Tag Archives: Spiritual places

Instant Gurus, Weekend Masters

May be it’s just me, but I’m a bit nervous about the pletoria of spiritual gurus, holistic coaches, master practitioners on the internet. Take the 3 day course and call yourself a master of something. Pay via credit card and have some one sitting on the other side of the world who claims to have ascended masters read your life….. how to separate the wheat from the chaff?

One thing I know for sure. From my training experience with Russ Hudson and Tim Mclean of the Enneagram Institute, these 2 gentlemen definitely practise what they preach. When a teacher gives of himself/herself without avarice, from the heart, magic happens in the class. There is no need for loud music, no need for hype, no need to jump up and down. The senses are engaged. The mind is tuned in. The heart is open. When the teacher is ready, the students are FULLY PRESENT.

17 Ganga Morning

The river Ganges or Ganga winds 1560 miles from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean, supporting nearly half a billion people as she meanders through the great wide plains. The river is revered as a goddess who grants purity and aids the dead towards heaven. It is said that a single drop of Ganges water washes away a lifetime of sin. 

The pock-marked rickshaw wallah picked me up at 5.15 to get to the river. The streets were beginning to wake. Bus loads of tourists pass us. When the rickshaw wallah pulled over, I followed a group of western tourists to the boats. There were many boatmen and not as many tourists so I got away with paying only 50 rupees for an hour’s ride, 50 rupees being the government price. The city is built on the west bank of the river. The east side seems to be only sand banks. At the last moment an Indian chap holding a small stick, which turned out to be his tooth brush jumped in as well. He was going to one of the ghats north of Dasaswmehd. We pass a series of ghats including the main ‘burning’ ghat. “Here burning place, no picture. Fine (something we Singaporeans are familiar with)”. There were piles of wood and a couple of what looked like starter fires but no sign of a funeral. May be it was too early in the morning. The boatman asked if I was married and had children. He also suggested that I should tip him.

As it got brighter, I scrutinized the river but could not see visible signs of pollution, or other large floating objects. I soon forgot the danger of having a half cremated corpse bob up next to my boat. There was some debris (plastic bottles, flowers, slippers, scum) at places along the water’s edge. There were lots of yellow, gold and red flowers from offerings floating around. Little candle and flower offerings bob on the surface. The water at the bathing places also looked reasonable. Still I was not tempted to stick even a finger into what the 2003 edition of the Lonely Planet guide said had no dissolved oxygen and 1.5M faecal coliform bacteria per 100ml. Boats full of souvenirs, light offerings and fish (to be set free?) compete for the tourists’ attention. A band of monkeys invade a couple of buildings and a man on the roof terrace waves a large stick threateningly. The monkeys screech and move on. 

On the banks, saddhus, yogis, mere mortals bathe and meditate. As the sum came up and photography became possible, spectacle of Indian life materialized. I watch a few women expertly manoeuvre their change of saris after their bath. That means working with 2 x 5 metres of fabric. The saddhus adjust their loin-cloths, a piece of fabric of opposite size to the sari. Along the ghats, all sorts of businesses open shop: masseurs, palm readers, hair dressers, child barbers, people who anoint (or decorate) your forehead (these were particularly plentiful), sellers of paan and chai and everything imaginable. They all sit on little platforms; some have large umbrellas, their wares in front of them. Touts bother tourists. Tourists ignore touts; ditto for beggars, newspaper & other vendors. The usual cast of dogs, goats, cows and the odd buffalo add to the melee. The resident population go about their business of bathing and dressing in public, a practice I thought completely contrary to the normal Indian sense of modesty. 

More tourists are around now. I wonder what the locals think about us, gawking and photographing their daily routine. It must be very annoying. A very wet child runs past me up the steps, snapping his wet towel. Thus I was anointed by the holy river. 



In 1985, the government of India launched the Ganga Action Plan, which was devised to clean up the river in selected areas by installing sewage treatment plants and threatening fines and litigation against industries that pollute. Almost 20 years later, the plan has been largely unsuccessful. The Western-style treatment plants simply did not meet the needs of the region. Such treatment facilities are designed for use in countries where the supply of electricity is stable, there’s no season of overwhelming monsoon rains, and the population doesn’t drink directly from the water source. With a dual identity as Hindu priest and civil engineer, the citizen-based Sankrat Mochan Foundation organization’s founder, Veer Bhadra Mishra, has proposed an alternative sewage-treatment plan for Varanasi that is compatible with the climate and conditions of India. The advanced integrated wastewater oxidation pond system would store sewage in a series of ponds and use bacteria and algae to break down waste and purify the water, so it wouldn’t need electricity. According to Mishra’s view, to tell a Hindu that Ganga, goddess and mother, is “polluted” or “dirty” is an insult; it suggests that she is no longer sacred. Rather, the approach must acknowledge that human action, not the holy river herself, is responsible: “We are allowing our mother to be defiled.” This approach has stimulated grassroots involvement in the clean-up effort, and is transforming the work for environmental preservation into a model for cultural and religious preservation as well. – www.Sacredland.org 

