Buduruvagala Stone Sculptures

Seven statues sculptured on relief on one gigantic rock in the 9th -10th c A.D. The 51 foot high Buddha is in the centre and is flanked by three smaller statues on either side. Photo ©Chulie de Silva circa 2000.

Seven relief sculptures on one gigantic rock in the 9th -10th c A.D. The 13 m. high Buddha is in the centre and is flanked by three smaller statues on either side. Photo ©Chulie de Silva circa 2000.

The photos of Buduruvāgala (also spelt Buduruwagala) taken nearly two decades ago tumbled out of a shoe box of old letters and cards I was rummaging in.  With it came the memories of that journey to see Buddha’s rock with the remarkable Mahayana sculptures in Sri Lanka. We were holidaying in Ella. A last ditch effort on my part to rekindle the old romance. That was a lost cause but we did drive from Ella, turning South at Wellawaya to see this colossus of Buduruwagala.

The land was parched dry, spent and desolate, like an aged wrinkled parched man waiting for a drink. We walked on foot, the last stretch, in blistering heat with little respite. No throngs of tourists. This was late 1990s, and with us were just a couple of local visitors. We didn’t talk much, but that was par for the course where the marriage was.

Buduruvāgala  means the rock with the Buddha images and is a composite of the words Buddha=Budu; Ruva=images and Gala=rock. The gigantic rock when it came into view was at first glimpse so surreal in the barren landscape. I remembered the descriptions of the rock comparing it to a huge elephant reposing, bowing and paying homage to the seven statues sculptured in to it.

My search for more information, unearthed some interesting facts. This is Sri Lanka’s finest example of Mahayana sculpture and is dated around 9th -10th c A.D., and it was possibly a site for a monastery. The statues and the writings on it indicated that the worship and practice of Mahayana Buddhism was more widespread in Lanka than I first thought. Mahayana influence began  to take hold in Sri Lanka around the 7 Century, and reached its zenith during the rule of King Mahasen (A.D. 276-303) says Janaka Perera in an article The Impact of Mahayana Buddhism on Sri Lanka “By the 7th and 8th Centuries the centres of Mahayana practices were the Abhayagiri and Jethawana monasteries (which also includes the country’s largest stupa) complexes in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s ancient capital.”

The imposing central Buddha image is the tallest in Sri Lanka and is 13 m. in height and is sid to be of Dipankara Buddha and not Gautama Buddha as I assumed earlier. The Buddha is said to be in the Samabhanga posture and the right hand is held in the Abhaya Mudra position.  This could very well be the tallest stone sculpture of a Buddha, now that the Bamiyan statues are no more.

The six carved statues on either side are all of bodhisattvas. In very simple terms bodhisattvas are ones who aspires to be a Buddha. Mahāyāna Buddhism encourages everyone to become bodhisattvas and to take the bodhisattva vows.

On the right of the main Buddha statue are statues of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva in the centre, a bare breasted Goddess Tara to his left and Prince Sudhanakumara to his right.

On the right of the Standing Buddha image are the sculptures attributed to be of 3 Bodhisatvas Left: Sudhanakumara (height 6.530m) Center: Avalokitesvara (height 7.160m) and Tara (height 5.980m) .Buduruwagala stone sculptures, Wellawaya, Sri Lanka. circa 2000. Photo©Chulie de Silva

On the right of the Standing Buddha image are the statues of 3 bodhisatvas Left: Sudhanakumara (height 6.530m) Center: Avalokitesvara (height 7.160m) and Tara (height 5.980m) .Buduruvāgala stone sculptures, Wellawaya, Sri Lanka. circa 2000. Photo©Chulie de Silva

Avalokiteshvara (height 7.160m) is the bodhisattva of compassion. He has eyes that are half closed, long ear lobes, wears a cloth round his waist (dhoti), and his matted hair crown holds an effigy of Amitabha. His hands are in the ahvana mudra  (gesture of calling) position. The male figure on the right of Avalokiteshvara, is supposed to be of Prince Sudhanakumara. He too has a matted hair crown and holds a book in his right hand and his left hand is in the ahvana mudra position too. On the left of  Avalokiteshvara, is the only female bodhisattva of the group and is identified as Tara. This statue standing at 5.980m., is probably the largest statue of Tara found in Sri Lanka. She is portrayed here in the Tribhaṅga or Tribunga posture –  a tri-bent body position in the traditional Indian sculpture.  She also has a matted hair crown and holds a water pot in her lowered left hand and her right hand is in the ahvana mudra position.

There are three more male bodhisattva sculptures to the left of the central Dipankara Buddha statue. The central bodhisattva is attributed to be Maitreya ( the next Buddha according to Theravadha Buddhism) and is 7.3 m in height. His eyes are half closed, he wears a necklace and his hands too are in the ahvana mudra position. The 6.17 m. statue on the right hand side of Maitreya with both hands in the ahvana mudra position is supposed to be an unidentified variation of Avalokiteshvara.  The figure on the left of Maitreya holding a vertical vajra in the right hand uplifted in kartari mudra position with the left hand in the ahvana mudra  position and is identified as Vajrapani (Vajra-bearer height 6.4m).

The statues to the right of the main Buddha statue and on the left are the sculptures of Maitree Bodhisatva, in the centre, Vajrapani Bodhisatva and an unidentifiable deity. Buduruwagala stone sculptures, Wellawaya, Sri Lanka. circa 2000. Photo©Chulie de Silva

The statues to the left of the main Buddha statue are the sculptures of Maitree Bodhisatva, in the centre, Vajrapani Bodhisatva and an unidentifiable deity. Buduruwaāagala stone sculptures, Wellawaya, Sri Lanka. circa 2000. Photo©Chulie de Silva

The descriptions and identification of the statues are from a paper by Mahinda Degalle titled Buddha’s Rock – Mahayana Legacy at Buduruvagala.

Deegalle states that identification problems have risen in two statues — Sudhankumara on the right hand group and Maitreya on the left hand group.Both are also identified, variously, as Manjusri.

