Indian Summer, March 2, 2006

As we left Kandy, we were moved when we said our goodbyes to Savithri and her family and to Lily. When they said they were looking forward to our return so that we can resume Students of the Lotus meditation, we felt a warm and welcome feeling! Kandy has become home.

We had a very pleasant time in Colombo, enjoying another free stay, using Hilton Honors Points, at the Hilton. Great swimming, good food, and excellent service, as always. We treated ourselves to the first Japanese meal we've had since leaving Flint. The Japanese restaurant, Ginza Hohsen, is independently managed and imports all the ingredients from Japan. Outside the widow is a serene dry garden, with a gravel stream, a few bonsai-shaped plants, and two stylized stone lanterns. In keeping with Japanese aesthetics, the background is designed so that the garden seems to go on forever--the tall trees at the back create a screen which hides the mundane world, giving the impression that there may be a great mountain beyond. We asked the waiter whether they had shiso. He didn't have a clue what that might be, but he asked the chef, who probably responded, "Kashikomarimashita!". What a treat! We enjoyed shisomaki, nattomaki, inari zushi, hiyayakko, yasai tempura, and unlimited bancha. Delicious, wholesome, not too filling, and about the same price as the buffet lunch.

What a remarkable place Colombo is! From our window, we could see, just outside the hotel, in the heart of the city, a great old tree, laden with fruit bats, hanging from every branch and sleeping soundly, undisturbed by the occasional crow.

While we were gearing ourselves up for the rather arduous trip to India (a half-price ticket has its drawbacks, viz. a scheduled 12-hour wait in Chennai between flights!), we had a welcome visit from our friend Arjuna and one of his friends from the Greens, involved in community development and disaster relief. Our immediate concern was further discussion of the Buddhist game we've been talking about for ages. We had sent a preliminary scenario to Arjuna, and he liked it. He explained that he is thinking about a web-based game. We know nothing about the technical side of it, but Arjuna has friends who are proficient in such things. It was a very exciting session--ideas flying back and forth. We look forward to seeing the prototype in a few more weeks. We also were happy to make a donation from Buddhist Relief Mission, in which we joined our dana to John's for the monk in Keula who cared for the village's tsunami victims but was skipped in the rebuilding efforts. Sadhu! Sadhu!! Sadhu!!! We recently read that many of the pledged contributions remained on paper, where they aren't going to do anybody any good, so handing ours directly to Arjuna felt wonderful!

Arjuna and friend

Another visitor was the Chinese monk that Ven. Nyanatusita had told us about a few weeks ago. He mentioned that he had met a Chinese monk in Colombo who was looking for a native English speaker to help him with a Jataka project. That sounded tailor made to us since we are continuing work on our "retelling" of the Jatakas. (You may recall that BPS has already published five small volumes of "Jataka Tales of the Buddha" and still hopes to publish a full volume as soon as we have finished about 100 stories.) We called the monk in Colombo, and he visited us in Kandy the next day, Sunday.

The project is a plan of a senior Chinese monk in Singapore to erect at his temple in Indonesia a wall with carved illustrations and inscribed text in both Chinese and English of about 100 stories, which, it turns out, will not all be Jatakas, but will include other types of Buddhist stories.

The monk we met, Ven. Shi Xingpu, is finishing his advanced degree in Colombo. For his teacher in Singapore, he has accepted the task of collecting the stories from various sources on the web, condensing them, and translating them into English. We are helping him by making sure that the English is correct. In some cases, we are reworking the narration to improve the flow, but he wants the English to match the Chinese version, so we have to rein ourselves in a bit. It is an interesting process. He sends us his English translation, we send him back our version, then he points out where we have gone too far. Sometimes, we discover that we have completely misunderstood the storyline because there was no hint in the original English. We send back a version incorporating his suggestions, and eventually agree on a final rendering. It will be an impressive monument when it is finished. He hopes that we will be able to attend the opening with him, as well as visit his master's temple in Singapore.

