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Fire Temple of Azerbaijan: Hindu-Zoroastrian Fire worship

Travels along the Trans Caucasian Silk Route..............................Ramdas Iyer

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The name Azerbaijan derives from the Middle and Old Persian Adar-badhagan and Atur-patakan meaning protected by fire. The region is known for its continuously burning natural gas fires, which to the ancients must have seemed like the miraculous phenomenon of an ever-burning fire - a symbol of special importance in Zoroastrianism. In ancient texts, Azerbaijan was known as the land of fire and burning hillsides.

As we entered the many rooms of the Surakhani Fire temple ( Surakhani Atash-Gah), former residence for priests and traders alike, we heard an eruption of Hindu Vedic chants of Om Ganapataye Namah float out of one cell, while another housed a Nataraja bronze. Little had I read about this World heritage sites history until I started pouring into the many articles available on the web especially from many Indian publications.
Traveling in this Caucasian country to celebrate my wife's 60th birthday, how we ended up in front of a natural fire pit in a Hindu Temple in an Islamic republic was indeed a welcome surprise.
Jonas Hanway commenting in his, An Historical Account of the British Trade Over the Caspian Sea, 1753 CE states "The Persians have very little maritime strength... their ship carpenters on the Caspian were mostly Indians... there is a little temple, in which the Indians now worship: near the altar about 3 feet high is a large hollow cane, from the end of which effuses a blue flame... . These Indians affirm, that this flame has continued ever since the flood, and they believe it will last to the end of the world. ...Here are generally forty or fifty of these poor devotees, who come on a pilgrimage from their own country."
Fire is sacred in many spiritual traditions, and has been used in religious rites for thousands of years. Along with water, earth, air and space, fire is one of the five essential elements.

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No stranger to fire worship I have grown up with reverence to, Agni (Sanskrit: “Fire”) the fire-god of Hinduism, second only to Indra in the Vedic mythology of ancient India. He is equally the fire of the sun, of lightning, and of both the domestic and the sacrificial hearth. He is also the guardian deity of the southeast direction, and is typically found in southeast corners of Hindu temples.
An important deity since the Vedic times ( 1800-1200BC) when Aryan migration into India brought the mythology of Agni along with the rest of the Hindu Pantheon from the Ural steppes region and central Asia. The Zoroastrian Persians, a splintered Aryan community from that which entered India also worship fire, similar to the Hindus. Both religions share beliefs, mythology and a common set of values as written in the Rig Veda of the Hindus and the Zoroastrian holy book, The Zend Avesta.
So it is no surprise that Hindus would worship in Baku, an ancient Persian city which also happened to be a Zoroastrian fire temple. The Vedic worship through fire is different from the Mazdayasnian (Parsee-Zoarastrian worship). In the Mazdayasnian religion the fire itself is the divine presence.
In my travels within Iran in 2016, I visited the only active Fire temples in Yazd and in Chak, Chak in central Iran. However Agni is less worshipped as a mainstream deity in India but rather as a keeper of the hearth in every Hindu home where his favors are evoked during the Homa fire pit rituals conducted to mark important occasions like, birth, marriages and other religious rites. Agni for Hindus is the communicator between mortals and the lords of the heaven. All chants are done in his presence, by feeding the fire with ghee for the messages to be relayed to our lords and keepers in heaven.
Yes here in Baku I chanted mantras for my wife Pushpa's long health and happiness and hopefully it was conveyed to our Hindu Gods above.
The Baku Hindu trading community is thought to have originated primarily from Multan located in the Punjab region of the Indus valley (in today's Pakistan) and who plied their trade along the Grand Trunk Road, part of the old Aryan trade roads.
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The Surakhani complex as it stands was clearly used as a Hindu temple. The single inscription mentioning Jvalaji/Jwalaji may refer to the equally rare uses of the term in Indian places of worship. In the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, there is a Jvalaji/Jwalaji temple constructed over a natural gas fire as is the Surakhani temple. The place is called Jalamukhi/Jwalamukhi. 'Jwala' means 'burning' or 'blaze of fire' and 'Mukhi' means 'mouth'.
However, the Baku complex is quite unlike other Hindu temples. Instead, the pentagonal perimeter structure consists of cubicles much like a caravan-serai and in the centre of the enclosed courtyard is a chahar-taqi building whose design is entirely consistent with the chahar-taqi Zoroastrian atash-gah of ancient and medieval Persia. There is a strong possibility that prior to its use as a Hindu temple, a predecessor structure existed that was a Zoroastrian fire temple. With the decline of the Zoroastrian community and an abandoned structure would have been a candidate for occupation and use by the growing Hindu trading community. The present structure could have been modeled on a previous Zoroastrian structure. Alternatively, the present structure could have been built over the ruins of a Zoroastrian atash-gah or it could be a renovation of a previous Zoroastrian atash-gah. Even today, local tradition holds that the structure was a Zoroastrian atash-gah.

Professor A. V. Williams Jackson (1911 CE) while commenting on the observations of Jonas Hanway (1753 CE), left open the possibility that Zoroastrians may have worshipped alongside the larger Hindu community at the shrine. The Sikh community must also have worshipped alongside the Hindu community.

