There were two areas in India that I had been looking forward to visiting. As a practicing Buddhist, that India contains three of the four main pilgrimage sites is exciting. Bodh Gaya is the location where it is said that Gautama Buddha obtained enlightenment. It is the most holy place in all the world for Buddhists. A sapling of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat is planted here (actually a sapling of a sapling of the original tree). The other site is in Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught the Dharma and established a Sangha (community). I saw neither.
I’m just not that kind of Buddhist, or am I? The opportunity would have been lovely but I wasn’t attached to the outcome. Bodh Gaya turned out a challenge to travel to and from. Sarnath is outside Varanasi at a time when Chelle was suffering from a second intestinal illness. She was more disappointed then I was in the end. What I relished was the opportunity to see the places I never expected. Sanchi was one of those places. A small town in the state of Madhya Pradesh, is the location of several Buddhist monuments dating from the 3rd century. Home to the Great Gupta Temples.
Can a mound of dirt represent the Buddha, the path to Enlightenment, a mountain and the universe all at the same time? It can if it is a stupa. The stupa (Sanskrit for heap) is an important form of Buddhist architecture. It is generally considered to be a sepulchral monument—a place of burial or a receptacle for religious objects. At its simplest, a stupa is a dirt burial mound faced with stone. In Buddhism, the earliest stupas contained portions of the Buddha’s ashes, and as a result, the stupa began to be associated with the body of the Buddha.
If one thinks of the stupa as a circle or wheel, the unmoving center symbolizes Enlightenment. Many stupas are placed on a square base, and the four sides represent the four cardinal directions. Each side often has a gate in the center, which allows entry from any side. Each gate also represents the four great life events of the Buddha: East (Buddha’s birth), South (enlightenment), West (first Dharma lesson), and North (nirvana). One can’t enter a stupa as it is solid object. It is a meditational practice one would circumambulate the structure.
The two pillars on each gateway support three crossbeams. The images on these pillars and crossbeams give us great insight into ancient beliefs and customs. The relief sculpture depicts the events of the Buddha’s life, legends of his previous births, and other scenes important to early Buddhism. Stupas are permanent reminders of the Buddha and his teachings almost 2,500 years after his death.
Danish philosopher Søren Kiekegaard once declared that life could only be understood backwards; but had to be lived forwards. A great motivation for me to travel, especially to a country such as India, is the opportunity to step back in time and touch the past. The conservation and preservation conducted by the Archaelogical Society of India (ASI) is instrumental to maintaining the legacy of the country’s cultural heritage. Multiple branches throughout the governmental organization cover a broad range of specialties. It is easy to get lost in the Afghan architectural wonders and the vast grounds of Jahaz Mahal, the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, or the elegance of the Buddhist caves in Ajanta. These monuments across India are a testament to the continued resiliency of Indian people throughout human history. There is significant work to be done.
Extreme elements around the world are threatening our collective cultural heritage. Among the human tragedy in Syria is the entirety of that country’s heritage sites damaged or destroyed in their ongoing civil war. Sadly, not a singularity. Mausoleums in Timbuktu to the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus in Iraq and the Bamiyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. The importance of supporting organizations that monitor theses sites, that promote conservation and hopefully in the near future reclaim some of these monuments and renew efforts to restore what has been destroyed. However, this is not simply a second or third world problem. The people (particularly in the West) who deny the science of climate change or promote increased fossil fuel production and utilization threaten destruction not experienced in millennia. There is much we can learn from the cooperation and collaboration of nations united in preserving our cultural legacy.
While exploring the temple ruins outside Siem Reap in Cambodia, Chelle and I were surprised to discover representatives of ASI working on a restoration project at Ta Phrom. One of many temples destroyed during the civil war in Cambodia or taken over by nature. Luckily the Archeological Society of India isn’t alone in their endeavors.
The UN has a specialized organization, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The group has a variety of programs and objectives but it’s international cooperation agreements to secure cultural and heritage areas around the globe through its World Heritage Sites. What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located. Sites are selected on the basis of having cultural, historical, scientific or some other form of significance. Their dedication in protection and preservation is admirable. Passing on to future generations the irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration is awesome and worthy of support.
Darjeeling Himalayan Railroad
I have given much thought to the impact that India has had on me collectively. It is a visceral response. I am just beginning to understand the profound nature of my time here. Chelle had a very sad experience today. While exploring the Jain sculptures in Gwalior she discovered a dying dog hidden under a statue. She dug through our bag and pulled out a few morsels of food. As I comforted her she questioned the futility of her actions. My response was simple…comfort and compassion to a life that knew little of either. The intensity of her feelings have been demonstrated throughout our time here whether it was dealing with scourge of poverty or feral animals. For me there has to be more.
I am determined to contribute in some manner after I have returned home. I may return in the not too distant future volunteering on a medical team with Projects Abroad. It may mean financial donations to Amma, or Magic Bus. Contributions to ASI or some other NGO conservation/preservation group. Perhaps becoming a member of the Sierra Club back home. To get on a plane and head back to the US just to plan the next adventure is impossible without first contemplating what comes next to improve my world. Globally, within our community or both.