Thursday, January 22, 2015

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi - the most sacred of the sacred trees

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a direct descendant of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment.

I've always loved trees, so I wasn't surprised when my Tai Chi Master told during our first lesson that trees contain positive chi (a kind of a 'life force' in Daoism). Even more, he told that just being close to a large old tree will transfer some of that life force into one, which sounds quite natural to me. After all, the huge old oak in my garden in Saltsjöbaden has always seemed to radiate protection, like it would be tapping into some kind of a secret underground force with its deep root system.

Stone walls and a golden railing surround the tree; originally, these were built to keep the tree safe from hungry elephants and other 'predators'.

This explains partly why seeing the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, the most sacred of all living sacred trees in Buddhism, was nonnegotiable while traveling in Sri Lanka - even if the huge flooding in the northern parts of the island almost managed to keep us from it. But I'm very happy we managed to get there; the sacred Bodhi of Anuradhapura definitely seemed to have an aura of that special 'life force' around it.
So why so sacred? It all goes back to the birth of Buddhism. The founder of the religion was born in sixth century BC as Prince Siddhartha Gautama. After years of spiritual searching, he finally reached enlightenment after meditating intensively under a tree in a place called Bodh Gaya in Northern India. From then on, he became known as the Buddha - and befittingly, the tree was renamed the 'Bodhi' - the tree of enlightenment. 

Golden supports (and some less fancy ones) protect the remaining branch of the tree from circa 288 BC. The rest of the tree consists of younger branches, grown from cuttings from the original tree (several cuttings of different ages are propagated on the site,to ensure continuity even in the future).
Bodhi is traditionally translated into English as 'enlightenment', but literally it means 'awakened'. The verbal root "budh" means 'to awaken' - hence the Buddha, the 'Awakened One', or the 'Enlightened One'. A sacred tree of not just for Buddhists but even for Hindus and Jains, the Bodhi was aptly named Ficus religiosa  in the Linnean binomial nomenclature, and is known even by the names of peepal/peepul and the bo-tree. 
The old Bodhi is sacred and highly revered; whole families from tiniest babies to grandparents came with flower offerings and said their prayers in front of the huge tree.
The Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura is said to be the oldest living historical tree in the world, with a well-documented past. It was first brought as a cutting in a golden vessel from the original Tree of Enlightenment in Bodh Gaya to Sri Lanka by nun Sanghamitta, who was a daughter of Emperor Ashoka. After spending a couple of years in its golden container, it was planted in 288 BC in the Mahameghavana Park in Anuradhapura by King Devanampiyatissa. The original Bodhi in Bodh Gaya has since died, and the tree growing there is a cutting taken from Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura - so the circle of rebirth continues...

During its lifetime - an astonishing 23 centuries - the Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi has seen empires and kingdoms rise and fall. It has been ravaged by storms and attacked by elephants (hence the stone wall with golden railings), almost been overtaken by the jungle, and even seen a massacre  in 1985, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan ('Tamil Tigers') killed some 170 monks and nuns by its feet. But even if only one large branch of the original tree remains, it is still deeply revered by Buddhist of all ages and all nationalities as a living reminder of the life and teachings of the historical Buddha.

Beautiful flowers sold outside the to the devotees outside the site of the Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi - pink and white lotuses, and blue waterlilies (Nymphaea stellata) that are the wonderful national flower of Sri Lanka. Flowers fade very fast, so they are meant to remind the devotees of the impermanency of all things and to inspire them to think of the virtues and teachings of the Buddha.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sigiriya, a magnificent and mysterious palace in the clouds

Symmetry with a well-balanced touch of asymmetry (see that winding little path left from the central axis...?): view from the top of the huge Sigiriya rock, towards the water gardens at the foot of it.
When I travel, I try to be at least reasonable well prepared. I check out properly the places I am going to, read up on their history and sights, and generally do some research in advance in order to get as much as possible out of the trips. But at times, despite all this, some places still manage to take me by quite a surprise... Sigiriya on northeastern Sri Lanka managed to do exactly so during the recent holidays.
Now, Sri Lanka itself is quite a spectacular little island, filled with exquisite cultural sites, lush emerald green jungle, mines filled with precious stones, misty tea plantations and long sandy beaches. Its earlier names, Ceylon and Serendib (used by Arab traders  - the word "serendipity", meaning "fortunate happenstance" or "pleasant surprise" stem from this name...) still evoke thoughts of bygone days in the tropics.