In the 1800s, the population of Hindus and Sikhs in Azerbaijan declined. Sir Jivanji Jamshedji Modi (1854-1933) in his book My Travels Outside Bombay, Iran, Azerbaijan, Baku (1926) (translated from Guajarati by Soli Dastur) notes: "the original trade routes and customs changed and the visits of the Hindu traders diminished. And from the original group of the Brahmins, some passed away and a few that were left went back to their original home land." By the time of Modi's visit in 1925, the Surakhani atash gah had been abandoned.

According to authors from the 1800s, between the times when the atash gah was abandoned by the Hindus and at the time of Modi's visit in 1925, the Surakhani atash gah was briefly under the care of Zoroastrians.
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James Bryce, in Transcaucasia and Ararat: Being Notes of a Vacation Tour in the Autumn Of 1876, noted, "...after they (the Zoroastrians) were extirpated from Persia by the Mohammedans, who hate them bitterly, some few occasionally slunk here (Azerbaijan) on pilgrimage" and that "under the more tolerant sway of the Czar (Azerbaijan was then part of the Russian empire), a solitary priest of fire is maintained by the Parsee community of Bombay, who inhabits a small temple built over one of the springs." (We do know that in the 1800s, the Parsees of Bombay lent their assistance to the Zoroastrians of Iran and sought to ameliorate the suffering of their co-religionists in their ancestral lands.)

A few years earlier, in 1858, French novelist Alexander Dumas (1802 - 1870 CE) had visited the atash gah and noted: "...the whole world is aware of the Atash gah in Baku. My compatriots who want to see the fire-worshippers must be quick because already there are so few left in the temple, just one old man and two younger ones about 30-35 years old."
There are twenty inscriptions embedded in the stone walls of the complex. Eighteen are in the Nagari Devnagri script, one is in Punjabi using the Gurumukhi script and one is a bilingual inscription in Sanskrit and Persian. The Devnagri portion of the bilingual inscription is dedicated to Lord Ganesh and Jvala-ji. It is dated Samvat 1802 (1745-46 CE). In Sanskrit, ज्वलति (ज्वल्) / jvalati (jval) is one of the many words meaning 'burn' or 'burning' even 'light' ['fire' is 'अग्नि' / 'agni'].
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The transliteration of Persian/Farsi inscription - a four-line (quatrain) verse is:
Atashi saf kesheedhe hamchun dak
Jeeye bovani reside ta baudak
Sal-e no nozl mobarak baad goft
Khaneh shod ru sombole sane-ye 1158

The translation is:
The blaze (of fire) has drawn (came directly) like a dak(?)
From Bovani ( Bovan , Iran)* until it reached Baudak** (Baku?)
Blessings, he said, on the New Year
It was housed on Sanomad*** (in the) year 1158 (1745 CE).

  • There are several places/towns named Bovan in Iran - in the provinces of Azarbaijan, Kermanshah, Isfahan and Pars. The line in the inscriptions appears to state that a fire was brought directly from Bovan to Baudak.
  • *Baku is said to be a shortened form of the older name Baudak. Baudak is in turn a shortened form of Bad-Kubeh meaning 'wind-pounded' otherwise 'windy city'.
  • **Sanomad may be a corruption of Sombole, the month when the Sun is in the house of Virgo, the sixth month (August-September), in which month Nowruz - New Year' day - fell according to Zoroastrian Kadmi (Qadimi) calendar.

This verse seems to indicate that a fire from Bovan was brought to the Surakhani temple and housed there, perhaps in the alcove above which the inscription is found. It is quite possible that if the natural gas fire at Surakhani could not be consecrated in its making according to orthodox practice, another duly consecrated fire brought from Bovani, could have served that purpose.

The Punjabi language inscription is a quotation from the Adi Granth.

The other inscriptions include an invocation to Lord Shiva. Taken as a set, the dates on the inscriptions range from Samvat 1725 to Samvat 1873, corresponding to the period from 1668 CE to 1816 CE. The present structure is relatively modern and the 17th century is a possible date for its construction. One report states that local records exist that the structure was built by the Baku Hindu trading community around the time of the annexation of Baku by the Russian Empire following the Russo-Persian War (1722-1723 CE).
I salute the UNESCO World heritage organization for preserving such magnificent, historic and cultural properties, the world over. Such sites are truly an integrator of the myriad cultures and peoples of this world.
Sources:
heritage Institute.com/ Zoroastrianism
Tizianstupa.com
ahymsin.org
Wikipedia

THE END

Ramdas Iyer can be reached at Riyerr@aol.com

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 10:45 Archived in Azerbaijan Tagged temple world heritage fire hindu parsi zorastrian homa atash gah parsee Comments (3)

Meditating my way along the Silk Route and Holy India.

