Saturday, November 24, 2007

elephants make a parade

once a year, the mula-gandha kuti temple in sarnath that houses relics of the buddha allows those relics to leave the security of its inner sanctum and circle the village. as is apparently most befitting to the physical traces of an enlightened being, the relics go forth on the back of an elephant, escorted by other elephants, marching bands, pilgrims from all corners of asia, nuns and monks with horns, with cameras, with incense and with palms together, along with the occasional government official. this year for the first time ever, they were also escorted by a much delighted mexican pilgrim named flora!

the relics kept here are said to have been unearthed at ruins in andhra pradesh at nagarjuna konda and at taxila in what is now pakistan, during the time of the british colonial government. the mahabodhi society administers the mulagandhi kuti temple, and both were foundered by the famous sri lankan anagarika dharmapala who did so much for the reservation of buddhist sites in india. the mahabodhi society somehow managed to secure for itself the great privilege of providing them with a more suitable home, and has shared that privilege with the entire village regularly since then.

in what is easily the most impressive event of the year for this dusty – if sacred – little town in northern india, the relic parade took place today. locals here kept saying that it was buddha purnima, or the buddha's birthday, a day that is otherwise reckoned to take place in april, may or june based on the lunar calendar. but in fact the relic procession is regularly scheduled for karthika purnima, the full moon day in this eleventh month of the year, when the weather in november is much more manageable - it was 75 degrees today, for example.

the largest elephant has the honor of carrying both the relics and the two VIPs who escort them, and is followed by several of its smaller brethren. the relics themselves are of course tiny and remain throughout the event in a gold container shaped like a stupa. (note if you can as well the symbol of a stupa emblazoned on the shimmery cloth draped around the lead elephant.)

no doubt about, buddha's relics and elephants together really make a parade!

Monday, November 19, 2007

no more a place

poetry remains the genre of the hour for me here. less wide-ranging but just as bound to place and to translocal moment, these lines are from arun kolatkar's poem on jejuri, a pilgrimage place i never visited when i was nearby in pune last year.

among the successes of his work is the strange wonder he can create by allowing an intimate description of the place to unfold inseparably from his distanced view of it.

he writes:

that's no doorstep.
it's a pillar on its side.
that's what it is.

and elsewhere, describing a shrine to the god maruti within the jejuri temple complex:

the roof comes down on Maruti's head.
nobody seems to mind.
... least of all Maruti himself
may be he likes a temple better this way.

a mongrel bitch has found a place
for herself and her puppies
in the heart of the ruin.
may be she likes a temple better this way.
the bitch looks at you guardedly
past a doorway cluttered with broken tiles.
the pariah puppies tumble over her.
may be they like a temple better this way.
the black eared puppy has gone a little too far.
a tile clicks under its foot.
it's enough to strike terror in the heart
of a dung beetle
and send him running for cover
to the safety of the broken collection box
that never did get a chance to get out
from under the crushing weight of the roof beam.

no more a place of worship this place
is nothing less than the house of god.

photo is not jejuri, but rather of a shrine i visited in andhra pradesh with my sanskrit teacher last year.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

the ram's ultimate prayer to the tether

along paths both swift and haphazard, a few lines of christopher okigbo's verse find their way, on a smoky sunday afternoon, to the room wedged between field and household compound, in northern india, where i stay:

for we are listening in cornfields
among the windplayers,
listening to the wind leaning over
its loveliest fragment…..

and from elsewhere within the painfully slim volume of poetry he left behind:

for beyond the blare of sirened afternoons,
beyond the motorcades;
the voices and days, the echoing highways; beyond the latescence
of our dissonant airs; through our curtained eyeballs, through our shuttered sleep,
onto our forgotten selves, onto our broken images; beyond the barricades
commandments and edicts, beyond the iron tables beyond the elephant's
legendary patience, beyond the inviolable bronze bust; beyond crumbling towers...
beyond the iron path careering along the same beaten track…
the Glimpse of a dream lies smouldering in a cave, together with the mortally wounded birds.
Earth, unbind me; let me be the prodigal; let this be the ram's ultimate prayer to the tether . .

