Friday, May 22, 2009

Anuradhapura – an Ancient and Sacred Grandeur of Sri Lanka



There is an element of thrill traversing through the unsecure terrain or brushing past the boundaries of militarily hostile neighbors. I felt this excitement at the India Pakistan Wagha border in Amritsar, traveling past the southern Lebanon townships near Israel border. However, neither of the above would match the excitement of our travel to Anuradhapura along A9 highway that heads straight to Jaffna. Anuradhapura was considered as a last frontier in the battlefield of LTTE and Sri Lanka Govt.

It was Nov 2008. Sri Lankan defense forces were nailing down LTTE but LTTE still had the punch. There were reports of LTTE losing hold on the eastern front but Northern machinery was still intact. There was a lurching fear that LTTE might get desperate and bounce back to avenge their loss of eastern front. Exactly a year ago, LTTE had made daring air, ground attack on the Anuradhapura Air Base, and destroyed seven aircrafts. This was the highest casualty suffered by Sri Lanka Air Force in their war against LTTE. Though our journey was not exactly inside the LTTE territory, we were almost under their nose.

Temptation to witness historical and spiritual place outweighed any risk it might invite. We were fortunate to get a shield from police headquarters in Anuradhapura but were clearly been instructed to reach before it gets dark. Our journey started from Kandy via Matale, a place that has taken brunt of many wars against British forces but also known for beautiful woman. I wonder if there was any association between these two factors.

We drove past through Aluwiharaya – a Buddhist holy place. We could see a temple built on a rock, and were told that a view from the top is great. We could not afford to take a stop over, as we had to hit the Anuradhapura by evening. In fading light, traveling through green lush rice paddies with an occasional cyclist or bunch of hamlets along the road did bring a sense of fear. There were stories of mugging, hijacking along the A9. Though these incidents happened past Anuradhapura but name A9 had become notorious. Meanwhile, police office kept us calling to know our whereabouts. This was indeed reassuring. As the night cover descended on us and with just car light, we could only see silhouettes of swaying trees on the either side of the road.

The visible signs of barricades on the either side of the road made us aware that we were in Anuradhapura. The security was alert; men touting machine guns would watch car occupants at a distance under high beamed torch. It was obvious that they could not risk with incidents of spate of suicide bombers. This would be followed by cursory investigation with the driver while metal detectors would be in use against every part of the car. I realized, being a national did bring certain friendliness on their faces. I had witnessed the same at Kandy Shrine (Temple of the Tooth), when they allowed me to carry my camera after being told of my nationality. Few more barricades, a police officer’s car, and a bike were waiting for us to take us to beautiful Palm Garden resort.

Palm Garden Village Hotel is a luxurious landscaped property with many chalets. After our exciting and adventurous trip, I would have loved to have Lion beer, but on a full moon day, no alcohol is served. Nonetheless, it made me happy to be in this holy city on a holy day.

A brief snapshot of Anuradhapura: This city was established by Devanampiya, who ruled from 305 to 266 B.C. Around the same timean Indian emperor Ashoka (304 BC – 232 BC) was of the Maurya Dynasty ruled almost the entire Indian subcontinent from 273 BC to 232 BC. Mahindra and Sanghamitra were twins born by his first wife, Devi, in the city of Ujjain. King Ashoka sent these two children to Sri Lanka with cutting from the 'tree of enlightenment’. In their company, Devanampiya converted to Buddhism. Since then, Anuradhapura became not just great monastery but also political and religious capital that flourished over 1,300 years. Like Angkor Wat, this place was also hidden in dense jungle for many years. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, the place is on the map of world travelers with all its palaces, monasteries and monuments.

After the work in the morning, we visited Bodhi Tree Temple (The Sri Maha Bodhiya). This is the second most sacred place in Sri Lanka, after the Sri Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Tooth, in Kandy. This Bodhi tree is part of original Bodhi tree under which the Gautama Buddha attained Nirvana. This makes this tree of 2000 year old. The temple complex is surrounded by historical remnants. The original branch of this sacred tree is supported with iron crutches. The tree stands on a special platform, protected by a gold plated railing.