Retracing history through travel and meditation in historical locales. 2008-2016......Ramdas A. Iyer

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I have attempted herein to combine my travels to historical places along the silk route along with my practice of meditation which melds seamlessly through wonderful places touched by Buddhism, Hinduism and nature. Without a historic perspective, these travels do not mean much. The great history behind these places increases their value as a destination and an appropriate location to meditate. Spanning a time frame from 500 BC to 2012 AD, I have within the percepts of 5000 words compressed 2500 years of history. Many empires are referenced and can be better understood with the time frame and maps provided.
I have been experimenting with meditation since 2007 ever since the paths of Mark Reisenberg and mine intersected at a gym in Short Hills, NJ. Generally feeling rather rushed, anxious ,short tempered with frequent outbursts at work and lack of patience at home, one day I became deeply aware of my short comings. I sought the counsel of Mark, who had trained under the great Mahesh Yogi. Mark and I had developed a friendship since he was drawn to my knowledge of the East and me to his deep interest in it. Most days Mark had a glow in his face and when questioned he would comment about the great meditation session he had had that day. In fact he has been having those great moments almost daily for the past 40 years. A walking prescription for that practice. He agreed to come to my house and give me an introductory lesson in Transcendental Meditation. I could immediately feel its impact and would feel "cleansed" and be more mindful of my actions. Being a busy entrepreneur, committing time for meditation without feeling rushed has been my only challenge. Despite having the knowledge that there is only upsides when time is dedicated to this practice, it has still been a work in progress having already tapped into the nectar of its abilities.
The structured practice of meditation( Dhyana) is thought to go back 5,000 years with its development in India, culminating in its initial development by Hindus as a means of discerning the true nature of Brahman (or God) and its later development by the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) who reached “enlightenment” by meditating under a Bodhi Tree (ficus religiosa), following years of disenchantment with established religious practices.
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I had promised to escort Mark and his daughter Kate to some of the great meditation centers of India someday when everyone was ready to do so.
As my travel regimen peaked during the last decade, I had traveled much of the Silk road and other Asian countries which coincidentally fell under the sway of Hinduism and Buddhism for over 2000 years. This gave me ample opportunities to not only explore the historical areas but also meditate in storied locations which has been a great personal joy thus far.
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Uzbekistan lies north west of current day Afghanistan & Pakistan and is the route through which Buddhism spread into China along the fabled silk road. Ancient India and old Persia had their border near current day Uzbekistan/ Turkmenistan. This border delineated the two great axial religions that were borne out of the migrating Aryans of the Central Asian Steppes: Hinduism and Zoarastrianism.Visiting the town of Termez in 2009, where Alexander the Great had crossed the Oxus (a major military feat) enroute to India, I realized that I had emerged from a time machine upon landing at the small airport. 2000 years of history lay at my feet .In a town called Fayez Tepe, about 40 km from Mazar-e-Sharif , Afghanistan,( another center of Buddhism during the Kushan Empire, not too far from Bamiyan where the great Buddha statues were decapitated by the Taliban)), I visited a small stupa and monastery erected by Kanishka I, the Great (AD 127-163), the fabled ruler of the Kushan Empire of Ancient India. Kanishka came to rule an empire in Bactria (Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan) extending from Turfan in the Tarim Basin ( Xinjiang Province of China) to Pataliputra ( near modern Patna, India)on the Gangetic plain. His conquests and patronage of Buddhism played an important role in the development of the Silk Road, and the transmission of Mahayana Buddhism from Gandhara ( modern Pakistan)across the Karakoram range to China. Kanishka 's father hailed from Xinjiang province and belonged to a tribe known as Tocharians and spoke an eastern Iranian language similar to Sanskrit, another one of the Indo European languages. The Aryan connection with India that started around 1500BC continued until the 4th century AD through migrations and conquests. So I followed Kanisha's conquests which incidentally lay the foundations of the fabled silk route.
While visiting Fayez Tepe, being the only traveler that day in this remote corner, I requested my guide for some free time to sit alone under the stupa and meditate for world peace; a fitting location given the double electrified border fence and minefields less than 500 metres away.*( Quiet the mind, and the soul will speak. ~Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati).

Later that evening my guide who also worked in the local museum, gave me a private post dinner tour of the amazing Bactrian and Gandharan artifacts excavated around Termez by Soviet archeologists of renown. Sotheby's would have drooled at such a treasure fairly well kept by the State Museum.
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On an earlier trip to China in 2008 while passing through the Tarim Basin, considered one of the hottest places on earth, I came upon many small towns that constituted the original silk road, but is today set away from the main highways connecting Xian to Kashgar for over 3000 miles. In these now Islamic towns inhabited by the Turkic Uygur people, one could see Buddhist caves scattered all over remote hill sides. I sat besides some of them and pondered the impact of Buddhism on these peoples who were all Buddhists prior to their conversions around 840 AD. during the rise of Islam. So I asked the locals about Buddhism and they had no clue what I was talking about. Communism and Islam had erased all spoken history, despite the area being Buddhist for nearly 600 years. I suspect that no European would ever admit to being a pagan at that time either.
Crossing the Tarim Basin from Kashgar to Urumqi along the silk road, home of several Uighur unrests, I could only begin to fathom the extreme conditions in which the silk road merchants traveled. After an adventure filled 36 hour train ride through the Gobi desert I arrived at the town of Dunhuang- famous for its world famous Magao Buddhist grottos and now a World Heritage site. Carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, the Mogao Caves south-east of the Dunhuang oasis, Gansu Province, comprise the largest, most richly endowed, and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art in the world. It was first constructed in 366AD and represents the great achievement of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14th century. 492 caves are presently preserved, housing about 45,000 square meters of murals and more than 2,000 painted sculptures. The unique artistic style of Dunhuang art is not only the amalgamation of Han Chinese artistic tradition and styles assimilated from ancient Indian, Greco-Bactrian and Gandharan customs, but also an integration of the arts of the Turks, ancient Tibetans and other Chinese ethnic minorities. Many of these masterpieces are creations of an unparalleled aesthetic talent. The artifacts stolen from here by British and German archeologists began the rift between China and the west and well documented in the book" Foreign Devils on the Silk Road" by Peter Hopkirk. If I were to be on an adventure during Victorian times, this would have been it.
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The railhead being 2 hours from town, my guide and driver spent the night in a small lodging nearby. On arrival at 2:00 AM, there was no soul stirring in the station and I had to carry my heavy baggage up and over railway trestles to meet my people. It was cold, hard and riven with anxiety.
Later that morning driving along the Dachuan river, I could see the multitude of caves at different elevations on the hardened mud cliffs of the river valley. It was extremely cold near the caves with the temperature in single digits. After taking a private tour of some of the grottos I looked for a place to meditate. Out of a possible 200 well preserved caves one can only see 4 caves during each visit. This way they reduce the impact of tourism on the murals adorning the fragile walls of the caves. These amazing caves were decorated using gifts given to the monks by traders to build altars and grottos to thank Buddha for their successful missions. The Tang Emperors had built a beautiful pavilion near the grotto around 650 AD. This gave me a quiet place to meditate and appreciate the opportunity bestowed on me to be in such a place. *(Mind is a door that leads you outside in the world; meditation is the door that leads you to your interiority—to the very innermost shrine of your being. ~Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh)