More immediate are our plans to attend the celebration for the anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar's conversion in Nagpur and Mumbai (Bombay) in October and to accompany Susan (and Martha, too, we hope) on a pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy sites in January/February 2007. As for Singapore, we shall see. So far, we have finished about 25 stories, so there is a long way to go.

While in Colombo we got a phone call from our Kandy travel agent informing us that our flight to Chennai would leave two hours later than we'd been told. Hurray! Check in at 4 AM rather than 2! The ride to the airport was through quiet, empty streets, until we encountered ... huge crowds walking to their vehicles or home, from ... the just ended Mardi Gras. The grounds were decorated with colorful lights, and the statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mother Mary were also illuminated. As the driver put it, when the Christians have a festival we all celebrate, and everybody joins the Buddhists and Muslims for their holidays too. 'Tis as it should be, wouldn't you agree?

After check-in, Visakha boarded an ancient wheel chair for the trip to the gate. The young man assigned to look after her was full of questions. When he discovered that we were Buddhists, the questions came even faster. He told us that his very first charge had been a senior monk from Indonesia and showed us the monk's card. He wanted to know why we, brought up Christians, had become Buddhists and asked for suggestions of good reading matter for a Christian friend who'd expressed interest in Buddhism. We talked at length about Kandy--he had seen the Perahera many times. His parents are from Kandy, but they now live in Colombo, and he seems to have a close connection to some of the senior monks in Kandy. He was delighted to hear that we are volunteering with the Buddhist Publication Society, and he is excited to visit us after we get back. As soon as we gave him our return date and time, he checked his work schedule and found that he'll be on duty that night. He asked us to send him an email confirming our arrival, and we will be sure to see him again. In fact, we've already gotten an e-mail from him, signed "your son." It's very nice to have a young friend in Colombo, and we look forward to getting to know him better.

We had chosen Bhikkhu Bodhi's new book, "In the Buddha's Words," as a primary textbook for our class, so we are carrying 35 copies. We put them all in our carry-ons, and wondered how difficult it was going to be jugging those two suitcases on and off every plane. After we had checked our two bags (50 kgs), the clerk looked at the carry-ons and said, "Those look too big. Let me weigh them." Then she said, "We'll have to check both of these. Here are your receipts. Have a nice flight." She checked 86 kilos and did not bat an eye! Wow! What a relief that was!

We wouldn't have blamed anybody if we'd been given grief at immigration--the US had just denied a visa to an Indian scientist who had been invited to teach, again, at a Florida university. Not only was his passport stamped "Visa denied," he was also accused being a a terrorist and a liar. Gosh, no wonder he was mad! Fortunately for us, the Indian authorities waved us right through.

We ended up having a shorter layover in Chennai than scheduled; instead we were routed through to Bangalore then to Hyderabad. (All luggage checked again) In every airport we were given coupons to the VIP lounges, with tea and snacks. We also checked out Indian TV--the biggest story being the Jessica Lal murder case in which a beautiful model was shot in the head in a full restaurant, in front of a host of witnesses, by the spoiled son of a big and rich politician. No one could be found willing to testify to the murder. The son of that politician was acquitted, and people were outraged. That news was even bigger than Bush's upcoming visit. Here's hoping that there will be a retrial and justice next time.

A strange twist. In every other previous flight, Visakha, in her wheelchair has been allowed to preboard through the extension bridge (if there is one) or via a hydraulic lift. Once in a while, in the case of a bus gate, she has had to climb the stairs to board the airplane. This time, however, on two of our three flights, while the other passengers were boarding through the bridge, she was wheeled across the tarmac to the rear of the plane and asked to climb the stairs. On deplaning once, she descended the stairs to a wheelchair, but the porters carried a chair up to retrieve the other wheelchair passenger. Then, Ken was not allowed to walk with her to the terminal. He rode the bus. Fortunately, they were reunited at the baggage carousel. With all those stairs, we were grateful that all that 40 kilos of hand-carry were checked. At one point, a woman walking beside Ken toward the carousel said to him, "I certainly hope that if I ever need it, I will have someone take care of me as well as you take care of your wife. She is very lucky!" and walked away. Doesn't he deserve the accolades!

