepal than I can list, but here are some links for your exploration:

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation
Lonely Planet – Nepal
National Geographic – Nepal Guide