The originally suggested time of departure for our group to Borobudur (near Yogyakarta, Indonesia) was 3.30 am. I groaned loudly when I read that WhatsApp message. And then the members of our group argued for an even earlier start at 3.00 am because they wanted nice pictures of the sunrise! Have you ever met a group of bloggers who were ready to get up earlier than what the hosts suggested? Well, that was my group on the Trip of Wonders organized by the Ministry of Tourism, Indonesia.
These days if I am too tired, I fear an injury. When I started climbing the steep steps of Borobudur with the help of a flashlight, I was extra cautious. Soon, I got my rhythm though. I quickly reached the top, gave one look at the crowd and decide not to chase the sunrise. There was mist too, and I was almost certain that the sunrise was going to give us a miss! It has happened to me so many times at so many places that I just shrug it off now! I didn’t expect Borobudur to be so crowded at sunrise too.
Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple is in the shape of mandala (the universe), it is a sight to behold. It is said to be built around 750 AD. The 29 meter high structure is built from more than 2000 stones. The temple is built on the interlocking system, no mortar has been used in its construction. Its construction is attributed to the Sailendra Dynasty with its roots in South India.
But this 29 meter high structure went out of the human memory around 1500 AD. The site got covered with volcanic ashes and Borobudur passed out of history! Mount Merapi is still an active volcano in the vicinity.
Borobudur was rediscovered in 1814 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. However Dutch East India company who occupied Indonesia gave away a lot of material from the site in 1896. The mind boggles at such a thought.
We reached the Manohara Center of Borobudur Study before the gates were open to the public. The center also serves as a hotel. The hotel guests are allowed to proceed before the public. At the entrance they give you the flashlight and if you return it they give you a scarf as a souvenir. The nearest town to Borobudur is Yogyakarta which is 40 kilometers away. The foreigner entrance fee for the sunrise ticket is 40 US dollars and the normal ticket is 30 US Dollars.
My time at the top of the monument was largely spent in scouting for pictures! I would get awed at the timeless structure and then I would get engrossed in finding a decent photo opportunity again.
I walked around the mid level where the jataka panels are when I headed back to the base of the monument. I went back to the Manohara Center of Borobudur Study to have my breakfast. They had vegetarian options.
The sunrise At Borobudur was watery but the experience was magical. I will remember it for a long time to come!
It was a 5.00 am start and if you ask me I am no fan of 5.00 am starts. Five in the morning is for being sound asleep but it was not to be because we had plan to catch up the sunrise at Kudumbigala Monastery in Eastern Sri Lanka. We were far away from the monastery when the sunrise happened and yet it was a beautiful place to be!
The Kudumbigala Monastery is close to Kumana National Park in Ampara. We were staying at Arugam Bay so it was about one hour drive to Kudumbigala Monastery.
Our first stop was an elephant stop! We spotted a wild elephant right from the bus. So the driver parked the bus and we got out of the door to catch a few pictures. Two of my group members were not content with the far away view. They started walking towards the elephant! It was their lucky day, the elephant decided to walk away rather than charge. They were called back before they decided to chase it further in the jungle!
After the eventful pit stop, we halted where the group was splitting into two. Some of the group members decided to head to the Kumana National Park directly. A few of us tried to change our mind, I was in that group, but we were told the vehicle arrangements were such that last minute changes were not possible!
So off we went to the foot of the Kudumbigala Monastery to start our hike. By now, even though it was still early in the morning, the sun felt strong.
Mid way we spotted a cave, with decorated doors. From what I gather on the internet the Monastery Complex is old, the caves as old as before common era. In the modern times, the whole Eastern Region of Sri Lanka has passed through difficulties during the unrest. Thankfully times are changing now.
The hike was a short one. Some of the hike is on stone and it is steep. There are steel fences on those stretches. While going I was sure there was no need for the fences. While coming down I was thankful they were there.
Dileep Mudadeniya, the big shot of marketing from the Cinnamon Hotels always maintained that the views from the top were fabulous. He was absolutely right. Just for the views from the top, the 5.00 am start was worth it. The first picture of the post gives you some idea of the views!
We took a lot of time to move from the top. By now the sun was getting hot, I was in the group which went straight to the bottom to our waiting vehicles. Others were taking a lot of time. I didn’t realize it but there was another complex which they went to see.
I was happy to sit in the vehicle, click bee eaters and watch a large group of locals who were on a pilgrimage to the region. It felt like home, buses full of people, cooking on open fire, someone was fetching water from the hand pump, others grating coconut for the meal!
Gradually the group got together again and we headed to the Kumana National Park, but it is a separate tale!
PS. I was part of select bunch of global bloggers who were invited to attend Cinnamon TBC Asia 2016.
Even though I went to present a paper at an academic seminar at Sanghol in Punjab but I managed to catch the glimpses of its rural life and Buddhist Heritage too. The place is also known as Ucha Pind.