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Again after another 24 hour train ride, I arrived in Xian and transferred to another train to Lou Yang, one of the greatest ancient cities of China. Not realizing that I had to break journey in Xian ( Ancient Chang An), I hired a porter who carried my belongings to a youth hostel nearby. After a quick breakfast, I hired one of the hustling taxi drivers to take me to the famous Xian mosque built in 742 by the Tang Emperors in classic Chinese style. The Tang Dynasty noted for its religious tolerance is still considered the Golden Age of China. There were even two Hindu temples with Brahmin priests in Chang' An in the 8th century. India and China historically had such a great connection that the damage done during the Communist Government will take more time to fully heal. I meditated at this mosque which to me was more Buddhist in element than Islam in presence.( *One hour of contemplation surpasses sixty years of worship. – Muhammad)
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Situated on the central plain of China, Luoyang is one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, and is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. For several centuries, Luoyang was the focal point of China. In AD 68, the White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist temple in China, was founded in Luoyang. The temple still exists, though the architecture is of later origin, mainly from the 16th century. The history of this city is so rich that it asks to be investigated outside the scope of this article. My coming here was to visit two great sites; the White Horse Temple and the Longmen Grottos.
On the instruction of the Chinese Emperor Ming Di, two of his emissaries departed to India around AD 67 during the Kushan period (2nd century BC to 3rd century AD), in search for Buddhist scriptures .They encountered two Indian Buddhist monks in Gandhara and persuaded them to join them and return to China, bringing their book of Buddhist scriptures, relics and statues of Buddha with them on two white horses. At the behest of the emperor, the two monks named Kasyapa Matanga and Gobharana translated the Buddhist classics at the Baimai Temple at LuoYang, which was then the nation’s capital. The most notable of the classics, the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters was translated by Matanga. This was the first Buddhist sutra in Chinese and has the pride of place in the history of Chinese Buddhism. The temple then increased in importance as Buddhism grew within China and spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The introduction of Buddhism in China was a significant influence on Chinese morals, thought and ethics. Pleased with their arrival in China, the king built a temple in their honor and named it the White Horse Temple as an appreciation of the white horses that had carried the monks. The horses are buried here and a statue has been erected there. The Buddhist religion prospered from here and with the arrival of Bodhidarma ( from Kanchipuram in South India), another monk from India in the 5th century, Chinese Buddhism evolved, spreading to other countries.
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. The two monks are buried there under earthen mounds typical of Chinese burials of that period. One cannot imagine a better place for an amazing meditation session. I found a quiet corner next to Kashyapa Matanga's mound and had one of my greatest meditation sessions there. (*Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day. – Deepak Chopra.)
One of the most spectacular Buddhist sites is the Longmen Grottos- located on both sides of the Yi River to the south of the ancient capital of Luoyang, Henan province ( Near modern Zhengzhou). It comprises of more than 2,300 caves and niches carved into the steep limestone cliffs over a 1km long stretch. These contain almost 110,000 Buddhist stone statues, more than 60 stupas and 2,800 inscriptions carved on steles. Well, one would think that it must be the ultimate place for meditation, but unfortunately the place got run over by tourists since it is a World heritage Site. While the location has nothing of great historical connection with Buddhism itself it encapsulates the high cultural level and sophisticated society of Tang Dynasty China(5th-7th Century AD).
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On the next leg of my travel in China, I finally came upon the famous Shaolin Temple, home to Chinese martial arts, Kung Fu. Shaolin Temple was established in 495A.D. at the western foot of Songshan Mountain, 13 kilometers northwest to Dengfeng City, Henan Province. The then Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei dynasty (386-557) had the temple built to accommodate the Indian master Batuo (Buddhabhadra). Shaolin Temple literally means “temple in the thick forests of Shaoshi Mountain”.

