Monday, May 04, 2009

Oriental Delights

While I haven't gathered courage enough to let the experimentation go as far as the palate, I must confess I have been much enamored by whatever offerings of the Orient I have experienced thus far.

Saturday evening, I had the opportunity to take in two more monasteries. While the destination was the Burmese Buddhist Temple, the address, a nondescript street somewhere around Balestier Road, a short bus ride from Novena, did not make much sense to our cab driver. The map at the Novena MRT station not being enlightening enough as we scanned it for Tai Gin Street, we asked at enquiries, only to be told that there were quite a few monasteries along Balestier Road and they weren't aware of exactly what we were looking for. So, in the deepening blue dusk, under trees that spread their leafy branches wide open over the milling crowds at the churches and on the roads, in an area that brought back strong memories of our short visits to Bangalore, we waited for a bus.

Through narrow streets, past hardware and lighting shops, paint-stripped blackened walls and unsymmetric cobblestones, lanes that got increasingly reminiscent of home, we made our way on a bus in a spirit of adventure (a grandiose term for something as insignificant as this, I agree, but then we didn't know where we were headed); we got off at the stop by the first monastery we saw, and for perhaps the first time in Singapore crossed the road in the typical Indian way, cutting through the middle, for there was no crossing visible.

The monastery was medium-sized, not the one we'd been looking for, but pretty and inviting in its own way. Incense sticks and candles burnt at several places, and one of the people apparently working there welcomed us as we stood hesitantly outside, explaining the significance of the deities there, telling us about the Laughing Buddha, and then leaving us to wander through the room at the back and look at the glorious statues of the Buddha. The people here, as I have often said, are extremely warm and friendly, and importantly, have ready smiles.

A sudden streak of fortune led me to notice the sign that said 'Burmese Buddhist Temple' as we wandered out aimlessly, wondering where to go next. Off we went down the narrow lane, the much sought-after (for us) Tai Gin Street, crowded by a number of students and worshippers. I wonder if there is some sort of Burmese settlement there, because quite a few streets around bear names from Burma…Irrawaddy, Rangoon etc.

The Burmese Temple is a grand affair. A magnificent marble statue of the Buddha, carved in Burma in 1917-18, sits in state in the hall, inspiring awe and a feeling of incredible peace. A congregation was gathered there, singing verses, as a steady stream of people kept flowing in. We went upstairs to the third storey, where the muffled singing from downstairs wafted up; people sat quietly there, paying silent obeisance to the standing statue of the Buddha. There being few people up there, we were able to see the statue more clearly, and what a piece of workmanship it was indeed! The folds of the Buddha's robe fell gracefully against His strong, reassuring figure, the fingers of the right hand held up in a gesture of blessing. High up near the ceiling were pictures depicting various incidents from the life of the Buddha- Angulimala, dragons, elephants, demons, masses of clouds- it indeed felt like being in a temple back home. The tepid blasts from fans in the sultry evening, the quiet and the calm of minds coming to rest and surrender to a greater power, the irreplaceable sense of well-being: a sense of déjà vu was inevitable, of course. There are some mysteries that no amount of questioning can unearth.

Weekends are also often devoted to Buddhist music. One of the walks through the alleys of Chinatown led to the discovery of a shop that sells Buddhist music and artefacts; I love the Tibetan mantras that I picked up, sung in a mystical, soothing female voice, complemented by traditional wind instruments and drums, and as you hear them, it is hard not to be transported to the heights of the Himalayas, to imagine yourself by a prayer-wheel, monks walking to and fro, clouds drifting dreamily by a red-brick shrine nestled in a nook of a snow-clad mountain rising ambitiously into a lilac, sun-sprinkled sky, wrinkled women in colourful shawls and young women with babies smiling from the windows of stuffy little houses. The mantras are a delight- familiar verses couched in unfamiliar language to suit the pronunciation of their tongue; for instance, Om Mani Padme Hum becomes Om Mani Bae Mae Hom. What doesn't change, though, is the sincerity and the tranquility.

On to more materialistic pleasures, the Orient has always been an infinite source of trinkets, fabric and lore. Precious stones in unimaginable, pretty colours are extremely attractive, even if you are a practical girl with little interest in jewellery. I have already been lured into jades, amethysts and corals. Maybe sapphires, next? Tantalising indeed are the strings of agate, onyx, emerald, pearl and garnet, like treasures tossed out of a wrecked ship washed ashore from a distant century. What surprise is it, then, that they should warm the heart of a person who likes to revel in the unreal?

In broad daylight or at night, when blue glass reflects sunlight or the skyscape glitters with the lights from office towers, when the neon sheen blots out the simple, primitive shimmer of the faraway stars, the world comes back to what we call normalcy, puts on the garment of 'civilisation' and pretends and preens. Beneath it, though, the ghosts still lurk, the songs of the past reverberate and call, the stories strike a chord, and through all our pretentiousness, we thankfully succumb.