Amidst the clamour of shlokas from the speakers placed next to the Maha Bodhi tree, I sat with closed eyes trying to meditate at 5:30 A.M. I wondered whether Gautama would have become Buddha in the cacophony, perhaps yes. I tightened my hoodie and tried to focus. A dog sauntered towards me and smelled the air near my shoulder. Then it walked up to a monk and sniffed him. What happened next surprised me.
The original Bodhi tree was destroyed by the queen of Ashoka, who was jealous towards it because of her husband’s attachment to it. The current tree is the direct descendant of the original Bodhi brought from Sri-Lanka. Immediately, to the east of the Bodhi tree was the Maha Bodhi temple. The temple was originally built by Ashoka, but the current temple is the oldest brick structure built in the 5th to 6th century by the Gupta Dynasty.
It was the Maha Bodhi tree under which Buddha had discovered Vipassana; he learned of the real nature of things or Dhamma. Hence, I chose Dhamma Bodhi Centre, about 5 kilometres from the Maha Bodhi Temple, to learn Vipassana.
Flooded Wadi Tiwi
A surge of muddy water roared, gurgled and fanned out into the sea. Our vantage point atop the Muscat-Sur highway kept us away from the currents, but not from the rain. Dark clouds poured as we peered at the submerged low-lying road below us that ran parallel to the shoreline. We were observing the infamous flash floods of Arabian Wadis.
I ran across to the other side of the road to see the swollen gorge called Wadi Shab. Beside the submerged rocks and palm trees stood a donkey. As the water level rose, the beast clamoured higher; the smell of mud and sea licked its nostrils. It was trapped.
Our ride to the summit of Mount Noulja was in the darkness of a moonlit night. The wind slapped my face to freeze my ears and nose and hissed past our climbing two-seater chairlift. The night air had made my gloves redundant, and the slow ride felt like a trip through a blast chiller. Each time the car stopped for the next passenger to alight, our chair would swing like a pendulum. Falling into the dark wilderness was less scary than dropping our snow boots in the silver abyss. Below us, the silver pathways of the ski-slope looked treacherous to my never-skied-in-my-life eyes. We were still minutes away from our destination, Aurora Sky Station. I looked up to the sky in the hope to see the promised glimmering skies, but all I could see was grey void.
The previous night was our first in Abisko. We stayed in Abisko Tourist Station, a lodge that offered basic amenities with an appalling Wi-Fi connectivity. It was 9:30 pm and the website, http://www.aurora-service.eu/, said that the aurora activity was high at that time. However at times, sleep wins over a possibility of sighting of nature’s marvel. I kept waking up frequently throughout the night to look outside my window, beyond the mountains on the other side of Lake Torneträsk and hoped to see the heavens on fire. My efforts were futile, maybe we were not cold enough.
Night View of Frozen Lake Torneträsk (on the left), Abisko Tourist Station(lower left), Abisko Village (in the centre), and Aurora Sky Station (lower right)
The town welcomed us with snowflakes and winds of sub-zero warmth. Carpets of snow-covered the trees, houses, cars; the entire landscape, but the road. I am from the tropics, so to me Kiruna, which was 145 kilometres north of Arctic Circle, was exotic, like a sunny white beach might be to some.
Rising up from the stocky cubical structure, against the metallic grey horizon, was a skeletal clock; we were near the Town Hall of Sweden’s Northern Most City. Further away in the distance was Kirunavvara Mountain, with rock terraces that coiled down to earth’s bowels, towards world’s one of the largest iron reserves that was 4 km long, 80 m thick, and stretched to a depth of 2 km. Next to the Kirunavvara Mountain was Lossavaara Mountain that held a research mine and a ski slope.
Kiruna Town Hall
Entrance of the Ice Hotel
I lay on my side trying to shield my face from freezing cold. The stench of reindeer skin, similar to a wet dog, made me smell like a Neanderthal. No wonder the hominid is extinct! The zip of my sleeping bag was stuck halfway. I managed to pull and hold it close to my chin; I was lazy to go back to the reception to get it replaced. Just when I was starting to feel warm, I had an urge to pee. Ice Hotel did not have toilets inside the average rooms; restrooms were yards away, near the reception. Dashing through the icy corridors, in a pair of thermal undergarments, became my only option.
Earlier that afternoon, we had checked into the world’s first Ice Hotel at Jukkasjärvi, Sweden. It stood on the banks of frozen River Torne. The dream began 25 years ago with inspiration from snow festival in Sapporo, Japan.
Every year, the construction took place on the river banks from October with ice harvested earlier in March. A composite of ice and snow, called snice, was a substitute for mortar. The only common feature in each year’s hotel was the corridor with ice chandeliers; the design and the artworks changed annually. This year’s Ice hotel had 55 rooms and it spread over an area of 5500 square metres.
The mist that carpeted the surrounding mountains crept into the lake, and the moisture laden breeze chilled our bones. The white sky reflected on the rippled water surface that became the canvas on which stood the lady of the lake. Soon, it started drizzling, I opened my travel umbrella that had a phrase on it. It said,” I love Scotland”. It was my Excalibur and we were in Avalon!
Pura Ulan Danu
Pura Ulun Danu or the Temple of Goddess Danu stood on the western shores of the Lake Bratan. It was built 1500 metres above sea level on Beddugul plateau in the 16th century by King of Mengwi, I Gusti Agung Putu. However, there were records of a shrine older than the current one at the same site. The Temple complex consisted of four temple structures. Three of them dedicated to the Hindu trinity, Brahma – the creator, Vishnu – the administrator, and Shiva – the destroyer. And the fourth one was dedicated to fertility Goddess Danu. Being built on an island, the last temple seemed afloat on water. In Balinese, Danu meant lake. In Rig Vega, Danu was the goddess of Dark waters and the mother of Demons or Danavas. Some scholars believe that the pro-Aryan deity inspired the name of the European river Danube.
“Don’t speak to any of the villagers” Dewa, our driver, widened his eyes and continued, “you guys are with me”.
The instructions given before heading for the Mother Besakih Temple reminded me of stories involving secret societies. The temple complex was infamous for louts forcing tourists to hire local guides who then extorted high fees from the naïve targets. Any resistance by the visitors led to aggressive vocal display of expletives.
On our way to the village, our car was stopped by a few women who held plates with flowers and incense. They demanded monetary offerings for our safe passage. I handed them the smallest possible rupiah note. They demanded more. I looked at Dewa “No more! I come from India; This is extortion!”
The gang backed off and let our car go.
Moments later, we made a pit stop to wrap sarong around our waists. Dewa changed into a figure of piety by dressing in white. Continue reading