As the first Shaolin abbot, Batuo (Buddhabhadra) devoted himself to translating Buddhist scriptures and preaching doctrines to hundreds of his followers. Later, another Indian monk Bodhidharma arrived at the Shaolin Temple, after crossing the Yangtze River from Canton. He spent nine years meditating in a cave and initiated the Chinese Chan tradition( Zen Buddhism) at Shaolin Temple. Thereafter, Bodhidharma was honored as the first Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. As Chinese Kung fu also originated from Shaolin Temple, it has been recognized as the origin of Chan Buddhism and the cradle of Kung fu; both attributed to Boddhidharma.
I must elaborate on this great Buddhist, Bodhidharma, since he hailed from Kanchipuram a town 35Km from where I grew up in Madras, India. Shaolin tradition mentions Bodhidharma (ca. 470-532) as that the 'first Zen patriarch'. The son of a South Indian ruler, a king of Kanchipuram, and that he appeared one day at the southern Chinese port city of Canton around 520 A.D is written into history by scholars, whence he traveled to see Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty. This tradition points to Bodhidharma as a member of the ruling class of the South Indian dynasty of the Pallavas, the contemporary of Skandavarman IV or Nandivarman I.
It is well known that Kanchipuram, the Pallava capital, was one of the most important strongholds of Indian Buddhism at that time. Bodhidharma, (like me) was a Tamil-speaking South Indian who trained the monks of Shaolin Temple, Kalaripayat, a local form of martial arts still practiced in the Kerala region today. This training of monks became necessary due to regular raids from the forested areas on the monastery. Until this day Shaolin is the home to Kung Fu ( too commercialized within the city today) and Bodhidharma is recognized as the undisputed master of Zen philosophy and Kung Fu. He is worshiped as Damma in Japan where Chan Buddhism is called Zen Buddhism.
What better place to do meditation where the great Bodhidharma himself meditated. It was a quiet, cool afternoon as I found a place under a statue of the master and meditated deeply.( *As long as you look for a Buddha somewhere else, you'll never see that your own mind is the Buddha. -Bodhidharma)

From Uzbekistan to interior China I had travelled on three different trips to complete this circuit ever so closely connected with Buddhism and meditation. Now it is time for me to return to India and connect the dots where great Hindi philosophers and Buddha himself began these traditions.
In 2010 , my sister, her husband and my cousin did a road trip through Garwhal Himalayas. We were heading to Badrinath one of the holiest places of Hinduism in India. Enroute, we stayed in the hill town of Jyothirmatt. This was where one of India's greatest Hindu philosopher meditated and started a monastic order. He was Shankara. The great Adi Shankara in early 8th century was a philosopher and theologian who consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta. He is credited with unifying and establishing the main currents of thought in Hinduism philosophy which expounds that God resides inside our own soul. This is the branch of philosophy my community and family have practiced over millennia.
Shankara travelled across the Indian subcontinent to propagate his philosophy through discourses and debates with other thinkers. He established the importance of monastic life as sanctioned in the great Hindu works of Upanishads and Brahma Sutra, in a time when the existing Mīmāṃsā school established strict ritualism and ridiculed monasticism. He is reputed to have founded four mathas ("monasteries"), which helped in the historical development, revival and spread of Advaita Vedanta of which he is known as the greatest revivalist. At a time when Buddhism was a populist religion that attracted the masses, he through doctrines and brilliant discourses restored Hinduism in India. In its aftermath Buddhism and Jainism became diminished religions within its borders for better or worse.
Just imagine meditating in the cave were the great Shankara himself immersed himself inwards. This along with my time under the Bodhi tree marked moments of great internal bliss for me.*( “If the mind falls asleep, awaken it. Then if it starts wandering, make it quiet. If you reach the state where there is neither sleep nor movement of mind, stay still in that, the natural (real) state.” ― Ramana Maharshi)
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There is little doubt among those who appreciate Indian philosophy that the foothills of the Himalayas was a Petri dish for great thinkers. The Hindu Rishis subjected themselves to great feats of body & breathe control and would survive in very cold climes with very little outerwear. Through those extreme moments, they focused their mind into deep meditation. The Buddhists were even more severe in their penance and rigor during meditation. While my wife Pushpa and I were at the Mt. Everest Base Camp in Tibet in 2012, we visited the Rongbuk Monastery (17600 ft altitude). Rongbuk Monastery was founded in 1902 by the Nyingmapa Lama Ngawang Tenzin Norbuin in an area of meditation huts and caves that had been in use by communities of nuns since the 18th century. Hermitage meditation caves dot the cliff walls all around the monastery complex and up and down the valley. Mani stone walls, carved with sacred syllables and prayers, line the paths. These are areas where temperatures never climb above freezing point.
The founding Rongbuk Lama, also known as Zatul Rinpoche, was much respected by the Tibetans. Even though the Rongbuk Lama viewed the early climbers at the Base Camp as "heretics," he gave them his protection and supplied them with meat and tea while also praying for their conversion. It was the Rongbuk Lama who gave Namgyal Wangdi the name Ngawang Tenzin Norbu, or Tenzing Norgay, as a young child.
On a very cold but windless day with crystal clear skies and on a ground with ice over several inches thick, I found a spot facing the great Choma Lama-Mt. Everest and got into deep mediation with the peaks staring down at me. This was a memorable place and moment in my life. I could see the glaciers below and wisps of snow blow from the peak and imagine a visit to its pinnacle through an inward journey.*( Sitting like a mountain let your mind rise, fly and soar. – Sogyal Rinpoche)
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So travel can be combined with many personal hobbies or practices. One can do yoga in spectacular places, meditate in meaningful places, exercise in unique locales, paint as my friend cerebral Suresh does alongside nature and yet be tourist and traveler.
Finally 2016 came around and the trip I promised my guru a decade ago kicked into being. In February of 2016 Mark, Kate and I embarked on a two week journey to North India. The ultimate destination, The Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya was true to our expectations.
I must give a small primer about Buddha for some of my western readers. Born as prince Gautama and living the trappings of luxury, he became exposed to the ultimate reality of life: sorrow. Gautama abandoned his court life and family took on the life of a wandering monk, accepting food as it was offered to him. He pursued his spiritual quest and studied under the well-known teachers of his day. He learned deep meditation and followed the yogic practices, but in the end discovered that he reached a point where the teachers could offer him no more. He wanted to find the truth of life through severe penance and meditation.
For six years, Sakyamuni starved and punished his body and lived the most austere life imaginable. He sat under a Bodhi tree at a place called Bodh Gaya and determined not to move until he had found the answers he sought. His meditation was deep, and, on the night of the full moon in May of 523 BC, complete Enlightenment came to him. His mind became calm and clear and he understood the cycle of birth, death and the wheel of life. He understood his true nature and that of all living beings. This was the end of his spiritual journey, and at that moment he became "the Buddha". His simple message was a lot more appealing than the complex ritual and caste based Hinduism, that a religious revolution that took root in ancient India.