First impressions of Hyderabad were that it is very dry and very Muslim. Actually it's two cities--the Indian twin cities. Hyderabad, the old city, is thoroughly Muslim with palaces belonging to the Newab and his extensive relations. Houses and shops are crowded, chock-a-block, and it is only by noticing the beautiful balconies with their latticed railings, that you can tell they are old and used to be palaces. The new city, Secunderabad, is predominantly Hindu, with high rises, and lots of IT companies. In the old city we saw many women in black chadors, while in Secunderabad, most women were in saris, worn in a very different way from Sri Lanka or even from Tamil Nadu.

When we mentioned to Manel, Savithri's husband, that we were going to Hyderabad, he exclaimed, "That's where rich Arabs from the Middle East go to find wives!" That explained why the two Taj hotels were so expensive! Five hundred dollars a night must be small change to them. Anyway, we had great fun in our funky castle, with its turrets and crenellated stone walls. There was an outdoor pool on the fifth floor, which we enjoyed each morning before breakfast. Twice we were joined by the hotel owner, who did laps. He told us that there would be five people from the American Embassy staying there during Bush's visit. While swimming, we constantly alarmed thirsty pigeons. We were surprised that the there weren't any pigeon feathers in the pool--those were some clean birds! Hyderabad must be pretty dry if hundreds of pigeons depend upon the pool for a drink! We read that Hyderabad is so arid that well-drilling is illegal and that whole neighborhoods have to buy water in the summer. If our local newspaper was to be believed, a tanker full of water costs 250 rupees but we suspected a misprint.

The Turret, ceilling and looking down at the fountain/fish pond

The only other birds we saw were buzzards, silently circling overhead. Actually, for the last few years, India's vulture population has decreased to the point that the birds are endangered. At first, scientists thought it was a virus, but they have discovered that the culprit is a veterinary drug, Diclofenac, which farmers used as a pain-killer for cows. Since vultures are the clean-up crew for dead cows (and everything else) the amount they were ingesting was proving lethal It has since been banned here (An international conference last month recommended that its use be stopped everywhere in Asia.), and there is hope that the vultures will survive. What would happen to India if the vultures were to become extinct? The stinking carcases would surely pile up. Evidently, the decline in vulture population is the most dramatic slide towards extinction ever recorded. We humans are certainly tough on our poor planet.

The hotel charge included a complimentary continental breakfast. Breakfast was actually a buffet with eggs, porridge, yoghurt, fruit, and cereal, as well as with great Indian food--idly, wada, uttapadam, and puri/bhaji. Perhaps we could call it "sub-continental." We were surprised that many of the hotel staff were from Kolkata. They were happy to learn that we were going there, and they gave us plenty of good suggestions for places of interest and where to get good Bengali food, which they were obviously homesick for!

The temperature in Hyderabad was very pleasant, but the papers reported that parts of India (at one point we heard Kolkata) were hot! So hot, in fact, that the British cricket team wilted in the sun, fell sick, and went home. Oh, dear! Will we survive our Indian summer?

Sizzling was also the general reception for George and Laura Bush, although the state reception was, well, stately. India does such things very, very well, and it seemed that the negotiations were very favorable to India as well. Hyderabad was full of black flags flying from mosques and Muslim centers, to protest his visit and the Iraq war. All the parties on the left made it very clear that Bush was not welcome. Huge demonstrations against Bush were held in Mumbai and Delhi and even in small towns. In Lucknow, the demonstrations became violent. Cars were burned, and several people were killed. Everywhere, Bush was declared a war criminal, as well as a clown. In Hyderabad there was a creative anti-Bush cartoon display, which got good press.