Janaka Perera’s article The Impact of Mahayana Buddhism on Sri Lanka  states that “By the 10th Century, pillars of a temple within the precincts of the Thuparama were identified as tridents (vajra), similar to the dorja or thunderbolt of Tibet which is usually held by Mahayana Bodhisattvas (A.M. Hocart, ‘Archaeological Summary).” He also states that many practices such as the 7th day almsgiving for a dead relative to transfer to him/her merit gained by giving alms to the Sangha stems from the belief in gandhabba – a state of mind that exists between the death and rebirth of a being.  It is widely accepted that the idea of gandhabba spread in Sri Lanka via Mahayana sects that emerged during the Anuradhapura period of Sri Lanka’s history.

Further, he quotes Sri Lanka’s former Archaeology Commissioner Dr. Raja De Silva in his scholarly assessment of Sri Lanka’s World Heritage site Sigiriya. De Silva states that King Kassapa I (478-496) who figures prominently in the history of the famous rock was a follower of Abhayagiri monks and that available evidence reveals a strong possibility that the site was a Mahayana monastery. He also identifies the famous Sigiriya frescoes  of Tara – the consort of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Sigiriya and its Significance /Digging into the Past).

See also my post of the Sri Lankan Gilded Tara statue at the British Museum

Fading Murals of Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare

Information is pretty thin stuff, unless mixed with experience said the American author Clarence Day and so it was with the Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare  located off the Kurunegala-Narammala-Madampe Rd, Sri Lanka. We had been warned that the climb to the top was tedious but I was glad that I huffed and puffed and dragged my aching, creaking joints to the higher level of the temple.  Much of the murals are fading and decaying but the grandeur and the colours of what is left of the frescoes in the relic chamber (Datu Mandiraya) of this temple was well worth the climb.  

Mural of possibly Sariputta or Mogallana Arahat thera.Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Mural of possibly Sariputta or Mogallana Arahat thera.Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Historically the temple roots go back to King Devanampiya Tissa (B.C. 89-77), who is supposed to be the first person to convert when Buddhism was introduced to Lanka by Emperor Asoka. An interesting fact I gleaned after returning was that Kingship was founded in Ceylon [Sri Lanka] by Asoka with the consecration of Devanampiya Tissa. This is a hypotheses put forward by Senarath Paravitana, our pioneering archeologist and epigraphist. The temple was later renovated by King Walagamba (89-77 BC) and the paintings are supposed to belong to the Kandyan period.

Mural of possibly Sariputta or Mogallana Arahat thera.Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The opposing right side mural of possibly Sariputta or Mogallana Arahat thera.Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Ananda Coomaraswamy in his classic work Mediaeval Sinhalese Art describes in detail how the natural pigments were prepared by Kandyan artists. White was derived from hydrous magnesite obtained from  a cave known as the makul gal lena in Vetekgama near Maturata. Red came from Cinnabar, which is not known to occur in Lanka and says it must have been imported. Yellow from gamboge (goraka)  from the gokata tree (Garcinia morella). Black  is lamp black and was made from grinding the juice from the jack fruit, Kekuna oil (oil from Canarium zeylanicum) and rosin (hal-dummala, from the hal tree Vateria acuminata) and then mixing it with shreds of cotton cloth and setting on fire this mixture in a clean earthen pot with a second pot inverted above it. The soot is deposited on the top pot and then collected. Blue was rarely seen it seems, but was obtained from the indigo plant. Green was known as pacca and was made by mixing blue and yellow. Shades of colours were obtained mixing red, black and blue with white to form pink, grey and light blue respectively.

Coomaraswamy comments that a characteristic feature was the outlining of all forms with a clear black line: this outline and the occasional use of small quantities of green or white in the detail of an ornament gives just the necessary softening required to harmonize the strong reds and yellows and reduce their extreme brilliancy. This can be seen in the executing of the above two murals.

A fire in 1997 has damaged number of paintings and a wooden Makara Thorana at the temple and treasure hunters have got away with the Sacred Footprint of the Buddha and some of the statues at the Viharaya. Maybe the statue in the middle in the photo below is a replacement as it doesn’t seem to blend in harmony with the other two statues in the relic chamber.

The inner relic chamber. Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihara, Kurunegala. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The inner relic chamber. Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihara, Kurunegala. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The Makara Thorana at the entrance  too looks as if it has also been redone.

The makara thorana at the entrance to the relic chamber. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The makara thorana at the entrance to the relic chamber. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

However, the Jataka stories — stories of Buddha’s previous lives on the Vihara walls are fast fading. The stories are visually retold in long panels and there is a small strip that is just sufficient to give a short explanatory note of the Jataka story. The Vessantara Jataka on the panels on the outer wall of the relic chamber tells the story of one of Buddha’s past lives — about a compassionate prince, Vessantara, who gives away everything he owns, including his children, thereby displaying the virtue of perfect charity.

The first two panels from the Vessantara Jatakaya. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The first two panels from the Vessantara Jatakaya. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The first panel probably shows the people requesting the King Sanjaya to send Prince Vessantara away from the kingdom as he gave away the magical white elephant that brought rain to the kingdom to envoys from Kalinga, a neighbhouring village.The second panel shows Prince Vessantara’s wife Queen Madri in conversation with a bear breasted servant.

Panel with the magical white elephant being led away. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Panel with the magical white elephant being led away. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The panel with the magical white elephant adds to the panorama but here it is the observer that has to move to follow the story while the mural stays static.

Panels showing people carrying away items given away by Prince Vessantara. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Panels showing people carrying away items given away by Prince Vessantara. Photo copyright Chulie de SilvThe upper level where the relic chamber is situated is reached by two narrow wooden staircases and there are trap doors that were probably there to protect the relics.

The air is cool and tranquil and the view is lush and green from the higher level where the main Stupa enshrining Buddha’s relics are located. Historical records attribute the bringing of the relics to  Brahmin Hambinarayana from Vaishali. At the lower ground zero level, the Chief Priest had displayed some relics in a transparent casket. They looked like minute bone fragments.

The stupa on the top level. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The stupa on the top level. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Next to the 3 storey relic chamber is a “Tampita Vihara” which is  a shrine room built on pillars.

The 3 story relic chamber is next to the Tampita Vihara. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The 3 story relic chamber is next to the Tampita Vihara. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

We might not have known the importance of this temple but the people from the vicinity were all there on this full moon Poya day.

