Ganga Initiative Brings Culture Into New Asian Trade Routes

By Kalinga Seneviratne

This article is the 23rd in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

BANGKOK (IDN) – A recent conference at Thammasat University in Bangkok brought together Indian and Southeast Asian scholars to discuss re-building cultural links along two major rivers in Asia – the Ganges and the Mekong – that in ancient times provided transport links to build great civilizations influenced by Hindu and Buddhist philosophies and promote cultural flows.

The celebration of the New Year April 14 in the region based on astrology and harvesting cycle epitomizes these cultural links.

Continue reading “Ganga Initiative Brings Culture Into New Asian Trade Routes”


India: Fatehpur Sikri – More Than A Side-Trip From Taj Mahal

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SikriFatehpur Sikri is an enigma, a grand palace and city that was built by a powerful Muslim Moghul emperor but suddenly abandoned just 14 years later. This may well rank as one of the world’s most colossal wastage of public funds.

Well, not really, UNESCO has declared this a World Heritage Site and because of its close proximity to the world famous Moghul-built monument for love Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri is one of the most visited historic sites in India. It is just 45 km from Agra where the Taj Mahal is located.

Built in the 16th century CE by Emperor Akbar as his imperial capital, Fatehpur Sikri houses a range of palaces and pavilions built in the Moghul architectural style, along with a city for the ordinary citizens surrounded by 11 km long wall that is punctuated in places with gates. Most of the palace buildings have an interesting story or legend behind it.

After having survived many rebellions and attempted coups. Akbar choose to build his imperial capital in Sikri when local surfi saint predicted that if he build the capital there he will be blessed with not one but three sons to inherit his throne. The architecture of Sikri consists of many traditions, including Indian and Persian. There is lavish use of red sandstones.

Once Akbar’s court took its seat here in 1571, Fatehpur Sikri rose rapidly from a nondescript village to a thriving centre of commerce. By 1580 the population has reached about 250,000. But in 1585 Akbar and his court suddenly moved base to Lahore abandoning the city they built. The popular reason being a lack of water supplies but other historians believe his imperial ambitions may have moved westwards.

There are many architectural masterpieces you can still find in Fatehpur Sikri. One of them is the famed carved pillar inside Diwan-i-Khass (Jewel House). The building itself is very photogenic, but the building is dominated with the richly carved pillar linked by 4 diagonal “bridges” that connects the pillar to each corner of the building. The popular legend is that Akbar used to hold court here with him seated in the centre at the top of the pillar and ministers seated on the diagonal columns.

The Imperial Palace complex is still well preserved and its red stone buildings with some intricate carvings are interesting to note for its lack of any human or animal figures. The buildings offer ample opportunities for good photography. Of particular fascination should be the red-stoned railings that have been carved to resemble some sort of mesh-windows. The architecture that has gone into its buildings is not purely Islamic Persian or Arabic origin, there are elements of the carved pillars of Hindu temples incorporated into the buildings but with flowery or leafy designs. Akbar is known to be an open-minded ruler who encouraged interaction between religions.

Among the many legends attached to the buildings here is one about the stone ring embedded into the earth in the large courtyard, where it is said that the elephants crushed the condemned to death while Akbar and his court watched. Then there is one area where a pool was supposed to have been that is connected through an enclosed column to rows of what looks like windowless cubicles where Akbar’s harem was supposed to lodge. One can only imagine the stories that may have been told about its connections.

In another part of the complex is the Jami Masjid with a large courtyard with a number of tombs. The huge doorways, which are the entrances to the courtyard, resemble very much the Persian architecture and especially the mosques of Isfhan in Iran. Though they are built with red sandstones the interiors have been painted like its Persian counterparts.

The Shaikh Salim Chishti’s Tomb that takes central attraction in the courtyard is the only building that has been constructed in white marble. The popular surfi has been laid to rest here and people still pay reverence to him. The marble screens encircling the tomb have been delicately chiseled allowing sunlight to provide natural light inside. Some devotes tie red threads to these railing seeking the surfi’s blessings.

