Sunday, January 9, 2011

So Gandhi, The Dalai Lama, and a Hindu priest all walk into a temple ...

January 4, 2011

Rajghat: The Site where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated, January 31, 1948
Rajghat, on the banks of the sacred Yamuna river in Delhi, is the location where M. K. (Mahatma) Gandhi was cremated on January 31, 1948, one day after he was assassinated while walking to afternoon prayers with his nieces.  The term “Mahatma” is comprised of two words, “maha” (great) and “atma,” the Sanskrit term for “soul.”  Saint Mary’s students stand barefoot on this chilly morning while watching two caretakers in prayer.  The black granite, flower-decorated slab memorializes the site were a quickly constructed brick foundation held the funeral pyre.  An eternal flame reminds one not only of the tragic pyre but inspires hope in the ideals for which Gandhiji stood as well.

Located directly opposite the Rajghat is the national Gandhi Museum, a trove of information and artifacts chronicling the life and work of Gandhiji (“ji” is an honorific).  Included among the many impressive displays are the blood-stained, white dhoti Gandhi was wearing and one of the three bullets that pierced his chest.  Unfortunately, cameras are not allowed inside or you’d be seeing some snaps of this amazing collection.

After a delicious lunch at the nicely appointed “Chicken Inn,” we made our way to the new (2005) Akshardham Temple, which boasts of being the largest temple complex in India and, with more than 20,000 carved stone images of gods & goddesses, it may well be.  The mandir (temple) is a working temple, though many come for the splendid interpretive programs (which more than one student described as Disneyland-meets-Hinduism).  The massive temple’s programs include: a “walk-through” series of scenes with auto-animatronic figures retelling the story of the sect’s founder, Swami Narayan; an hour-long IMAX experience of the founder’s story; as well as a “It’s a Small World”-like boat ride recounting Indian history through the ages.  All were impressively done, if a bit too slick for the taste of some students who found the message of humility and simplicity overshadowed by the flashy presentations.

A delicious dinner back at our hotel rounded out the day and sent us to bed ready for another day’s adventures.

January 5, 2011

Saint Mary's students on a chilly Delhi morning at the Lotus Temple

When we began the day with a visit to the Lotus Temple, we didn’t have any idea what a long day it would be; or just how cold Delhi could get.  We knew it would be a full day with lots of sightseeing and a departure by overnight train for Dharamsala scheduled for 9:00 p.m.

The Haha'i House of Worship, a.k.a. The Lotus Temple

The Baha’i Faith is a relatively recent faith by any standard and in it’s infancy when you stand it along side Indian traditions, which trace their roots back many millennia.  The youngest of the world religions (finding its roots in the nineteenth century), Baha’i is dedicated to bringing unity and peace to the world.  The Lotus Temple was erected in 1986 and is open daily for prayer and meditation to practitioners of all faiths.  It is truly spectacular inside but such pictures are not allowed – sorry.)

The Martyr's Column marks the site in Delhi where Gandhi was assassinated

The waist-high stone marker (known as the “Martyr’s Column”) pictured above rests on the site where Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948.  The words “Hai Ram” (Hindi for “Oh God”) are reputed to be Gandhiji’s last.  The column is located in the garden behind the house (now a museum) where Gandhi was staying as a guest.

The Jama ("Friday") Masjid ("Mosque") just before the 4:00 p.m. call to prayer

The Jama Masjid (“Friday Mosque”) is the largest mosque in India. It was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan between the years 1644 and 1658, and can hold up to 25,000 people for prayer.  Though we had sufficient time for Audrey Reid to deliver her site report about the mosque, shortly thereafter we were asked to leave (as non-Muslims) for the call to prayer.  Hearing the muezzin call out “God is Great” in soaring Arabic was a surprisingly uplifting, if haunting, experience.

Walking the crowded, bustling streets around Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi

After the mosque, we headed to Chandni Chowk – an ever-crowded sea of humanity in constant motion selling, honking, bartering, littering, etc.  The narrow maze-like streets are unimaginably crowded with motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, and men and women carrying all manner of things on their heads or on their backs or under their arms.  A tangle of spliced wires overhead pulses with electrons in what can only be described as the most precarious circuitry ever cobbled together.  Navigating the labyrinth would have been impossible save for our intrepid guide, Nand Singh (a truly wonderful guy!).