Young devotees walk up the stone steps to worship the Buddha Statue at the temple on the top. Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihara, Kurunegala. 6 Dec.2014. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Young devotees walk up the stone steps to worship the Buddha Statue at the temple on the top. Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihara, Kurunegala. 6 Dec.2014. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Many of Sri Lanka’s temples have decaying historic murals as this one.

The shrine room, Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The shrine room, Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

As Ananda Coomaraswamy said: “The value of these paintings lies not merely in their beauty and charm as decorations, but in the fact that they are priceless historical documents that could npt be reproduced under modern conditions.”

Among ghosts and legends at Sasseruwa (Res Vehera )

Ancient monasteries, potent legends, the mystique of incense laden Buddhist temples is a heady combination and a good playground for amateur photographers. Sasseruwa also known as Res Vihara is such a Buddhist monastery, so named as the area was flooded with rays of light (Res) when the Bodhi tree was first planted. The tree was one of the first 32 saplings (Dethis maha bo Ankara) of the Sri Maha Bodhi in the Anuradhapura.

The monastic complex is located off the beaten track at Galgamuva in the Kurunegala District. Dating back to the 2nd century BC, Sasseruwa Raja Maha Vihara had nearly 100 caves where over 360 priests had lived and attained spiritual enlightement like the Buddha. The main attractions now are the magnificent colossal unique Buddha statues – one reclining in the main cave shrine and the other, the unfinished standing brooding Buddha carved into a rock face. Incidentally both statues are around 39 feet in length and height.

Reclining Buddha Statue, rock cave, Sasseruva (Res Vehera). 23 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Reclining Buddha Statue, image house of the “Raja Maha Viharaya”  Sasseruva (Res Vehera). 23 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Details of the feet without the customary pedestal - the unfinished collosal granite Buddha Statue at Sasseruwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Details of the feet without the customary pedestal – the unfinished collosal granite Buddha Statue at Sasseruwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

We had taken a couple of wrong turnings and the light was fading, and the inky blue black night was almost on us. I was despairing as there wouldn’t be enough light to photograph. The glimpse of the white stupa, across a lake at Sasseruva was a welcome sight.  As KM de Silva said, the white stupa “gave a subdued but unmistakable quintessence of Buddhism –simplicity and serenity.”

The Bodhi tree at Sasseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. One of 32 saplings of the Anuradhapura Bodhi tree. Saseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. 23 feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

The Bodhi tree at Sasseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. One of 32 saplings of the Anuradhapura Bodhi tree. Saseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. 23 feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

My mind wandered away back in time. I roamed invisibly among the caves of priests meditating; listening to sermons in the evenings, with “hulu athu’ (natural torches made of leaves) lighting up the complex; the Bodhi Puja at the feet of the tree; the lonely artist  moping near his unfinished statue; King Dutugemunu’s Army camping near the lake and even spotting a love tryst between a comely maiden and a handsome warrior. ..

Romanticism aside it was also interesting to reflect on the fact that although  the two forms of religious exercise Buddha proscribed were mediation and learning through sermons, how we lesser mortals needed the rituals of worship for spiritual sustenance. Prof. MB Ariyapala in his book “Society in Medieval Ceylon.” says how people influenced by beliefs and superstitions needed Bodhi trees, dagabas and image houses and the rituals of worship. Thus he says every monastery then also had to have amidst the meditating priests, Bodhi trees, stupas, image houses, and alters for offering flowers and incense. In that respect, society hasn’t changed that much from medieval times.

Reclining Buddha Statue, in the image house of the Raja Maha Viharaya. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Reclining Buddha Statue, in the image house of the Raja Maha Viharaya. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

The main image house “Rajamaha Viharaya” is perched high up on a rock. Inside it is a virtual treasure trove, albeit the collection of frescoes and statues are fast decaying. The Pièce de résistance is unique 39.5 foot reclining Buddha Statue. I walked around the statue as I have never been able to before in any other temple. The robe is of actual cotton threads pasted on the statue and then painted. The threads, the story goes were were woven by a poor woman as an offering to Buddha.

Feet of the reclining Buddha statue with thumbs in equal position indicating this is not a parinirvana statue. Saseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. 23 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Feet of the reclining Buddha statue with big toenails in equal position indicating this is not a parinirvana statue. Saseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. 23 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Lotus chakra marks on the soles of the feet of Buddha. Sasseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. 23 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Lotus chakra marks on the soles of the feet of Buddha. Sasseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. 23 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Buddha is supposed to have had thousand-spoked wheel sign on his feet, as described in the Digha Nikaya, in the “Discourse of the Marks” (Pali: Lakkhaṇa Sutta). In the earliest phase of Buddhism was generally aniconic, with the Buddha being represented as symbols such as a footprint, an empty chair, a riderless horse, or an umbrella. Many early worship stones with the Buddha’s foot print exist at monastery sites.

The entrance to the resident of the guardian cobra of the reclining Buddha, Raja Maha Vehera, Sasseruwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

The entrance to the resident of the guardian cobra of the reclining Buddha, Raja Maha Vehera, Sasseruwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

As I was trying to focus on the intricate design of chakras carved under the soles of Buddha, another traveller was pointing and photographing the hole on the wall just behind me. Apparently the hole was the entrance to the abode of a cobra, the guardian of the statue. And if that message on the wall was not enough for any robbers, there was this seated Buddha statue with the cobra sitting very protectively over the head of the Buddha.

The Cobra shielding the mediating Buddha. Sasseruva (Res Vehera) Raja Maha Viharaya. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

The Cobra shielding the mediating Buddha. Sasseruva (Res Vehera) Raja Maha Viharaya. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Earlier, with creaking bones and wobbly knees I had climbed up uneven 300 or so stone steps to view in wonder the 39 foot vertical colossal Buddha statue of Sasseruwa. Chiselled in high relief, this unfinished statue is considered to be far inferior to that of the more famous twin the Aukana Buddha statue. In the fading light, there was so much feeling and intensity. One long ear lobe was carved ( as in photo) and the other was not.

Details of the face of the unfinished statue showing the carvings on the left ear. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Details of the face of the unfinished statue showing the carvings on the left ear. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

At least 3 versions of legends exist as to why it was never finished –it was a competition between the master and the protege and the latter gave up when the Guru completed first his Aukana statue. The second is the work was abandoned when the artist discovered a crack on the rock. The third is that it was the work of a craftsman from King Dutugamunu’s army and was carried out when the army camped here before going to war with King Elara. Apparently, the army was unable to cross the “Malwathu Oya” (river Malwathu) due to heavy rains.