A white-stone Ruwanveliseya Dagoba is another holy place adjacent to Sri Maha Bodhi. This place is surrounded by a wall of carved elephant heads is the biggest stupa at Anuradhapura. As one walks past Sri Maha Bodhiya to Ruwanveliseya Dagoba, one can go past the Brazen Palace. This was a dwelling for the Buddhist monks over 2000 years ago. Now only 1,600 stone columns are mute witness to what was to be ten storied, thousand-roomed monument. Ruwanveliseya Dagoba like any other stupa is built in a round shape with a point on the top. I wondered what it be like inside this dome? Is it empty inside or filled by bricks? However, I learnt that one could not go inside. This is not a place of worship but rather a place to store the ashes of monks. The stupa is conceived in the shape of a pure "water drop or a bubble".

We could not visit the Thuparama Dagoba, the oldest temple in Anuradhapura that is believed to contain the right collarbone of Buddha and The Jetavanarama Dagoba, 3rd century stupa that also houses 3000 monks and many museums that detail the history of Anuradhapura.

After thanking our police friends in Anuradhapura, now with no fear of LTTE and rejuvenated with spiritual purification, we started our return journey via Kurunagale. "Kurune" means an Elephant with protruding teeth and Gala in Sinhala means rock. This place named after Elephant Rock has a sprawling lake and also Buddha perched on the hill. We enjoyed our food with Lanka beer in relaxing surroundings of resort and headed back to our temporary home at Tran Asia Hotel - Colombo.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sri Lanka - a paradise regained

My first IMAX movie was about the Nature’s fury seen from the space. As the orange flames of the rockets gave a way to clear skies, the very first view was that of earth through the bottom of the space shuttle. An image of a pendant hung at the end of a dangling chain, kept on foamy blue and white velvet satin sheet emerged. Wow...how beautiful sight that was. As the shuttle raced to a higher altitude, location of the pendant became obvious. It was Sri Lanka and the chain was an Indian shoreline along the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. This image of Sri Lanka is still well carved in my memory.

I had seen this movie in early 90's and in 08, I got a chance to be in Sri Lanka. I am happy that this country with wonderful people is now out of clutches of the worst terrorism. It has suffered almost 30 years of violence, mayhem and uncertainty. I am sure the pendant would once again beckon the world travelers for its pristine beaches of Galley, green top mountains of Kandy, Buddhist holy shrines and historical sights of Kandy and Anuradhapura.

We visited Colombo, Kandy and Anuradhapura thereby completing the golden triangle. First and forever sight was that of an alert security. Young army soldiers carrying AK47 with a finger on a trigger and eyes panning 180 degrees stood almost at every round about and between them, they covered almost every angle and elevation. While we were there, the parliament session was in progress. Road leading to the parliament also had these security men in the military fatigue ready to react and pounce immediately at the slightest provocation or disturbance. Their eagerness and commitment to defend the nation was palpable. It is no wonder that they crushed LTTE with relentless military aggression. It is an example what a nation can do if there is strong leadership who knows that defending their own country is the paramount task and any outside intervention must be summarily dismissed without any fear of economic or diplomatic consequences. USA through 9/11 demonstrated how a nation can be defended. Sri Lanka under the leadership of Rajapakse followed US example to a fruitful culmination.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Prakash Mehra - an entertaining filmmaker

Yeh police station hai,tumhare baap ka ghar nahin..isliye jab tak baithne ko na kaha jaye sidhi tarah sharafat se khade raho... ...

With this dialogue of Zanjeer, Amitabh truly arrived at Bollywood. I remember reading Prakash Mehra's interview where he mentioned of Raj Kapoor calling upstairs in his room at RK studio ' Are Prakash ko upar bulaoo - Call Prakash upstairs'. It seems Raj Kapoor from his room would often listen and watch the scenes enacted below in his studio. He told Prakash Mehra 'Prakash, I watched this dialogue and this new man , yah ladka boht aage jayega- this man will race ahead '. There was nothing unique about the prophecy of Kapoor, this was felt by every cine viewer who watched Zanjeer. However, what interested me was the manner in which Prakash Mehra narrated this incident. This ability of narrate a story or incident is also been complimented by Amitabh himself.

With Prakash Mehra's passing away, two decades of my entertainment era slipped away.