okigbo's poetry can be read online, and should be.
photo from

locating sarnath

Sarnath, India map - Tagzania

yes that is sarnath. click on hybrid, and you get a good sense of the lay of the land here. dasashwamedh is a famous area right in the center of nearby varanasi. zoom out and you will see that we are basically right smack in the middle of the gangetic plains. yes, the river you see there is the holy Ganges.

and for anyone who has spoken with me on the phone in the month since i arrived here, you can click on where it says 'map' to see just why the train is so very audible in the background.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

taking is bondage; discarding is freedom

four pratyekabuddhas were staying together in the house of a potter. thus begins not a bad buddhist joke, but a tight little narrative i have just come across in a collection of stories about nuns. it is drawn from the vinaya and retold by the great tibetan polymath buston. the potter sees the four pratyekabuddhas meditating at night, and is inspired to ask them how they came to ordain. here is their exchange:

"where and why did you ordain?"

“have you heard of king rna lag can of the kalinga country?”

“yes, i have heard of him.”

“that was me. after seeing the shortcomings of kingship, i ordained.”

"what did you see?”

“a bird was carrying meat. as it was flying in the sky, many other birds attacked it. it flung the meat away, and another bird took it. then they surrounded the one who had taken it, and stole it from him. seeing that, i had the thought, ‘taking is bondage; discarding is freedom,’ and i ordained.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

making buddhas

the thai temple in sarnath has a major effort underway to build a large –a very large – statue of buddha. the work is now in progress, and indeed has been since i was here last year. across the temple grounds are scattered massive chunks of lovely pink stone, most carved smooth on one or two sides, and some still looking as if they have only just been hacked out of a mountain. only the head and feet have been assembled and lie, appropriately enough, at opposite ends of the stone sprawl. already the faithful have begun offering small squares of gold leaf to the serene face of the buddha, which sits protected by a simple tent canopy. the feet have not received the same attention, but someone perhaps with a sense for symbolism has placed the feet at the base of a shade tree.

each stone that will comprise the body now lies scattered between the head and the feet, and each piece is marked with numbers. looking at these marks, i think of the other large stone images i have seen at various sites around india, and am suddenly transported by a leap of imagination to their process of construction. i see them too, carted in in separate chunks, lain across the earth, marked according to an elaborate master plan, and painstakingly carved under the watchful eye of the master sculptor.

nearby work has begun to erect the central post – what tibetans call the life tree or srog shing – that will serve as the spine of this imposing image (see right side of photo.) this life tree is made of steel beams and poured concrete. it is around this central support that the body of this buddha will at last come together, with the joyful raising up of these now earth-bound bits of stone. from the position of these two feet, planted firmly soles-down on the earth, it looks as if this buddha image will either be a standing figure, which would make it dizzyingly tall, or perhaps another maitreya figure, seated western style. there are no thais around for me to ask about this, just an aged hindi-speaking caretaker and sculptors, so it is again my imagination that must do the construction of the final form. and that form soars up, up high above the village to survey this land where buddha shakyamuni first taught. this towering new image of buddha seems perfectly content. and it is breathtaking.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

land of work, noble land

tibetans are fond of referring to india as the noble land or land of the nobles ('phags pa'i yul or āryabhūmi) whereas indians are most likely to call it the karmabhūmi - land of ritual activity or as i prefer to think of it, land of work. they contrast it with america, which they call bhogabhūmi - land of enjoyments or land of wealth. if the idea is that one puts in one's time working (or performing ritual activities) here in india and then enjoys the fruits in the states, that might seem contrary to the usual immigrant experience leaving india and going to the states. but it seems right to me as i settle in for another year of solid work on my dissertation.

begin round two

so round two begins. after a stop in delhi to be oriented by AIIS (american institute for indian studies), the extremely kind organization that is funding this second research year, my feet are firmly on the hallowed ground of sarnath.

photos are of me standing amongst the ruins of the monastic site with my friend flora from xalapa in mexico. the other is of bhikshuni jampa tsedroen, another dear friend; the stupa is behind us.

the three of us are staying together in sarnath for a few months: flora preparing for ordination and spending most of her days doing preliminary practices at the stupa, jampa tsedroen-la (who is a phd candidate at the university of hamburg) and i working on our dissertations.