Saseruwa granite Buddha statue in the Abhaya mudra. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Saseruwa granite Buddha statue in the Abhaya mudra. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

This statue might have lost out to Aukana, but there is still an unmistakable impressiveness of this colossal which can dwarf a worshipper to a Lilliputian.

The cool black of a village night, pierced harshly by a few modern lights, yet caressed by soft breezes was upon us when we left. I turned back to record in my mind a one last look. Are the ghosts I could sense a figment of my lively imagination or is the disappointed sculptor still brooding; is the woman who sewed the robe still around — maybe returned to guard the statue as the cobra; are the many painters who devotedly painted murals lamenting over the decaying of their art works. Who knows, but what I saw was not just ruins but a rich piece of their lives. Are we telling their story well?

Death as a mirror of life

The narrow road from Pinkande to Katudampe was shiny black newly tarred, clearly marked on the edges with white unbroken lines.On either side we passed lush green paddy fields, houses surrounded by small garden plots with coconut, mango, banana and fruit trees. A solitary young Buddhist priest walked briskly, the bright orange of his robes, matching the setting sun that burned brightly beyond the fringe of trees. This was quintessentially rural Lanka at its best. We were mostly silent on the way to the Sri Sunandaramaya Temple at Katudampe in Dodanduwa.  On the seat with me was a small clay pot with a white cloth over it. This was my mother’s ashes — all that remained of a once vibrant, energetic, mother.

The river by the temple was silent. Nothing moved. The silence had an aura of its own as if it paid homage to the nearby temple.

The river by the Sri Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa. 8 Feb.2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

The river by the Sri Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa. 8 Feb.2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

I stood beside the bamboo grove, and watched the still waters. This was where we would leave my mother’s last remains by the temple she worshiped and also close to the Polgasduwa hermitage where she gave alms annually sometime ago. Returning ashes to a river is not  Buddhist custom. It’s a borrowed ritual from Hinduism. Rivers like the river Ganges is the embodiment of all sacred waters and the Sinhales use of “Ganga” for river probably stems from it. All rivers are supposed to have descended from heaven and the belief is that they are also the vehicle of ascent into heaven.

The bamboo grove by the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The bamboo grove by the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

As I stood crouched near the bamboo grove, my mother’s life passed through my mind. The breeze was gentle, calmed by the peace enveloping the river, I could let my sorrow seep into the water.  I heard a quiet splash in the water near me and turned to see a river snake  slid into the water, less than a foot away from me.

A river snake slides into the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

A river snake slides into the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

I wondered whether the snake was an omen, a relative of the past, maybe my own mother come as an incarnation but any such thoughts I had were snuffed completely by Rev. Hikkaduwe Tilaka, the chief priest of the temple. The novice priest on the other hand was very excited. He and I looked around for more snakes but there were none.

Looking for water snakes in the river by the Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa with the Podi Hamuduruwo. 8 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Looking for water snakes in the river by the Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa with the Podi Hamuduruwo. 8 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

In my sorrow, I had turned to re-read the The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that had been a gift from my younger son. I was reminded about the central concept of Tibetan Buddhism — of  life and death being seen as one whole, where death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.

In the teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, life and death are presented together as a series of constantly changing transitional realities known as bardos. So from the Tibetan Buddhist point of view and my understanding our entire existence — something like we know as our travels through samsara — is divided into four continually linked realities (1) life, (2) dying and death (3) after death and (4) rebirth. The greatest and most charged of these however, is the moment of death. Scriptures of Theravada Buddhism too, states that your “chethana” loosely translated meaning your mindset at the moment of death is the all important karma that drives your rebirth.

Many of the rituals performed at funerals like the one of pouring water on to a cup, till it overflows is passing on blessings to a dead person to benefit her/his after life

As water raining on a hill flows down to the valley,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.
As rivers full of water fill the ocean full,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.”

7th day almsging in remembrance of my mother. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 24 Jan. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

7th day almsgiving in remembrance of my mother. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 24 Jan. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

As the evening shadows deepened Matheesha, my brother Prasanna‘s younger son and my mother’s youngest grandson, stood patiently for the signal from the priest. The time had come to let go.

Samsara is your mind, and nirvana is also your mind
All pleasure and pain, and all delusions exist nowhere apart from your mind”

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

Matheesha holds the ashes in a pot with a bag of white flowers as the river waits silently. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Matheesha holds the ashes in a pot with a bag of white flowers to be sprinkled on to the river that waits silently. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Reflections & Refractions

Tranquility at Katudampe temple, Ratgama, Sri Lanka 8 Feb 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Reflections and Refractions by the river at  Katudampe temple, Ratgama, Sri Lanka 8 Feb 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Know all things to be like this:
a mirage, a cloud castle,
a dream, an apparition,
Without essence, but with qualities that can be seen.

Know all things to be like this:
As the moon in a bright  sky
In some clear lake reflected,
Though to that lake the moon has never moved.

Know all things to be like this:
As an echo that derives
From music, sounds, and weeping,
Yet in that echo, is no melody.

Know all things to be like this:
As a magician makes illusions,
Of horses, oxen, carts and other things,
Nothing is as it appears..

–Buddha’s teachings on death and dying.

 

7 Photos and stories within stories

“Shaken not stirred” was my first blog post in November 2007 — a result of getting copped in Bandarawela for photographing school children. It brought forth interesting advice from a very dear friend, writing as N.B.S. Silva ( this was his nom de plume and NBS stood for No Bull Shit Silva), who said if I had any sense I would take photos of old men and cattle.

I have taken his advice. 6 years later taking stock, I am reminded yet again how photos not only capture a transient moment but the untold stories behind the pixels. Then there are stories within stories, unseen actors of a landscape and fragments of conversations, tears, laughter and love embedded in a n image. This blog is an exercise to see if I can pick 7 all time favourite photos of mine. Not an easy task but the ones I have picked are significant ones which brings to my mind a bigger visual story of my wanderings in Sri Lanka.