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Waking up early we visited the grounds which was thronging with Buddhist pilgrims from all over the World. The chant of the Tibetans, the songs of the Sri Lankans, the quiet worship of the Japanese and Thai, along with a smattering of westerners who were deeply rooted in meditation. The Mahabodhi Temple Complex, UNESCO Heritage Site, is one of the four holy sites related to the life of the Lord Buddha, and particularly to the attainment of Enlightenment. The first temple was built by Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century B.C., and the present temple dates from the 5th or 6th centuries. It is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely in brick, still standing in India, from the late Gupta period.
After walking around the complex with throngs of monks and lay people performing worship both in a private and personal manner in every nook and cranny of the grounds, was truly inspirational. As a Hindu, the lack of major ceremonies or grand rituals in Buddhism became quite evident here. Mark had always maintained that the power of group meditation was synergistic. Mark, Kate and I searched for a spot under the huge branches of the Bodhi tree and the three of us mediated amongst the faint backdrop of chanting and singing. It was an invigorating experience, something I could have done sitting there all morning.*( Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without............... Buddha)
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We returned to the complex again in the evening and again the following morning with each visit providing immense satisfaction and internal joy. On the last morning while Mark and I were meditating before sunrise, a monk came and sat next to us. In the midst of meditation he placed a fruit in each of our hands. Upon waking up we realized that he had gone. Within a matter of minutes, two monks came to us with a begging bowl and all we had with us were the fruits in our hands to offer. It was a remarkable event and seemed to be surreal moment that either of us can explain in words.
Another important place that marks the life of the Buddha. He arrived in Sarnath after wandering along the Ganges river and spent days meditating in a grove with wandering deers. Word soon got out that a great monk was dispensing great words that even ordinary people could understand. Here he preached his message of the middle way to nirvana after he achieved enlightenment at Bodhgaya and gave his famous first sermon here. In the 3rd century BC, emperor Ashoka had magnificent stupas and monasteries erected here as well as an engraved pillar. When Chinese traveler Xuan Zang dropped by in AD 640, Sarnath boasted a 100m-high stupa and 1500 monks living in large monasteries. However, soon after, Buddhism went into decline and, when Muslim invaders sacked the city in the late 12th century, Sarnath disappeared altogether. It was ‘rediscovered’ by British archaeologists in 1835.Today it’s one of the four key sites on the Buddhist circuit.
In a suitable spot, Kate, Mark and I had a tremendous group meditation session. My personal awakening here is simply indescribable.*( Half an hour's meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed. -Saint Francis de Sales)
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Our spiritual travels also took us to Rishikesh, the ashram of Mahesh Yogi and famous for the Beatles in residence in the 60s. Since ancient times, Rishikesh has been an important pilgrimage spot for the saints and Hindu devotees. However, it is during the initial medieval period in India that the place started to gain more popularity. During 8th century Adi Shankaracharya, mentioned earlier, built several temples and ashrams in the region. Unfortunately, most of the temples and ashrams were destroyed because of several earthquakes and floods that have affected the region over the centuries; however, some temples still stand tall and are reminiscent of the rich cultural heritage of the place.