After dinner we headed for the Delhi Train Station to discover that our train was delayed one … then two … and ultimately 4 hours.  Huddled together (playing cards, listening to music, telling jokes, observing others) inside the station was cold enough but when we walked out onto Platform #6 to catch the train (which was coming in 20 minutes), we discovered just how cold Delhi air could be.  A stiff wind and frigid temperatures (actually record-setting lows that broke a century-old mark) made the 20 minutes seem like an hour and a half … well, the stiff wind and frigid temperatures and the fact that the train didn’t actually come for an hour and a half made it all seem much longer than any of us would have liked had we had our say in matters.  But, since neither Mother Nature nor Indian Railways contacted us, we were forced to go with the flow.  Fortunately, the train was relatively warm and the wool blankets were not only warm but soft as well.

January 6, 2011

Some of us slept very well on the train while others seemed to get in at least a good doze before the omelet sellers and chai tea vendors started plying their custom up and down the isles of the train (both the omelet and the chai were delicious and cheap -- $1.00 total!).

Our next leg of the journey was by bus.  A long leg it was.  Having snaked our way through a series of traffic-jammed narrow streets in small towns, we finally arrived at McLeod Ganj just after dusk.  We grabbed our bags and headed into the Asian Palace Hotel, a suitably nice place on the main chowk.  An evening meal was all most of us needed to slip off to bed though a number of us searched in vain for WiFi, hoping to catch up on Facebook or update our blogs.  Alas, none of the visible WiFi signals were accessible.

January 7, 2011

Looking back at a portion of McLeod Ganj from Tsuglagkhang Temple

As you can see in the picture above, McLeod Ganj is a former hill station located at about 6,000 or so feet above sea level in the shadows of the Dhauladhar Range in the Himalayas and has become home to the Tibetan Government in Exile.  It is also the site of Tibetan Buddhism’s most revered temple, Tsuglagkhang Temple, second only to the Jokhang Temple in Chinese-controlled Lhasa). 

His Holiness, the XIV Dalai Lama waving to well-wishers as he leaves his home for Varanasi 

Directly across from the temple is the Dalai Lama’s residence and, owing to the good graces of a Tibetan man with an infant strapped to his chest in a Baby Bjorn, we had opportunity to see His Holiness for a brief second but in relatively close proximity as he left his home by auto (accompanied by Indian Police and Military escorts).  He was leaving for Varanasi where he will begin teaching in about a week and, if all goes according to plan, we’ll be there to hear him teach.

Sakyamuni Buddha looks on as a monk philosophizes

A giant image of Sakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama) inside the Tsuglagkhang looks on serenely as a Tibetan monk is makes a point to other monks while debating Buddhist philosophy.

After our temple visit we were free for lunch and shopping.  Many of the students bought scarves, prayer flags, various Buddhist ritual implements (prayer wheels, “singing bowls,” or meditation bells), or other small curios.  At 3:30 all but a few of the class elected to go on an optional 2 kilometer hike to Bhagsunath Temple and falls.

Bhagsunath Temple priest sitting next to image of Shiva

Above, the temple’s priest sits beside the deity Shiva while handing out “prasadam” or blessed food to members of the trip.  A very nice man, this panditji patiently received each one of us with grace and a smile.  Many of the students had seen puja (devotional worship) performed at the Shiva Vishnu Temple in Livermore, California so much was familiar to them.  For others, questions abounded.

Elliot, Audrey, Kelcy, Jackie, and Norrie (L to R) all received blessings
(and headbands) from the priest at Bhagsunath

The wash of yellows and oranges painted above McLeod Ganj by the setting sun seemed the perfect benediction to an absolutely wonderful day. 

Sunset over McLeod Ganj -- what more can be said?

The next morning would bring another bus ride, this time to Amritsar – home of Sikhism’s Golden Temple.  But that will have to wait for the next time WiFi is available.

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