Its difficult to say which of his four movies Zanjeer, Namak Halal, Lawaris and Sharabi entertained and captivated me the most. Amitabh remained an iconic character, suppressing anger, love and loneliness and yet demonstrating loyalty, friendship and generosity in all his movies. Nevertheless, he also portrayed Sher Khan in Zanjeer (Pran), Daddu in Namak Halal, and Munshi Ji in Sharabi (Om Prakash) as vividly and elegantly as pet central character.

Amitabh is in his blog and obituary in Times, very touchingly narrates his association with Prakash Mehra and talks of his multifaceted skills. "Aur is dil mein kya rakha hai, Tera hi dard chhupa rakha hai" is a lovely song written by him reflects his one more such skill apart from sheer entertainment presentation.

But for Prakash Mehra, Manmohan Desai and Yash Chopra, Amitabh wouldn't have been the phenomenon in the Hindi movie industry.

May his soul rest in peace.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Blues and Elations post Election result

My heart goes for Mr. Lal Krishna Advani. All his life he remained under the shadow of Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and when the time came to bask in the glory, he missed and messed it up. After being with RSS in formative years, it is difficult for me to dilute my attachment from old guards of Jan Sangh. But Mr. Advani and BJP gradually but surely lost the claim of 'Party with Difference' when many moments came to test his mettle as an 'Iron Man'. As a home minister, he allowed to ‘trade in’ terrorists in Kandahar tragedy and later expressed a personal regret yet justified the decision as a collective responsibility of the cabinet. Second instance was when he with other echelons in the BJP wavered to act decisively against Mr. Bangaru Laxman thereby losing the sheen of 'incorruptibility'. The third episode was ' Jinnah'. There was nothing wrong with his statement that Mr. Mohd Ali Jinnah was secular. He was indeed a secular person and his dreams of carving Pakistan were as much his political aspirations as that of any of the leaders of the Congress party. Those who have read about Mr. Jinnah's life cannot refuse to doubt his credentials as a secular person. This is despite Pakistan being proclaimed as an 'Islamic Republic'. But Mr. Advani, you buckled under the pressure of RSS fearing that you might lose their blessings and get sidelined in your party. Test of leadership comes only at few moments when people put everything at stake and remain steadfast in their convictions. Gandhi family has that trait and despite their failures on various fronts they remain the leaders over the generation of this vast nation. Your opportunity came with Ayodhya and Rath Yatra and it took you to the post of Home Minister, but again you gave up your ideals and path just to stay in power. In the process, you and your party neither became secular nor rightist conservative party. Your stance of abandoning the issues of 'article 370', ' universal civil code' just to cling to the power by stating ' coalition compulsions' exposed BJP's hypocrisy. I feel, had you and your party, steadfastly remained loyal to your beliefs and stayed away from the temptation of power, by now BJP would have had glory of eminence on Indian political firmament like it happened with Israel and many countries.

I feel equally sad for Mr. George Fernandes. George - as you were affectionately called by bombayites. I do remember the days of your famous victory in south Bombay as a candidate of Praja Samajwadi party over congress and Mr. Naval Tata, your being undisputed king of Bombay labor, Taxi and BEST unions, your winning election despite being in jail in emergency. But something gone amiss once you tasted the power. I couldn't believe it was the same Fiery George when you defended Janata Party on the floor of the house and the next day you quit the party. Your decision to fight as an independent was an indication of your senility. From the days of charismatic firebrand union leader you now face an ignominy of being shunned and rejected by everyone around you. I feel pity for you Mr. Fernandes. However, I shall cherish the signature I took of yours when you had come to Bandra to canvas for socialist party candidate Mr. Vacant Palkar who never won despite having a clean image.

I am happy with this election result. Apart from the decisive verdict in favor of congress, this election showed that cast equations are losing its relevance in the rural India. This is the silver lining for India's future emboldened by the aspiration and expectations of youth of India who wants performance than casteist pampering. How else can you explain losing Ram Vilas Paswan, Lallu Prasad Yadav who nurtured caste seedlings to maintain their political hegemony? I am delighted that D P Yadav along with the wives of all criminals in UP and Bihar lost. I am happy Shashi Tharoor, Chidambaram won but disappointed that Suresh Prabhu lost. I don't know if Azaruuddin won or lost but I would rather be happy if he loses.

