Nexus Nirvana:Frontier Pakistan

Susan Griffith-Jones


I looked into the sky... there was a rainbow around the sun. What warmth that sight infused in us, I cannot put into words. Each of us felt an energy that left us silent as we walked along the main street of the little village of Kushinagar towards the park housing the site of the Buddha’s death and some of his relics. Thoughts of death and life passed through my mind as I was depositing the first tsa tsa, a small palm-sized stupa of the cremated remains of my friend’s mother mixed with mud, “Everything is always changing,” I said to my friends.

A few minutes before the departure of the train later that afternoon, a rather rushing Davor, who we had not expected to see until Amritsar, appeared. Was it just coincidence beyond possibility that he had been given the seat number next to ours! We three laughed at just how funny things are. I looked on without judgment at villages and green fields passing by, the unsuspecting eye of one who is not part of the intricacies of that scene. Parting company with Davor in New Delhi I called out half-jokingly, “See you in Amritsar”.

Later that day, in the long rectangular room of the National Museum that contains the Buddha’s relics, a group of Thai monks appeared at the same time as us. Having filed around the gilded stupa in a ceremonious rhythm, they seated themselves in front and recited verses of the Buddha’s teachings in Pali. Tina and I respectively sat at their rear. His body had been scattered in the four directions, perhaps even as widely as his teachings had spread. Here we were in contact with his body and speech.

Filled with a happy feeling from this magical experience, we made for the Tibetan camp of Majnakatila in the north of the city from where we would catch an overnight bus to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh. Jwalamukhi was on the road and this point lent me little sleep as I failed to trust the discretion of the driver to stop there. I was keen to reach this destination, as this is one of the twenty-four sites of sacred tantric interest, five of which we were to visit on this journey.

I left Tina on the bus and refreshed by the thought of visiting the temple, I didn’t stay long in the hotel where Nuria and I had planned to meet that morning. I was imagining a small broken down looking place, a bunch of stone buildings that you would typically find all over the Himalayas and I was surprised to find a main street leading up to a very large complex of well kept, Hindu style temples, lined with busy shops selling many items of worship and souvenirs, tea stalls and many pilgrims. I marveled at how strong the nature of pilgrimage is to the Indian people.

I took off my shoes and entered one of the fire temples. The pujari allowed me to stay inside and I watched a constant flow of devotees pass by the pit of fire positioned at its centre. When the last had filed out and they were preparing for puja, he called me over and I offered him a tsa tsa to place in the pit. He took it and smeared my central forehead with a red paste mixed with rice, handing me a bowl made of stiff leaves with some offering substances in it. Another pujari gave me a 50 paisa coin and a bag of ashes that were to be the trip’s first souvenirs.

Nuria was there when I returned to the hotel. We exchanged many aspirations for the trip, but little did we know that ‘planning’ was something that this trip would not allow. Urgyen, one mutual friend who lived nearby came to see us off the next morning. He had visited Pakistan and gave us a name of his friend in Taxila. ‘Better get to the border early as there will be loads of people there’, he advised us as we were boarding the local bus to Amritsar.

Travelling by bus in India infuses a feeling of spontaneity and flow to a journey as buses are so frequent that you can almost be sure of arriving at the station and the next one to where you want to go is just leaving. We would pass through the heart of the Punjab where the land is flat and green. At this time of year, the fields are full of cereal crops and it reminded me of summer days in my home county of Gloucestershire, in England. I sat next to a fat Punjabi lady on the bus. “Satshrikalji,” I said to her with palms together “Satshrikalji,” she replied smiling with delighted compliancy.

Two of the tributaries of the Indus flow through this part of the Punjab. Actually, the sight of a large river flowing through the flat plains is nothing out of the ordinary across Northern India as the great mountains are constantly draining their water produce towards the sea. I looked upstream at the river Beas and thought of its source at the destination of our journey.

Nuria and I would stay a night at the golden temple of Amritsar and it was there that we had planned to meet our travel companions, Davor and Richard. “I bet they’re staying in the room next to ours,” I joked as we were escorted into a large looking guesthouse building provided for pilgrims at the temple. The place is kept clean in a way that would impress anyone used to traveling in India. Everything from food to lodging is free, but you leave a donation. “Hi,” said a familiar face as we walked out of our room. “I’m in that room there,” he added. “Hi Richard,” I said and Nuria and I burst out laughing as he pointed to the door next to ours.

That evening, I met one holy man of the temple as I was taking photographs by the lake. He proceeded to guide the three of us across the causeway that leads to the temple situated at its center. From the outside, the temple looks rather small, but once inside it feels remarkably large and holds many people without making the place seem cramped. “An interesting play of space,” I thought to myself whilst admiring the inner structure.

The next morning I set my alarm for 4am in time for “the Jap-ji,” the morning prayer of the Sikhs and arrived just as the procession carrying the Guru Garanth was taking place. I followed, just a hand’s stretch away from the chariot that was carrying the holy book that is the living word of the Sikh Gurus. Yesterday we had sat in the small room on the roof where its constant recital takes place. I had listened to the “bani,” the song whose music is meant to transport one to higher mental realms.

Later that day we crossed through an absolutely empty border into Pakistan and laughed at our preconceived image of a packed border control. “How one person’s experience compared to another’s can be so completely different,” we thought, remembering our friend’s advice.

Susan has been living in The Valley for more than three years. Apart from being an intrepid traveller, she is a research scholar with CNAS, Tribhuvan University, a student of Buddhism, freelance filmmaker and a mother of two beautiful children.

(to be continued)