An internally displaced mother carries her sleeping baby while attending a resettlement meeting in Jayapuram North, Sri Lanka. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

An internally displaced mother carries her sleeping baby while attending a resettlement meeting in Jayapuram North, Sri Lanka. 25 March 2010. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

On the tsunami affected but repaired coast road to Hikkaduwa 26 Dec.2008.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Sri Lanka builds back better after tsunami. The tsunami affected but repaired coast road to Hikkaduwa 26 Dec.2008.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The reclining Parinirvana statue of Buddha, Gal viharaya, Polonnauwa . AD 1153-86. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

For me the most beautiful Buddha statue in Sri Lanka. The reclining Parinirvana statue of Buddha, Gal viharaya, Polonnauwa . AD 1153-86. 12 March 2005. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

A man takes his morning bath at the Mahdangasweva tank. Mahadangasweva, Sri Lanka. 19 Oct 2007. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

All the beauty of rural Sri Lanka. A man takes his morning bath at the Mahadangasweva tank. Mahadangasweva, Sri Lanka. 19 Oct 2007. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Cattle sleep on the warm tarmcac of the A9 road at night and moves to the roadside in the morning. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Cattle moves to the roadside of the A9 in the morning after a nights sleep on the warm tarmac. 27 March 2010. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

14 yr old Konnes (14 yrs) the youngest of ten sons helps his farmer parents wto rear goats. North Sri Lanka. 14 Sep. 2008.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

14 yr old Konnes,  the youngest of ten sons helps his farmer parents to rear goats. North Sri Lanka. 14 Sep. 2008.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

After the sunset at Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

After the sunset at Hikkaduwa. Taken on a memorable reunion holiday with my elder son and wife. 20 Jan 2012. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The Mystique of Gal Viharaya, Polonnaruwa

At six a.m.  I set off for my fifth visit to the Gal Vihara. … like a pilgrim to Nirvana the jungle still dark but with shafts of dawn now appearing. The head of the standing figure — which I like to believe represents Ananda — was haloed with the first light , while the Master was in deepest shadow. The anguish on the face of the disciple seemed more delineated as he stood protectively over the reclining figure. Little scrappy dogs of all colours kept guard, and I was alone on this great plateau of gneiss,” so wrote Roloff Beny, a passage from his diary quoted in his most prized book in my collection “Island Ceylon.”

The standing statue Gal viharaya, Polonnauwa. AD 1153-86. One of the four great  medieval statues supposed to be of Buddha sculptured from a streaked granite rock during the reign of Parakramabahu the Great. The statue was earlier thought t be of Buddha's disciple Ananda. 12 March 2005. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The standing statue Gal viharaya, Polonnauwa. AD 1153-86. One of the four great medieval statues supposed to be of Buddha sculptured from a streaked granite rock during the reign of Parakramabahu the Great. The statue was earlier thought to be of Buddha’s disciple Ananda. 12 March 2005. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Beny, a charismatic reputed photographer uses a blue suffused surreal Gal Vihara image with the standing and reclining statues on the cover of his book.  “No words can adequately describe the feeling of exaltation that I experienced when the spirit of the Island took possession of me,” he says. On his diary notes he asks “How many times down the centuries had the dawn touched the sorrowing face and gradually painted the rippling robes of the Buddha and brought to life the dying features?

The standing Buddha is considered to be of the finest of sculptures and is 22 feet 9 inches (6.93 m) tall. “The expression is clear and precise, while utterly transcending the limits of spatial and temporal experience,” says Beny adding that “the statue recalls Greek modelling of the sixth century BC.”

Some like Beny are of the opinion that this statue is that of Ananda Maha Thera but Dr. S. Paranavitana identifies it as that of Lord Buddha in the attitude described as Para dukkha dukkhita – “He who sorrows for the sorrows of others”.

The reclining Parinirvana statue of Buddha, Gal viharaya, Polonnauwa . AD 1153-86. One of the four great  medieval statues supposed to be of Buddha sculptured from a streaked granite rock during the Parakramabahu the Great. 12 March 2005. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The reclining Parinirvana statue of Buddha, Gal viharaya, Polonnauwa . AD 1153-86. One of the four great medieval statues supposed to be of Buddha sculptured from a streaked granite rock during the Parakramabahu the Great. 12 March 2005. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The reclining image is 46 feet 4 inches (14.12 m) in length, and is the biggest statue in Gal Vihara,and is also supposed to be one of the largest sculptures in Southeast Asia.

The colour and texture of the rock with the banded striations gives an extraordinary effect almost differentiating the textures between clothing and skin. The carving on the pillow is beautifully executed too, with indentations which looks like the crushing of a pillow, with the weight of the head. The pillow has the wheel or chakra, the symbol, which is also found on the underside of the soles of the feet of the reclining Buddha. The slight drawing back of the upper foot in this statue is an indication that this is his withdrawal into parinirvana.

The reclining Parinirvana statue of Buddha, Gal viharaya, Polonnauwa . AD 1153-86. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The reclining Parinirvana statue of Buddha, Gal viharaya, Polonnauwa . AD 1153-86. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The wheel – chakra – in Buddhist art symbolizes  Buddha as the one who in his first  sermon at Saranath, set the wheels of Dhamma in motion — Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion. His subsequent discourses at Rajgir and Shravasti are known as the “second and third turnings of the wheel of dharma.” The eight spokes of the wheel symbolize the Noble Eightfold Path set out by the Buddha in his teachings.

The wheel also represents the endless cycle of samsara, or rebirth, which can only be escaped by means of the Buddha’s teachings. And some Buddhists regard the the wheel’s three basic parts as symbols of the “three trainings” in Buddhist practice: The hub symbolizes moral discipline, which stabilizes the mind. The spokes (usually there are eight) represent wisdom which is applied to defeat ignorance. The rim represents training in concentration, which holds everything else together.

The  Gal viharaya, compound Polonnauwa. AD 1153-86, once the "Uttararama" or Northern Monastery  built by King Parakramabahu the Great Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The Gal viharaya, compound Polonnauwa. AD 1153-86, once the “Uttararama” or Northern Monastery built by King Parakramabahu the Great
Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The Gal Vihara or Gal Viharaya is so called because of the rock/granite ( Sinhala = Gal) face that was used to carve the four statues and it was part of “Uttararama” (the northern monastery), in the city of Polonnaruwa.