View towards the Sigiriya rock rising from the jungle and with the advanced pleasure gardens leading to it - it is said that King Kassapa had 400 maidens living in his palace, and that he enjoyed watching them bathing in the large pools...
Primitive metal scaffolding leads to the top of the rock, which made me question what we had undertaken as I'm quite afraid of heights. In the ancient times, bamboo was used instead of metal, and I wonder how many builders lost their lives making the first version...
The history of the island goes back millenniums, and even written such about reaches about three thousand years back. Visited by seafarers since ancient times, and often attacked and even invaded or colonialized by foreign powers, those many cultures have added their own footnotes to the story of the island.
Given such a long, rich history, the island is filled with cultural treasures - for example, a total of eight UNESCO World Heritage sites are crammed within its compact shores. One of the most interesting of these (according to my own, very personal rating..) is Sigiriya, part a pleasure palace, part a fortress and part a sacred complex from the late 5th century. No-one knows what it was built for so its history is shrouded in mystery, the first written records are from almost 800 years after its glory days.

A couple of more pictures of the water gardens at the foot of the rock. Technically very advanced for their time, they even contain bubbling fountains, fed by water led via underground pipes from the higher levels.

Two pictures showing how the palace and other buildings on the rock were constructed: first, cuts were hacked into the stone; tiles were inserted into these, and walls built on the base. Many of the buildings have disappeared and only the initial cuts show on the rocks and cliffs.  
Rising some 200 meters above the jungle around, the site consists of vast pleasure gardens at the foot of the rock, and ruins of a palace on middle and top of it. Some historians believe that King Kassapa I (also spelled Kasyapa) built the huge complex during his 18-year long reign in late 5th century; others (what seems more realistic) think that he extended an existing holy site or Buddhist monastery.

Halfway up the rock, a difficult to reach rocky shelter in the vertical wall (the "orange band" in the rock wall in above pictures) houses rock paintings of extremely high artistic quality depicting 21 female figures called 'The Maidens of the Clouds'. There are many theories but no definitive answers to what these beautiful figures represent - they might be goddesses, or jewel-bedecked court ladies... For centuries after Kassapa's defeat, travelers came to Sigiriya just to see these lovely ladies, and scribbled their appreciative poems into the surrounding walls.

Kassapa's own history is another mystery. According to some sources, he committed patricide and threw his brother out of the country; then fearful for his defeated brother to return from exile to extract vengeance, built and moved into his fortress and palace on the top of the huge rock. Now, sitting at the top of a rock wouldn't seem smart as a strategy as it would be easy for any attackers to just cut out all supplies and wait until the targets would surrender, which makes many historians suspicious of the theory. But no-one has quite been able to put together the complete story; the only thing we know for sure is that Kassapa's brother did eventually come back, and that in the face of a certain defeat, Kassapa took his own life. Afterwards, Sigiriya was used as a Buddhist monastery (again?), and became one of the earliest tourist site probably in the whole world: a wall on the way up to the top still has well-preserved "graffitis" since 1600 years back - nothing is really new under the sun.

A terrace with water tanks halfway up the rock.