One of the more interesting places in Hyderabad is the Salarjung Museum, set in part of the old Newab's palace, and said to be one of the world's largest private collections of almost everything. We went through just a small part of the museum, seeing various rooms of furniture, tea sets, gifts from Queen Victoria, and paintings. The hallway is lined with 19th century replicas of Greek and Roman statuary. The wing we saw is laid out in a circle with the interconnected rooms forming the spokes of a huge wheel. Of course. we were particularly interested in seeing the Buddhist sculpture, which occupied one small room. There were a few beautiful pieces, including some lovely carved medallions from the railing of the Bharut Stupa, dating from the first century BC. Ken wanted to check out what was on the second floor and ended up getting lost in the "Western Wing," where he found vast collections of European glass, porcelain, and furniture, and a gallery with more than five hundred ornate and distinctive clocks! Coming across a staircase he went down to the ground floor. Finding himself in unexplored new galleries, he asked how to get to the East Wing where he'd left Visakha, only to be told that the East Wing was closed. "I was just there," he insisted. "No you weren't!" they retorted. He called Visakha and was told, "I've given up on you and gone to the bookshop!" Frustrated, he went upstairs once more, wandered through the clocks and porcelain and at last found the right stairs down.

Our other destination was the monastery. We'd met the abbot at the Chennai MahaBodhi Society right after the tsunami. He gave us his name card and invited us to visit Hyderabad. We never imagined that we would find ourselves there a year later. The monastery is in the Mahendra Hills, overlooking Secunderabad and Hyderabad. It's certainly very dry up there, but some beautiful homes are also going up in the area. We left the hotel car and climbed up toward the shrine room. Before mounting the last flight of stairs, Ken stepped through a grilled gate into a hall with an image of Kuan Yin, and asked the man (security?) who was resting there for the senior monk. He directed us down a flight of stairs at the other end of the hall. There are two resident monks, but we met two nuns form Malaysia and Thailand, and we saw several other visiting monks. We first talked with the younger monk with whom we had corresponded by email. He explained that the abbot came originally from Bangladesh but has been long in India. When the abbot, whom we had met in Chennai, joined us, he praised the younger monk and explained that he had decided to leave the homelife and to ordain after he had finished his engineering degree. He further explained how significant it is for a bright young man like him to do this, as opposed to a fellow becoming a monk because he has few prospects or aptitude for education or employment. It was wonderful talk, about the revival of Buddhism in India. The monastery is supported mainly by Dalits, Untouchables, who have converted to Buddhism and by the tiny local Chinese community, who may be busy with their businesses, but love their Buddhist temple. It is an interesting problem that most Buddhist communities throughout the world seem to ignore the Dalits converts to Buddhism, who need so much support in the face of Hindu hostility and their own grinding poverty. How peculiar that affluent foreign Buddhists lavish generous amounts of money on free clinics and free schools for villagers living around the sacred sites but are indifferent to the needs of vulnerable Indian Buddhists. Many of those who are aware of the Dalit movement criticize these "New Buddhists" for their lack of understanding of Dhamma. Isn't that unreasonable? What is really needed, as we have said before, is a bhikkhu training center, so that India can produce its own good monks to teach the people and to help lift them out of their downtrodden situation. There are several plans for that, and perhaps the one here in Hyderabad, with its dynamic abbot, has a great chance of success.

Click the image to see more photos of Ananda Buddha Vihara Trust in Hyderabad

Even before we left Sri Lanka, Ken had been planning on buying SIMM cards for our Sri Lankan cell phones. DJ had worried that we might not be able to do this without Indian IDs. As soon as we were settled in the hotel, Ken asked the man at the travel desk and learned that there were many shops near the hotel. As it turned out, there was only one open at 8:30 Sunday night, but there was no difficulty whatsoever in buying the cards. They fit into our Nokia phones and were activated immediately. The phones have proven as invaluable here as they are in Sri Lanka. DJ has called us at least twenty times already. We are also able to track each other down when we get separated in a crowded market or a vast museum. Of course, we can also be in touch with friends all over the country. We spoke with Ven. Nandobatha about our classes, and when we called the Jayawardanas, we learned that Jayadeva has been hospitalized again. We certainly hope he will be well enough to return home soon so we can see him in Kolkata. That wonderful family has had so much anxiety over his health.