While Rishikesh has a rich religious history that makes it an important place among Indians, but the event that really put Rishikesh on world’s map was the visit by The Beatles in 1968. The band arrived in India in the search of answers to life’s larger questions. During their stay of several weeks, at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram, they learnt transcendental meditation to understand the deeper meaning behind human existence. It is in Rishikesh, that they wrote most of the songs of their most famous album, The White Album. Since their visit, millions of people from across the globe have thronged the place, either to seek answers to their own questions or to witness the remains of that historic event.
While John Lennon and Ringo went about practicing songs for the White Album, George and Paul really got into some serious meditation. It is said that Paul still supports the Transintendal Meditation organization until this day. Mark and I had a small meditation session there to follow the footsteps of his guru and the Beatles.* ("Meditate and enjoy."
"TM in the am and the pm."
"Water the root to enjoy the fruit."
"20 minutes in the bank, all day in the market place." .........Maharishi Mahesh Yogi)
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Mark and I meditated at the famous Sivananda Ashram in front of the samadhi of the great Hindu spiritual teacher and a proponent of Yoga and Vedanta. Swami Sivananda is the last of India's great sages and I would ask my readers to sample his works available in the web. A few miles downriver in Hardwar, we had the opportunity to witness the Ardh Kumbh Mela where over 80 million pilgrims wash away their sins in the river over a 45 day period. The Kumbh Mela is a very ancient event referred to in the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata dating to 1500 BC. First written evidence of the Kumbha Mela can be found in the accounts of Chinese traveler, Huan Tsang or Xuanzang (602 - 664 A.D.) who visited India in 629 -645 CE, during the reign of King Harshavardhana.

  • ( "Regular meditation opens the avenues of

intuitional knowledge,
makes the mind calm and steady,
awakens an ecstatic feeling,
and brings the practitioner in contact
with the source of his/her very being."
...............Swami Sivananda"_

While staying at the elegant Hari Ganga Haveli in Haridwar we took a plunge in the icy waters around 5:00 AM. We followed that dip by a meditation session in our room and the energy of the place and the meditation carried us through for a couple of days. Kate unfortunately took ill in Hardwar and was bed ridden for three days with a virus. The local doctor was very efficient and kind and the in room treatment including medicines for three days cost less than $20. Haridwar was an amazing place where one could see poor peasants and rich land lords dip next to each other competing for space to wash away their sins. The deep faith shown by the masses, the orderliness, the excellent security arrangements provided by the government and our ability to meander amongst millions of people, with a camera pointed, was quite exceptional. As a traveler and photographer such an access to humanity ever willing to grace themselves in a photograph cannot be found anywhere else on earth.
Varanasi has been a cultural centre of North India for several thousand years, and is closely associated with the Ganges. Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, making it a major centre for pilgrimage. The city is known worldwide for its many Ghats, embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the river bank where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions. In Varanasi, we walked the alleyways, sailed the river passing bathers, worshipers and the cremation Ghats which has witnessed the burning Hindu remains for over two millennia, 24/7 365 days a year. Our meditation sessions took place in the terrace of our haveli, overlooking the river, that once belonged to the King of Nepal. On these banks the great Buddha gave his sermons, where saints like Kabir and Tulsi Das called home. *(“Be quiet in your mind, quiet in your senses, and also quiet in your body. Then, when all these are quiet, don't do anything. In that state truth will reveal itself to you.”...................Kabir)
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With Mark, Kate and brother Vijay in attendance, I also used this great opportunity to bring the cremated remains of my dear father who passed away in 2015 in New Jersey and immersed it in the river after Hindu rituals lead by a chief priest. Here he joined my forebears who watch and guide me through my daily meditation and machinations of life.
Mixing and meeting amazing people, meditating in historic sites, eating great food, I offered my friend and his family a glimpse into Hindu India. I will try to devote some other amazing mediation moments while traveling through South east Asia in another article. I must stop now. It is time for meditation. Aum. ( riyerr@aol.com)
The End

Album
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:16 Archived in China Tagged temple buddhism meditation white xian buddha varanasi road horse monastery tang empire silk rishikesh shaolin longmen sarnath rongbuk bishkek swami sivananda bodh gaya ramdas iyer kushan adi empire. advaita shankara hardwar magao grottos boddhidharma damma kanishka Comments (2)

In Search of the Tomb of Songtsang Gompa, Tsetang, Tibet

In Search of the Tomb of Tsongsang Gompa, Founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Tsetang, Tibet..........................................by Ramdas Iyer

