These pictures were taking on the island of Sanya in China over the course of a few beautiful summer days. Of all the tropical places we’ve had the privilege of experiencing here at Paupers, Sanya still remains one of the most visually astonishing landmarks of natural beauty.
When anyone mentions the name “Forbidden City”, it conjures up images of a world gone by. A place which existed in the annals of history, a palace true to its name that restricted access to the common man and served as the residential quarters for Chinese royalty from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. A million plus workers constructed the 1,000 plus rooms which were occupied by the royal household, their staff and of course the infamous concubines and eunuchs. A place so significant, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Several years ago, Anchee Min did a superb job with her historical fiction novel “Empress Orchid” in bringing to life the inner workings of the Forbidden City. Reading the novel transported me to a form of life so exotic and foreign that I felt like I had traveled in a time capsule back in time.
On my first trip to the Forbidden City, I did what I would term as an “express visit”. Pressed for time, my visit was part of a guided tour which included stops at Beijing’s key landmarks. Despite the brevity of the trip, I was seized my an enormous sense of awe as I walked past the moat and the city walls and finally saw what I had only built in my mind. It was like Anchee Min’s novel coming to life.
As I listened to the guide, scenes from the novel formed an elaborate display in my mind. The Emperor at the center of the universe, his wives and concubines collaborating and scheming, his eunuchs guarding what he held closely, the decision-making hierarchy, the powerful role of the Empress Dowager, all flashing by. The names of the various buildings, so appropriate and yet so old worldly (The Hall of Supreme Harmony, The Hall of Preserving Harmony, The Hall of Central Peace and so on). Interestingly, for the number of buildings named after “peace” the place was incredibly political at its heart.
It was a great introductory visit, but left me feeling cheated. There was so much to see and hear. There was so much to sit back and absorb and more importantly it was so important to reflect back on the learnings from this period in history. I felt like the “textbook tourist” who came, saw, took pictures and left without enriching her soul.
Thankfully several years later, I got an opportunity to fix this. This time, we decided to just focus on the Forbidden City for a day. We got to the location independently by cab and took our time to walk around the moat and entered the gates slowly. At the entrance, we hired a guide who could be with us for several hours, pacing the journey to our interests. And it worked beautifully. The guide shared stories, we chirped in with our questions, our younger daughter eagerly wanting to know what “eunuchs” and “concubines” were and each of us trying our best to answer it in an appropriate manner. We lingered around buildings, admired the architecture and the interesting doors (I have an obsession with doors), examined ostentatious displays from a time gone by, took in the elaborate gardens and most importantly did justice (thanks to a very well-informed guide) to a site that was at the heart of dictating Chinese history. It was not till we exited the palace and stumbled upon the Starbucks that we realized that our journey to the past had ended with a walk into modern consumerism.
If you’d like to learn more about the Forbidden City, the following link provides all the essentials.
We would recommend getting their on your own (any cab driver handed a Chinese address can get you there). Guides are available inexpensively at the entrance and doing your own tour is so worth it.
If you’d like to learn more about Anchee Min’s book, please visit:
No visit to Lhasa could be considered complete without a stop at one of the holiest sites in all of Tibet – the Jokhang Temple.
And so one morning, we headed out on a pilgrimage to the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. As we approached the square housing the temple, we passed by many rows of shops that sold everything from prayer wheels and incense to mandala paintings and little statues. This was so similar to the scene you encounter en route to a Hindu temple, with one slight difference that made us smile. We saw Buddhist monks shopping for textiles and instead of walking on, we stood there just gawking at this trio, pretending to shop so we appeared discreet.
As we got closer we saw people throwing juniper leaves into huge clay burners, leading to the air smelling of juniper incense. The smell was evocative of the scent of incense sticks at Hindu temples. And what we saw next was identical to a scene I have experienced at many a temple since my childhood. We saw adults, children, the elderly all prostrating repeatedly in front of the temple. Some were doing it a few times, many several hundred or thousand times and a few for several days too. This was indeed the best visual depiction of devotion.
After circumambulating the temple a few times, we walked in and encountered swarms of people smiling with warmth and genuineness towards us. The children were enthralled by Sathya, since she was petite and they kept looking in her direction and smiling. The Gods could not have extended a warmer welcome to us.
The temple was dimly lit with yak butter lamps and in this dimly lit space we saw many of the jewels. The many paintings, the holy statue of Sakyamuni, statues of King Songtsem Gampo, Princess Wen Cheng and Princess Bhrikuti and of course the Dharma Wheel. There was one other realization that dawned on us as we observed the swarm of faces dimly lit by the lamps…there was a look of genuine contentment painted across the spectrum, and any hardships or troubles that existed seemed lifetimes away within this place of worship.
We proceeded to the top from where we got some beautiful views of Barkhor Square and the throng of worshippers lining to come inside.
As we walked away from the temple towards another line of shops beyond the square, we were awakened into reality with a poster of Aishwarya Rai, the Indian movie actress. And in the distance we heard hindi music playing. But my spiritual journey was not yet complete. It was completed when I saw and got a silver Tibetan Ganesha, the only one of its kind sitting at a table among the many Buddha statues.
To learn more about visiting the Jokhang Temple, click here: