the ancient art of tibetan thangka painting in dharamshala

I was first introduced to the ancient Tibetan religious art form of thangkas in Gyangtse, in the heart of Tibet. It was the summer of 2004. I was travelling solo through Tibet—I had hired a 4X4, got a driver and a guide, and we drove through the majestic Himalaya mountains for seven days, stopping at monasteries, stupas, and temples on the way.

A four-day visit to Dharamshala this June, home to the 14th Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile brought all my memories of Tibet gushing back.

The street that faced the nine-tiered 15th Century octagonal Kumbum stupa in Gyangtse had been lined with stalls. The stupa, by the way, contained a staggering 77 chapels, 108 gates, 100,000 Buddhist paintings, and 1,000 sculptures of the Buddha. In the little shops in the street meanwhile, ancient Buddhist silk applique and cotton paintings, which I was told were called thangkas, were on sale along with other religious paraphernalia such as prayer wheels and prayer flags.

All the thangkas, I remember, looked more or less alike to me. They were filled with intricate mandalas or exotic gods and goddesses from the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, were framed in rich satin brocade, and had a deep yellow ruffle on the top. Many were dusty. Most looked old. The yellow ruffle, I learnt much later on, opened into a pair of “curtains” which covered the painting. I also remember they were frightfully expensive. Needless to say, I did not buy any. Strange, because even after 15 years I remember them vividly. Continue reading

temple-hopping in bodh gaya: from tibet to japan

Auto-rickshaw driver: Which temple would you like to see? Tibet or Japan? Or Thai? [All the rickshaw drivers in Bodh Gaya, I realise by now, speak impeccable English.]

Me: All of them. Oh, and yeah, Sujata temple too. 😀

I see his eyes light up. I can almost read his mind: This woman will pay me well. She is the wandering types.

Auto-rickshaw driver: It will be Rs. 1,000!

I bargain my way down to Rs. 500 plus a hundred-rupee tip. We shake hands and embark on a six-hour camaraderie which survives through the rattling by-lanes to Bodh Gaya’s far corners, in search of Buddhist temples and monasteries from Tibet to Japan. I say “search” because some of our stops I had merely wisps of information of, and he was completely clueless about. Continue reading

buddha’s bodh gaya: the sacred hidden treasures of mahabodhi temple complex

“Is there some festival or special event taking place here today?” I whisper to the Buddhist monk seated next to me.

I am confused, and overwhelmed.

The entire Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Bodh Gaya, in the Indian State of Bihar, is draped with marigolds, lotuses, and roses. Hundreds of ochre and red-robed shaven-headed Buddhist monks and nuns prostrate in prayer in the grounds, and around the main temple. A handful of tourists quietly join the circumambulations around the main temple. I see pilgrims from Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Tibet, and Sri Lanka in deep prayer. Most are dressed in their traditional attires. I see a few pilgrims from the West as well, no less in the purity of their faith. Groups chant with micro precision around me, not one voice out of sync, their mantras punctuated with the crescendo beats of rattle drums.

“No. Nothing special. It is like this every day all winter.” And he goes back to his meditation.

Nothing special. Just the extraordinary experience of being part of, and witnessing Buddhists from all corners of the world come and pay homage to the place where Buddha received enlightenment. 🙂 Continue reading

delhi’s national museum bronze gallery: where bronzes sing tales of god and art

A babel of meditative Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist chants fills the gallery. Breaking the rhythmic loop is the tinkle of bells on a dainty anklet wrapped around a goddess’ voluptuous leg. Almost in competition, I hear the stomping of feet as Shiva, the destroyer, dances in passionate abandon, flames emanating in a fiery ring around him. Bharata, Rama’s brother from the Ramayana, a mere couple of feet away, holds up his brother’s sandals on his head to place them on the throne to rule as regent of the Ayodhya kingdom, accompanied by verses from the epic.

“Excuse me.”

The clipped British accent snaps me out of my reverie. And that of the deities too, who freeze mid-dance, mid-song, mid-chant, in sparkling glass cubicles scattered across the air-conditioned hall—lurching the room to pin-drop silence. And I wonder if I had imagined it all. Continue reading

11 incomparable experiences only to be had when in bhopal

Let’s face it, Bhopal does NOT appear high up on travel bucket lists or itineraries. Why, even when considering to visit it, you may well be asked “What for???” I was, and that too repeatedly.

At the most, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh is seen as a stepping stone for Buddhist Sanchi. On its own, it is a bit of an enigma, its secrets veiled from casual inquiry. Which is a good thing, for it means you will have the “City of Lakes” to yourself, with very few tourists, and be in the company of locals instead. Continue reading

photo essay: buddhist sanchi, stories told and untold

Sanchi. The little town in the heart of Madhya Pradesh had been calling out to me since as far back in time as I could remember. From before I moved back to India. Before I even knew the immensity of its import in the bigger scheme of things.

I would fantasize wandering around the 2,300-year-old Buddhist stupa built by Ashoka the Great, in the company of birdsong and golden rays of sunshine. It epitomized all my soul was constantly hungering for: a space which was closer to nirvana. Don’t get me wrong. I am a hard-core city person. I love the rat race, of ambition and success. But within a mantle of purpose and intention. Of meaning and depth. Sanchi, I believed could help me put the pieces, which I knew as my “life,” into some semblance of balance. For is that not what Gautama Buddha preached about. The Middle Way.

After many a planned trip crumbled to dust as a result of life’s unpredictability, I finally found myself this past month on a rickety bus, driving through ripened wheat fields. I was on my way to ancient Sanchi. Continue reading