Of course, we closely followed international news. We particularly appreciated the BBC's detailed report on Bush's knowledge, before Katrina, that the levees were in jeopardy. A newly-released video showed him being briefed 6 days before the hurricane hit. Officials knew that the levees would not hold and that they (the government) were unprepared. Michael Brown warned that the Superdome might not be the best place for people to seek safety since it is 10 feet below sea level and that the roof was probably not designed to withstand a category 5 hurricane. Typically Bush asked no questions during the briefing, but at the end he assured the local people that "we are fully prepared, and we'll get all the supplies you need after the storm, to minimize or compensate for loss of property, and we hope no loss of life." (Not an exact quote) A week later, Bush declared that "no one could have anticipated the breach of the levees." BBC wondered why this "embarrassing" tape has surfaced now four months after the disaster. We wondered what it would take for people to realize the extent of the lies and deceit. The question is not just why the government could not get relief supplies into New Orleans, but also how Americans can gloss over and excuse such bold-faced lies.

We wrote the above paragraph on Thursday afternoon. On Saturday, we read a Paul Krugman column about the video in "The Hindu." He described the administration in terms of the idiots who pretend that everything is OK and shoot the messenger who points out that it just ain't so! Which is worse, the bungling or the deceit? As Iraq violence spirals, it looks painfully like Cambodia did long ago. After saturation bombing and after installing an inept administration, things fell apart. Then the US washed their hands of the country and blamed the Khmer people "for not being able to get along!"

The ride to Secunderabad Station followed the road along the bund of the tank. The tank was first constructed 400 years ago when the Moguls swept across India, destroying the old and establishing their new forts and cities. On the bund, there is a long row of statues of heros and historical giants. Behind them is a beautiful park. In the middle of the lake (tank) is a great standing Buddha image, erected by the government in recognition of the presence of so many Buddhist sites in Andhra Pradesh. Actually, you might call AP "Buddhism's last stand" in India in that the last remaining monasteries were here before it disappeared from the Sub-Continent. There is, of course, a controversy (accent on the second syllable) as to why it disappeared--the Islam destruction, Hindu antipathy, lack of local support--but we won't go into that here.

Visakha counted ninety-four stairs from the station entrance to the platform via the "Foot over bridge," following the porter with his red vest and turban wrapped around his head to balance the cases, one on top of the other, and the computer bag slung over his shoulder. At the top of one staircase we were passed by a porter with three suitcases on his head and four bags hanging from his shoulders, all perfectly balanced, of course. They don't build them like that in the U.S.! (Porters, that is)

The train was waiting, and our names were on a computer printout glued to the side of the car. It used to be that those reservations were handwritten and sometimes virtually illegibly so. Our porter stowed our two cases overhead and charged us only 2 dollars for all that work. The train filled up and left precisely on time. Outside was blazing hot, but the air conditioning was super cold. There were toilets at both ends of the bogie, three Asian style and one western. Visakha always prefers the western, not because she wants to sit down (Heaven forbid!), but because the Asian style is dangerous--wouldn't want to lose her cane down the hole if the train jerks. It is open to the tracks, of course, and there is a sign asking passengers not to use the loo while the train is in the station.

We enjoyed hot cups of chai, but we miss the sundried earthernware cups that used to be standard. Tea cups are now paper, but the tea is still tasty. We skipped the pineapple juice. It was only the third time through that we could understand what one young man was calling out. With a very soft, but elongated, first syllable and a strong accent on the second, he was crying, "Biiiiiiiiisss-cuits!" which are, of course, cookies to all in the Commonwealth.

