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Ayodhya to Ayutthaya: Buddha in a Banyan Tree

Buddha in the tree roots… This one statue is enough to make Ayutthaya a must visit

Buddha looked at me from the roots of the Banyan tree. His peaceful eyes showering blessings at me, a boy who had come to meet him from Ayodhya, the city whose name his Ayutthaya has taken. All the Buddha had, though, was his head, severed by the Burmese invaders more than three centuries ago. Yet invaders came and went, then died, Buddha lives on.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet.

I was in Ayutthaya. World’s biggest city in the 1700s, capital of then Siam! Ayutthaya, a city of over a million people even in those days. Ayutthaya, a city which invited traders and sailors from across the world and had different quarters established for them just outside the walls of the city, in fact the river, Chao Phraya… Chinese, Portuguese, Indians, Japanese, Persians, Afghans, Spaniards, Dutch, English, and French…. Ayutthaya, where St. Joseph’s Church, built by the French in 1666 still stands tall, a whopping 350 years after! A city then looted, razed and finally burnt down by the Burmese in 1767.

I had been to Angkor Wat and seen the ruins, much bigger than anything Ayutthaya could offer. Yet, this one was far more personal. For someone like me, born in a village near Ayodhya, it was nothing less than a pilgrimage. Being in a city that takes its name from the rusty, mofussil town Ayodhya three oceans and countless rivers away was a surreal experience, a journey within.

On the touristy boat at Chao Praya River

Taking a boat ride in the Chao Phraya river was remembering the Saryu river thousands of kilometers away. Seeing Buddha after Buddha with their heads severed a reminder of Ayodhya, again, and all the religious violence committed in its name. 

And it was on this boat that I remembered the astonishment in the eyes of my co passenger, an Indian, when I told him that I was going to Ayutthaya. 

Wat Chaiwatthanaram
Wat Chaiwatthanaram

Ayutthaya? Where is that in Thailand was the prompt, and spontaneous question. I was not surprised. For a country still not catching up with backpacking, also the one where many go to only the places they can get their, and often vegetarian only, food, Ayutthaya wasn’t a likely choice in any case. Even if it is just 85 kilometers from Bangkok and can be visited over a day trip- I stayed there for three nights though. Going to Thailand often means going to Bangkok and/or Pattaya (pronounced Pataiya) and for obvious reasons.

When the sun sets on Wat Chaiwatthanaram in Ayutthaya.

When the sun sets on Wat Chaiwatthanaram in Ayutthaya.

The conversation broke with the inflight announcement: We have started our descent and would shortly land in Bangkok. The announcement running in my head was different though: We shall go to Bangkok via Ayutthaya, Suphanburi, Kanchanaburi, Hell Fire Pass and Pattaya. The route has seen horrifying wars like Burmese raising Ayutthaya to ground and the Japanese killing over 1 lakh prisoners of war forcing them to labour for Thai-Burmese Railways for rushing supplies for Indian front.

I have rarely seen places more beautiful, and more saddening. And more encouraging and inspiring. As I wrote in the beginning, invaders die, Buddhas live on. Do look for your Ayutthaya, or Ayodhya. If you happen to be near this one, though, do visit the Buddha there. Tell him that a small boy from Ayodhya sends him hugs. 

Wat Lokayasutharam

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Mofussil Musings @Soul Places

Once there was a boy in a nondescript sleepy mofussil Kasba tucked in the ‘where-is- that’ country side of Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Yeah, the Kasba had a sugar mill, a degree college and a small railway station with only passenger trains stopping at it, but this was all the Kasba had! The route that the boy took to the school traversed through agricultural fields, many gone now, 40 years after but a few still surviving!

The boy, though had big dreams of travelling, seeing the world. He would sneak out to the railway station and read the names of the trains- Bombay VT Express (now Kushinagar Express in these change the name times), Awadh Express, Amrapali Express, Abida (now Satyagrah) Express etc. Then he would imagine the places these trains go to and invent stories to tell to his friends. Stories of how he went to these places, saw things his friends could not even imagine existed and so on though he had not seen even Lucknow by the time he turned 12! His life revolved around Babhnan, the mofussil, and Sultanpur- where his Nani lived, with Ayodhya in between!

Yet, his stories were often so real that this boy’s parents started getting complaints from the parents of other kids- why do you people take him to so many places, doesn’t he study at all, where does he get the time to travel so much from and so on! The worst one, though, was the ‘bad influence’ the small boy was: all the kids now wanted to travel and travel alone, none wanted to study at all! Just like the small boy!

Small boy is sitting in the front
Small Boy is sitting at the front

And the parents of the small boy were troubled too! When did you go to these places! I did not, would be the reply. How do you then know of all these places? The famous lake in Pokhara, Nepal? Residency, a reminder of the valiant first war of Indian independence in Lucknow? Victoria Memorial in Kolkata?  And Kremlin Square in Moscow, of all places? From the books you get me- and also the newspaper, the small boy would cheekily reply!

And this was true! He would see the pictures of India Gate in Delhi, get some information, would here about Boat Club linked with it and his story is ready: so when I went to Delhi- with other kids listening with rapt attention!