Most visitors to Fatehpur Sikri tend to come on half-day tours with the other half spent at the Taj Mahal in Agra. But, local tour operators are now recommending that visitors should spend a night here and visit the complex early morning which creates a pleasant atmosphere and also dancing peacocks are believed to come there.

To get to Fatehpur Sikri, if you are not taking a tour, is to hire a taxi from Agra, which would stay there until you finish viewing the complex to bring you back to Agra. But, there are also regular local buses available to get there.




Indian Kashmir:“Mystic” Police Spoils Journey In Paradise

By Kalinga Seneviratne

LadackhThe Himalayan Regions of India’s Kashmir and Ladakh have often being described by travellers as a paradise on earth – a Shangarila. This story is about how a dream of over 40 years was finally realised, but, only to be spoiled by “mystic” Indian police officers.

My interest in the region was rekindled last year when I met a Buddhist monk from Ladakh at a conference in China, who convinced me that it is not only one of the most scenic regions in the world, but also historically significant as the home of the longest surviving Buddhist community in India, the homeland of Buddhism.

Ladakh is known as the land of several passes and it is located in the Indian part of the Himalayas between the two highest mountain ranges in the world. To reach its capital Leh – which is a barren plateau lying at a height of over 3000 metres – one has to navigate some stunning passes travelling from Manali to the south which could take a good 2 to 3 days. But, this road is usually closed between September to April due to heavy snow falls. The other route is via Jammu and Srinagar to the west which also has many passes to navigate.

I took an overnight train from Delhi to Jammu and an Air India flight from there to Leh. The flight was only 45 minutes and if you are lucky enough to get a window seat on a sunny day what you see is unbelievable. Initially I wasn’t sure if I was seeing snow-clad mountains (after all we are in the summer months) or rocky clips with sandy tops. However, I took my mobile phone camera and started clicking widely the amazing scenery I was witnessing. The green hill tops changing to white and then to a brownish colour as we started the descent into Leh.

The descent to Leh could be unnerving for a first timer as looking out from both sides of the aircraft you see mountains that seems higher than the height we are flying at. The pilot is navigating between an airborne pass to reach the huge valley where Leh is situated surrounded by brownish rocky mountains with many of them still to melt down its winter snow cover.

Leh has a population of some 10,000 but my hotel manager said most of them close up the hotels and businesses and flee to the relatively warmer climate of Punjab or Delhi or further south to escape the harsh winters, where the temperature could go down to as low as -40 deg centigrade.

This city developed as a trading post in the ancient Silk Route, where merchants from Central Asia, China and India met and traded in tea, silk, salt, household items, semi-precious stones and so on. The camel caravans used to camp here, thus linking Leh with Afghanistan, Central Asia, Tibet and China.

Buddhism travelled to Leh via the Silk Route and it has taken root here over the centuries. Today, this is one of the few places in India where Buddhists are in the majority. Their numbers have been swelled by Tibetian refugees fleeing across the border over the mountains since the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959. Sometimes Leh is refered to as “Little Lhasa” because of many Tibetan style temples you find on mountain slopes.

The houses here used to be built in mud but today there is a building boom in Leh where concrete and bricks are being used, yet, their traditional architectural style is preserved and the modern buildings looks impressive with the traditional wood-carved windows and doors. The small Buddhist stupas known as chortens are found everywhere. Traditionally built with mud and painted white, these are today being built with bricks in more ornamental style but still preserving the traditional architecture.

A trip up north (towards the China-Tibet border) along rocky roads with mountain passes could take you back to the winter even in the middle of the summer. Khardung La is only 39 km from Leh but navigating the mountain passes which gradually becomes white and snowy takes a good 2 to 3 hours to reach the point. As you reach Khardung La you are virtually on the top of the world as this road is the world’s highest motorable road at a height of over 5600 meteres. Be prepared for a bumpy ride up the road – most of which is not tared – where your small vehicle would have to squeeze through the narror roads that are also used by convoys of trucks that take daily supplies to the army camps and isolated communities in the valleys further up.

However, my adventure started the next day when I decided to hire a taxi to go to Srinagar 430 km to the west. The trip was estimated to take 8 to 10 hours with most of the route taking you through mountain passes. These are within missile firing range of the Pakistani army across the border according to my taxi driver, who is a former Indian soldier and fought in the famous Kargil War between Indian and Pakistani forces in 1999.

We started from Leh at 5.00 am and the driver said we should reach Srinagar by late afternoon. Thus allowing us to enjoy the stunning scenery during daylight. As we started early morning we drove along the winding mountain roads with endless tortuous hairpin bends snaking through steep slopes, that followed the Indus river, thus enjoying the great scenery of green valleys and farming land with rocky brownish mountain backdrops. Indus river which starts in the Tibetan plateau and flows through Pakistan into India has been the lifeblood of the farming communities for centuries.

The Buddhist flavour of Ladakh was evident along the route with chortens dotting the road alongside the huts and houses with occasional Gompa (Buddhist temple) on the slopes such as at Lamayuru. A stop over point for travellers for 1000 years, it is a spectacular setting with its wooden and mud-brick white buildings on a rugged clip surrounded by blackish slopes and green valleys below.

About half an hour later you reach Mulbek, where a 9-meter high image of Maitreya, the future Buddha, is carved into a rock on the roadside. It is believed to have been carved during the Gupta period 8-9th century of the CE. As this is a popular tourist stop there are a few cafes and even overnight accomodation available here.

Mulbek marks the point where Buddhists gradually give way to Muslim communities as we head towards Kargil and Srinagar. The chortens are being replaced by white and green mosques on the valleys and communities of women in head scarfs and bearded men in turbans or scull caps. The next 30 km takes you downhill to the valley on the Wakha river, a tributary of the Indus, where Kargil is located.

Throughout the journey, as you drive further away from Leh the regularity of army camps increased with the occasional police checkpoints. The traffic is often slowed by convoys of army trucks transporting goods and personnel between camps. Around Kargil you find a cluster of army camps and also a huge war memorial for some 1400 Indian soldiers killed during the Kargil war.

Kargil, with a population of over 16,000 is the first town you reach after Leh (6 hours drive) and it is a pre-dominantly a Shia Muslim town. You find many billboard in the town with the picture of the Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Kohmeini.

It is just outside Kargil that we reached the first major roadblock when Police said that we could not proceed until a convoy of vehicles reach the point from the other direction. They said that only one-way traffic was allowed on the ZojiLa pass about an hour away, which is regarded as one of the most perilous passes to negotiate anywhere in the world. When we reached the checkpoint at around 10.30 am there was only one other vehicle held up and by 5.00 pm we were still there with a que of some 60 other vehicles. There was no sign of a convoy of vehicles coming from the other direction. However, occassional vihicles pass through the checkpoint in both directions.

An irate young Indian who has been waiting for police clearance to proceed for over 5 hours told me angrily that it is not an issue of road safety but peoples’ refusal to play game with corrupt police. “Did you notice those vehicles that were flagged to proceed?” he asked. “Someone got out of the vehicle went into their (police) room and when he got back to the vehicles the police flagged it to proceed. We are here because we refuse to pay”.

Finally when we were allowed to proceed it was past 6.00 pm and the sun was begininng to set. The next hour along a winding road on the banks of the river we drove through stunning scenery in the glowing red light of the setting sun. On the way, the driver told me that the police asked him for 5000 rupees to allow us through and he refused. “The police here are theives, I will not encourage them” told the former army officer.

As the day was darkening into night we reached another checkpoint at Dras where there was already a que of vehicles waiting to pass through. The police said that the road has been closed for the night due to government safety regulations and we will have to wait until daybreak to proceed. This small town lies in a valley surrounded by tall mountains and it is believed to be the coldest inhabited place in india and the second coldest place on earth after Siberia. During winter 10-15 meters of snow is suppose to fall on this place. There was no snow here as it was summer time.

Soon the whole convoy of vehicles that were help up at Kargil arrived here. Most of them with Indian holiday makers enjoying their summer school vacations. There are only two hotels in Dras, with very basic facilities. The driver suggested that we sleep in the vehicle (a 10-seater van) and he will switch on the motor when it needs heating. We set the alarm for 5.00 am expecting to proceed to Srinagar at daybreak.