Not nearly as well-known as the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, I found Sigiriya every bit as impressive even if it is much smaller - no pictures, especially mine taken in a pouring rain, really make justice to the genius that planned and produced it. Just thinking of the ancient builders chiseling the steps into the vertical rock wall, and carrying all building materials on the top of the huge rock using only bamboo scaffoldings make be dizzy. As tourism at Sri Lanka has increasing fast since the 30-year long civil war ended in 2009, I'm not sure how this site can be properly protected from the negative effects of huge crowds (it is very sensitive, given the extreme nature of its construction), as even now, it seems on the brink of what the site can cope with. But I sincerely hope that careful thought and generous resources will be available to save it to the future generations.

The Lion Gate halfway up the rock; originally, it consisted of a face of a lion with the paws underneath (only the paws remain). It is thought to be a symbol of the Buddha, also called the "Lion of the Sakyas" (Sakya is the clan into which the historical Buddha was born into). 

Another view from the top of the rock, towards the water gardens below.

There are several water tanks and bathing pools even at the top of the huge rock; it is said, that Kassapa was fond of bathing - and of watching his court ladies bathing. Water is collected during the wet monsoon, but interestingly, there was even a hydraulic water pump system that provided water from the ground level.

One of the many natural stone "gates" leading from the top back to the ground level.
 Kassapa's deserted stone throne - it is said that he sat on the top level with his closest courtiers (upper left corner), and the visitors and administrators had to shout their messages to him from the stone set on the lower level (lower right in the picture). Sounds quite remarkable to me - but then, everything about Sigiriya is pretty remarkable... and absolutely magnificent. 


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Places for quiet euphoria - the Great Wall of China

Some places make you feel completely euphoric just because you are there. Usually they are places that you've read so much about, and always wondered over if they really are as great as they say. And then they are, and a bit more.
For me, Taj Mahal in Agra was one of those places and Ryoan-Ji in Kyoto was another. And of course, just landing on any of the outer islands of the archipelago outside Turku makes me euphoric every single time (yes, the archipelago there is that amazing). And then, the latest - the Great Wall of China.
You can bury yourself in the history and statistics of it; 5500 km long wall that was built over 2000 years by millions of Chinese of whom over a million died while working there... and so on. And no, it can't be seen from the space, even if it is the longest structure ever created by man. But none of that really matters when you stand on up on the wall, marveling at how it leads from hilltop to another like a giant scar in the vast landscape. Beautiful in its own masculine way and of course utterly impressive, the wall is definitely worth all the hype.

The wall is still a workplace; just keeping nature from taking over the massive structure is an ongoing project on a giant scale. Seeing the old-fashioned tools the workmen had left behind while having a lunch made me admire the patience of the builders.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Endurance and longevity by the Temple of Heaven in Beijing

The round roof of Temple of Heaven behind the high wall - with centuries old cypresses in the Tiantan Park surrounding it.
While in Beijing about a week ago, I finally got first hand experience of how desperately the country needs to do something about its pollution situation. While leisurely strolling through the sights, our eyes and noses were itching and after a while, without doing anything even remotely strenuous, we all felt quite short of breadth. And this while the PM2.5 values were "only" at a "hazardous" 225 - I can't even imagine how it feels like when they hower up at over 700, as happens several times a year. I'm not sure how the many retirees playing tai chi ball, kicking a feather ball and dancing in the Tiantan Park around the Temple of Heaven can keep exercising there - it felt like the polluted air must have erased all the health-giving effects of their efforts.

Without fresh air, you have nothing - no luxuries, no power, no success is worth anything if you can't fulfill the basic need of breathing fresh, unpolluted air. This thought came to mind several times during our brief visit, and I just cannot understand why those in power in China seem to ignore this. Of course the problem of pollution in China is huge and complex, but it is not news anymore - of all the riches created during the last couple of decades, why haven't more been channeled into making the lives of the Chinese more bearable?

Some of the cypresses are said to be over 800 years old - even if the temple itself was built in the early 15th century.

Retirees and other residents of Beijing dancing to loud, popular music.
The Tiantan Park is home to some four thousand cypresses, many of which are several centuries old. As their branches stay verdant and green even in winter, cypresses have become to symbolize endurance and longevity in the Chinese culture. While walking though the park, the trees were covered in a greyish layer of polluted dust. Endurance will definitely be needed, both from the cypresses and the sporty old retirees, to reach any levels of longevity.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Notes from Alvar Aalto's Villa Mairea in Noormarkku

Villa Mairea in Noormarkku in southwestern Finland - one of Alvar and Aino Aalto's most well-known and celebrated designs, built in the late 1930s.
Sometimes things take time - like this post about my visit to Villa Mairea while in Finland last summer. I'm not sure if it's because so much has been said of this pearl of 20th century modernist architecture, which kind of takes out both the need and the fun of adding anything. Or because I actually was slightly disappointed at the visit that I'd been waiting for such a long time.

With disappointment I definitely don't mean the building - one of Alvar Aalto's finest, commissioned by Harry and Maire Gullichsen, one of the wealthiest couples in Finland (at the time), who gave Aalto and his architect wife Aino pretty much free hands to form everything to the perfection. Both couples were friends and even business partners - Maire and the Aaltos had briefly before founded Artek, originally an avant-garde art gallery that later morphed into the furniture company that still produces and sells Aalto's designs worldwide.
The building shines white amongst the tall pines of a gravelly hill - while the wooden parts connect to the coppery bark of the trees.

The L-form of the building leaves a grassy courtyard between the house and the sauna (on the left, not seen in the picture). Some parts of the roof are covered in grassy turf, just like traditional Finnish buildings were since ancient times, connecting the building both to history and to the surrounding nature.
The building was a holiday home for the Gullichsens, an experimental house where only the best was good enough - of course, being true modernists, this translates to a minimalistic style typical for Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino. Sculptural, light, airy, connected to its surroundings and utilizing materials from the nature - the building has stood the test of time. There is a great indoor/outddor contact between the house and the surrounding pine forest, and overall atmosphere is calm and sophisticated - and still, after almost eighty years, completely current. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed indoors, so I have to direct you to Villa Mairea's own site to make your own mind.

The outdoor entertainment area between the house and the sauna, with Artek furniture.

The famous free-form pool, from another angle -the sauna is just to the right. Read more about the pool (and Alvar Aalto's friendship with Thomas Church) in my previous post here.
The disappointment part starts first in the garden of Villa Mairea - often the only garden in Finland mentioned in international texts and other media (sadly, as there is much more to Finnish garden design than this). I'm not sure how much the Aalto's spent time designing the garden - of course, they did the overall plan with the famous free form pool (sometimes said to be the first in the world), but how much they spent time with choosing the plants and other important garden elements is not certain. Maire Gullichsen herself was a keen gardener, so she probably had her hands on these matters to a great extent.

Garden gate behind the sauna - it ties to traditional Finnish structures, but the design has also been said to have taken influences from Aalto's visit to Japan.

The absolutely lovely stone wall behind the sauna (all Finnish holiday houses have a sauna, it is more essential than the house itself...). And again, a reference to the traditional Finnish countryside in form of hops growing on tall poles.
I say slightly disappointed above - the garden connects smoothly both the building and its surroundings, the massed plantings form sculptural groupings and soft mounds against the coppery pillars of the pine forest. It is just that I find it difficult to love bright red hybrid roses, massed rhododendrons, berberis, cotoneasters, ligularias and other perfectly fine plants that unfortunately were so overused in the 1960s and onwards that they still smell too much of municipal plantings to be really exciting. When planted, they probably were as avant-garde and exotic as the house itself, but my eyes just can really see past the more recent garden history. Still, changing the plants would be an anachronism, so I guess the best solution is to try forget about public plantings, and to see them with untainted eyes - not easy, but definitely worth a try. So despite starting my post with mentioning that pretty much everything  has already been said about Villa Mairea, I've now managed to add some 550 words into the bulk of writings - so surely, the building still is - if not as avant-garde, at least as engaging as when it was built in 1938.
One more picture of the typical Finnish pine forest - how I sometimes miss the sound of wind soughing through the needles, and the fresh scent of the trees...
Visits to Villa Mairea are by appointment only - check the Villa Mairea Foundation's information pages here: 