The seminar was hosted at Cordia Group of Institutions, Sanghol. On the first day after the presentations were over we went to the local lambardar’s fields. He was a sturdy man in Ray Ban glasses. They offered sweet tea to us.
It was sunset time, the perfect time to be in the sarson ke khet! Even I could not resist a selfie!
There was no time to walk or I would have loved to go and explore! Still, it was a joy to be watching the sunset in the lush green fields.
I can’t remember when I ate a sugarcane last. It used to be a regular feature during my childhood. I was a bit curious if my teeth were up to the task and they did not let me down. My former dean, Prof. Venkatesh remarked “You can take the girl out of Gorakhpur but not Gorakhpur out of the girl!”
The second evening was devoted to exploring the excavation sites near Sanghol. Sanghol is just about 40 minutes drive from Chandigarh on the Chandigarh-Ludhiana highway. There are two sites close by to the ASI office. The one above is known as SGL5.
The site is said to be dated from the Harrapan Civilization and it was continuously populated till the Gupta period. That means people lived at the site from about 2100 BCE to 6 CE! Then due to some reason it passed out from the cosmic favor! Now why is it that my travels are making me more curious about history?
There is a smaller site near the ASI building but I am not sure if it has any name, yet. Teja Singh ji, an ASI employee was quite excited about the finding of this wall. There was no excavation happening at present.
There were two ASI employees who mentioned that it looked like that this site hosted the rooms of the monks and SGL 5 was the meditation center.
On the smaller site there was a covered drain, and that immediately leads to the discussion that why can’t we achieve it now? We could not visit SGL 11 or the museum as they were closed by the time we ventured out of the college.
And finally here are the three people who are responsible for keeping me in academia. We used to call them the members of the power corridor. They were the finest team I ever worked with. As Prof Misra and Mr Yadav now work at Sanghol, they showed us around! February for me has started on the right note!
One of the highlights of my winter trip to Ladakh was the opportunity to attend the Gustor Festival at the Spituk Monastery in Ladakh. This year it was held on 7th and 8th January. As it falls in winter it is attended by the locals in large numbers, tourists were in minority!
It is said that Buddhism was introduced in Ladakh in 200 BC during the reign of King Ashoka. The census of 2011 puts 66% of the population in Leh as Buddhist. Monasteries are important religious and cultural centers.
The winters are harsh in Ladakh. In January the maximum temperature would often be in single digit and minimum in double digit minus! A festival in such a weather is just what is need to cheer up.
Gustor is a religious festival where lamas perform cham or mask dances. Cham is a choreographed dance performed only by lamas. The dances symbolize the destruction of evil spirits. The festival ends by burning an effigy which is a symbol of destruction of evil. Some of the dances are performed in pairs where the deity appears with a consort. Some dances are performed in a group.
The masks can represent fiery, benign and pleasant spirits. Animal masks are also used. The masks are made of clay and paper. They are painted with natural colors and polished with gold and silver. The dress is usually silk and brocade. It is said that the masked dances have existed since 8th century AD in Ladakh. The dances are performed by monks to the tunes of long horns, cymbals, conch shells, bells and many other instruments.
Our soft spoken guide Tashi told us to go early to the Spituk Monastery as it would get crowded during the day. And he was absolutely right. At the monastery there is a statue of Goddess Kali which is open to public only on the Gustor Festival days. When I went in it was not crowded. But while we were walking out in the afternoon for lunch, the queue was spilling down to the middle stairs.
The good folks had cordoned off a small seating area all for us marked as media. We had the balcony seats. The Grand Dragon Hotel (my sponsor for the trip) had sent in kahwa too. We were all set to enjoy the festival.
As the day progressed the place got more and more crowded. I had a gala time watching the cham dances and crowd watching.
At Gustor Spituk the tourists were in minority. This couple from Japan was sitting next to me on the Delhi-Leh flight. I had the window seat. I offered to click pictures for them too. They were very happy with the results. However, they spoke very little English so we couldn’t talk. I was happy to spot them at the festival too and on our return flight as well!
It was a feast to watch the dances and be amidst the incredible energy that the crowd and the music was generating. It was a jolly crowd.
Around 1.00 pm it was time for lunch. Our lunch was at the hotel! It was time to get out of the courtyard. Our original plan was to come back in the second half again.
By now even the windows were taken. It was a task to get out! We really has to squeeze our way through the crowd. It was an extremely well behaved crowd, there was simply no space to march out! I was so happy after I managed to get out in the open. I also have a very practical point to make. Regulate your water intake or taking a loo break is also going to be tough. Looking at the crowd we didn’t go back in the second half!
Gustor Festival at Spituk is the first monastery festival I have watched. I wish I get to see many more!
PS. I was invited to Ladakh in winter by the Grand Dragon, Ladakh.