Wikipedia quoting the chronicle Chulavamsa says “the Vihara was one of the more prominent of the 100 temples built throughout ancient Sri Lanka by King Parakramabahu I (1153 – 1186). The chronicle mentions that Parakramabahu I,  had his workmen build three caves in the rock after finishing the temple: the Vijjadhara Guha (cave of the spirits of knowledge), the Nissina Patima Lena (cave of the sitting image), and the Nipanna Patima Guha (cave of the sleeping image). Although they are described as “caves”, only the Vijjadhara Guha is a cave, while the others were image houses similar to the Thivanka and Lankathilaka, with their walls connected to the rock face. These walls, which were evidently decorated with frescoes] have since been destroyed and only their bases now remain.

Vijjadhara Guha, Gal Viharaya, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. Photograph Jerzy Strzelecki. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.

Vijjadhara Guha, Gal Viharaya, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. Photograph Jerzy Strzelecki. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.

While visiting Angkor Wat in 1993, I first noticed that there in Angkor was a temple very similar to the Sathmahal Prasadaya at Polonnaruwa and heard about the ties between Lanka and Cambodia during this period.

See Bernard VanCuylenburg’s article about; Lanka and Cambodian connections: http://lankavisions.weebly.com/the-cambodian-connection.html

[ See also Wikipedia for more history and images of the seated Buddha statues]

Reference:

Island Ceylon by Roloff Beny (1971, Hardcover)

Roloff Beny | ISBN-10: 0670402095 | ISBN-13: 9780670402090

Binara Poya, Women Power & Therigatha

Today is Binara Pura Pasalosvaka Poya day the 2557th year, since the passing away of Sakyamuni Siddhartha Gauthama Buddha. It was on a full moon day like today that Lord Buddha consented to admit women in to the Buddhist Order on the fourth appeal made by his stepmother Maha Prajapati Gotami.

A damaged and fading frescoe of Buddhist Priests pay homage to Lord Buddha. Telwatte Purana Thotagamuva Rajamaha Viharaya. Telwatte. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A damaged and fading frescoe of Lord Buddha and the future Buddhas, who are seeking “Niyatha vivarana (prediction of future Buddhahood). Telwatte Purana Thotagamuva Rajamaha Viharaya. Telwatte. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

According to Premasiri Epasinghe, writing in the Island newspaper in 2010, Buddha turned down the request thrice. Then the women, 500 of them banded together under Maha Prajapati Gotami, shaved their heads, wore yellow robes and made another appeal via Venerable Ananda Thera – the “Dharmabandagarika” (Keeper of the Dharma). That was good activism and good sense to seek the support of Ven. Ananda who was, Buddha’s cousin. son of Amitodana, the brother of Buddha’s father Suddodana.

According to the scriptures and stated by both Epasinhe and Walter Wijenayake writing in today’s Island “the Buddha gave womenfolk permission to enter the order subject to observances of eight chief precepts (ashta garu dharma). They are:

1. A Bhikkhuni has to worship a day old higher ordained Bhikkhu even if she was 100 years old in higher ordination. She should get up from her seat and show her due respects to the Bhikkhus who observe the major precepts.2. A Bhikkuni should not observe the rainy season precepts in an area where there are no Bhikkhus.

3. Every fortnight a Bhikkuni has to request for ‘Pohoya kamma’ from the Bhikkus. She has to know the time she should obtain advice from the Bhikkhus.

4. When a Bhikkuni concludes her rainy seasonal precepts observation, she has to do it in front of both Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.

5. A Bhikkhuni who has committed a major mistake should confess it in the presence of both Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.

6. A Bhikkhuni has to undergo two years as a special trainee and then become a higher ordained Bhikkhuni in presence of both Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.

7. A Bhikkhuni should not scold a Bhikkhu under any circumstance.

8. A Bhikkhuni should not advise Bhikkhus, however, Bhikkhus should advise Bhikkhunis.”

Both writers point out as many have done before, that Buddha gave equal status to women. Reading these ashta guru dharma, I wonder whether Bhikkunis are on par with Bhikkus. To my understanding of these 8 rules Bhikkunis are not. I feel the rules do not giving any credit to a woman of being able to follow the path laid out independently. Some of these rules seem to be justified as no. 2, when you think that most of the 500 women might have lived very sheltered lives. In any case, the admittance of women into the Sangha community was a gigantic step forward and recognition as being suitable to lead the hard life as Bhikkuni.

Part of the statues that are at the entrance to the  shrine room at the Pulinathararamaya Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Part of the statues that are at the entrance to the shrine room at the Pulinathararamaya Photograph© Chulie de Silva

However, in Buddhism if a woman aspires to be a Buddha, the first step is to do enough “ping” –good karma- so she will be born a man. Then the real door opens for the long samsara journey, and she now a he, can ask for niyatha vivarana (prediction of future Buddhahood).

Goddess with many hands. Welle Devale. Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Goddess with many hands. Welle Devale. Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

In the Hindu Pantheon of Gods there are many absolutely gorgeous female Gods– Saraswathi, Lakshmi, Pattini, Durga, Kali , etc but in all their temples found within Buddhist temples, its male priests who perform rites.Women are not even allowed into the inner sanctums of these temples, unless they are accompanied by a well known male. Why Buddhists need these temples and follow these rites is another debate.

A Priest blesses a little girl at Welle Devale. Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A Priest blesses a little girl at Welle Devale. Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Musing on all these on this poya day, I went searching for the Terigatha and found the Teragatha translations too.

 The Bhikkuni order is credited with the Therigatha, which are translated as Verses of the Elder Nuns (Pāli: theri elder (feminine) + gatha verse), a collection of short delightful poems supposedly recited by early members of the community of Buddhist priests — the Sangha — in India around 600 BC.

In the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, the Therigatha is classified as part of the Khuddaka Nikaya, the collection of short books in the Sutta Pitaka. It consists of 73 poems, organized into 16 chapters. It is the earliest known collection of women’s literature.

This poem from  Chapter 1: The Single Verses (excerpt) translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, is a honest and clear expression.

I.11 — Mutta {v. 11}   

So freed! So thoroughly freed am I! —
from three crooked things set free:
from mortar, pestle,
& crooked old husband.

Having uprooted the craving
that leads to becoming,
I’m set free from aging & death.