sunny 28 °F

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The spread of Buddhism in Asia, first through the Silk Route to China and Japan and by Buddhist Emperors of India to SE Asia, who sent missionaries by trading ships, are fascinating subjects that lay the foundation of early religious and political history of Asia. Having visited almost all the great centers of Buddhism in Asia I wish to discuss two areas, Tibet and Mongolia, that came into the fold of Buddhism only after the 7th century, almost 800 years after its initial impact in Central Asia.
There were two reasons for this. Firstly, Tibet and Mongolia lay off the main caravan routes along which merchants and pilgrims travelled between India and China. Secondly, the Tibetan and Mongolian people who were nomads and warlike, were generally indifferent to the Teaching of the Buddha and the higher level of culture that came with it.
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In Tibet, however, all this changed in the seventh century. The Tibetans, who had long been divided among many warring clans, were united under the rule of a great king, Srong-tsangam-po( also known as Songtsang Gampo). His success in uniting the Tibetans brought him and Tibet newfound prestige in Asia. As a result, he was able to wed both a Chinese (daughter of Tang Emperor Zhang-Zung) and a Nepalese princess(daughter of King Bikrut). His Chinese and Nepalese queens were both Buddhists and before long he, too, became interested in Buddhism.
Srong-tsan-gam-po sent representatives to India and China to study the Teaching of the Buddha and to bring back Buddhist texts. The result of these missions strengthened the king's faith in the Buddhist religion. He had many Buddhist texts translated into Tibetan and encouraged the people to practice the Buddhist teachings. He also constructed many temples throughout Tibet. Thus Srong-tsan-gam-po was the first patron of Buddhism in Tibet.
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The thirteenth century saw the rise of Mongolian power in Central Asia. Under Genghis Khan, an ambitious and brilliant chieftain, the Mongols soon made their influence felt throughout the region. By the middle of the century, links had been established between the Mongol court and Tibetan Buddhist masters.
During the reign of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, China was conquered and as a result the Mongol court came increasingly under the influence of Buddhist and Tibetan cultures. Thereafter, a succession of Mongol Khans continued to look to Tibet for religious inspiration.
In 1578 the Mongol ruler Altan Khan gave the title Dalai Lama to Sonyam Gyatso, third in a line of reborn lamas of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The title means "ocean of wisdom" .In the eighteenth century, the Manchus intervened to end a long period of political strife in Tibet. They appointed the then Dalai Lama as the ruler of Tibet. In this way, the Dalai Lamas became political as well as religious leaders. This situation lasted until the People's Republic of China assumed control of Tibet in the middle of this century.
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Like the Tibetans before them, Buddhism transformed the Mongols from a primitive people to a nation respected for its learning and wisdom. From the thirteenth to the twentieth century, Mongolia remained a stronghold of Buddhism. There, the Teaching of the Buddha was preserved in many monasteries as well as in the homes of the people. Although Mongolia today came under Communist rule, Buddhism survives in the hearts and minds of the Mongolians.( I will write about it in a future article)

Upon arriving in Lhasa I was eager to visit the great Jhokahang Temple ( my very first article in the blogosphere can be read in Travellerspoint). This temple was built by King Songtsang Gampo in 642. For most Tibetans it is the most sacred and important temple in Tibet. It is in some regards pan-sectarian(Black and yellow hat sects have conflicting philosophies), but is controlled by the Gelug school(yellow hats). The temple's architectural style is a mixture of Indian vihara design, Chinese Tang Dynasty design, and Nepalese design.
According to tradition, the temple was built for the two brides of the king, Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. Both wives are said to have brought important Buddhist statues and images from China and Nepal to Tibet as part of their dowries, and they were housed here.
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The more one travelled in Tibet one begins to see the importance of this person who transformed a medieval warlike nomadic people who practiced a pagan religion called Bon. When I planned our trip to Tibet (2011) ,I made sure that I visited the valley of Kings where the tomb of Songtsang Gampo and his successors are buried in mounds, as was the practice in Tibet and China then. The Valley of the Kings or Chongye Valley branches off the Yarlung Valley to the southwest and contains a series of graveyard tumuli, approximately 27 kilometers south of Tsetang, Tibet, near the town of Qonggyai ,Shannan Prefecture.
The site possesses eight large mounds of earth resembling natural hills that are believed to contain at least eight to ten buried Tibetan kings.
One gets a classic flavor for Tibetan village culture as one travels through this interesting valley of the Tsang Po river ( Brahmaputra in India), one of the largest river systems in the world.
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Traveling in Tibet requires police registration in each province who may change itineraries depending on the unrest in the region. During our travel, my wife Pushpa and I, only missed one obscure monastery in which a monk had immolated himself in protest the previous day. However, we decided to take an excursion off the main road to visit a small village guarded by huge decrepit walls of a monastery destroyed by the communists in the 1950s. We visited several homes, played with young kids and met several pilgrims who were making their round to many monasteries by foot, often covering hundreds of miles. We met a young nun who proudly displayed her pendent image of the Dalai lama. A punishable offence that could land her in prison. My photographs are self explanatory and show life in a typical village in the countryside.
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Similar to the great mound in Xian, China where the Tomb of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang Do is still unearthed, the tombs of the Tibetan kings are undisturbed in the mounds. However due to the great reverence the Tibetans had for Songtsang Gampo they built a temple on top of the mound credited with his burial. When the Tang emperor Gaozong(650-683)came to the throne, that made Songtsang Gampo the emperor's brother-in-law, he was awarded the title Prince of the Western Sea and was promoted to the position of Prince of Bin. Upon his death, emperor Gaozong held a mourning ceremony and sent an envoy to express his condolences. We visited this small temple and was enamored by its simplicity. A great man who transformed a nation is still worshiped daily after 1600 years.
The End.
email me @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Information Sources:

China Tibetology Magazine. tanjia-Hong
BDEA/Buddhanet-2008/ Buddhisn across the Himalayas
Wikipedia

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 13:07 Archived in China Tagged temple buddhism tibet mongolia lama tang hats dynasty khan dalai songtsang gampo yello jhokahang tsetang kublai srong-tsan-gam-po Comments (1)

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