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.
Dust arose from his broom like incense emanates from a holy alter. Sunlight streaked through the white marble screen and caressed the man in white, whose sideways swaying of stick broom recited a hymn of a primordial chord. Was it a halo that covered his head in the form of a white skull-cap?
On handing him five rupees for letting us take his picture, the sweeper flashed his tobacco stained teeth, thanked us and said, ‘It’s perfect for a cup of tea.’
Earlier that morning, a blanket of fog enveloped a stretch of land in front of us. Amidst the screen of the morning mist, we could see the silhouette of one of the World’s Seven Wonders. From ‘Moksh Dham’, the crematorium next to the eastern side of the monument, like a phoenix that arose from the ashes, Taj Mahal emerged from the night.
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.
Moss covered trees, logs, and stones, much like green frosting on an irregular sponge. With each step, I inhaled the woody forest air. Hiking on the trail in Yangminshan National Park, I was in a trance. The walk reminded me of a monk, who sat in meditation in Longshan Temple, amidst the flow of tourists and worshippers. Surely, many have had similar bouts of tranquillity.
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)
Inside the Sami Tent, Kiruna, Sweden
Smoke filled the Lavvu or Sami tent, yet the air inside was more agreeable than the breeze blowing from the frozen River Torne. We huddled around a wood fire, as our Sami guide passed us warm lingonberry juice.
“Don’t throw leftover drinks into the fire, Jabme Akka, Goddess of the underworld, resides under it,” she warned.
Sami are the indigenous inhabitants of Scandinavia, and like many other ethnic people, they ascertained divinity to their surroundings. Magic lurked everywhere and the revered everything . Nature set the rhythm and not man. Even in the current age, their life was in sync with nature. In summer, they would let go of their reindeer. The animals go into the forest to forage and return after the breeding season. The herds returned at the onset of winter, and the young calves belonged to its mother’s master…
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