The small boy did not know what soul was then. Yet, some of the places would drag him to them. He would read about Bulle Shah and would long to visit Kasur. He would hear about Master Xuanzang visiting India during Harsh Vardhan era and would think about the route he must have taken- secretly thinking if he too could go on such a journey. He would read about Angkor Wat in his Hindi textbook and would wonder how they built such a huge temple, largest in the world over a thousand year ago and if he could climb its steps.

The small boy has grown up. He has seen the sun rise on the Angkor Wat. He has sat at the feet of bronze statue of Master Xuanzang in Xi’an. He still longs for Kasur though. He calls Hong Kong, some 3700 kms away from Harraiya- where his ancestral village is- home. This story is his story!

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Tulous: Earthen community homes USA mistook for nuclear reactors

Fujian Tulou(s)- the magnificent, fortified earthen building were yet another revelation for me- the Hong Konger of almost 6 years! Such a shame that I knew nothing about them till a botched visa delivery for China- they asked me to collect it on the day before Chinese New Year holidays start and then when I reached, just after the lunch- last staffer was locking the office! With the holiday plan for Xiamen gone, I decided to go for a virtual tour and there they were! The Tulous, a whopping 46 of whom built between the 12th and 20th century are inscribed as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 2008 as the legend goes- thanks to their circular shape confused to be nuclear reactors by the United States at the height of the Cold War! So Tulous were finally calling me and I was all set to make an amend and become a Tulou veteran.

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Tulous, are mostly three to five story fortified buildings- most commonly circular or rectangular- built for communal living for a whole clan. Built to repel the attacks of the pirates with provisioning for ration for a full year, they often have just one gate. The ground floor will be meant for kitchens, first floor would be granaries and upper floors- with each living unit exactly of the same size- to ensure equality- meant for living. The tulous will also have concentric inner rings for bathrooms, wells and other provisioning. They mostly have a few wells as well.

Built by mixing earth with stone, bamboo, wood and other readily available materials, their walls are up to 6 feet (1.8 m) thick and additionally reinforced by branches, strips of wood and bamboo chips. With this much fortification, they were, of course, next to impossible to break into in the times they were built. Further, as our friend showing us around told us: often sitting by some kind of natural fortification like at the top of a hill (like Tianluokeng Tulou Cluster) or river- like Cuxi Tulou Cluster- once the residents see ‘bad men coming- and close the main door-often 40-50-inch-thick (1 meter to 1.3 m) wooden doors reinforced with an outer shell of iron plate’ the ‘bad men’ would have to ride on exceptional luck to defeat the insiders- sitting with granaries having all the ration for an year or more and gun holes guarding only entry!

Look at the photos again- the kitchens and granaries at the first floor have no windows, practically making the structure impossible to breach! Add the numbers inside- bigger tulous housed as many as 800 people- of the same clan and one might need a whole army to take on them!

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Reminder: Though often called as Hakka tulous too- after the majority of the Tulous belonging to the Hakka people, not all of them are Hakka. Their neighbours in South Western Fujian known as Minnan people also have their own Tulous, mostly to the east of Yongding in particular in Nanjing and Pinghe counties.

How to reach: Just hop on a Shenzhen- Longyan high speed train (there are three in a day- get off at Longyan, hop on a local bus for Yongding county which is closest to three of the most famous Tulou clusters and you are good for an exciting weekend soaked with history and, of course, adventure! Otherwise, one can also couple the trip with Xiamen, just 2.5 hours away or can also go to Yongding station though that too is almost an hour away from the Tulou clusters.

Where to stay: Complete the experience by staying in one of the centuries old tulou like we did- don’t expect too much luxury though, the beds will be hard, as they are almost everywhere in China, you may or may not have an attached bathroom, but the experience of living in a building constructed 200 or even 300 years ago will be amazing!

We stayed in Tulou Fuyulou Changdi Inn– a Tulou more than a century old and with the owner Steven making you wonder what’s better- the warmth, the home away from home feeling he gives or his fluent English! With him you are mostly set with an itinerary from an insider who knows his stuff…  So go on discovering the places- You will perhaps begin with Tianluokeng Tulou cluster meeting the slanting  one of the oldest one built in 1308, and tallest at 5 stories and a village temple on your way back. Then you will meet the Chengqilou (承啟楼) nicknamed “the king of tulou”, of Gaobei Tulou cluster- with 15th generation Jiang clan living inside with 57 families and 300 people!

That done, you will be back in the Hongkeng Village with a Tulou cluster by the same name- enjoy your evening seeing them and then sitting/walking by the river in the village with Tulous on both sides! You may also have local wine brewed in one of the Tulous to top it all up! Wake up to the soothing sound of the river next day and head over to Cuxi Tulou cluster- I saw accommodation there too though could not find out much- and they looked far more basic than the one in Hongkeng, though, also far more older, if that does the trick for you!

Accommodate more Tulou clusters if you want to- though basically this is more or less all that one needs for an extensive and authoritative Tulou experience.

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For those with more time on hand- go on to Fuzhou, not a city high on travel bucket lists but worth enough for a day for the 3 lanes and 7 alleys, founded in 2nd century AD and continuously inhabited ever since, itself! And beyond that lies the beautiful mudflats of Xiapu- a paradise for the photographers and also for anyone looking forward to a way back to idyllic life yet not spoilt by the modernity!

My detailed piece on Xiapu, around 6 hours by high speed train for Shenzhen, worth a standalone visit on itself, can be found here. 

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