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.