Those are my extempore thoughts as sun sets off on the careers of many Indian political veterans and another day of hope and expectation arrives with the emergence of young, articulate and ambitious young Indian leaders.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

India Election

Indian general election is over. For the first time in the history of Republic of India, results would be available by the switch of the button than by the opening of the ballot boxes.

Manual counting of votes had its own share of fun and suspense. Results would trickle in after every round of counts that would swing the pendulum from one side to another. Some results, often from south be announced by late noon while some from Bihar would still be on the way even though new govt would have announced.

This time 100 million out of 700 million electorate are first time voters. That is 7% of the electorate. What an irony! These youngsters have to choose between 80-year-old Mr. Advani of BJP and 77-year-old Mr Manmohan Singh of Congress. Places where these two parties are not strong they have another regional parties headed by 85 year old Mr Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu and 82 year old Mr Badal in Punjab .

I am relieved that this election had no bomb blasts, terrorist attacks, kidnapping or booth capturing. Election commission of India is one of the few govt organizations that have since the days of Mr Sheshan has secured immense credibility and they are doing such an amazing job.

Two aspects of India election do bother me. First aspect is, not providing an option for almost 20 million Non Resident Indians to vote. With the entire regional passport offices well integrated with database of all NRIs, it is not difficult to make them participate in the election through embassy or internet ballot like the one they do it for defense forces and govt officials on election duty. This would also eliminate malpractice of using NRI names to indulge in bogus voting. There is another option of creating 3-4 constituencies representing various regional presence of NRIs proportionate to population density. A second aspect is about forcing an election day as a compulsory holiday. Making a compulsory holiday is bringing the wheels of an economy to standstill for a full day for an activity that does not take more than 2 hours. With an election spanning five days over a month, each part of India is paralyzed for a day. Add to this election of assembly, corporation and by-elections. The number could add to double digits. Despite all this compulsory holiday exercise, result is 40-50% voting. Why can't govt penalize the non-voters as they do in Australia? They could also penalize the local corporation if an eligible voter is not listed in the voter registry. With this, at least they could recoup the part of the election expenses.

Elections in India are always entertaining and fascinating with the complex variables that make winners out of improbable conditions. Caste, Religion, money, liquor, muscle power, creative advertising, public speaking all add to the glamor.

Some of the veteran politicians like Sharad Pawar feel the heat of youth and are candid enough to admit unpredictable surprises that this election results would throw. 100 million first time voters could swing the balance that no political party or election analysts could imagine. However, the imbroglio that would ensue, a much younger person may emerge than ripe old PM aspirants.

Would that be Mayawati, Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi, Prakash Karat , Nitish Kumar or Sharad Pawar ? Suspense will unfold on May 16th.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

On Buddha's B'day at Lantau Island



Happy Birthday Dear Buddha.
Happy Birthday Dear Buddha.

A song that is favorite of Akshta and she insists others around her to follow her. At Lantau Island, reaching closer to Buddha statue, flags were fluttering, announcing Buddha's B'day week. That message was enough for Akshta to raise her already high level of adrenaline to climb 260 steps to reach for her b'day boy. The sight of 2 year old kid panting, stopping, moaning yet putting an extra effort of climbing after goading to rhyme the b’day song was great amusement to visitors around.

It wasn't an easy for us either. Being weekend, place was crowded. When we reached out of Tung Chung MTR, the board said '2 hour waiting time'. That sign was enough to delay our departure and instead chill us in the company of musical fountain. Akshta met 'mai', a girl from England who was traveling to Australia while being in transit in Hong Kong. A while later, board changed to ' 1 1/2 hour' But that sign was only up to the ticket booth. From there, to the cable point it took some more time. But at the end it was all worth it.

I am fortunate to have been to many holy places of Buddha. Nara in Japan, Anuradhapura & Kandy in Sri Lanka, Ayuthaya, Chiang Mai in Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal, Myanmar and Sanchi . Tian Tan in Lantau Island in Ngong Ping may not be as holy site as others but it does make a great impression. Sitting 26 meters high and weighing 220 tons, it's the biggest outdoor Buddha statue. What impressed me is the art of making big size and yet creating a beautiful structure. No wonder it took them 10 years to perfect it. Most big statues look ugly at the close up but here Buddha looks magnificent as we approach him closer. Sitting in meditative pose with slight inclination and half opened eyes conveys the serenity and benevolence of this mystical figure.