12 Engineering and Chair Lifts

Rajgir – Bamboo Forest Monastery was 100 acres of land accorded to the Buddha by the King Bimbisara of Rajgir in the 6th century B.C. It was the first Buddhist monastery. Budhha lived and taught there for 1 2 years. The site Vulture’s Peak was a favourite place where he enjoyed numerous sunsets. We visit the Japanese Peace Stupa on top of Ratnagiri Hill via the precarious chair lifts. They cost 25 rupees return. The stupa is not really that interesting unless you have never seen a Japanese stupa before. The view from the top is good on a clear day. The chairlifts, however, is an experience not to be missed. 

First, the elaborate contraption one had to go through to get to and from the chairlifts seemed pretty extreme.  It’s a cross between a waterwheel, a revolving door and some gates for sheep going to slaughter. Only one person could go through this contraption per revolution. And it takes about 10 or 12 seconds for each person. Then there’s the one second hesitation before stepping in. Soon a long line of people build up. We joke about the genius of Indian engineering thought who thought this up. 

At first glance the chair lifts were deceptively similar to those commonly found in the Swiss Alps. Stepping up to the platform, the adrenaline levels go up pretty quickly. In Switzerland, these contraptions slow down to a crawl on the long embarkation platform, pick up the passenger and then speeds off again. Not here. The chairlifts here move along at the same speed on a short platform. You step on to a marked spot with your knees bent and you bum sticking out. You clutch your bag / small child / lunch tightly. The chair comes and swoops you up from behind. In case you hesitate the attendant shoves you into it. At this point you retract all you limbs (and your bag / small child / lunch if any). In the next half second, another attendant drops the cross bar in front of you and you are jerked upwards.

11 Nalanda University

Sariputta's (one of the Buddha's principal disciple) stupa   

Shariputta (One of the Buddha's principal disciples) stupa

At the ruins of Nalanda University, 12 km away from breakfast, we engage the services of Mr. Anil Kumar, who is name-tagged and licensed by the Department of Archaeological Survey of India. It turns out to be an entertaining and educational hour. Mr. Kumar has a well rehearsed script with each paragraph prefixed by an address to me. “Sister, this was built in the 5th century. It was excavated in 1915. Sister, look here the start of the stairs for the 9 storey building.” I take it to mean that I am responsible for ensuring he gets a good fee. “The government rate is 100 rupees, sister, but this rate is since 1995. So if happy you pay as you like, sister.” He was a studious looking fellow, a bit rumpled. He used ‘sister’ effectively when he thought my attention was wandering. “Sister, there are 108 monasteries buried by the earthquake and here 11 identical monasteries are excavated, main entrance not yet discovered. Now excavation at a complete standstill by the department. Because sister, over there villages are.”


Nalanda - Stairs built over 3 different dynasties - that's a long time

Stairs built over 3 different dynasties - that is a LONG time

In truth, Nalanda is pretty awesome. Some of the engineering are quite clever. The drains, for example become progressively deeper, from 6 inches to about 3 feet. “Here the monks bathe, sister. Toilet, outside.” So they were mooners back then too. The monastery was built and used between the 5th and 12th centuries. It was then sacked by the Afghans and subsequently buried in an earthquake, thus Nalanda faded into obscurity. In 1861 an English archaeologist discovered evidence of it in the diary of 7th century Chinese monk, Xuan Zhang. It was not until early 20th century that Nalanda was finally excavated.  This is the possibly the world’s largest excavated university. It was also established 700 years before Paris, Cambridge and Oxford. The grounds are well planted and very pleasant.


Beds where monks used to sleep

Kylie on a bed of stone where monks used to sleep

As we leave, a bevy of old ladies and one young girl pursue us to the jeep. Ashok irritably snapped at them and they coolly ignored him. The young girl kept up a pitiful wail while her eyes darted around watchfully, presumably for a more receptive audience.