So in the final analysis it is Buddha’s teachings and one’s mind that is important. A verse in the Theragathas  -i.e the bhikkus’ verses says it all.

Vappa (Thag 1.61) {Thag 61}   

One who sees
sees who sees,
sees who doesn’t.

One who doesn’t see
doesn’t
see who sees
or who doesn’t

The Bhikkuni order went into decline in Sri Lanka and was virtually none existent for nine centuries or so. However, there now exists in Sri Lanka a functional bhikkuni sangha holding regular patimokkha (the twice monthly recitation of the precepts) and properly supported by bhikkus. Read more on the Contemporary Bhikkuni Ordination in Sri Lanka by Bhikkuini Sobhana.

Verses reproduced here with consent as per citation below:

“Therigatha: Verses of the Elder Nuns”, & “Theragatha: Verses of the Elder Monks”,edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight, 23 April 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/index.html . Retrieved on 19 September 2013.

And the river sang. …

Eleven years ago, on the 31 August, death came silently taking away my father. More than a decade later, I still feel the events of that day with a stark loneliness that is hard to describe.

TPhotograph©Chulie de Silva

Photograph©Chulie de Silva

That morning at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa there were no need for words. I sat holding his thin hands, stroking his head. I was the parent, he the baby. Our faithful mongrel Lassie was under the bed with her head on my feet.  My father’s face was thin and gaunt with a prickly growth of a faded beard. His breathing was laboured with a rasping sound. Tears were building under his eyelids and I felt he could hear my mother and sister-in-law chanting pirith at the foot of the bed. He had no words for us. A thousand images streamed through my mind and I kept them all to good thoughts of what he did not only for me but many others too. I watched him, recording to memory every breath he took. Then there was the this deep filling of the lungs, I waited for the breath to be let out. But none came. This was his last breath. Lassie raised her head and licked my feet.

From the Exhibition "My City of Unheard Prayers" by Sayed Asif Mahmud

From the Exhibition “My City of Unheard Prayers” by Sayed Asif Mahmud

Partings are poignant, never easy. Like Herman Hesse’s Siddartha my wound still smarted.

Many years ago, Thatha had introduced me to Hesse and his book Siddhartha. He himself was probably told about it when he was a dayaka  at the Polgasduwa Hermitage where there were German Buddhist priests.

Siddartha of Hesse is not Lord Buddha but a handsome Brahmin son who lived in the same era as Buddha. In Hesse’s story Siddhartha does meet Buddha and although very impressed by the revered teacher, he takes a decision not to follow Buddha.  A rare occurrence no dobt but notes to the novel say ‘it is in keeping with Neitzsche’s statement in Also sprach Zaruthuustra (Thus Spake Zrathushtra0 that … one repays a teacher badly if one always wants to remain nothing but a pupil’.

A damaged and fading frescoe of Buddhist Priests pay homage to Lord Buddha. Telwatte Purana Thotagamuva Rajamaha Viharaya. Telwatte. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A damaged and fading frescoe of Buddhist Priests paying homage to Lord Buddha. Telwatte Purana Thotagamuva Rajamaha Viharaya. Telwatte. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The story is about the conflict between the discipline and the heart, the desire to ‘go it alone‘, and the courage to listen to one’s own inner voice.  Siddharha’s search for spiritual knowledge tests the friendship between Siddartha and his friend Govinda, who “loved him more than anyone else.” In a very interesting dialogue in the last chapter of the book he tells Govinda “I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust — a reference to his long relationship with Kamala the beautiful courtesan.

Siddhatha’s wounds are self-inflicted, as in the case of many of us.

Yesterday, I turned to the balm of its beautiful  prose and the subtle distillation of wisdom in this novel. It’s hard to say which part of the story that traces Siiddhartha’s quest for spiritual fulfillment I like best. However, the images of a quietly flowing Hikkaduwa river and this book has been uppermost in my mind. Thus, it seems appropriate to quote here the passages of Siddhartha as he learns from the river and the wise old ferryman Vasudeva, following the death of Kamala and the parting from his son.

One day , when the wound was smarting terribly Siddhartha rowed across the river, consumed by longing, and got out of the boat with the purpose of going to the town to seek his son.The river flowed softly and quietly, it was the dry season, but its voice rang out strangely.  It was laughing, it was distinctly laughing!. The river was laughing clearly and merrily at the old ferryman.

The river flowed softly and gently. ... Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The river flowed softly and gently. … Photograph© Chulie de Silva

“Siddhartha stood still; he bent over the water, in order to hear better. , He saw his face reflected in the quietly moving water, and in this reflected face there was something in this reflection, that reminded him of something he had forgotten, and when he reflected on it, he remembered. His face resembled that of another person, whom he had once known and loved and feared. It resembled the face of his father, the Brahmin. He remembered how once, as a youth, he had compelled his father to let him go to join the ascetics, how he had taken leave of him how he had gone and never returned.”

This leads him to question his own behaviour and to the realisation that his father must have suffered by his departure as much as he was suffering now because of his son.

Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Desolate and depressed Siddhartha seeks Vasudeva to talk and confess to this wise guru. Vasudeva, a true sage who speaks only when necessary leads him to a seat on the river bank.

“You have heard it laugh,” he said, “but you have not heard everything. Let us listen; you will hear more.”

They listened. The many-voiced song of the river echoed softly. Siddhartha looked into the river and saw many pictures flowing in the water. He saw his father, lonely, mourning his son; he saw himself, lonely also with the bonds of longing for his faraway son; he saw his son, also lonely, the boy eagerly advancing along the burning path of life’s desires, each one concentrating on his goal, each one obsessed by his goal, each one suffering. The river’s voice was sorrowful. It sang with yearning and sadness, flowing towards its goal.

“‘Do you hear?’asked Vasudeva’s mute glance. Siddhartha nodded. ‘Listen better!’ whispered Vasudeva.

The river's voice was full of longing.... Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The river’s voice was full of longing…. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

“Siddhartha tried to listen better. The picture of his father, his own picture, and the picture of his son all flowed into each other. Kamala’s picture also appeared and flowed on, and the picture of Govinda and others emerged and passed on. They all became a part of the river. It was the goal of all of them, yearning, desiring, suffering; and the river’s voice was full of longing, full of smarting woe, full of insatiable desire. The river flowed on towards its goal. Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen. …”

The many voiced songs of the river echoed softly. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The many voiced songs of the river echoed softly. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

“. … He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. He felt now he had now completely learned the art of listening. … He could no longer distinguish the different voices – the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish from the manly voice; the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of the indignation and groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.”