One can reach the hill top by bus or foot or by cable car. We chose the most comfortable and enjoyable option. 5.7 Km long ride gives a very close view of Hong Kong Air strip, the mountain range and Tung Chung town. We were in for surprise when we got Indian Vegetarian food with Parle Frooti at the top. We did miss visit to Po Lin monastery but had little choice as the cable car doesn't run after 6pm.

Lantau Island is twice the size of Hong Kong Island and it was smart way to earn tourist revenue by perching giant Buddha on the mountain top. They created almost a theme park based on Buddha. There is a theater that shows 'The Tale of Monkey' from Jataka, there is a Bodhi tree albeit artificial, wisdom path where ancient prayers are inscripted on wooden columns. And this spiritual theme is not so far from another popular theme park - Hong Kong Disneyland.

Today is Vesak a name derived from Vaishaka. A day that commemorates the birth and enlightenment of Buddha and his Nirvana. I am glad I posted the article on Giant Buddha on this auspicious day.

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Hong Kong - 4 Night 5 day stay

I was visiting Hong Kong after almost 20 years. During these two decades, Hong Kong underwent a change of ownership. One of the finest hotels that I have stayed so far, Hilton was demolished soon after a year of my last visit. New airport replaced the old one taking away the thrill of watching aircraft navigating through tall buildings - so close that you could almost see people brushing their teeth - or seeing your aircraft almost kiss the sea waves only to land on an air strip. I had lovely memories of Lama Island, Ocean Park, Stanley Market and open bus tour of Kowloon.

This time, I was aware that I had lot of new things to see. Frommer book came handy for planning the things. Agoda helped me to book a hotel through internet. With Akshta around, we had to slow the things. Lantau Island Buddha statue, Disney land and Peak tram was automatic choice. I wasn't sure about Macau but left it till we arrived in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong must be one of the few countries left in the world to allow India nationals to get visa on arrival and that too at no cost. Like KL airport, one needs to take short train ride to come to the luggage belt. Immigration was swift despite fear of swine flu. We were lucky that our hotel at Garden View didn't get any visitor from Mexico. I could imagine the plight of guests at Metropark hotel who were quarantined for almost a week ruining their stay. Garden View at McDonnell road was value for money. Being at height on way to peak, it gave a great view of Hong Kong city. Next door supermarket solved Akshta's milk issue and saved money on fruits and beer.

Our schedule turned out well:
1st day: Ride Peak tram to see Hong Kong night view from the mountain top followed by dinner at vibrant central area.
2nd day: Coffee at Starbucks in Kowloon followed by travel to Lantau Island to be with Giant Buddha.
3rd Day: Walk along the Hong Kong harbor, take turbo jet to Macau and spend a day in Macau. Return to Hong Kong, take a ferry to Kowloon and witness Hong Kong light show.
4th Day: Spend full day at Disney land.
5th day: Rummage Kowloon streets to do shopping, take airport express to Hong Kong airport.

In twenty years, Hong Kong has changed significantly. HSBC monstrous design building which was the landmark building then, is now dwarfed by many that are sprouted up with innovative designs. MTR – underground subway is still a backbone and it’s nice to see it gets connected to every part of Hong Kong. Buildings in Kowloon now have worn out looks but are smartly hidden by numerous signposts of brands. Topless bars at Kowloon are no longer visible; their place is now taken by Giordano, Sasa brand showrooms.

What would be Hong Kong after 20 years? I can't conjure the description but think of possibilities. Hong Kong has 250 islands. Bigger ones have been put to money spinning mechanism like installing largest outdoor Buddha on Lantau islands, Creating huge and fancy new airport and second Disney land in Asia. Now it could be turn of smaller islands. Resorts with water sports, Casinos and gaming centers may pop up. Hong Kong with 7 million resident population attracts 30 Million tourists a year. India with 1 billion populations attracts 5 Million tourists. A food for thought for ' Incredible India'.

For 50 year after handing over of Hong Kong and Macau, Mainland China would treat these two territories as One Country with two systems. Hong Kong and Macau have their own currencies, immigration laws and investment, trade policies. Could India have worked on similar lines for Goa and Kashmir? Another food of thought for ' Resurgent India '.

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