I can only imagine the rest of the tourists were turned away by the grand staircase, a structure that almost seems to dare you to try and climb it. That’s the only explanation as to why the temple was so quiet.
It’s almost a shame, because this temple seems to me to be a beautifully welcoming one. It’s alive somehow, even in its peace, alive with a present faith still practised today, and one that greets you with open arms. It’s a truly unique atmosphere, and it drew out in me a peculiar sense of safety, or more accurately a feeling that the people who work here, meditate here, show off their shaven marble heads here, are understanding of me and my stupid tourist idiocy. This atmosphere of acceptance and safety is in large part why I felt so inexplicably okay wandering a wood panneled corridor in my socks, following the mysterious sounds of chanting.
I’m sure it’s a regular, and popular thing, that chanting. I’m sure people go to this temple purely to hear it. But for me, someone who insists on doing absolutely no research on the places I visit (more out of laziness than anything else), the chanting came a complete surprise. An extremely tantalising surprise.
I rounded a corner, hearing the sounds get louder and louder, faster and faster. A heavy, ringing banging joined it, something metallic and solid. The sound was powerful, scary, and I began to feel a certain trepidation as I neared the source. Then, there, a man ducking away. Long robes trailed behind him and his head, his round, football head, bore the telltale pink purity of a monk.
I gave chase, as fast as I could without just sprinting after a stranger. I caught further glimpses of his shape, heard the light clatter of his prayer beads as they rattled against his chest, smelled the strong scent of incense…
I stumbled into a room, wide and simple, a familiar sight. Only, the left side of the room was partitioned off by pillars, a rope hanging between them, and beyond this shabby wall was gold. Pure, brilliant, shining gold.
Statues and lamps and huge bowls, clouds of smoke rising from within. Splashes of purple here and there, puncturing that illusion of darkness these temples are so good at inspiring. A dozen monks, kneeling on the floor, chanting in powerful rhythmic loops.
Right I thought. What the hell have I just walked into?
It looked undeniably like a cult. When a man, old and barely able to finish his sentences, started rambling in a language I couldn’t understand, that image only seemed more accurate. The monks filled his silences with more furious chanting, and the man tried chanting himself, but his voice trailed off into croaky quiet sooner than anyone would have liked. A few awkward tourists like me were standing at the side watching, and I joined them, deciding it was probably okay for me to be here and that I probably wouldnt be killed by murderous monks later in the evening.
It was confusing, and fascinating, and so peculiarly un-Buddhist, when compared with my stereotypical image of Buddhism anyway. It was grand and loud and garish, and it felt insular in a way this place so rarely did. I felt like I was watching something I shouldn’t, rather than wandering a place which would like nothing more than to give me hugs and keep me warm at night. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t brilliant, because it was. But it was big.
People lit sticks of insense and threw them into golden bowls. People threw coins into wooden boxes, briefly praying to the display. A child, on the other side of the pillars but distinctly not a monk, was brought up to the centre of the room and given… Something. It was a room full of mysteries, mysteries that are better left unsolved. There’s a magic in seeing but not understanding, and if my time in that temple left me with anything, it left me with that.
When the ringing in my ears grew too loud and the confusion too overwhelming, I wandered away from the chanting. I walked through beautiful shrines and past a humble, peaceful garden, before spotting a small building a stone staircase away. It looked empty, and I could do with some quiet just now. With a shrug of my shoulders I began the climb.