Friday, August 15, 2014

White borscht at Tage Andersen's Gunillaberg

The Gunillaberg estate was built in the late 17th century by Johan Printz, who named the manor house after his mother Gunilla. He went on to become the third governor of New Sweden, the Swedish colony in that is now the state of Delaware in the USA.
While driving back to Stockholm from the west coast of Sweden, I realized that we'd be passing Tage Andersen's Gunillaberg in Bottnaryd, just before the city of Jönköping. Despite the long drive home, we decided to drop by to see if we could get an early lunch at Tage's café, and of course, to see his creations "live" for the first time.
Now, there can't be many "garden people" in Sweden who don't know about Tage and his work, but for those who do not, he is a real renaissance man form Denmark. Originally trained as a pastry chef, he has diversified his artistic portfolio to include flower arrangements, furniture, sculpture and other art installations. He's even published several books about his work and thoughts, and is the proprietor of a floral boutique with a museum in Copenhagen. In Sweden, he managed the well-known gardens by Rudolph Abelin at Norrviken in Båstad for a couple of years.
Tage Andersen bought Gunillaberg in 2008, and has since transformed this late 17th century manor and its gardens into a distinctively Tage-style gesamtkunstwerk. Despite being a Renaissance man in sprit, Baroque is definitely more his style - down to the artistic, old-fashioned clothes he carries (of course I shouldn't comment on looks, but he looks a little like a mixture of Rembrandt and a mystical spirit from the forests - in the most positive way). And his artworks and installations - dramatic, twisted, voluptuous, always with a personal touch to them. While strolling through the house and gardens, it felt like everything there was touched by a magic wand, and turned into something that was "more" than it should have been - a bit magical, and definitely Tage-like. One of a kind, he really is.
While I really wanted to have a chat with Tage, he seemed a little bit stressed and was really busy with serving lunch to the unexpectedly many guests - something that the very friendly young lady at the café mentioned while doing exactly the same. So we ate our delicious white borscht-like soups and finished with coffees and Tage's specialty, "karamelkrans" (caramel covered flaky round pastry - extremely sweet and tasty), completely happy with having just added another 1.5 hours to our already long journey back to Stockholm.  
One of the outbuildings, now with a shop that sells a small selection of Tage's artwork and books.

Ceramics with forms reminding of flower bulbs, surrounded by large flower containers on rusty platforms - Tage often uses rusty steel as material in his works.

Large containers with Agapanthus and Camellias on the backside of the manor house.

 Tage arranges art exhibitions inside the house - and even the floor is painted in a voluptuous pattern, like Baroque gone crazy... (while it still manages to be in harmony with its surroundings!).

A huge chess set placed on ceramic tiles...

The focal point of the front garden is an art installation in rusted steel (by Tage); it is sitting in a small, round pool surrounded by flower meadow - a lovely contrast, and quite unconventional for a formal Baroque garden....  

A fanciful bosquet made of rusty steel and covered with passifloras - there are two of them, the other can be seen behind the square pool. They magically transport you to the gardens of Renaissance and Baroque, while still being surrounded by the dark Swedish forests.

A lovely passiflora variety - I have no idea which one. Purple seemed to be another favorite of Tage's...

Pathways with artwork - and even the larches looked like they could come alive in the dusk of Swedish summer nights.

A large green house is used for concerts.

The scene inside the green house - what a lovely experience it would be to come here for a concert... Maybe next summer.

 Even the chicken coops were fancifully artistic - and very rusty.
 And one last wink before leaving - even the entrance is a lovely combination of strictly formal and wonderfully twisted.
To see more of Tage's wonderful flower arrangements and artwork, look at the "Gallery" pages on his website (which also contains opening times and a map for finding Gunillaberg):