When the alarm woke us up we were basically freezing inside with the windows covered by snow. There was a heavy snowfall outside with temperature having dropped below zero. We waited for the snowfall to cease, which don’t seem to. Thus, by 7.00 am the police said that Zojila pass will not be opened for the day as there was already over a meter of snow cover on the pass. The driver said that these snow falls will most probably continue for the next 3 to 4 days. Thus, we decided to drive back to Leh.

We started the drive back at snails space surrounded by white lanscape reflecting sceneries of a ‘White Christmas’ you see from Europe. But, within an hour the snowfalls were gone as we approached the Kargil checkpoint where the police just flagged us through. Most of the return drive was under blue skies except in a small strecth of passes before Lamayuru where there was a slight snow fall surroundede by snow-clad mountains.

We reached Leh about 3.00 pm almost 35 hours since we last left the town. I was still keen to go to Srinagar, and a local travel agent said there was a seat available on the weekly Air India flight to Srinagaer the next morning and it will cost 10,000 rupees. I was left with no other choice but to take that option.

On the hour long flight to Srinager I wondered whether giving into police corruption would have been a cheaper way for me to reach Srinager!


Khajuraho – Temples of “Erotism”

By Kalinga Seneviratne

Khajurao1Khajuraho in north-central India has a special place in the world tourism map as a place where modern-day “Erotism” and ancient spirituality come together. It is known for its ornate Hindu temples that are some of the most beautifully crafted temples of ancient India, built by the Chandella rulers between 900-1130 CE. Some 85 temples were believed to have been built during this period and about 25 have survived up to this date.

There are 3 clusters of temples located around a cute little rural town with two small lakes and a lot of tourist shops as well as cafes that serve local cuisine mainly vegetarian, such as samosa, puri, nan and chappati with potato, vegetable and lentil curries or “masalas”. It is a very pleasant place to spend two or three days to get a break from the hustle and noise of Indian cities. Most people can communicate in English here.

Getting to Khajuraho is easier than it used to be. There is both an airport and a railway station with daily flights from Delhi, Agra and Varanasi. But if you have the time, it would be more enjoyable to travel by train. Best way to get there is to take the Udapipur-Khajurao express from either Delhi or Agra. It’s a 10-12 hour journey travelling through some scenic farming areas, villages, towns and a few cities – make sure you book either 1st or 2nd class in advance to make your journey comfortable.

Coming back to Khajuraho, the Chandellas who ruled over this part of India between 9th to 13th century were a Rajput tribe that claimed descent from the Moon through the legendary sage Chandratreya. During this period they emerged as one of the most stable Hindu kingdoms at a time when Muslim Moghul invaders were rampaging through northern India.

These parts of north-central India is well known for the flowering of Indian arts and crafts between 3rd century BCE and the 10th century CE. The magnificence of the Khajuraho temples that have survived up to these days indicates that this place has been a leading centre of both religion and the arts.

Though it is little more than a village today, the facts that Khajuraho’s temples span an area of 21 sq kms shows that this has been a large city at the time. But, only the temples are visible today, which remained “lost” after the collapse of Chandella empire in the 13th century CE until a British engineer “discovered” these in 1938.

The best cluster of temples are what is called the western temples which is just next door to the town and most of the tourist hotels. There is charge of 250 rupees (about USD 4) for foreigners to enter this complex. It’s well worth it and these temples are remarkable creations and especially the intricately carved walls of both the exterior and the interior. All temples have been built of fine grain sandstone, in varying shades of grey, pink and pale yellow. These stones have been sourced from the quarries on the banks of the Ken river close by.

All temples of Khajuraho have a similar style with its carved domes (chaityas), the inner shrine with carved stone pillars forming an entrance corridor and statues of deities (gods) inside. There are also balconies and windows that allow light to flow through to the inner shrine. The interiors are also lavished with amazing variety of sculptures carved on to its walls and pillars. The ceilings too have been intricately carved with each carved stone has fallen into a given design. These carved ceilings may have been painted during its heydays. No wood or steel has been used in its construction. The shrine rooms are erected in a high platform with 10-15 stoned steps to climb up. This is believed to be the Central Indian building style of that period.

