Thursday, February 09, 2006

Blame it on Mr Dalrymple!

Just in case you thought I'd disappeared under a pile of prostrating Tibetans, I'm just popping up to report safe arrival at Puri on the Andaman Sea coast, south of Calcutta, here to relax a bit from the rigours of India and visit the World Heritage site of the Temple of the Sun at Konarak, just along the coast some 30-odd km.

I've done the requisite dabbling in the surf: nothing special (it is an Northern Indian urban beach after all) but there's lots of sand and there are fishing boats. First thing I did was get out to a restaurant and have some FISH!!! Three weeks of veg curry and rice (and occasional daal) and I was getting seriously malnourished or at least terminally bored. Guess what I'm having tonight! What I'm saving on a dirt-cheap room smelling of the damp of ages (110 rps!!) I shall spend - and more - on FISH!!

The place used to be a hippy hangout way back when. When? when bhang was legal here (and now??) but it has all the advantages (traveller-friendly menus) and disadvantages (back to touts again). The train journey was a doddle once I'd got through the antechambers of hell that are the back streets of Gaya (worst so far) especially as I was with an auto-rickshaw driver with whom I had An Issue: it was an old scam: take a solo hire then fill up the autorickshaw anyway (10 others at one stage) but then again he did get me to the station, not just leave me in the Devil's boudoir (aka autorickshaw stand). And he didn't take me to some cul-de-sac and demand money with menaces. I was determined that I wasn't going to pay the original amount (it's not the money, really, you know: but dash it, old chap, you can't let the blighters take you for a ride just like that, can you?) I decided in my mind that 50 would be more than fare sorry fair so I got out, unloaded, and held out 100 (firmly gripped) and wouldn't hand it over until he gave me 50 change. Quite a melodrama but even so he was still well ahead - with some 50 in total from the other passengers. Then into the station, again quite the worst so far, hundreds of recumbent forms in the gloom, plenty of unmentionable substances all around AND no train departures board, but luckily a helpful ticket collector's office got me to the right platform.

The journey was enlivened by a "Southern Gentleman" from Louisiana, Kentucky (now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico) who addressed all the men as "Sir" and was old-time genteel, despite being barely in his 30s. He made a point of chatting up everybody - methinks he was a gay on the pick-up really and eventually left Puri station by the back door with young man who was carrying a flower. Oh and yes ... In our carriage on the train were a whole gang of Hare Krishnas from Russia!! (Yes, no mistake but mighty hard to believe!!) They did give us some lovely chanting, though, musical, harmonic and relaxing. But don't worry, I'm not signing up!

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The title is an excuse for how my reading of "From the Holy Mountain" has led me into (probably yawn-inducing) speculations on comparative religion. (I apologise to any readers for whom it has been all too much!) It is curious, though, being in one's body and senses in an Indian religious zone while your reading is taking your imagination off to other lands and times (in this case, Byzantine Christian Near East) , sometimes with illuminating effects. But for those who've had enough of that sort of thing should, for the sake of their health, skip this final section (about iconoclasm and worship), which was stimulated by a sight I saw soon before leaving Bodhgaya: Tibetans lining up to be given pcs and A4-size illustrations of Tibetan deities (esp. Tara, the one you typically see on their hangings) and among the crowd was a saddhu, a Hindu holy wanderer: what is he there for, I wondered. Later, I saw him walking along with the crowd, vigorously tearing up his postcard into small pieces (clasming that icon, for sure, but not for usual iconoclastic purposes - i.e. stopping people worshipping images and getting them to focus on the core agenda). He was presumably just making a blanket anti-Buddhist (or anti-Tibetan) statement. What I don't really get as an outsider is the need for worship in the first place - seeing Tibetans doing their energetic prostrations in front of the Buddhist shrine makes me think how far things have gone from the source, from a great historic teacher with inspiring ideas - but who claimed no divinity for himself or indeed for anyone. That's what would make me sympathise with the Byzantine iconoclasts (and the Islamic prohibition on figurative art). But then William Dalrymple rides to the rescue with his account of one celebrated monk who, almost single-handedly he suggests, turned back the tide of the iconoclasts and saved representational art for later transfer to Greece and then to the Renaissance. Without John Damascene (or some such, haven't got the book to hand), the Renaissance might never have happened - or at least not in the form we know. And the further I let myself go down the road of being a would-be iconoclast, the more I realise would have been lost to art if the tendency had come to be a monopoly. We'd still have had the Taj Mahal, admittedly, and all the great structure of Islam, but of the figurative arts, perhaps nothing. Including none of the fine Buddhist sculptures I saw at Sarnath.

Which still leaves me puzzling over worship. Going right back to Aaron and the Golden Calf, there seems to be a human characteristic to seek an expression for fear, incomprehension and awe and perhaps the core of the religious impulse is a yearning to be overwhelmed by a belief in - and a worship of - something much greater than oneself.

[Incidentally, my current reading is Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake" - so watch out for futorology and apocalyptic visions!! Only joking (I think!)]

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