“When Siddhartha listened attentively to the river, to this song of a thousand voices, when he did not listen to the sorrow or laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om perfection.”

… His wound was healing, his pain was dispersing; his self had emerged into unity.”

‘From that hour Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny. …”

Vasudeva seeing the serenity of knowledge reflected in the eyes of Siddhartha, says that he has waited for this hour to come, and bids farewell to the hut, the river and Siddhartha and retreats into the forest.

Life is but another threshold for a monk, waiting to be crossed over. Photo©Nirvair Singh Rai

Life is but another threshold for a monk, waiting to be crossed over. Photo©Nirvair Singh Rai

 Note:  Extracts are from a copy I have of “Siddartha” by Herman Hesse, translated from German by Hilda Rosner.

The full text of the book is available at The Project Gutenberg EBook of Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. Translator: Gunther Olesch, Anke Dreher, Amy Coulter, Stefan Langer and Semyon Chaichenets Release Date: April 6, 2008 [EBook #2500] Last updated: January 23, 2013.

Thanks to my two friends from Drik, Dhaka days Sayed Asif Mahmud and Nirvair Singh Rai for the use of the two photos.

The lamp is lit — am home

The lamp lit my house has come alive. Photo©Chulie de Silva

The flickering lamp light bathes the Buddha statue in a serene glow. 
Photo©Chulie de Silva

Just as soap operas often end on cliffhangers, which are almost magically resolved at the start of the next episode, a difficult drama of my last days in Dhaka has taken a surprising but pleasing turn for the better.

Working at Drik we were never short of excitement and laughter, however frustrating the work was at times. More so at Chobi Mela time. This year’s Chobi Mela VII was terrific – we were running on a high despite all the work.  However, the time was fast approaching for me to leave the second family of sons and daughters and even one self appointed grandson I had acquired in Dhaka.

Wahid Adnan and I . Drik Picture Agency, Drik, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photographer unknown.

Wahid Adnan, my Bangladesh grandson and I . Drik Picture Agency, Drik, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photographer unknown.

The jokes about the Secretariat being a sickie ward turned not so funny when my persistent annoying cough was diagnosed as pneumonia. I had missed out on the tail end of Chobi Mela events, then there were the hartals and Shahbagh Square and my own work visa expiring.  Yes, life had become a soap opera, with me ending up at Apollo hospital with midnight x-rays and ECG’s etc, etc. The big question was would I get better in time to get out of Dhaka before my visa expired?

The cleaner at my apartment in Lalmatia. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The cleaner at my apartment in Lalmatia. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

I didn’t make it but had to overstay 4 days. However, I had a benevolent angel who smoothed the way, and Bangladesh Immigration officials were so polite and courteous I breezed through immigration after paying a small fine.  Yes, the universe was kind and I was finally living my oft quoted “ Chole Jabbo Sri Lanka.” I had asked for an aisle seat on Mihin Air, but the two Indian gentlemen were already comfortably settled and had left me the window seat for me. Being a morning flight, I didn’t quibble, and was rewarded with a last view of Dhaka. Up in the air, it looked like a lego city shrouded in smog. The rows of apartment blocks in certain section even looked orderly.

Reminder of rickshaw rides in Dhaka now sits atop my bookshelf. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Reminder of rickshaw rides in Dhaka now sits atop my bookshelf. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The sight of Lanka, when I return from living abroad — whether it is flickering night-lights or the lush green of the tropical island by day — has always been a moving sight for me. The big treat came as we approached the island past the Indian shoreline. It was the sight of the legendary Adam’s Bridge  — the chain of limestone shoals, between mainland India, and Sri Lanka.  The sea separating India and Sri Lanka is called Sethusamudram meaning “Sea of the Bridge”. I could clearly see the chain of shoals and the tip of Mannar and the sea glistening in the bright sunlight.  I was seeing this Google map alive. The bridge was first mentioned in the Indian epic Ramayana by Valmiki and was apparently built by Rama and his army led by Hanuman to reach Sri Lanka to rescue Sita.

Adam's Bridge NASA image

Adam’s Bridge NASA image

Back home I am enveloped in the warmth of the house, friends and family. A house is not just bricks and mortar – there are the whispers, the voices of laughter, thousand memories. I wake up to the sound of squirrels outside my window and birds chirping away in the fruit trees. My barren avocado tree has flowers and bears a single tiny fruit.

Avocado flowers. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Avocado flowers. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The morning sunlight dapples my collection of Buddha’s and artifacts that I have arranged on the black and white runner that was Drik’s farewell present.

Sunlight dapples the old wooden

Sunlight dapples the old wooden “pettagama” which holds a collection of Buddha statues and artefacts. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Light symbolises the absence of darkness, grief and unhappiness. An oil lamp is lit to bow down to knowledge as the greatest of all forms. As I watch the flickering flame I am filled with a warm content feeling. It’s great to be back in a house filled with light and my thoughts flit to a verse from the Bhaddekaratta Sutta:

Let one not trace back the past
Or yearn for the future-yet-to-come.
That which is past is left behind
Unattained is the “yet-to-come.”
But that which is present he discerns —
With insight as and when it comes.
The Immovable — the-non-irritable.
In that state should the wise one grow
Today itself should one bestir
Tomorrow death may come — who knows?
For no bargain can we strike
With Death who has his mighty hosts.
But one who dwells thus ardently
By day, by night, untiringly
Him the Tranquil Sage has called
The Ideal Lover of Solitude.

From the: “Bhaddekaratta Sutta: The Discourse on the Ideal Lover of Solitude” (MN 131), translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Ñanananda. Access to Insight, 19 September 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.131.nana.html . Retrieved on 2 March 2013.

Note: Not everyone agrees with the Indian version of Ramayana. See: Madhusudan’s subversive interpretation of the Ramayana story, with Meghnad, son of Ravana portrayed as a tragic hero https://chulie.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/painting-my-imagination-with-william-radice/