The temples are today UNESCO World Heritage Sites protected by the Indian Government and are not used for worship. But, visitors are expected to dress modestly (though many sculptures reflect otherwise) and take off your footware when visiting the shrine rooms.

The Khajuraho sculptures are not all erotic, only a very few are with most of them placed high on middle level of the domes, not at the normal eye level. According to an Archeological Survey of India (ASI) publication, there are 5 types of sculptures that make up the temple architecture. These include cult-images; family, attendant and enclosing divinities; the apsaras (attendants of the higher divinities) and sura-sundaries (sensual women often shown disrobing, touching their bare-breasts or fondling babies); secular sculptures (showing domestic scenes as well as musicians or erotic couples); and animals.

The erotic sculptures found mainly in the western temple complex are considered as some of the finest sculptural compositions of Khajuraho “vibrating with a rare secular sensitiveness and warmth of human emotions that transcends from physical to the spiritual plane” as ASI publication describes it. Once you see the sculptures you see what they mean.

Some sculptures even depict multiple partners in what could be considered “pornographic” both in India and the West today, if found in any publication or website. Yet, in the ancient days (when Indians seem more liberal than today) such images were considered as a form of sexual yoga (tantric). One particular sculpture found in more than one temple wall shows three women involved is presumably an exuberant sexual (or spiritual?) act with one man.

How these sculptures adorn Hindu temples is still a matter of debate in India. One school of thought is that it mirror the lax moral standards of contemporary society (of that time), while others believe that these scenes represent the belief of the times that yoga (spiritual exercise) and bhoga(physical pleasure) to be alternate paths leading to the attainment of final deliverance. There is also another argument, that in ancient India most young men were sent for an education to a temple where they had to practice celibacy. Thus, before they are released to the wider community (presumably for marriage) they needed to be educated in the ‘kama sutras’ (the art of sexual pleasures). Perhaps this also indicates that in ancient Hindu India that sex was not considered as a sinful act.

A strong sensual element has influenced much of the early Indian arts, be it in sculptures, art, literature or folk tradition. Thus there are many sculptures that adorn the Khajuraho temple walls which shows couples in sensual moods (such as hugging and kissing) sometimes with small children (not taller than their knee level) holding to their finger tips. This may also depict the Hindu belief that polarity between sexes is essential to human creation.

Close to the eastern group of temples are 3 temples clustered together within a modern walled compound that belong to the Jain religion. Jainism is an ancient Indian spiritual tradition of sharamans (saints) that don’t own anything nor they wear any clothes or live in monasteries. They practice an extreme form of “ahinsa” (non-violence) and are strict vegetarians.

Parsvanatha and Adinatha temples are the best preserved and their architecture resembles that of the other Khajuraho temples. The temples walls are adorned with sculptures of Jan saints and other images that depicts non-violence. Some of the ancient Jain scriptures are inscribed in the compound walls. Since the Jain saints do not wear any clothes, the images of them that are carved in to the walls or statues found in the shrine rooms show the human body (only male) in its naked form. But, these are in no way considered as erotic arts.

Within the compound is an exhibition of photographs and other textual material that give an introduction to the Jain religion (one of the least known of Indian religions) and an adjoining museum has a good collection of well-carved Jain sculptures and statues. There are also Jain followers who are ever willing to talk to you to explain the Jain teachings.

Khajuraho should be a welcomed change from your Indian itenary of crowded cities and tourist sites. Though the community here seems to survive mainly on tourist income, it yet has a quite rural village atmosphere and allows a good relaxing break of a couple of days. Most of the hotels, though of the budget range, are of good quality.



Sanchi: Popular Buddhist Pilgrim Site

By Kalinga Seneviratne

 SanchiSanchi located about 45 km from the north-central Indian city of Bhopal is not directly related with the life of Gauthama Buddha, but it is a popular Buddhist pilgrim site that attracts over 100,000 visitors a year. The reason is that it hosts one of the most well-preserved Buddhist stupas in India whose history goes back to the 3rd century BCE.

