The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Late in the 14th century, a monk named Sumanathera was forced by a dream to go relic-hunting and found a bone in Pang Cha. The bone apparently had various supernatural abilities, not least of which was the property to replicate itself. At the time, there were rival kingdoms vying for the Buddha's favour, and the monk took the relic to Sukhothai, where it behaved, well, like any other bone - inert and lifeless. An abashed Sukhothai was sweet music to the ears of the Lanna, who invited Sumanathera north. The bone, upon arrival, split into two pieces, one as big as the original and the other slightly smaller. For reasons best known to the Lanna monarch, the larger piece was put on a white elephant that was then let loose in the jungle. It climbed up a hill and trumpeted thrice. What happened next is rather puzzling and a possible non-sequitur. It died.

And on that hill overlooking Chiang Mai was built the golden chedi of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. A few centuries after the events chronicled here, we turn up in a rickety bottle-green car and crick our necks upwards in a vain attempt to catch sight of the pagoda of gold.

"Shall we walk up the steps to the temple?" I say.

The wife transfixes me with a pitying look. Evidently the heat had gotten to me and she fully expects me to tear off my clothes and run up the hill in gay abandon.

So we take the funicular instead. For the pleasure, we are stiffed 50 baht each, the only saving grace being that the boy goes free. He is very impressed with the cable car. "Choochoo," he yells at various moments as we grind our way skyward. He shakes his fist at the cable and watches in awe as another car silently slides downwards beside us.

The road from the parking lot below up to the hill was built entirely out of Buddhist kindness of heart and volunteer work. Seventy-odd years ago, touched by the effort put in by the old and the weak to clamber and struggle on their pilgrimage to the temple, Kruba Srivichai, the top monk in Chiang Mai made preparations for the construction of a walkway. As soon as news spread, villagers from all over northern Thailand arrived to help. There were so many people demanding a piece of the action that Kruba Srivichai was forced to request each village to help with just a fifty foot-long section of the road. Undeterred by this rationing, even more people poured into Chiang Mai, and Kruba had to make further restrictions: 15 feet per village.

We don't see any of this road, of course, because we are wafted heavenward by a piece of modern machinery. I think the funicular might have been of Swiss construction, but all the signage and etchings indicate a Thai engineering firm. I clutch at the hand-rails a bit tighter.

As soon as we reach the top, the boy is off like a rocket, and for the next five minutes, confusion reigns while we make unsuccessful attempts to grab him. In a fit of pique, the wife flounces off to the sanctum sanctorum, leaving me to cope with the boy.

We run around the temple walls three times, very reminiscent of Achilles (me) chasing Hector (the boy). Every once in a while, much to the stupefaction of the religiously inclined, we engage in brief but stirring hand-to-hand combat. I don't get much of an opportunity to take in the sights as I run, but an unconscious mechanism records brief glimpses of colour, bells, carvings, dragons, a Ganesha, lions, saffron, and flags.

Benign monks survey us dispassionately. One of them sagely nods to me as I nip past him. I pause for breath.

"What goes around comes around," he says. I ponder the significance of this epigram.

It gradually dawns on me. I don't have to chase after the boy. He will circumambulate the pagoda and appear from the other side! All I have to do is wait! I am a fool!

"But hang on a tick," says another voice in my head. It sounds a bit like the wife. "What if the boy were to get lost in the crowd?"

"Curses," I think to myself (in my own voice).

"But the path to wisdom is in doing," I murmur back to the monk, whose face lights up in the backwash of my brilliance.

Luckily, the boy has by then been distracted by a sleeping dog. He stands at a safe distance from it and yodels incoherently. Catching sight of me, he grins from ear to ear and runs into my arms. I plonk him on my shoulders and take a leisurely walk around the grounds.

From the back of the temple is a panoramic view of Chiang Mai. It is not a very impressive sight in comparison to the beauty of the temple itself. A smog has descended on the town. And in any case it is too far away to see any of its three-hundred-odd temples, even those of beaten gold leaf glinting in the sun. So the boy and I about-turn and meander around the walls of the temple complex.

There is much to marvel at, amidst a sea of exploding colours. Like all temples in Thailand, Doi Suthep is much more impressive at a distance than up close. This is because the intricate artwork and bejewelled inlays reveal themselves to be quite a bit duller (even if masterly) from near. Even the material used gives the illusion of richness from afar. When your nose is next to a bright column, you see clearly that there are no jewels, no precious metals, and that there is only a clever use of paint throughout. This is not to disparage the work, not at all. It is all done with respect and skill. I certainly wouldn't be able to duplicate even the meanest of efforts I saw in Thailand. But a little of the magic is lost when I stand right next to what appeared a wondrous sight from metres away.

There are Buddhas smiling serenely all around. In the sancta, again, there are blazing colours only slightly obscured by smoking joss-sticks and the vapours left behind by generations of devotees. The Buddha appears in one room protected by Adisesha, thus linking in one instant the Theravada doctrines with Vaishnavite faith. After all, according to some interpretations of the dashavatar, the Buddha is an incarnation of the Lotus-Eyed One.

There is an array of bells to be rung by the faithful as they do their rounds of the complex. The boy and I stop by them and wonder whether we would be remiss in gonging them whilst wearing shoes. Passersby have no existential qualms of such proportions, so they gong away, fingers and hearts aflutter. Not to be left behind, we add our wishes to the millions floating to the benevolent Shakyamuni.

"Peace for all mankind," I bleat piously.

"There's the doggie!" adds the boy.


Anonymous said...

What is Theravada doctrines?

Fëanor said...

It's the form of Buddhism closest to the Buddha's original teachings. See here, for example. Mainly practised in Sri Lanka and Thailand, I think. Codified during the reign of Ashoka.

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