If the tea has changed, so have some other things--everybody now uses cell phones, which ring constantly, with noisy, fancy rings. It is also possible to plug in the laptop and work the whole trip. Amazing!

Our hotel in Vijayawada had very hot water for showers and great food. We ordered three curries (without chilli peppers) never dreaming that the portions would be so substantial. With some difficulty we asked the staff to pack our leftovers so we could have them with our complimentary breakfasts the next morning. An elderly man in the next booth helped to explain our request. We never know who is going to speak English and who isn't going to understand a word!

One thing hotels in small towns don't have is toilet paper. It just isn't supplied. Toilet habits in India are everywhere obvious. Men stand and pee wherever nature calls. Of course, a woman's natural functions pose problems of privacy and safety. It's no light matter, especially for poor women who are particularly vulnerable to abuse and rape. Although it isn't openly discussed, well more than half of India's massive population do what is technically called "open defecation." A few facts: proper toilets (water closets) are available to less than a third of city folk, while only about five percent of rural dwellers has access to even an outhouse. That's a lot of people making their way to fields or woods or roadsides with their water jugs or squatting along canals. They do without toilet paper, but, unfortunately, they also do without soap, which translates into diarrhea, parasites, typhoid, cholera, etc. In Hinduism emphasis is on ritual pollution, rather than on what we would consider real pollution which causes waterborne diseases. Out of 4000 cities and towns in India, only 250 have sewer systems at all while many of those systems have no sewage treatment plants. Most sewage--even from huge cities like Mumbai and Kolkata--flows untreated into rivers, lakes, or the sea.

Ironically, the ancient Harappa culture of the Indus River (4,500 years ago), had a sophisticated sewer system and the world's oldest known toilets. Early Buddhist practices and beliefs, at one time prevalent throughout India, required both modesty and proper sanitation. The later development Hinduism with its rigid caste system changed attitudes and practices about the disposal, or lack thereof, of human waste. An ancient Hindu text forbade defecation near dwellings, which ruled out bringing toilets into homes; it's a cultural problem. In the Indian news we read that, after the tsunami, a debate raged about rebuilding houses with improved facilities, viz. indoor plumbing. Many felt that it was necessary to respect the custom of "open defecation," and they prevailed.

Everywhere we look, the need to improve India's public health and sanitation is obvious. At the same time such a change would liberate the Dalits, formerly called "untouchables" from the disgusting and demeaning work of cleaning what are euphemistically called "waterless toilets" and of disposing of human excrement collected in baskets which are, like everything else, carried on their heads. Hinduism teaches that contact with human feces pollutes those born into upper castes, so Dalits must do that dirty job. What a gross violation of human rights and an unhealthy mess besides!

While in Tenali, Ken ventured out to see the town. We hadn't brought a lot of clothes, so he figured he could buy a couple of white suits, pants and kurta, which so many Indians wear. He stepped into one shop with "khadi" (home-spun) in the name, but it had no ready-made clothes. Furthermore, neither the owner nor his wife spoke any English. They understood what he wanted and brought out several bolts of sheer white cotton, exactly right. Then they showed him heavier cotton for the pants. With no common language, they agreed on two pairs of pants and three shirts of various shades of white and cream. He drew a sketch (a la Julie) of what he wanted, and they called a tailor, who brought a model shirt. Everything settled--side pockets in neither pants nor shirt, one back pocket for handkerchief, and a breast pocket for a pen--Ken headed back to the hotel, with the promise of the clothes the next day at noon. They were ready a little later than that, but they are beautiful. The cutest feature is the breast pocket, which is appropriately five inches deep and one-half inch wide, perfect for ONE PEN!

The wedding of DJ and Veena will be completely covered in the next, soon to be written, report. Photos of the wedding are posted on this website

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