Built on top of a 90 metre hilltop with great views of the scenic countryside of green wheat and yellow mustard fields, the monuments provides a good insight into ancient Buddhist arts and architecture. The four stone-carved gateways of the stupas, which have been marvelously preserved, resemble some of the finest examples of Buddhist arts that attracts both Buddhist and non-Buddhist visitors to the site.

The gateways give a good account of the rise (and decay) of Buddhist arts over a period of 13 centuries beginning from 3rd century BCE to 12th century CE. Since Sanchi is not associated with the life of the Buddha it is not usually mentioned in Buddhist scriptures or accounts of Buddhist pilgrims in ancient times. But Sri Lankan chronicles Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa have mentioned it. These have mentioned that the great Indian Buddhist emperor Asoka in 3rd century BCE, before he became the Maurya emperor, had married the daughter named Devi of a merchant in Vidisha (nearby ancient city) who has later built a monastery at Sanchi. Emperor Asoka has subsequently built the stupas and erected a “Asoka Pillar” that is still there.

Archeologists say that inscriptions at Sanchi shows that a great Buddhist stupa and monasteries were built here due to the patronage of rich merchants of Vidisha, that helped Sanchi to flourish long after the Maurya empire declined following Emperor Asoka’s death. Between 14th to the 19th century CE Sanchi was deserted and remained unnoticed. The decline was due to aggressive Bhraministic revival in these parts of India beginning around the 13th century CE.

Excavations undertaken by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) since 1993 have exposed a number of buried structures that indicate a large complex of temples and monasteries.

The largest stupa is a circular dome (anda) of 36 metres in diameter and 16 metres in height crowned at the top with a triple-umbrella made in stone. These stupas were originally meant to be depositories of ashes of the dead. It also has a paved processional path around it at a level that includes a plight of stone steps of about 4 metres high. This may have been for walking meditation or ceremonial processions around the stupa.

The four gateways are the main attractions of Sanchi that dates to 1st century CE. Each gateway consists of two square pillars crowned by a set of 4 lions, elephants or pot-bellied dwarfs supporting 3 horizontal columns and two vertical columns, all carved in stone depicting Jataka stories (Buddha’s previous lives of compassion and generosity), life of the Buddha or the natural environment. Crown of the top horizontal column is a “dharma-chakra” that symbolize the “tri-ratna” the three pillars of Buddhism – Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

In the carvings depicting the Buddha’s life nowhere is he represented in human form. Buddha is represented as symbols such as a horse without a rider but an umbrella held above; a dharma-chakra; a throne; pillar or footprints. Even the “parinirvana” (death) of the Buddha in Kushinara between two sal trees is depicted by a stupa.

Sanchi is not a functioning Buddhst temple as such. But the Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka has built an adjoining temple for worship by pilgrims. The area has no Buddhist community.

The Sanchi village is interesting by itself to take a stroll through the narrow streets with its multi-coloured houses and small huts with clay walls. Some households also raise cows and goats. They have a number of local schools with each having its own uniform. There are a number of small Hindu temples as well as a functioning Jain temple. There is a community of about 10 Jain families.

The Madhya Pradesh state government is keen to develop Sanchi into a major tourist attraction and they have recently opened a family-oriented resort there. The only other accommodation in Sanchi is the Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka’s international guest house which is usually booked out by Sri Lankan pilgrims during the October-November and March-April period. The state government has also recently opened a new university just 10 km from the stupa – known as the Sanchi University of Indic Buddhist Studies – it aims to develop educational programs and intellectual exchanges with Buddhist countries across Asia.

The best way to get to Sanchi is via Bhopal, which has a domestic airport and is a very busy intersection for express trains crisscrossing India. There are regular busses from Bhopal to Sanchi that takes about 1 hour and also a few local trains that stop at Sanchi. It is also possible to hire a taxi from Bhopal to Sanchi and vice-versa.

Recommended Text: World Heritage Series – Sanchi, by Debala Mitra, Archeological Survey of India, 2003.